Moorhead, Mississippi

100 million years old.

3 million acres of land.

90,000 miles of river.

When you enter the Delta from the North, somewhere southwest of Memphis, you feel something beginning to change. Something is different, spectral, magical. The soil gets darker, more rich and fertile. The air thickens. The land gradually lowers, sinking below sea level, imperceptibly. You notice the standing water in the fields, a subtle indicator that you’re beneath the waves now. The water reflects the day’s setting sun, the heat and mosquitos bouncing off the shallow pools. This is the Delta. A place so overwhelming with history and promise and heartbreak it almost smothers you the moment you arrive.

The rules are different here. Change comes slowly. The future is coming but the past sticks around like trapped carbon, in the air around you, in the atmosphere above. You can still sense the old ways, the old laws. With each passing mile on an endless stretch to the Gulf, ghosts of an unremembered past still linger: closed factories, box stores, underfunded schools, redistricting, voter restriction laws. And yet...

Viola Wraggs stands and carries her 68 years amongst the markers, waving off the incessant mosquitos. She’s outside the town of Moorhead, by Macon Lake, a former plantation, surrounded by the history of her people. It’s a mirage of ancestors who survived slavery and the war, the broken promise of Reconstruction. There are those who survived The Great Flood and resisted the temptation of a train ticket to Chicago in hopes of finding something better--The Great Migration, as it's known. And then there are those who endured Jim Crow and the White Councils, bitter attempts to keep oppression alive and well. Her people stayed on the plantation, working as sharecroppers – another word for getting left behind.

Time drew on. Automation arrived. And they got left behind again.

Early 1960s: Viola’s family stayed in the Delta where they lived at Macon Lake. During this era, there was a significant bend in the flow of cultural events. Unlike so many points in the past, this time they were faced with something new: a semblance of control, a chance to be contributors in the history books for what was taking root in that Delta soil: Civil Rights. It would not come easy. But change was happening. Slowly, incrementally, imperfectly, but full of hope. This was the life Viola was born into.

This history of the Delta, good and bad, is not lost on Viola. But it makes no dents in her disposition: she’s cheerful and neighborly. There’s a sort of infectious gusto and go go attitude. She ran for mayor once just because. In her own words she’s not one to “just sit back”. That character developed early. Her rural experience is as rich as the soil under her feet.

Her mother taught her a lot of things that contributed to this attitude: kindness, charity, a responsibility for those less fortunate. She recalls a happy childhood. Viola and her sisters grew up in a family where all the other kids on the plantation hung around late into the evening, hoping for a home-cooked meal. Despite not being monetarily wealthy, they were rich in many ways. Her parents worked hard in the fields and the factories, her father hunting and fishing, always wanting to give as much of themselves to their children as possible.

In order for you to succeed and move out of poverty, you got to go to school. You got to go to school. You got to have a vision of what you want to do in your life.


Her parents didn’t stop with just material needs. They both realized the value of education, of putting power in the hands of the people, of voting, and the importance of keeping your hand on the wheel no matter how hard anyone tried to wrest it away. Every opportunity they had her parents would take her and her siblings down to see the voting process, teaching them the value of registration and participation through osmosis, until they were 18 and it became explicit: go register, her mother would say. She would only need to say it once.

When we turned 18, our mother said you got to go register to vote. She only said it one time and that’s all we needed to hear it.


When we turned 18, our mother said you got to go register to vote. She only said it one time and that’s all we needed to hear it.


You never really know until you know but the lessons took. When it came time to have children of her own these lessons carried forward, lessons of provision and power.

“Whatever it takes,” Viola says. Whatever it takes for her children to avoid the fields and to have books and to gain knowledge and to know the power of the vote. “I raised good citizens, productive” she says of her children, a shine in her eye and a wide smile betraying her usual modesty.

The effects of the Civil Rights movement have settled more these days. Viola notices the indifference in the kids, worries about drugs, feels a sense of apathy. It’s a little less happy in some ways for these kids, she probably thinks. It’s not as carefree as the plantation, as odd as that might sound.

Moorhead and the surrounding townships are always riding in a state of flux, going all the way back to the beginning until now, usually at the mercy of the laws of capitalism. Slavery. Sharecropping. Automation. Globalization. Factory life. Box stores. None too many looking back in their wake to see what’s left in the churn.

But for Viola, that’s Delta life. It just made her work harder. It even made her run for political office. She lost, she says with a smile. But no matter. It doesn’t stop her. An opportunity for change in her community is just that: an opportunity, never a guarantee.

A lot of people would work at the catfish place. Hardly see anyone because they was out working. But there’s no Allen Canning Company no more.


There’s a saying my folks used to say: charity begins at home and spread abroad. You start at home with it.


Even amid all the hardships the Delta brings, nothing keeps Viola from looking for the next opportunity. The harder it gets the deeper she digs, down into that rich soil, finding strength in her roots.

She believes in many things. And at the top of that list is that a life in the Delta is worth living. It’s worth as much as any other life. Otherwise, she says, she would have left long ago. But she’s still here, contributing to the narrative of the land, to that of her people, and that of the future.