Ed Scott, Jr. and his father, Edward, Sr. shared the same aspiration: an American empire,
for as many as it could feed.
“I started with my father and I give him and the Lord credit for everything I’ve done here." - Ed Scott, Jr.
Scott's father, Edward Scott, Sr., was born in 1886 in Prairieville, Alabama, in Hale County. He'd been a postman there.
Edward Scott, Sr.
Edward Sr. moved his family from Alabama to Mississippi in 1919, after his Alabama corn fields flooded. He worked shares in Glendora for a white planter, around twenty miles away from the site of the future catfish plant in nearby Leflore County.
After a few days in Mississippi, his wife, Juanita, wasn’t happy. “We can’t stay here,” she pleaded. “These people are too mean. Send us back.” Edward Sr. was resolute. “I believe I could stay in Hell one year if I knew I could move out the next,” he replied.
Edward Scott, Sr. and
Juanita Scott, at the freezer.
A midwife delivered Ed Scott Jr. on the plantation in 1922. He had no birth certificate. He was the seventh of ten surviving children. The second-to-last son. He joined older siblings Moses, Laighton, Samuel Winder, Alexander, Rosa Bell, and Susie B. Scott. Later came Mossouri Odessa, Harvey DeWitt, and Edna “Mae” Ruth. All of them were raised in the fields.
Edward Sr. 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.
Scott farm and the Chevy.
Scott enlisted in the Army in 1942 when he was twenty years old.
On a three-day furlough in 1943, Ed Scott, Jr. married Edna Ruth Daniel, the daughter of a successful farmer and community organizer - Isaac Daniel - in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.
Edna Scott (Edna Ruth Daniel)
Scott was deployed to World War II Europe. As a quartermaster, he drove supply trucks deep into the continent, along a path known as the Red Ball Express, refueling the efforts of General George Patton on the Western Front. The majority of the truck drivers traveling the Red Ball Express—as many as five thousand every twenty-four hours—were African Americans.
Scott lay face down in the ditch with General George S. Patton, Old Blood and Guts himself. Allied troops under Patton’s command had moved into Germany and kicked the door off the hinges. The German forces that remained were scattered, but a sniper had them pinned down.
Scott returns from war.
Edward Sr. wanted his son to go back to school, but Scott said no. He already had a vocation in mind. And a purpose. His destiny was to be tied up in the dirt, with his father’s. “You can’t work this place like you’re doing by yourself,” he told his father. “I’m going to stay right here with you, Daddy.”
According to Scott, in 1947 his father became one of the first in the area to successfully farm rice on a large scale. Edward, Sr.'s health began to deteriorate around this time.
Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American visiting from Chicago, was abducted and murdered by white assailants Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for allegedly breaking the racial codes of the South in an interaction with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. Bryant and Milam threw his lifeless body in the Tallahatchie River, a matter of miles north of the Scott farm.
When Edward, Sr. passed in 1957, the family owned 1,080 acres.
He'd gone from sharecropper to landowner. It wasn’t Scott's older brothers who picked up the farming torch, but Scott. Edward Sr. passed that authority down not by order of succession, but like water following the natural landscape.
“Ed, you’re named after me, you got to work like me,” Edward Sr. had told
his son early one workday. “You got to do everything I do."
"All right, Daddy,” Scott replied.
On Sunday, March 21, after two bloody and unsuccessful attempts, hundreds marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on their way to Montgomery. Scott marched with them.
Ed Scott, Jr. and his car.
James Meredith's "March Against Fear"
Scott knew that the marchers who walked ten miles each day would be tired and hungry.
He loaded his truck with food, slammed the tailgate shut, and told his family he’d be back soon enough.
The marchers continued to Belzoni and rested at a church. Scott unpacked and spread the meal out. It was nothing but bologna on white bread and potato chips, but the marchers ate hungrily. Scott packed his truck like that many times. He followed the news about Dr. King and others and met them along the way. 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.
Night fell and Scott packed up to leave. A policeman followed. 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.”
Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer lived in Ruleville near the Scotts.
In the early 1970s she formed the Freedom Farm Cooperative that gave other former sharecroppers a new and productive start. They built homes and grew food and raised hogs. She saw Freedom Farm as a utopia where labor and food and opportunity were given equitably. Where new things could be made from troubled history. On their first forty acres, members of the coop planted beans, greens, corn, sweet potatoes, and “just enough cotton to keep old memories alive.”
Freedom Farm wasn’t making enough money, though, so after a difficult year, Hamer came to Scott and asked for help. Scott’s blunt diagnosis was that some of the men she had working as farmhands didn’t know a thing about farming; Scott freely shared with Hamer the knowledge that his father had passed to him.
Cotton field outside Drew, MS.
1978 was one of Scott's most successful years in farming. Operating his incorporated co-op, he made a million dollars in rice and celebrated with what had become a tradition - their annual rice festival.
In the late 1970s, Southern staple crops like rice, soybeans, and wheat suffered from global market volatility. Agricultural leaders looked for a more stable option. They found it in catfish. The Mississippi Delta solidified itself as the center of this growing industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture heavily subsidized this shift, as they had done for decades. But black farmers like Ed Scott were left out of the recalibration.
Over the course of 1980, after the local USDA office refused to give him money for fish ponds, Scott and his sons worked tirelessly to excavate 160 acres of farmland into massive, grave-deep catfish ponds.
Digging the ponds.
Ponds dug, Scott went back to the government for a loan to stock them. The local agency supervisor refused him. Scott went over the supervisor's head to the state office in Jackson. He was only able to get a third of what he needed to get the ponds fully stocked. With the money he had, he purchased fingerling catfish and released them into the waters.
As his fish grew closer to processing size, Scott looked for somewhere to process them. Delta Pride, a state of the art catfish plant in Indianola, was the largest one around. In order to process with Delta Pride, farmers had to purchase stock in the plant. Scott attempted to purchase stock, but Delta Pride wouldn't sell it to him because he was black.
Meanwhile, the local USDA office deemed Scott a risky venture and decided not to fund him to following year.
After he was shut out by the processors, Scott made a bold decision. He converted the tractor shed his father had built into a one-line catfish processing plant, outfitting it with stainless steel hardware. When it opened in February 1983, Scott wrote himself into history as the first minority owner and operator of a catfish plant in the nation. It was a de facto challenge to the white establishment and a government that seemed determined to block Scott's aspirations at every turn.
The foreclosures, initiated by USDA, came like dominoes. By year's end, more than a thousand acres - a representation of the legacy of generational black self-determination - was gone. They even came for his fish, which he had only just begun to process. All that remained was the homestead, the plant, and the empty ponds.
The plant in Leflore County, MS.
Without his ponds, Scott was forced to become a full-time processor. He purchased fish, secured minority-contracts, and employed dozens of African-American men and women in the area who were desperate for quality jobs.
Edna Scott opened a restaurant next to the plant, feeding the workers and area farmers. She developed a signature meal mix, which Scott used to cook fish as a caterer and fry-master. He even cooked at D.C. Mayor Marion Barry's inaugration in D.C., bringing with him his core group of catfish special forces; strong, do-it-all black women nicknamed "The Dependables."
Plant workers taking lunch.
The catfish plant closed around 1990. Scott fought, unsuccessfully, to get his land back, which had all been bought up at land auctions by the very same government who had turned its back on him. His health began declining from the stress.
In 1997, a Hail Mary materialized. Scott joined 20,000 other minority farmers in a class action lawsuit against USDA called Pigford v. Glickman. It was named for the defendant, a North Carolina soybean farmer named Timothy Pigford; and Dan Glickman, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
USDA itself was aware that something had gone wrong in these rural communities. They commissioned an internal report. They found massive wrongdoing, including the revelation that the investigative arm of the agency had been disbanded, and civil rights complaints ignored, since 1983.
Judge Paul Friedman, U.S. District Judge for the District of Columbia, ruled in favor of the black farmers. Ed Scott prepared his files to present his case to an arbitrator, and ultimately, to receive financial compensation for his hardship.
The Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) honored Ed Scott, Jr. with their second Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award at the 2001 Southern Foodways Symposium.
SFA Director John T. Edge and Ed Scott, Jr.
After another decade of legal machinations, an arbitrator examined Scott's individual claim and granted him a settlement of millions.
Ed Scott passed away at the age of 93. His life was celebrated at a service at Mound Bayou's First Baptist Church. After the homegoing, the funeral procession snaked through the Delta and across county lines until it arrived in the remote Leflore County fields. There, just yards from the spot where he made history, Ed Scott was laid to rest in the family cemetery next to his father.