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African-American Heritage

Historic Periods, Education, Science, Inventions, and Discoveries, Literature, Folklore and Cultural Traditions, Music of the Delta, Politics and Civil Rights, Performing and Visual Arts

Throughout the Mississippi River Valley a varied array of historic places reflects the richness of African-American history. These places tell the well-known stories of the contributions of such African Americans as Harlem Renaissance literary figure Arna W. Bontemps, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley, legendary bluesman W.C. Handy, and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Farish Street (13KB)
The Farish Street Neighborhood Historic District, in Jackson, Mississippi, encompasses the largest economicaly independent black community in the State.

These places eloquently record the exceptional daily lives of countless others such as Marie Therese Coincoin, Thomas Freeman, and the Mazique family. Survival, self-determination, perseverance, and triumph shaped human experiences from work to leisure, from slavery to the struggle for freedom and civil rights, from domesticity to the military, and from religion to the arts and education through more than three centuries. Houses, plantations, schools, churches, cemeteries, forts, fraternal organizations, business districts, and residential neighborhoods across the region embody the African-American spirit. Evergreen, one of the largest and most intact antebellum agricultural complexes in the South, illustrates the plantation system and its inextricable dependence on slave labor. Union efforts to control the Lower Mississippi during the Civil War were assisted by the valiant contributions of black troops in battles at Port Hudson and Fort Pillow. During and after Reconstruction, African Americans created their own independent communities, the cultural cornerstones of which were educational institutions such as Alcorn State University, in Lorman, Mississippi, the first land grant school for African Americans in the country. Churches such as the Mount Olive United Methodist Church in Van Buren, Arkansas, which houses one of the oldest congregations of black United Methodists west of the Mississippi; and social halls of fraternal organizations such as the Mosaic Templars of America and the Knights and Daughters of Tabor also were part of the cultural foundation. Pinnacles in the struggle for equality and civil rights are exemplified by Little Rock's Central High School, a symbol of 1950s school segregation, and Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his renowned "Mountaintop" speech the night before his assassination at the city's Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.

Historic Periods

The Mississippi Delta region offers one of the best examples of African-American influence. The lower region (originally having Spanish and French influence) and the upper region (originally having Native American and Anglo-American influence) were changed by the introduction of African Americans. There is much to learn about how and why African Americans migrated, the impacts of African Americans on the larger culture, and the mixing of African Americans with other cultures.

Education

The story of the struggle of African Americans for education is a long one. Industrial, agricultural, or vocational education were some of the few options that were open to African Americans. Because the states did not support the education of African Americans, the church, communities, and community-based organizations became involved. They had to work together to achieve what they wanted, and grassroots efforts were a part of the struggle.

Science, Inventions, and Discoveries

African Americans have made major contributions to the scientific and industrial development of the Delta and the nation.

Literature

There is a richness and complexity to the African American literary canon, although many Americans and others are unaware of the diversity of the writers and the literature.

Folklore and Cultural Traditions

Architecture and cultural landscapes: Understanding and preserving African-American architectural features and landscapes illustrate the Delta's special sense of place.

Folk Music: A comprehension of African-American culture is encouraged by a broad appreciation of African-American music—including such forms as jazz, blues, zydeco, gospel, and cajun.

Religion: Different cultures have different styles of worship. The church is not isolated and separate from the society in which it functions. Religion sometimes creates and propagates culture and cultural values (and vice versa). The relationship between churches and the civil rights movement is part of the legacy of religion in the African-American community.

Celebrations and Folk Rituals: African-American folk celebrations have social and economic values that support communities. Knowing any part of a culture, for example folk celebrations, helps people understand and appreciate that culture.

Foods: Traditions about food, for example gathering methods and tools, tie the community together in many ways. Many seeds, spices, and plants were smuggled from Africa by way of slave ships, and many Delta dishes and cooking methods are from Africa. Foods found in the Delta region (such as Cajun and Creole and foods with ingredients brought from Africa) are unique to this area.

Folktales: African-American folktales, rooted in pain, suffering, religion, and joy, resulted in oral and written stories that influenced daily lives, behavior, and knowledge. Folktales convey the history, cultural values, and morals of African-Americans in the Delta.

Music of the Delta

Music is a communication tool that is integral to understanding the African-American community. Music (such as gospel, jazz, blues, zydeco, and folk music) is a language that displays, interprets, and communicates life in the lower Mississippi Delta region in a way unlike any other. Music teaches family values and respect for tradition, serves as an emotional outlet, brings people and community together (for funerals, births, celebrations, etc.), and reflects family life and the lives of the composers and performers. Music can be used as an invaluable mechanism to demonstrate our common likenesses.

Politics and Civil Rights

The civil rights movement identified with the 1960s was not only a 1960s phenomenon. The struggle for civil rights began with the uprisings and rebellions of the era of slavery. The civil rights movement was a grassroots movement that relied on the participation of ordinary people. It was intended to affect America as a whole, not just the South. The movement changed the life of every person in the country. The national civil rights movement is integral to understanding politics and the civil rights movement in the Delta region. Incidents in this region related to the civil rights movement-in particular events in Little Rock, Arkansas (Central High School)-played a major part in shaping integration throughout the region. The church played a role in the political and civil rights processes. The voting rights movement led to the election of a larger number of African-American politicians, contributing to improved civil rights and economic development among African Americans across the country.

Performing and Visual Arts

The Delta Region, and specifically New Orleans, is a major African-American cultural center in the United States. The performing arts are a foundation of African-American culture and are a way of sharing culture. The call-and-response method of singing and the shout dance are derived from African-American religious observances. Some of the most outstanding visual artists came from the Delta area. The diversity of expression found in the visual and performing arts of the region are integral to the Delta experience.

National and State Parks in the Delta Region Relating to African-American Heritage

Cane River Creole National Historical Park and Heritage Area, Louisiana
Cultural resources in this area of northwest Louisiana are of possible significance to the Caddo of Oklahoma, the Clifton Choctaw/Appalachee, the Tunica Biloxi, and descendants of the communities of Creoles of color (for example, at Isle Brevelle).

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana
Located in New Orleans, the park has many layers of significance for African Americans: the development of jazz; Creoles of color; the participation of freedmen of color in the battle at Chalmette and the burial of African Americans in the national cemetery; and the location of an African-American community on the site of the battlefield through the 1960s.

Natchez National Historical Park, Mississippi
The park explores the experiences of all peoples of Natchez, a notable slave-holding community of the antebellum period. The park includes the William Johnson House, the home of a freedman whose diary chronicles pre-Civil War African-American life.

New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, Louisiana
This park was created to foster the preservation, education, and interpretation of jazz as it evolved in New Orleans.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, Missouri
In the nearby courthouse, Dred Scott sued for freedom in the historic slavery case. (More Information)

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Stephen Bishop, a slave belonging to the cave's owner when it was opened for public tours, was one of the original guides and explorers of the cave.

Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi
17,869 out of 186,000 servicemen in army and naval units on both sides during the Civil War were African-Americans from Mississippi. For example, in 1863 blacks participated in the battles at Milliken's Bend and Port Hudson.

NPS Education/Interpretation Publications and Web Sites

The Underground Railroad: Taking the Train to Freedom
The Underground Railroad originated during the colonial era as slaves sought ways to escape the inhumane treatment of bondage. Neither "underground" nor a "railroad," this secretive system was not initially organized, but arose when escaped slaves sought refuge in unclaimed territories and newly settled colonies. With the assistance of agents such as the Quakers, free blacks, and Native Americans, slaves were able to gain their freedom.

 

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Last Updated: November 28, 2007