By Fred Brown
“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”
—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
John Oliver Hodges was born in 1944 in a period of deep-seated and deliberate racial hatred in a clash of cultures. He spent his early years on a Mississippi Delta plantation, worked in the cotton fields alongside his family, and was a close friend of the murdered civil rights icon Medgar Evers. All through his childhood, he witnessed the cruel realities of the segregated Jim Crow South as it slowly faded away into a new era of hope and change for African-Americans.
From his humble beginning, Hodges, now 70, grew up to become an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, as well as chair of both African and African-American Studies programs. He is not only a product of that southern crucible, but he also is a leading example of those who refused to yield to oppression.
The son of Delta sharecroppers, his recently published Delta Fragments: The Recollections of a Sharecropper’s Son (University of Tennessee Press, 2013) tells the story of a man who experienced the American apartheid. The book, originally published in hardback, is now out in softcover as well.
His story is framed by a series of brief vignettes about growing up during the 1950s and 1960s in a tin-roofed, green shotgun, three-room shack with no running water or toilet in segregated Greenwood, Miss., in the heart of the Delta. Through his story, we come to know his mother, father and stepfather, his sister, aunts, his colorful uncles, teachers and schoolmates.
The book provides an intimate view of Mississippi in the era of civil rights struggles, music, black religion and churches, folkways and the overwhelming poverty rooted in the plantation period in the South, specifically the sharecropper system.
For more than two decades, Hodges revisited his roots to conduct interviews, plow through court and newspaper records, and to record memories of relatives and former schoolmates to write a compelling autobiography about his family and the lives of others who battled the storm of inequality for African-Americans in the Deep South.
Finally, he climbed his way out of despair and into the better life that his mother, Samantha, had envisioned for her son. She had preached that the gospel of freedom was education, and that was the impetus that lifted him out of what was certain to be an austere existence and into a successful teaching career.
He succeeded through determination, hard work and the encouragement of his mother. After graduating as valedictorian from Greenwood’s Broad Street High School in 1963, Hodges won a full-tuition scholarship to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., where he, an honor student, was selected as a Merrill Scholar to travel and study in Europe. Next, he earned a master’s degree in English literature from Atlanta University and a master’s and doctorate in religion and literature from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He then taught in the English Department at the now-closed Barat College of Lake Forest, Ill., 30 miles north of Chicago, where he also served as chair of African-American Studies.
In 1982, Hodges accepted a position at the University of Tennessee and taught there until his retirement from the Department of Religious Studies in December 2010. While at UT, he was recognized as an outstanding teacher by the UT National Alumni Association and has won several other awards, including the Lorayne Lester Award for distinguished service to the university.
But Hodges is always quick to say that his life and successes have been shaped by his early life in the Delta of his youth. “There is no longer the blatant racism that I knew,” he says during an interview in his comfortable Knoxville home. “In my time, blacks were too afraid. (Today) I can go anywhere I want to (in the Delta), but racism today is more subtle, underground. The institutional aspects of racism are coming to the fore,” he says.
One of the problems he sees in today’s political environment is that, even though African-Americans have made great progress and many have been elected to high office, “they don’t have the purse strings.” And, he says, despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated schools unconstitutional in 1954, Hodges says the law in many ways worked against blacks in the Delta.
“I can take you to Greenwood High School this very minute and show you that it is 98 percent black. What happened is that, when schools were integrated with Brown v. Board of Education, blacks began going to white schools. “Whites left the public schools, taking away financial and spiritual resources,” he says.
The Supreme Court decision was just one of the many big events that took place in the 1950s and ’60s that changed the course of American history.
Hodges also cites the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “These were big issues in the South,” says Hodges. “We had the right to vote, but there were no blacks voting.”
The Mississippi Delta, as well as other parts of the Deep South, was slow to respond to a changing social structure in the U.S.
In 1944, when Hodges was born, the nation was at war with Germany and the Axis powers. The Great Depression was in the nation’s past but not long enough for rural Americans to have caught up. President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration had passed a number of social programs to help the nation bounce back from the effects of the Depression, but rural America, especially the Delta, was still suffering economically.
Eight decades after the end of the Civil War, when Hodges was born, Mississippi continued to live by the rules of servitude, only this time it was not a slavery structure holding people in economic chains but the sharecrop farm system. Both blacks and whites were snared in this socio-economic web as landowners began to make a long comeback after the Civil War, when once more cotton became the crown jewel in the state’s farm treasury.
Both black and white farmers strong enough to clear swamplands and wild, untamed forests by draining and plowing them into cotton fields in the dark, sweet alluvial soil, eventually failed when cotton prices dropped like a shot bird in the economies of the 1940s to ’60s.
As a child, Hodges had lived with his mother and stepfather, Lee Daniel Thompson, on the Whittington Plantation in Leflore County. He writes in his book that his family lived just inside the plantation proper but not that far from the county’s major city of Greenwood, Miss.
His family purchased clothes at the plantation commissary, worked a garden that produced many of the dinner table’s vegetables, and he and his sister worked in the cotton fields picking and chopping cotton, which was an onerous task of long hours beneath a boiling sun.
Hodges’ family, like many sharecropper families, relied upon plantation owners to “settle up” after the cotton harvest. But the sharecrop system, not far removed from a form of modern slavery, held workers fast to an abusive economic system. Goods purchased by the croppers at the plantation commissary were subtracted first from paychecks, as were rent for the shacks where the cropper and his family lived, foodstuffs purchased, tools and other essentials for a family. There was little left over in the “settlement” at harvest time for the lowly sharecropper.
“We always seemed to come out in the hole, no matter how hard we worked,” Hodges writes.
His early education relied upon one-room “plantation” schools. Thanks to his stepfather, Hodges was protected from becoming a victim to the “split sessions” of plantation schools.
Hodges writes that his stepfather prevented his going to the cotton fields at age 7 or 8 by simply convincing plantation bosses that he would take up any slack that resulted from his son’s absence. Later, an older Hodges did work chopping cotton in the fields. Many of the schools he attended were not open year-round. But Hodges writes that he always knew he would ride out of the Mississippi Delta on the wings of knowledge. “Vestiges of the codes prohibiting anyone to teach blacks to read and write were still found in the plantation system. But,” he writes, “efforts to prevent me from getting an education only encouraged me all the more.”
For a short time, just before his teenage years, Hodges worked with his mother in the cotton rows, picking cotton and chopping weeds from around the stalks. During his early teen years, his family left the plantation and moved to Greenwood, where he met other young men his own age.
Hodges and his new friends found joy in learning. While working in the field, they quizzed each other on history, politics and other school subjects. Hodges even expounded on his knowledge of the Bible and the origins of words. That practice, he writes, ensured that “the ignorant stick (field hoe for chopping and weeding) wasn’t a tool that kept us in darkness but became instead an instrument of intellectual empowerment.”
Hodges says the Greenwood school system produced some outstanding students and even celebrities, such as the Oscar-winning film star and actor Morgan Freeman. He smiles warmly when he discusses Freeman. “We had the same drama coach,” he says.
Though he has traveled throughout Europe and West Africa and lectured in China, Hodges continues to research the history and culture of his home and the fascinating land of the Mississippi Delta.
For Hodges, the Delta was like living a verse in a blues song, rich in history and literature but a hard, hard way to go. Now retired, Hodges is an avid Tennessee Lady Vols sports enthusiast and is married to Carolyn R. Hodges, who is vice provost and dean of the UT Graduate School. They have one son, Daniel, who lives in Dallas, Texas, where he works as a computer engineer.