Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Deffner: Delta Workshop

Prior to my recent trip to Mississippi, when I told friends where I was going, they’d ask “On purpose?" and "Of your own free will?"

Well, I did go on purpose and very much of my own free will, for a week-long Landmarks in American History and Culture workshop at Delta State University. The workshop was entitled, "The Most Southern Place on Earth: Music, Culture and History in the Mississippi Delta."  Every summer, the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsors competitive workshops like this one at historical sites throughout the country.

Led by Luther Brown and Lee Aylward of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning, our group of 40 teachers from 20 different states had a priceless experience - one I won't soon forget. Through lectures, field trips, demonstrations, songs, and food, we studied the history of the Blues, Immigration, Civil Rights, the Great Migration, religion, and the legacy of cotton. We went to a Jewish temple and a Chinese cemetery. We listened to Bill Abel talk and play his way through the history of the Blues. Later we heard him perform with his band in a local club, and visited maybe the last rural jook joint in the South - a place that harkens back to a time of sharecroppers, cotton, and a troubled past when a 14 year-old boy from Chicago named Emmett Till could be killed for whistling at a white lady.

We heard Emmett Till's cousin, Wheeler Parker, give an eyewitness account of what happened that hot day in August of 1955, nearly 59 years ago . None of us could believe we were sitting in a room with a man who, as a 16 year-old boy, thought that he too would be killed on the night Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam came and kidnapped his cousin. Mr. Parker described hearing his grandfather, Mose Wright, walk around his sharecropper’s shack mourning the kidnapped Emmett and muttering "Mmm, Mmm, Mmmm."

But the Mississippi of 2014 is not the Mississippi of 1955. These days the Mississippi Delta is really a microcosm of America. As the leader of my workshop, Luther Brown, has written, the Mississippi Delta is , “a place that has produced great authors yet continues to suffer from illiteracy... a place that has produced great wealth for a few but persistent poverty for many… a place that has produced powerful political leaders, both for and against segregation…" He continues, "... a place of unquestioned artistic creativity that has given the world both the Blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and is also home to Charley Pride, Conway Twitty, Sam Cooke and B. B. King." He concludes, "The Mississippi Delta... is the most American place on earth.”

The kind of creative teaching and learning that comes out of these workshops is impressive and rich. Each of us came away with a better understanding of the Mississippi Delta - its culture, history, and music - an understanding I hope to pass on to my students in the years ahead.

Joe Deffner is a teacher and writer who lives in Thetford Center.
Latest Stories