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The House that Cotton Built Kathryn Blount • Novelette Brown • Meghan Leonard


The House that Cotton Built Kathryn Blount • Novelette Brown • Meghan Leonard This book is dedicated to George Gilliam, Sr., whose kindness and openness made this project possible.


I know it’s about twenty five or thirty families that wants to move back to the state of Mississippi but it ain’t here no more. Farmers done took over all the land. — George Gilliam, Sr.


J

onestown is a small town in the Mississippi Delta roughly ten miles from Clarksdale. The town was originally chartered in 1886 as a railroad town developed exclusively for plantation residents.

It continued to thrive until desegregation was mandated in the 1950’s. The nearby white farmers quickly purchased all the land around the town, essentially landlocking it and eliminating any chance for growth within the community. Aside from Uptown Bennie Brown’s, an all-in-one restaurant/convenience store/clothing store, virtually no businesses have survived in Jonestown; and the members of the community are forced to take their everyday business to neighboring towns, perpetuating the cycle of Jonestown’s degeneration. The current population of Jonestown is roughly 1,500 and is quickly diminishing by the year. According to the US Census data in 2000, less than 6% of adults over the age of 25 hold a college degree. Children age fifteen and under make up the majority (approximately 40%) of the town’s population. Over the course of several weekends in October and November of 2009, we followed the cotton industry through the eyes of the Gilliams. This book is the result of our time with the family, cotton workers from Jonestown, and Bennie Brown, the town’s unofficial mayor. Cotton dominates all aspect of the Gilliam family’s lives; their weekends are consumed by it. Minnie, the matriarch of the family, watches George Gilliam Jr.’s children while he works the cotton modulator on the weekend. George Gilliam Sr. spends his weekends driving cotton remnants from the gins to the refineries. This is the house that cotton built.


Why do I like Mississippi? Well, it’s me. I like the flat. That’s the main problem. I love flatlands. I been a truck driver a long time though. You know, I’m still a truck driver. I used to run across country. I didn’t like the mountains. I did not like those mountains. — George Gilliam


I’ve lived in here [Jonestown] my whole life. Born and raised. Been working at this cotton gin for 30 years. — Barney Wright


We just said we leaving Mississippi, and that was that. I just left. Forget it. Forget it. I don’t want to go back to that ever. Never ever. — Minnie Gilliam


GINNING Cotton’s paid all the bills in the Delta for forever, I guess. — Gary Crawford, manager of Producers’ Gin


MODULATION You got to make sure the cotton ain’t too hot. And you got to make sure it don’t get clogged. — Robert Anderson


When you get on it, you got to pull the modulator all the way to the front so they can dump the cotton in.You got to tell them to keep on. Got to tell them to do that so they can dump all of that in. Get all the cotton in. — Robert Anderson


If you want to start packing down you can, but not really. I don’t. Because when you start packing down to the bottom of it then it starts to mess the sides up. So I just wait until they get halfway in. That’s when I start packing it down. — Robert Anderson


Once you pack it down then you got this—it’s like a cover for it. You can get blue, white. Somebody get in before you take off and then he’ll pick it up. One person be on top and like three people be at the bottom. First person he’ll throw it up, he’ll spread it out. He’ll put it up, put one end on it. Then he’ll pull it all the way to the other side. Okay, now they open the back. They open the doors up to the module and then two people get on the door. As he go forward, as he tries to go forward, they’ll pull it down. Then they got this string you can tie it up. If you tie it too tight, sometimes the cotton falls off of it. And if you tie it too loose then sometimes the wind blows the top off it. So, if you tie it up medium then it’ll stay still. Then the driver come with his truck. He come to pick up the cotton. They called beds. Come pick up the beds and take it to the gin. — Robert Anderson


Around here its pretty rough. It [Friar’s Point] is a whole lot quieter. — George Gilliam, Jr.


They have all these places now for teenagers and stuff. I didn’t know anything about no skating rink or bowling alley or anything like that. — Minnie Gilliam


We’re all in the same boat. We’re all being screwed by the same folks whether you’re black or white. We’re all just on the bottom of this thing. — Uptown Bennie Brown


I knew it would be a sacrifice to be here. I knew I would never be rich or anything like that, but I knew that it was important to change the mentality of the way we had been taught to think...I knew it would be a tough job. — Uptown Bennie Brown


I’m going to work too, when I get to be sixteen. I’m going to finish school. I’m going to do it on the weekends. [Why do you want to work on the weekends?] Money I guess. Extra money. —Robert Anderson


Anthony is a 37-year-old single dad who currently works in the cotton fields of Jonestown. He spends most of his time in the field picking up the cotton that falls around the modulator after the picker has dumped the cotton so that none of the cotton goes to waste. He was born in Mississippi and lived in Minnesota for thirteen years but recently moved back to Mississippi to take care of his son. Gary Crawford is the manager of Producers’ Gin in Belen, MS. He inherited the job of managing the gin from his father, who was the long-time manager. George Gilliam Sr. is a truck driver, who works weekends transporting cotton seeds and stems from local gins to a plant that produces altenative cotton products, such as cottonseed oil. George Gilliam Jr. is the 28-year-old son of George Gilliam Sr. He currently works on the cotton modulator, while attending the Mississippi Delta Community College to obtain his auto mechanic degree. He has four children: a little girl, a little boy, and a set of twin boys. Minnie Gilliam is George Gilliam Sr.’s mother. She was born and raised in the Mississipp Delta, where she worked chopping cotton. Minnie and her husband moved to Chicago following their wedding, but she returned to Mississippi when they divorced. Robert Anderson is George Gilliam’s 14-yr old nephew. His father works in the cotton fields, and Robert began helping him in the field at age eight. Uptown Bennie Brown is owner of Uptown Brown’s, a 2-in-1 store and restaurant. He grew up in Jonestown, where his father ran a store/restaurant on the town’s commercial. Bennie moved back to Jonestown after his father’s death, and he made it his mission to honor his father’s legacy by revitalizing Jonestown.


The House That Cotton Built  

The House That Cotton Built examines the legacy of cotton culture in a small, impoverished town in the Mississippi Delta. These photos and e...