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© 2018 Julian Rankin | Archival photographs courtesy Scott-White Archives | Book cover photo by Ben Fink

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Julian Rankin
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EXCERPTS FROM CATFISH DREAM

In the Mississippi Delta, power is a stand-in for morality. The alderman and commissioners and judges and cops and football coaches and landlords seem installed not by vote or appointment, but by on-high decree. They own the place. Here, what is rendered unto Caesar and rendered unto God go to the same P.O. box. Here, it’s hard to get it if you don’t already have it.


“Row crop farming was done in the early ages,” Scott began. “I started
with my father and I give him and the Lord credit for everything I’ve
done here.”


Scott gave voice to his father, Edward Sr., a man too busy to put his story on the record. Edward Sr. moved his family from Alabama to Mississippi in 1919. He worked shares in Glendora, around twenty miles away from the site of the future catfish plant.

 

He sharecropped for nine years before he saved up enough to buy his first piece of farmland. In 1929, just before the Depression hit, Edward Sr. bought a new car. He built a garage and parked the Chevrolet inside, out of view, so that no one would know he had it. Edward Sr. did not hide his success—he protected it.

(Right to Left) Isaac Daniel; Edward Scott, Sr.; Dr. T.R.M. Howard; attorney Thurgood Marshall.

During the time Scott was farming in Mound Bayou he started seeing stickers plastered to light poles and bumpers in the area telling people, “Don’t buy gas if you can’t use the restroom.” Segregated restrooms and water fountains were constant reminders of the inequity... The message Scott received: don’t let anybody else tell you where and how to do your business...


In Fannie Lou Hamer and Dr. T. R. M. Howard, Scott saw two complementary examples of African Americans effecting change. Dr. Howard was a staunch believer in entrepreneurial self-improvement in the tradition of Booker T. Washington and an embodiment of the black intelligentsia. Fannie Lou Hamer was a hard-nosed dreamer forged in the experience of the common man and woman...

 

Scott’s fantastical notions of building catfish ponds of his own volition complemented Hamer’s visionary Freedom Farm, and his role as a business leader reinforced Howard’s belief in black power through economics... While he participated in the civil rights movement, Scott waged his real fight on the front lawn of entrenched southern agribusiness. He battled them for money and market share, and for his own sense of self-worth as the son of a sharecropper.

...Scott carried the cooler outside to the truck and put it in back with the water jugs and Cokes. It was June 1966... Scott knew that the marchers who walked ten miles each day would be tired and hungry... Scott drove alone, nobody to keep him company except his stalwart hammer under the seat... The marchers were out on the open road and scheduled to stop for the night near Belzoni...


The sun dipped below the trees in the churchyard, and for a moment the tension waned. A white policeman kept watch. Not over them but on them... Scott started back up the highway. The policeman got behind him and followed him north. Down dark stretches of highway the policeman followed. Scott hadn’t asked for an escort. Past the congealed swampland, his headlights ever steady. Scott focused on keeping his truck between the lines. “They wanted to see if I’d do something illegal so they could arrest me—maybe kill me,” Scott said. “But I didn’t do nothing. Kept my speed all the way home.”


...The prospect of food resonated in sit-ins across the South when activists demanded a shared meal at a shared countertop. Families talked about the movement over dinner. And because every man and woman must eat, food was a common symbol of humanity. The fellowship that Scott offered from his truck bed galvanized the revolutionaries and bolstered their appetites for change.

The neighbor jerked the wheel and pulled to the side of the dirt road to watch. He got out and stood on the hood to get a better look at Scott, who was standing about a hundred yards away on a bluff of freshly exposed clay in what had only recently been a soybean field. From a distance, it appeared to the neighbor as if Scott was staring into a giant crater where a meteor had landed. Even atop the hood, the neighbor couldn’t see what was down there. Scott was looking down at six feet of absent earth that stretched for acres. He envisaged those acres full of water and thrashing catfish. Scott was on the verge of entering history as one of the first—if not the undisputed first—black catfish farmers of his size in the country.

 

The neighbor saw Scott wave his hands and whistle, then he heard an engine roar and saw smoke billow like it was spewing straight from the earth. The illusion only heightened the magic. Scott is speaking to the ground, the neighbor thought. And it’s doing as he says.

Scott’s plant workers were a close-knit bunch. One group of women called themselves “the Dependables.” Along with fastest skinner Eva Brooks, this core crew included Lillie Watson-Price, Essie Watson- Maggitt, and Elnora Mullins... 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...

 

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 fix 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.

With miles of farmland in every direction, the only other way to get a hot lunch in the area would have been to raid a local domestic kitchen. Edna’s oven and stove and pots and pans and recipes were not unlike those of other Delta homemakers. She made pies, beans, sweet potatoes, corn, and chicken using the methods and recipes passed down from the women who cooked before her. But like her husband, Edna had big ambitions. To accommodate the daily crowd, the Scotts built an annex to house Edna’s restaurant. Inside were a kitchen and a dining room that could seat two dozen. At lunchtime, the dirt parking lot overflowed with cars. Customers waited outside for to-go orders and sipped sodas from the refrigerated Coke machine that the Scotts put at the corner of the house...

 

She planned her menu by what was around. In the family patch between the house and the cemetery she grew everything: okra, tomatoes, corn, squash, zucchini, butter beans, lima beans. “You name it, we grew it,” said Daniel Scott. “We were pretty much self-contained out here.”

[The] Dependables had traveled with Scott to cook catfish at the inauguration party, as requested by Mayor Barry’s people. Barry had roots in Mississippi. In Itta Bena... He wanted catfish as a celebratory accouterment...

 

About an hour in, Marion Barry and the revelers had worked up an appetite and came off the boat to eat. The mayor was dripping sweat. His face glistened. His top buttons were undone. He grabbed a piece of fish off the serving tray before Scott could even hand him his plate. He ate it fast and grabbed another. “Oh, god-dog I need some more of this fish,” Barry said while he chewed. “It’s good. It’s good as I ever tasted.” Scott’s most consistent catering clients were black politicians, who courted would-be voters at rallies and commemorated electoral victories with fish fries.

 

Scott saw himself and his fried fish as integral to this acquisition of black political power. He identified with elected black officials who broke into white-dominated spheres. Washington, D.C., was the pinnacle of vested authority, and Scott—shirt tucked and apron neatly tied—felt like he owned the place.

When the class action came along, Scott readied himself for a legal battle. He had no idea how protracted the process would be. Scott was seventy-five years old in 1997 when Judge Friedman ruled in favor of the black farmers. He was eighty-nine when Fraas finally argued his individual Track B case in 2011...The question was no longer whether Scott could bounce back in the farming business, but rather if he could hope to realize some semblance of justice within his lifetime.

 

...the processing plant was in disrepair. It became more decrepit with each successive visit, as if its health was somehow tied to Scott’s. The fields and ditches around the home had grown wilder. Vines constricted the exposed posts and doorjambs. Scott had moved out of the house years before when his health first started to go and settled with Edna and their daughter Willena in Renova. The house by the ponds sat as empty as the grain bins...


In FmHA memos that preceded the foreclosures, officials referred to Scott as a “big black farmer” who was out of his depth. Scott knew he’d been singled out for his skin color; the record agreed.

Scott knew that there always comes a time when one generation gives way to the next. Edward Sr. had been fortunate to have him as a son to take ownership of the family name. Edna’s father, Isaac Daniel, found in his son-in-law Ed Jr. a farming heir.

 

When the patriarchs passed and when his government turned on him, Scott kept the faith and felt the presence of a divine watchman. “You know in ninety-one years I had to have somebody standing with me and working with me,” he said.

 

When Scott saved his father-in-law from ruin by buying the Mound Bayou farm for more than it was worth, Isaac Daniel swore he’d pay back the generosity. He repeated it on his deathbed. “Don’t worry, Edward,” Isaac Daniel said. “I’ll be here with you to help you.” But he died before he could, and Scott continued without him. Scott had been the provider and the rescuer, the figurehead and the father. It was time for him to step aside, too. All he had to do now was rest.