Isiah Reed was born on a farm in Burdette, Arkansas, in 1923. He remembers the wagon and mules his family used when he was 5 years old to move south down the dirt-rutted Highway 61 to Nodena, a rural community and important Native American archaeological site a couple of miles east of Wilson.
As he reflects on his 93 years in the Delta, Mr. Reed feels a sense of pride in a life long-lived as well as a love and appreciation for his wife of 73 years and their 13 children. He also carries a strong historical memory defined at times by hardship but, ultimately, by an unwavering endurance.
At 7 years of age, Mr. Reed was already handpicking cotton, eventually graduating from the small cotton sack to the larger shoulder version trailing 9 feet behind him as he netted 400 pounds per day. “They say I could pick some cotton,” asserts Mr. Reed, “and we’d work back then from sun up to sun down.” The Reeds worked as renter/farmers on the Lowrance Farm, a large operation just north of Wilson, and whose family were contemporaries of the Wilsons. As Mr. Reed grew older, his work as a farmer evolved into splitting time between the field and the Box Factory, owned by the Wilsons. “When we would catch up on the farm [during the day], we’d [go to work] at the Box Factory. After it shut down, I went to work at the Feeding Mill, and at Delta Products [cottonseed business].” While two of these businesses are now gone (the Delta Products seed warehouses are still in operation and are iconic buildings on the landscape), their existence during Mr. Reed’s formative years displays how far-reaching the Wilson enterprise extended. It also shows a resiliency that Mr. Reed and his family relied upon through the often hardscrabble realities in the mid-20th century South.
After World War II, the mechanical cotton picker replaced the bulk of physical labor on farms all over the region. This development was both practical and transformative, as it displaced many sharecroppers and tenant farmers throughout the Delta. Prior to this, however, Mr. Reed recalls great numbers of houses and families living across the vast cotton landscape. “There were a bunch of houses. I think at one time—I would say over 50 families on the Lowrance farm [just at] Nodena.” This section was comprised of about 5,000 acres, with each family renting and working approximately 100 acres. Often, after a good rain, someone might find a shard of an ancient bowl, or pieces of ceramic littered in the fields. Dr. James K. Hampson also lived at Nodena and was an avid researcher of Native American culture. With the help of local families, including the Reeds, Dr. Hampson investigated this region and unearthed thousands of artifacts from what is now referred to as the Upper and Middle Nodena Native American site, dated A.D. 1400-1650. The artifacts from this area and native culture are preserved and displayed in the Hampson Archaeological Museum in Wilson.
Mr. Isiah Reed has witnessed significant change in the Delta over his 93 years. From experiencing the changes around the move to mechanized farming, to the social and cultural upheavals of the Civil Rights Era, Mr. Reed personally remembers the limits to his own freedom and safety during “the tough times.” But as he surveys nearly a century of life, he remains hopeful of continued progress and cites the importance of education and kindness as key aspects of that progression. “I ain’t perfect,” he offers, “but I like to treat everybody like I wish to be treated.”