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RIVER LIFE

#TBT: The Mississippi River in African American Experience

The impact of the Mississippi River on the culture, history, and experience of African Americans is, like the river itself, long, deep, complex, and unlikely ever to be fully explored.  Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that it’s relatively easy to form a superficial opinion, for example about “Old Man River” as a song or the Mississippi as part of the Underground Railroad, that then interferes with greater understanding.

Today’s image comes from the Earl S. Miers River Photograph Collection of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.  The metadata places the image as having been made around 1900, at a point when the Mississippi Delta region was home to thousands, if not millions of African American farm workers.

The Miers Collection, in turn, was accessed through the search tools available at the Umbra Search  African American History web site.  Umbra Search is developed by the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota Libraries, with Penumbra Theater.  The name honors the Umbra Society, a group of writers in the 1960s who helped create the Black Arts Movement.  To date, the Umbra Search platform has over 500,000 digital items, gathered from over 1,000 holdings.

Projects like Umbra Search bring the history and experiences of African Americans to research on the contested meanings of water in the United States.  I found the image shown below by typing “Mississippi River” into the Umbra Search search bar and paging quickly through the nearly 1,000 results that popped up.  Given the breadth and scope of collections like those contained in Umbra Search, scholars and others who are serious about the ways water has been a part of American life have no excuses to tell monochromatic water stories any more.


Photo “Mississippi River People” from the Earl S. Miers River Photograph Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives.

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River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation
Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.