Tactics of Control: Race + Water in the Mississippi Delta

September 13, 2021


Ritual, praxis, behavior, boundary, limit, constraints, resistance, threshold, culture—all of these define a spatial vernacular, a local expression of built forms that collectively define the physical conditions of an environment. When applying this spatial vernacular to the architecture and territory of the Atchafalaya and Mississippi River delta, what is uncovered is a complex system of balance and imbalance, control and resistance, wealth and poverty, and nurture and neglect. Individual voices, curiosities, and reflections expose the arrogance and racial injustices embedded in one of America’s greatest acts of territorial control. Within the Mississippi River and Atchafalaya River delta, the spatial implications linked to territorial control stratify social classes, divide rich from poor, and ultimately segregate Whites from Blacks. Associated with the physical and social conventions of the delta is a set of actors: the river, the levee, the cotton pickers, the cotton owners. The intersecting dialogue of these actors frames the role of the delta vigilante: the levee.

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Spatial Vernacular: The Mississippi Delta. Transportation infrastructure riding on top of, adjacent to, and bridging over the continuous levee systems of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Delta. © Atelier Mey.

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Spatial Vernacular: Isle de Jean Charles. A single road connecting Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana in the Terrebonne Parish is under constant pressure from the encroaching Gulf waters. Aggressive erosion, encroachment of salt water, and increased storm events have compromised this life line for the community. © Atelier Mey + D. Hemmendinger.

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Spatial Vernacular: The Delta. The delta was found on and remains a landscape of resource extraction. The extracted resources are in service of the few while at the cost of the many. © Atelier Mey.

The levee. A construct of humans, it is continuous and pervasive in nature. Its design and build harnesses, directs, and controls water’s meander across the delta. The levee is the primary component of this domain’s spatial vernacular—designed to control. This complex system takes the form of earthen mounds, hardened edges, and expansive concrete walls that tower over people and habitats; the levee is the delimiting element, but its role is to connect with a complex infrastructural control system. The vast infrastructure of levees, outlets, inlets, channels, dams, and dredging hybridize the formal configuration of the river with the natural flows of billions of cubic feet of water along thousands of miles of established edge. (“Established” in this context defines built by humans to mediate between the natural setting and the constructed habitat of human artifice.)

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Spatial Vernacular: Morgan City Levee Wall. Towering concrete walls stand between the Atchafalaya River and Morgan City, a shrimp and petroleum capital. © Atelier Mey.

These environmental control infrastructures, as old as the delta’s settlements, are responsible for the organization of contemporary living environments and the complex social structures of their inhabitants.1 The survival of the levee depends on the growth of the network, requiring physical reinforcements, adaptations in height, and the continual subdividing of already leveed territories. The ceaseless definition of the undefined terrain through the construction of expanding levee networks fosters value frameworks of constructed and static edges and devalues natural fluctuations and evolutions within the physical space. We explore the relationship of the rigid spatial vernacular; one consistently constraining the evolution of social space through the lens of the levee as a spatial provocateur—incessant, unbiased, and unpredictable the levee asserts its role as a delusional king over a disenchanted kingdom.

Tactics of Control: Constructing the Levee’s Tenure

The first theme of the writing aims to provide context to the early environmental control infrastructures and the risk associated with these strategies. We question the fundamental behavior of constructing levees and the extreme delineation of space. The act of building is conditioned by the scale and abilities of the human body—both through the cognitive areas of the brain and the physical ability within the hands to manipulate tools. This unique ability to strategically and sophisticatedly manipulate one’s environment is recognized by Richard Sennett in The Craftsman. Sennett posits the ability to conquer three means of holding [to pinch, to cup, and to cradle] as the moment culture is derived.

Once an animal like ourselves can grip well in these three ways, (referencing pinch, cup and cradle) cultural evolution takes over…Thinking then ensues about the nature of what one holds.2

When the mind translates individual personal expression, such as making, into physical artifact, should the next cognitive process not be to reflect on the artifact? It is within this reflection and one’s response to reflection that culture [defined as a collective’s set of beliefs, customs, or social institutions tied to place] develops. Consciously or subconsciously, as humans refine the expression of one’s being physically, the nurturing of culture binds itself within the construct of our environments.

America entered the twentieth century as an emancipated territory—the ideals of the Radical Reconstruction, however, were left in the wake of the nineteenth century.3 In the delta, the liberties of the social revolution would remain anchored to the river and the levees as southern Black slaves that worked by hand to shape the rivers’ edges evolved to obliging sharecroppers; legislatively free but bound to the southern white owner and their crop. Mounded earthen levees, shaped by shackled hands throughout the eighteenth century, eventually became the shadows of the sharecroppers working the same cotton fields in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The shadows of the levees constructed by their forefathers, levees at the service of cotton fields were owned solely by white southerners.

At first, earthen mounds constructed by slaves for individual property owners speckled the landscape to ease the river’s natural ebbs and flows. As farming industrialized and the US depended on a consistent supply of delta cotton, the stippling of levees transformed into continuous lines, hard and rigid barriers that cut across the delta terrain. Yet these constructs were by hand and simply molded from the delta soil that easily gave way to the dynamic river currents. The call to action for a more permanent control barrier by the landowners and then the national government was spawned by the Great Flood of 1927. Notions of authority and control would become synonymous with the country’s success and were implemented through a manmade framework of control infrastructures and mechanisms. With the Flood Control Act of 1928 and its appointed leader, the “Secretary of War,” mankind’s efforts to tame the Mississippi River were written into law.

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The Great Flood of 1927. The constructed edge of the river is projected through the flood waters by trees and the remaining buildings that served the breach. Source: Library of Congress.

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The Great Flood of 1927. A breach in the levee systems between a homestead and barn allowed the river to spill into the once protected farmlands. Source: Library of Congress.

Exploring the idea of the spatial vernacular through time—the levee serves as an ever-present delimiter of space. Vigilante by definition, the levees were constructed to control or override mother nature’s biological ebb and flow. The Mississippi River, a natural path centuries in existence, is abruptly altered and redirected by the levee. Imposed by man, the delimiting of the delta landscape establishes a new actor, the levee, and with it spatial vernacular. This new role and form position the levee as a non-bias vigilante, one that uniformly regulates landscape, water, and people—regardless of the color of skin. Levees reinforce the segregation of place and people, yet act as a common dimension throughout the delta territory, engaging every actor within the territory.

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© Atelier Mey.

The levee’s relationship to the river is authoritarian; it forms a boundary through a variety of physical means. At first conceived as hand-formed earthen mounds, decades of labor and control unveil a reinforced industrialized generative machine. The levee’s identity dissolves at the water’s edge as the river leans into the taught concrete walls. The constant spatial vernacular of taught edges rise to dominate the horizon and a familiarity or even comfort is perceived by us. What are the spatial ramifications of the levee constraints? How does the dominating and endless presence of the levee bind our ability to perceive change?

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The Cotton Farm. The construction of earthen levees allowed the swamplands to be converted into some of the most fertile agricultural grounds on the planet. Source: Library of Congress.

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The Cotton Worker. The Southern workers searching for respite use the very earthen levees they were forced to construct as their last stand. In search of refuge, they brought any and all belongings to higher ground. Source: Library of Congress.

The levee’s relationship to the cotton owners is constant. The prosperity brought to the cotton owners through the implementation of control mechanisms reinforces success through methods of control. The economic and social vernacular of place is a cycle of control. What is the effect when this cycle is broken?

The levee’s relationship to the cotton workers is equally constant yet more complex. The cotton workers themselves or their parents and grandparents were the physical makers of the levee, through the early 1900s. Through the making and forming of the levee by hand, an intimate bond is formed between builder and levee. Yet, the levee acts as a bondage in the landscape, a constant marker of the boundaries of space for the cotton workers. The cotton workers depend on the authority of the levee for their livelihood; the levees guide, tame, and direct the water to nurture the cotton fields but govern the flow and redirect unwanted water barrages downstream. The water’s obedience provides economic stability for the cotton workers as well as life safety. What are the social ramifications when the levee fails? Who will the levee save, or who will save the levee?

Vigilante in the Delta: Past Narratives and Projective Portrayals

Ingrained in the relationship between the river, levee, landowners, and land workers, is the delta culture, coupled with the spatial vernacular of place. The first theme of the writing lends time to depict the physical conditions of the delta, the endless levee walls delimiting the river and its landscape. We pose the notion that humans’ unique ability to construct, reshape, and order is what enables culture. But what is culture’s relationship to space and the spatial vernacular? James Corner states, “Environment is irrevocably bound to culture-nature and ecologies are not culture-less, instead, dependent with societal context.”4 Exploring these ideas of nature and ecology, evoking or even provoking the social constructs within the delta, we can more clearly indulge the idea of the levee’s vigilantism. The levee’s self-appointing authority over the river, the landscape, and the black cotton workers introduce a disruption to the natural order. The disruption is incremental, yet with each change and expansion, the disorder of nature is transformed to the order of the levee. Slowly, through the decades, the persistent physical presence of the levee becomes the constant, even unifying element throughout the delta. The idea of a vigilant levee is replaced with dependency, confidence, and assurance; the levee can and will perform. The societal context[s] or social structures defined through their relationship with the levees infuse this arrogance in notions of control. As the white crop owners demand to build walls to enclose and confine the landscape, confident in their ability to control, these environmental contexts are applied to the Black crop workers. Ideas of social change or social evolution fade.

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The Delta Family. On their porch, before the flood. Source: Library of Congress.

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The Delta Family. The levees aimed at controlling the Mississippi River, once compromised, became the only stretches of land above the muddy water for miles. The people inhabiting the lowlands of the river delta found refuge along the levees, now islands, with the Mississippi River on one side while the flood waters occupied the other. Source: Library of Congress.

Physical change in the delta region is constant. By definition, the territory is formed by the water flowing through, continuously altering the landscape and pouring into the Gulf of Mexico. The dynamic landscape ebbs and flows in continuous cycles, but the levees were mounded, moved, and formed to anticipate these ebbings and flowings. The levees regulate change. They regulate social progression.

When the levees gave way during the Great Flood in 1927, the incident was unprecedented in scale. In an entire population of Black workers, hundreds of thousands were abruptly displaced from their homes and left isolated without resources to turn to. According to one estimate, of the 608,000 who lost their homes in the Great Flood, 555,000 were Black.5 Months of displacement and encampment frayed bonds between the cotton worker tenant farmers and the levees. This isolation and feeling of abandonment are a paradigm in the culture of those tied to the delta. As early as March 1927, Bessie Smith wrote and sang Back Water Blues:

When it thunders and lightnin’
And the wind begins to blow
There’s thousands of people
Ain’t got no place to go”6

Additionally, the Crisis Journal, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, produced a three-part series in 1928 reporting the race culture of Blacks tied to place and bringing national attention to the agricultural revolution in the south and the dependency of the cotton workers on peonage, an illegal sharecropping economic structure.7 The imagery documenting the cotton workers in 1927 foreshadows the context of the delta in 2005, reinforcing the notion of societal contexts irrevocably bound to our physical constructs.

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Foreshadowing. An image of the encampment at Birdsong Camp on the Greenville Levee in 1927. The encampment, not set up to rescue or save refugees, but to gather fleeing workers to stay and repair the levees. Source: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; Illinois Central Railroad.

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A Retrospective. The failing and antiquated spatial constructs of the Mississippi River Delta—boundaries, constraints, walls, levees—failed. The result is a retrospective of the 1927 Birdsong Camp. Source: FEMA.

The Spontaneous Actor: Vigilante as Liberator

The levee is formally derived from the idea of control; a thick, opaque, heavy structure, exploiting mass, designed to hold in place. Solid, persistent, and relentless for miles—the normalcy of its presence provides a mundane comfort to all races of the delta. An exemplar vigilante, the levee endlessly limited and restricted the delta water’s behavior—what happens when the vigilante fails? The complex levee system of the early twentieth century that was constructed to control [the Mississippi River], once compromised, became the only stretches of land above the muddy water for miles. The people inhabiting the lowlands of the river delta found refuge along the levees, now islands, with the Mississippi River on one side while the flood waters occupied the other. Instantaneously, the failure of the levee dynamically altered the delta landscape. This physical distortion repositioned the spatial behavior of the levee from one of power to one of refuge. This reborn role of the vigilante served to expose a vulnerable community and provide temporary safety. As the days passed and the water did not recede, the levees’ natural behavior patterns of containment, isolation, and captivity mutated. The common and familiar restrictive themes of the landscape shifted to confine Black workers to levee encampments. The objective of the levee—to contain and control— fashions familiarity with themes control. At the moment all social, economic, and cultural order is at risk, the response is to transfer the familiar physical construct of control and captivity of the landscape to the social constructs of place and people.

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The First Glitch: Mounds Landing Breach. The first breach-the first glitch. In a moment ahead of its time, the release, the emancipation, and the liberation of the river water reveals a new perspective within the spatial vernacular. Source: Library of Congress.

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Families on Levee at Greenville, Great Flood of 1927. Source: Library of Congress.

As the encampment conditions worsened, time passed, and the imprisoned levee mounds exemplified the culture of place and the unjust treatment based on race was brought to the national spotlight.

It is clear that, while the natural disaster altered the Mississippi landscape, the Mississippi social system remained intact.”
—Richard Wright, The Man Who Saw the Flood, 114-116.

The Great Flood of 1927 is marked in time, the levees chronicled as failures by the very race that perpetuated their existence. It is at this moment that we expose a liberator. In Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology, she proposes the idea of a failure or “glitch” not as a problem within a system, but the exposure of a large systemic disruptor. Benjamin infers that the codifying of our spatial vernaculars “reflect particular perspectives and forms of social organization that allow some people to assert themselves—their assumptions, interests, and desires—over others.8 The cultural norms or practices of a particular group of actors simultaneously racially restrict and confine the other group of actors. This “glitch,” acting again in 2005, exposed the same antiquated constructs of the spatial vernacular of the river delta as when the levees failed in the Great Flood of 1927.

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Antiquated Spatial Constructs. A glitch in the system. Imagery from 2005 callback imagery from 1927. As we begin to interrogate the idea of the “glitch,” what new lessons can we learn from old spatial constructs? Source: FEMA.

The Lessons of the Delta

A culture grounded in notions of control, practices of static limits, and endless systems of physical boundaries inherently segregates. An environment operating with so many constraints catalyzes the controlling behaviors of the actors within; in this highly controlled environment, one is either controlled or the controller. The James Corner reference to the intrinsic relationships between environment, culture and social constructs provides a tangible explanation to the highly regimented delta culture. Yet, if we overlay the theory offered by Ruha Benjamin to search for a systemic revelation of the “glitch,” we interrogate the behaviors of the static boundary, the levee, as the aggressor—or the vigilante. The dynamic fluctuations of the water become encouraged and respected as a figure of change.

The agency of design to develop a sophisticated culture—a flexible adaptable spatial vernacular—is diluted through a continual commitment to authority over nature in the delta territory. This commitment to control over the landscape is shifted to authority over space. Within this space, the authority spreads over people and defines authoritarian social constructs. Through this process, the construct of the levee, the spatial vernacular of place is defined: bounding, limiting, controlling, and unable to evolve. The static environment feels secluded, hopeless, and isolated from change—until the levee glitches, breaks, and reveals a larger systemic culture. Is the static environment a glitch within the temporal time scale of the fluid territory?

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Dynamic Existence. Free of any constraints, control, or bondage: the Fisk Map represents the domain of the Mississippi Delta across time and space—beseeching to be noticed, acknowledged and represented. Source: Library of Congress.

Analyzing Fisk’s mapping of the history of the Mississippi River and subsequent delta terrain, we find a spatial and social construct that ties past to present to future. Through this temporal lens, we offer a model to explore a more dynamic spatial vernacular and social construct. A physical construct that encourages spontaneity understands the levee through an oscillating role of control and change. The acceptance of an unpredictable and dynamic physical environment spawns a cultural shift in social constructs.

1 The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1984): 44–62.
2 Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (London: Penguin, 2009), 151.
3 W. E. B Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Oxford UP, 2007). Print. Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963. Works. Selections. 2007.
4 James Corner, Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).
5 The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1984): 44–62.
6 Bessie Smith, “Back Water Blues,” March 1927.
7 “The Flood, the Red Cross and the National Guard,” Crisis 35 (January, February, and March 1928): 5–7, 41–43, 80–81.
8 Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology (Polity, 2019), 77–79.