I grew up in what is known as the Mississippi Delta. My hometown was Greenville; a small town that was a throughway for tow boats because it sits on the very edge of the mighty Mississippi River. The towboat industry was big revenue for the town as well as Comet Rice, Vlasic, and hundreds of cotton, soy and cattle farmers.
My father and mother met when they were around five and seven years old. They lived across the street from each other. They married when my mother was fifteen. In all, seven children were born from about the time my mother was 17 until she was 38 years old. I was the baby. We were born and raised Catholic and went to Catholic school.
I like to think I was born with a little more grit in my veins than most kids. You see, my mother’s family was Italian. Her grandparents came straight from Italy in 1895 and 1896. They came in the steerage section of a passenger ship after being recruited by some well-known plantation owners and politicians. Caterina and Pietro Dallriva were told that if they moved to America, they would work the cotton fields in exchange for a house and land that would be all theirs. What they didn’t know was that they were in debt $2000.00 for the tickets to America as soon as they set foot on the ship.
Caterina, Pietro and their children ended up on a plantation called Sunnyside. It was located in Sunnyside, Arkansas now known as Chicot County. Sunnyside was conveniently located at the edge of the Mississippi River as well. The entire family picked cotton every day. Some days they picked so much cotton that their fingers bled. They lived in shotgun shacks along side other Italian and African American families who also worked the plantation. The living conditions were well below poverty level and about as unsanitary as a place can get.
It didn’t take long for Pietro to figure out that they would never own the land or the house they lived in. So, the Dallriva’s along with 30 or so other families came up with a plan. Some how all of these families found a way to cross the mighty Mississippi River in the middle of the night to escape the plantation. That is how Greenville, Mississippi gained such a large Italian, Catholic population; and that was the beginning of my grit.