In anticipation of the upcoming screening (click for tickets) of my short film SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON at the Cape Fear Independent Film Festival on June 7, 2019 in the 5:30 documentary block at the Hannah Block Community Arts Center in Wilmington, NC, I have been reflecting on some of the things I learned from Sylvester Hoover. As always, my heartfelt thanks to Elizabeth Rosenwald Varet and Michael A. Varet and the Middle Road Foundation for their support of the SHARECROP film project (click to learn more and to stream the entire SHARECROP film)
In 2017, I thought I was prepared for my journey to the Mississippi Delta to film Sylvester Hoover speaking about significant places of his life. Yet I found that regardless of the reading I had done- the forty scholarly books, the ten memoirs, the countless articles and primary sources- I was not ready. Nothing could have prepared me for the wave of dread and sadness that hit when I touched the bricks of Bryant’s Grocery while Hoover described what it was like to grow up at ground zero of Emmett Till’s lynching a few years after it happened. Hoover attended elementary school just across the tracks from Bryant’s Grocery. The 1963 Money school is an unimaginative one-storey building that looks, like the 1950s equalization schools in North Carolina, as if it were built as cheaply as possible during the era when southern school districts scrambled to prove they were providing equal facilities. Only the 1963 Money school was erected almost a decade after the Supreme Court had decided that separate facilities could never be equal. Prior its opening, Hoover’s older siblings attended school a few months each winter in their church building, and Hoover said their teacher would have been “the most educated person on the plantation.”
Shocked that they seemed to be decades behind North Carolina even in their segregated school facilities, I did more research and found a complex history: In 1926 Leflore County, MS families raised $2,050 to obtain the four-room Money Rosenwald school. However, no one in Hoover’s circle can recall that early school in operation. This leads me to believe that the school district let it run down and close without replacing it. Hence, Hoover’s early memory of attending school in his church for a short time before being able to enroll in the new 1963 Money school building.
Hoover described sneaking off school grounds with his friends to buy candy at Bryant’s Grocery. This would push his principal into a state of high anxiety, and the principal would spank them and yell, saying “Don’t go to that store!” However, the principal never explained the root of his fear.
Till’s lynching was ever present, not so much as a specific event, but as confirmation of the reasons behind the fear that permeated life for African American sharecropping families in the Delta. The view from 30,000 feet is that the 1955 torture and murder of Till was an exceptionally horrible event that galvanized the Civil Rights movement. That is true. It is also true that Hoover’s view at ground zero was that “Black people…always had a fear of white people…that’s the way they lived. If you a strong-minded black person on the plantation… you not going to be around long. You will either go to jail, or end up missing.” Mimicking a conversation, Hoover says “What happened to John? Last time I seen him, he was going home last night… he never shows back up. He end up in the Tallahatchie River. If that river ever dry up, ain’t no telling what you might see.” With this last sentence, Hoover shifted my perception of Emmett Till’s lynching. As Hoover frames it, Till’s lynching was exceptional for its notoriety, but not for its occurrence.
Nor did the terror stop with Till’s lynching. While searching for three slain civil rights workers in 1964, the FBI found eight other bodies. As George E. Curry writes: “While looking for the three civil rights workers in rivers and swamps, other Black bodies were discovered. One was Herbert Oarsby, a 14-year-old boy who was wearing a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) T-shirt. The bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Eddie Moore, who had been expelled from Alcorn A&M College for civil rights activities, were also discovered. The remains of five more Black men were found, but never identified.”
Yes despite the constant anxiety, and through the grinding labor of the cotton fields, Hoover’s family embodied a resilience that allowed them to “make a way out of no way.” They grew much of their own food, and his father sold moonshine on the side. Hoover’s mother “snuck her kids out of the Delta” to Chicago, where they would work and try to finish school. Into the 1960s, peonage (debt bondage) and Jim Crow laws restricted their movement, but their hardship and hopes found expression at church and in Blues music. Blues legend Robert Johnson is buried in the graveyard at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church (Hoover’s family church). Hoover reflected on Johnson’s legacy while touching one of the pebbles on his gravestone. A steady stream of visitors place pebbles and bottles of beer near the headstone. “The land shaped the music and the music shaped the land…people felt like whatever ailed them, the Blues music could heal them…”
Today, Sylvester Hoover and his wife Mary are recognized internationally for the authentic southern cuisine they provide through their catering business, the blues festival they organize in Greenwood, MS, and their tour company. Click here to learn more about Hoover’s Delta Blues Legend Tours