Major cultural center planned to honor cotton pickers and sharecroppers

By Becky Gillette

Plans are underway for a Cotton Pickers of America Monument and Sharecroppers Interpretive Center in Bolivar County near Mound Bayou, a $26-million complex to be built near one of the first incorporated African American communities in the country to honor the importance of the contributions of the sharecroppers and cotton pickers who built the area into one of the most prosperous farming regions in the country.
Work is currently being done to raise funds for the 20-acre compound near Mound Bayou. The efforts are being spearheaded by the non-profit organization KHAFRE, Inc., which was named after the builder of the second pyramid in Egypt.
“Our organization was named KHAFRE, Inc. because we intend to build out monumental projects that will last forever much like the Great Pyramids of Giza have,” said C. Sade Turnipseed, MS, MBA, executive director/founder, Cotton Pickers of America Monument and Sharecroppers Interpretive Center, who is working on a Ph.D. dissertation on the project.
The second annual Sweat Equity Symposium and Cotton Pickers Ball was held in late October at Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU).
“That was very successful and has become institutionalized,” Turnipseed said. “We will be repeating it every year on the campus. That is a fundraiser and also an opportunity to exchange on a scholarly level information about the history of cotton, its importance to the economy, and where we go from here. The point is to get students engaged and involved in understanding the significance of Mississippi Delta culture and how important it is to the American economy and world cultural exchange.”
Turnipseed said through primary and secondary research, they are hoping there can be an elevation of acceptance, appreciation and respect for the contributions of the hard working people who planted, chopped and picked cotton in the Mississippi Delta.
“For 200 years, cotton was the number one crop in America,” Turnipseed said. “Its worldwide sales exceeded all other agricultural crops combined up until the late 1940s and the early 1950s. Then mechanization came in, and things started changing. But until then, it was all about cotton.”
Delta Pine Land and Company was once owned by the Queen of England. It was sold to the British after the Reconstruction. That company is now owned by Monsanto.
“We have such a wonderful, rich culture, and this cotton narrative that is so important to everyone is not being discussed, explored, and taught in school,” Turnipseed said. “With me working towards a Ph.D. in public history at Middle Tennessee State University, my whole purpose is to help inform–particularly the young people–and embrace the contributions of the elder people so they can feel better about that whole cotton picking situation.”
Cotton picking was hot, difficult, and painful work as the dried bristles of the cotton bole could cause cuts. Long hours in the field were the norm. Though the history of cotton is not without its downsides, it is still important to tell the story.
Turnipseed said when she met with Dr. Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, she told him that the country has done nothing to celebrate the cotton pickers and sharecroppers who worked so diligently for the country.
Jarvis told her, “It is time.” Plans are for the center to be built within the next five years, and turned over to the National Park Service.
“We have to get it right,” she said. “We have to be fair and balanced, not coming from an emotional place, but just speaking the truth.”
Plans include installing shotgun house interpretive centers for each of the 18 counties in the Delta. Currently organizers are working on getting resolutions of support from each of the county seats in the Delta. Resolutions have been passed from Washington, Bolivar and Sunflower counties, and the effort already has the support of the state’s U.S. senators and representatives.
The new center would make Mound Bayou a tourism destination, along with the new Grammy Museum in Cleveland.
“It is going to be a magnet,” Turnipseed said. “This project will stimulate the economy and tourism throughout the Delta. Because of that, it will bring a boost to the economy. It will allow Mount Bayou to further develop its historic landmarks and tell its story to a wider audience. We can forge partnerships with all types of museums. You will have people coming to stay a couple days just to visit this complex, and also check out Grammy Museum and other points of interest throughout the county. People can visit all the local historical attractions, and go to Clarksdale and boogie all night long. It is an interesting opportunity for everyone Delta wide.”
Bricks for pathways in the 20-acre compound will be engraved with the names of families from the Delta. Turnipseed wants Bolivar County residents to be first in the brick selection. She said a call will go out so everyone can be a part of this monument and tribute.
Mound Bayou Mayor Darryl Johnson believes the center could become one of the premier African American tourist centers in the country.
“In the early 1900s, the area around Mound Bayou was the leading cotton producer in the world,” said Johnson. “We had about 8,000 people living in the periphery of Mound Bayou. The production of cotton really got its name in the free world here in Mound Bayou in the early 1900s when we had up to six cotton gins. Mound Bayou was founded by agriculture geniuses who brought their way of cultivating cotton that exceeded other farms in the area. It was the premium cotton in the country.”
Johnson is a descendant of the Thompson family that owned one of the cotton gins, and he grew up working in a cotton gin. It is not only his family’s heritage, but the heritage of the Mound Bayou and Bolivar County.
“Mount Bayou cotton was known throughout the world,” Johnson said.

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