The Folklore Project


Pearl, Mississippi

Mississippi Cotton

By Selika Sweet

Gracie Lou grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, which is in the central part of the state. She had never been to the flatland of the Delta, which is some of the most fertile soil in the world, perfect for growing cotton. Gracie’s mother, cousin, and she drove through cotton country to see her mom’s college roommate one weekend in their white Rambler when she was 17 years old. It was a day in August during the 1970s.

"Stop the car. I’ve got to go see it," she yelled to her mother as they drove past a cotton field up Highway 49 about 40 miles north of Yazoo City.

Her mother screeched the car to a halt, and Gracie ran through the cotton field. The bottomland went on for miles. She picked up a twig. “Look, the leaf is as big as my hand,” she yelled from a quarter of a mile deep in the field.

She kept running through the rows of cotton and paused to look up at the fierce sun. There is no heat hotter in Mississippi than during the month of August. Sweat poured down her pecan-colored skin. Her wavy, waist-length hair made her even hotter. She stood in the field and made a French braid and thought, if she’d been born 150 years ago, it was a good possibility she would be picking cotton while an Irish overseer, holding a whip, hovered over her on a horse. This same man could’ve easily been the sperm donor and the reason her skin was pecan, not chocolate, and hair wavy, not nappy. She ran back twirling through the cotton plants — millions of soft, white bolls that went on for miles — to her mother and cousin.

IMG_2240 (1).JPG

“No reason for us to come here,” her mother said as she got back in the car. “We have no family here, and the only friend I have is one of my college roommates, and we’re going to see her now. I called to check on her, and she just didn’t sound right.” They drove the rest of the way through Greenville and Shaw, until they reached Clarksdale.

Fifteen years after that day Gracie stood in the cotton field, she was working in a small clinic in rural Mississippi and treating one of her favorite patients.

"Dr. Gracie Lou, my life was nothing nice. I have all kinds of stories ’bout life in the fields. We picked cotton for $30 a day. I had to pick peppers and cucumbers, which was the hardest. I hated the cucumbers. You had to bend down and carry baskets of them that were heavy. My back still hurts. I had six children in those fields with one day to rest after delivering. What I hated more than anything, we had to call the owner’s 5-year-old son ‘mister,’ and that was not during slavery; it was in the 1960s. They kept stuff on you at the courthouse, like fines for anything such as loitering, vagrancy, and they had us. We lived on their land in shotgun shacks. My grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles all lived in those fields. You know, they used me like I was a mule. I’ve always been big boned and I plowed and pulled the buggy."

“I never knew all that about you,” Gracie said.

“But you know, every Fourth of July we have a reunion and it’s about a thousand people from everywhere, but mostly Chicago. The capitol of Mississippi is Chi-Town,” she said with a giggle. “My mother had 16 children and her mom had 17. We get together for the best party. The drums are played, blues, and the younguns start up with that rap. You should come.”

Gracie thought back to the day she ran through the cotton. She never would have imagined she would be a physician caring for a woman who had worked harder than 10 men.

"Yeah, I can't read or write, you know, and that is why I come to see you,” she continued. “I know you won’t make me feel bad, and a lot of people don’t know my secret."

She felt humbled and embarrassed at the same time.

“You know,” she said, “you should call me Gracie Lou. I’ve known you for about seven years."

She then looked straight in her eyes and said, "You don't get it. I had to call a 5-year-old Mr. John, and here you are saying for me to call you Gracie Lou. You’re Dr. Gracie Lou."

"I didn't mean any harm,” Gracie said. “You know I love you like you’re my mother. I’ll always be there for you."

"I love you more,” she replied. “You're my doc."