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The Dependables

 

An excerpt from Catfish Dream: 

Ed Scott’s Fight for His Family Farm and Racial Justice in the 

Mississippi Delta

 

by JULIAN RANKIN

 

 

Scott’s Fresh Catfish opened on a cold, clear February day in 1983. The air pulsed with excitement. Family, friends, and newly hired plant workers milled in the gravel drive between the plant and the Scotts’ home … Applause and hollering erupted when Scott cut the white ribbon and invited everyone inside …

 

Scott’s plant workers were a close-knit bunch. One group of women called themselves “the Dependables.” ... The Dependables worked long hours to keep the plant operating. They lived nearby and worked any and all shifts, in snow and storm, amid mud and guts. They were tough. Scott’s grandson Daniel, a teenager when the plant opened, called them “mannish ladies.” They did everything the men could do, and more. “We packed fish—30-pound boxes—and we throwed them boxes just like a man,” worker Eva Brooks recalled. “Those men taking their time, we chucked it like it was nothing.”

 

Many of Scott’s workers had been desperate for gainful employment for months or years. Scott gave them jobs and offered them purpose. He trusted and inspired them. Black workers staffed the larger processing plants, too, but these minimum-wage employees suffered carpal tunnel from repetitious motion. Others reported sexual assault by their superiors. They were discouraged from unionizing. Women were forced to share communal bathrooms with the men, using stalls that had no doors. Shift managers strictly enforced bathroom break allocations of as little as five minutes a week. Some of these workers opted to wear diapers to avoid the added humiliation of wetting their pants. The Dependables came from the same area and got gas at the same corner store as the workers from other plants. The difference was the particular character of their boss man—their general … He treated his coworkers with dignity and respect, and it paid dividends. When he was away, the Dependables took charge.

 

It was as civil rights leader Ella Baker said to young members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the mid-1960s as they left for Mississippi to register black Deltans to vote: “Go and tell the people on the plantations that they don’t have to wait on the elite. They don’t have to wait on Roy Wilkins. They don’t have to wait on James Farmer. They have people among them who are capable of being leaders.” Scott’s farm grew leaders.

 

In addition to working the line, answering the phones, and wading in the water, the Dependables cared for their families. They ran home between shifts to cook dinner, help with homework, and draw baths before coming back to the plant to pick up right where they left off. Essie Watson-Maggitt even went into labor at the skinning table. Her water broke mid-fish. She calmly took herself home, drew a bath and soaked, and drove to the hospital, where she gave birth to boy. In a few more tellings, that episode will have become a bit of Delta lore. She will give birth to her son at the skinning table and baptize him in pond water, all the while pulling guts and chopping heads, never breaking her rhythm.

 

University of Georgia Press | Summer 2018

Southern Foodways Alliance Studies 

in Culture, People, and Place series

Learn more at catfishdream.com

 

Catfish Dream centers around the experiences, family, and struggles of Ed Scott Jr. (born in 1922), a prolific farmer in the Mississippi Delta and the first ever nonwhite owner and operator of a catfish plant in the nation. Both directly and indirectly, the economic and political realities of food and subsistence affect the everyday lives of Delta farmers and the people there. Ed’s own father, Edward Sr., was a former sharecropper turned landowner who was one of the first black men to grow rice in the state. Ed carries this mantle forth with his soybean and rice farming and later with his catfish operation, which fed the black community both physically and symbolically. He provides an example for economic mobility and activism in a region of the country that is one of the nation’s poorest and has one of the most drastic disparities in education and opportunity, a situation especially true for the Delta’s vast African American population. With Catfish Dream Julian Rankin provides a fascinating portrait of a place through his intimate biography of Scott, a hero at once so typical and so exceptional in his community.

 

Julian Rankin is the recipient of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s first annual residency at Rivendell Writers Colony and is the director of the Center for Art & Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson.

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