Isaac Scott was on a tractor by the time he was seven. Now, he’s seventy. At an age when most folks are thinking about retirement and tropical cruises, Isaac has been born again atop the combine. It’s no small miracle that he’s farming the family land once more. After all, between 1983 and 2013, the family land didn’t belong to the family. It was sitting in government inventory as a result of racial discrimination by local agents of the United States Department of Agriculture and the foreclosures that followed. After a lengthy legal battle and admitted USDA wrongdoing, the family was finally able to buy it all back just a few years ago. As the blades of the combine churn, Isaac looks out on the fields of rice and soybeans from on high. He has rekindled a dream that’s been deferred and dormant for thirty years. Or as his sister Willena Scott-White puts it, “It reminds me of a little boy on Christmas morning.”
The tale of the Scotts’ more than a thousand acres of black-owned Mississippi Delta farmland goes back generations. It began in the early 20th century when Isaac and Willena’s grandfathers, Edward Scott Sr. and Isaac Daniel, clawed out of the servitude of sharecropping to become enterprising landowners in Leflore and Bolivar Counties. Isaac’s father and predecessor on the tractor, the late Ed Scott Jr. built upon the legacy and steered the farm to its apotheosis in the late 1970s and early 80s. In 1978 Ed Scott Jr. made a million dollars in rice. A few years later, he became the first non-white owner and operator of a catfish plant in the nation.
Ed Scott Jr. passed in 2015 at the age of 93. He lived to know that his epic life story would be told in book form. Published by University of Georgia Press as part of the Southern Foodways Alliance Studies in Culture, People, and Place series, Catfish Dream: Ed Scott’s Fight for His Family Farm and Racial Justice in the Mississippi Delta, is now on bookshelves. Scott also lived to see the property returned and his children take their places as caretakers. Now that the family has it back, they have no intention of letting it go. I asked Isaac why the story matters and what younger generations of Mississippians should learn from their struggle. “I hope that they would understand that land is not made anymore,” says Isaac.
The land contains far more than the nutrientrich soil that is now bringing the family their fifth consecutive crop of this new era. Wrapped up in the dirt is all the toil of the men and women who came before them and all the promises of self-determination that were so often denied to black Southerners.
Half of the land is outside of Mound Bayou, the historic town founded by freedmen after the Civil War as an incubator for African-American exceptionalism and community. (Think Wakanda, from Marvel’s “Black Panther” – a place of genius, plenty, and protection that was ahead of its time.) Isaac Scott and Willena Scott-White are looking toward the future now, but it’s impossible for them ever to forget the tilled-up meaning of the past. More specifically, it’s impossible for them to ever forget their father.
Ed Scott Jr. was a veteran of World War II. He drove fuel trucks to General Patton’s front lines in freezing, war-torn Europe, even ducking sniper fire with the General they called “Old Blood and Guts” when a Nazi with a high-powered rifle had them pinned down from a belltower roost. When he returned home from war, he thought about leaving the state. “[The people back home] didn’t care about us no way,” Scott recalled, speaking of whites’ reception of black veterans. “They didn’t want to see you with that uniform on back then. I was proud of that uniform, but I wasn’t proud of Mississippi. Wasn’t proud of Mississippi at all.”
But Scott decided to stay to help his father on the farm. In the 1960s, Scott carried food to civil rightsmarchers who passed through the Delta. He traveled to Selma to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. He watched his neighbor Fannie Lou Hamer found her visionary Freedom Farm in the 1970s, which gave new opportunity to disenfranchised fieldhands. By the time Isaac and Willena were grown, Ed Scott was a giant among his peers and neighbors. He doubled the size of his operation when he bought the five hundred acres in Mound Bayou from his father-in-law, Isaac Daniel. When Ed Scott made the cross-county trip between his fields with his convoy of heavy machinery, he recalled that “it looked like a parade.”
Isaac Scott and Willena Scott-White now farm under the name S&D Farming Enterprise. The “S” and the “D” signify the namesakes of their grandfathers who first wrenched ownership of that Delta earth: Edward Scott Sr. and Isaac Daniel. Younger generations have joined them. Willena’s son Joey (Joseph White III), in his early forties, has returned. “I decided to come back home and help out because of the struggle getting the land back,” Joey says. “And I didn’t want my family to go through the process of losing it again.” Isaac’s sons, Daniel Scott and Renaldo Scott, are also committed to the farm.
Willena, who manages much of the business side of things, is undertaking a grand endeavor to build the Delta Farmers Museum and Cultural Learning Center in Mound Bayou. The project, currently in the fundraising stage, aims to tell the story of Ed Scott and the countless other black farmers, large and small, who made such important contributions through their labors.
When the family took back ownership of the land, it was fallow and overgrown in brush. It took a whole season to clear away the accumulated roughage of the years. It was like the land had reverted to Delta wilderness once more. But the Scotts were resolute, and they cut the weeds down to make new rows. “It’s been an interesting journey,” Willena says. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I feel like a pioneer sometimes.”
Isaac, back on the combine, had been harvesting all day long. Without even realizing it, he reached the end of the field. He heard the blare of horns. Joey and his cousin Daniel, each on a tractor of their own, circled. They whooped and hollered and revved the engines and honked some more. “We had brought in our first crop,” recalls Joey of that first successful crop. The cousins smiled with exuberance. Isaac did too. It was a celebration. Their own private farming parade. Ed Scott would have been proud.
Ed Scott’s Fight for His Family Farm and Racial Justice in the Mississippi Delta
Written by Julian Rankin | Published by University of Georgia Press
Southern Foodways Alliance Studies in Culture, People, and Place series
Catfish Dream centers around the experiences, family, and struggles of Ed Scott Jr. (born in 1922), a prolific farmer in the Mississippi Delta and the first ever nonwhite owner and operator of a catfish plant in the nation.
Scott overcame decades of discrimination and long odds to build an empire of black self-determination from the Delta land.
To learn more about Catfish Dream go to www.catfishdream.com.
Join the author and hear more about his book on Aug. 18th from 9am-5pm at The Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julian Rankin is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the recipient of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s first annual residency at Rivendell Writers Colony and is the director of the Center for Art & Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson.