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    Critters and People in Coahoma County, or What Life was Like in Frederick’s Childhood Home

    Coahoma was one of several new counties formed in the state of Mississippi in 1836 from what had been Indian lands (the county name means "red panther" in Choctaw), but despite a rapid increase in settlers, its population was still sparse on the eve of the Civil War--a little over 6,000 people, of whom more than three-quarters were slaves.

    Even in the later part of the nineteenth century, the Delta still looked like a wilderness and teemed with wildlife to an extent that is now difficult to conceive.  This made hunting and fishing the simplest way to provide meat for the table, for white and black people alike.  Colonel Robert Eager Bobo, a planter near Clarksdale, the Coahoma County seat, who claimed the distinction of being the first white to actually be born in the County, became nationally famous for his exploits as a bear hunter.  In 1869, the year Frederick’s parents started out as farmers in Coahoma County, he killed 304 bears, including one that weighed 711 pounds after being gutted.

    However, not all forms of the abundant life in the Delta were prey for humans—the opposite was true as well.  The large areas of standing water and the hot climate created perfect breeding conditions for clouds of mosquitoes that appeared every spring, making whites who could afford it eager to leave the region for higher and cooler ground.  One planter’s wife complained that during the warmest months her baby son “rolls on the floor, scratches and screams every evening as if he would go crazy—he is as badly marked as one just recovering from the small-pox.”  Mosquitoes also brought malaria and yellow fever; water borne illnesses ravaged the Delta’s inhabitants as well.  Epidemics killed thousands in the nineteenth century, and the black population suffered most of all.

    A Thought About Independence Day and Black People During the American Revolution

    The New York Times ran an article on its front page yesterday about the Daughters of the American Revolution, a patriotic organization that used to be notoriously racist, but that now accepts African-American women as members.  The article mentions that some 5,000 blacks fought on the colonists’ side during the Revolution, out of 400,000 whites.  Not all blacks did so willingly, although some did; and not all those who fought to win their freedom from slavery actually received it.  Nevertheless, today’s descendants of these men are justifiably proud of their ancestors.  But the article does not mention that far more black people chose the British side during the Revolution.  Why would they have done so?  Simon Schama in his Rough Crossings:  Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (2006) describes how tens of thousands of black people voted “with their feet for Britain and King George” during the Revolution because the last royal governor of Virginia had announced that any slave owned by a rebellious colonist who escaped and served the king would be freed.  Tens of thousands did so, fleeing to Nova Scotia, and unleashing one of the great exoduses in American history.  However, in the end, many were betrayed by the British and had to flee farther, to Sierra Leone on the coast of West Africa.

    Geography and Human Settlement in the Delta, or How Human Beings Can Reshape the Land

    The Mississippi floodplain’s geography also determined how humans could settle in the Delta.  When, at the end of the spring floods, the river retreated into its channel, the water did not simply drop its load of nutrient-rich soil and disappear.  It lingered in countless interconnected swamps, lakes, and slow-moving streams—called “bayous” in the Delta--that segmented the generally low-lying region into patches of dry land interlaced with bodies of water. 

    If one drives through Coahoma County today, it's hard to imagine what it looked like even a century ago, to say nothing of the years right after the Civil War.  All one sees outside the towns are vast expanses of nearly flat, cultivated fields that are interrupted occasionally by small growths of trees, by streams, and the rare, carefully circumscribed, lake or swamp.  However, in the 1860s and until the beginning of the twentieth century, Coahoma County was densely forested, with many trees soaring a hundred feet or more.  (As a result, locally harvested lumber would become the primary building material in the area as well as a major supplement to income from farming.) Amidst the trees were jungle-like growths of  underbrush and cane, which made passage extremely difficult.  The swamps, lakes, and bayous further impeded travel by land, as a result of which water became the primary means of transportation throughout the nineteenth century.  Roads appeared slowly in the region, and the few that were built were often impassible because of flooding.  As late as 1908, a black postman traveling across Coahoma County had to ride through thick woods most of the way.  A trip of twenty miles could take as long as three days if the weather was bad and the road muddy.  He would sometimes have to cut a path for himself through fields and brush, and the effort could be so exhausting that he would need a fresh horse for the return trip.

    Geography Can Be Fate

    Slavery and its legacy inevitably loomed over Frederick Thomas’s origins.  But there was another factor that was implicated—geography. 

    FT was born in 1872 near Clarksdale in Coahoma County, Mississippi, in the northwestern corner of the state known as the Delta.  Despite the region’s name, it’s not the Mississippi river’s mouth, but its inland floodplain, and lies some three hundred miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico.  Nonetheless, the Mississippi made the Delta what it was and affected everything that happened there, including how slavery developed. 

    Together with its tributaries, the Mississippi, which is the fourth longest river in the world, drains much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States, from northern Minnesota to New Orleans.  For millions of years, as the winter snows melted upstream in the Mississippi’s vast watershed, the river regularly overflowed its banks.  These floods carried huge quantities of silt that was washed down from the areas drained by the river system, and as the floodwaters receded, the silt, together with abundant organic matter, was deposited over the floodplain.  (Or at least it used to be, before engineers started to build massive earthen levees along the river’s great length to try to keep it in its channel—a process that began before the Civil War.  As we know all too well, these levees fail at times and devastating floods still spread over hundreds of square miles on either side.)  This regular replenishing of the soil is what made the Mississippi’s floodplain one of the most fertile regions on earth, and why it has been called the “Nile” of North America. 

    The weather in the Delta is the final ingredient in the area’s unique geographic mix.  Relatively mild winters, short springs and autumns, and long, hot summers allowed a rich variety of vegetable and animal life to flourish.  Cotton grew twice as tall in the Delta as in other areas of the South.  By the beginning of the Civil War, cotton constituted over half of total American exports and Mississippi alone produced one quarter of it.  English fabric mills got most of their cotton from the American South (a factor that would play into English support for the South during the Civil War—about which, more later).  By 1860, Coahoma and several other river counties nearby had become among the wealthiest in the entire United States. 

    But the topography and climate of the area also made the land extraordinarily difficult to work. And all of the labor was carried out by enslaved black people.

    Welcome to my THE BLACK RUSSIAN blog

    Welcome to my blog, which is dedicated to things connected with, and circling around, my forthcoming biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas. 

    Because his remarkable life was so varied and spanned the globe, there are lots of different topics about which I'd like to post.  I plan to do so regularly in the weeks and months ahead. 

    One of my sources is what I had to leave on the "cutting room floor" as I trimmed the 750-page manuscript of the book to produce the final version, which was less than half that length.  When I was researching the book, I wanted to find out about, and to describe in detail, all kinds of things related to FT's life and times ("FT" became my shorthand reference to him after a while, especially for the benefit of my wife, son, and daughter--who patiently listened to my stories over the course of several years).  I could not keep a lot of this really interesting material in the book, and so am pleased to be able to share it here.  Much of my information about Coahoma County in Mississippi, where Frederick was born and lived in his youth, comes from two valuable books:  James C. Cobb's The Most Southern Place on Earth:  The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (Oxford, 1992); and Linton Weeks's Clarksdale and Coahoma County (Clarksdale, MS, 1982).

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