In an unlikely place at an unlikely time, a group of black and white former sharecroppers, socialist organizers, and Christian reformers began an agricultural experiment in pursuit of economic subsistence and human dignity. Historian Robert Hunt Ferguson, in Remaking the Rural South: Interracialism, Christian Socialism, and Cooperative Farming in Jim Crow Mississippi (University of Georgia Press, 2018), makes the surprising case that the Depression-era Mississippi Delta provided the necessary conditions for the flowering of such an endeavor. New Deal policies inspired socialist optimism while their racial exclusions left displaced tenant farmers looking for work and attracted to enterprises like Delta Cooperative Farm and Providence Farm, which promised to break them from the cycle of debt and offer them equal access to the schooling, medical care, and opportunity enjoyed by the white middle class. These cooperative farms drew inspiration from the transnational communitarian movement and advanced the radical visions of the American Socialist Party and the religious left, including celebrated theological Reinhold Niebuhr, who served as president of their board of trustees. While the experiment struggled with agro-ecological obstacles and internecine power struggles, and ultimately could not withstand the postwar attacks of white supremacist movement, Delta and Providence stand as models of how those trapped within withering hegemonies imagine a most just and free society and set out to do the daily labor of bringing it into being.
Robert Hunt Ferguson is an assistant professor of history at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his publications include “Mothers Against Jesse in Congress: Grassroots Maternalism and Cultural Politics of the AIDS Crisis in North Carolina” (Journal of Southern History, Feb 2017).
Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he is researching African American environmental history in the nineteenth-century Cotton South. He is also an editor of the digital environmental magazine and podcast Edge Effects.
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