Black History Month: Professor Emeritus Writes about Being Sharecropper’s Son

John O. Hodges teaching a class.

Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta by sharecroppers, John O. Hodges was expected to work in the fields alongside his parents once he was old enough. His stepfather had different plans.

Bargaining with the landowner, Hodges’s stepfather said he would do twice the work if Hodges could go to school. The landowner reluctantly agreed and thus began Hodges’s long education, which resulted in a doctorate in religion and literature from the University of Chicago in 1980.

“My stepfather often drank too much and was sometimes abusive, but I owe the start of my education to him, and I will be forever grateful for that,” said Hodges, associate professor emeritus of the Department of Religious Studies.

This is just one of the stories Hodges recounts in his new book, Delta Fragments: The Recollections of a Sharecropper’s Son.

The book, which will be released in June 2013 by The University of Tennessee Press, highlights moments of Hodges’s time in the Mississippi Delta and explores these moments in the context of greater themes such as the civil rights movement and religion in the African-American community.

Racism was prevalent in the Mississippi Delta during Hodges’ grade school years, and one of the most memorable moments, he said, was the brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Till was a fourteen-year-old African-American who was beaten, shot, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River after reportedly flirting with a white woman.

Hodges was a young man in the segregated school system when the murder happened, and he recalled the event sparking widespread distress among the Delta’s African-American community.

“We would walk around with our heads down, so no one could even think that we were making a pass at a white woman,” Hodges said.

Although his young adult life was haunted by racism, Hodges insists his time in the Mississippi Delta was not all about struggle. There were happy moments, too. He recalled dancing to great music in juke joints, playing sports, and staying out with friends on a Saturday night—getting back just in time for a few hours of sleep before Sunday church.

Hodges was an associate professor of religious studies who taught at UT for twenty-three years. During his time at UT, he served as the chair of African and African-American Studies from 1997 to 2002 and portrayed Delbert Tibbs in UT’s production of the award-winning play The Exonerated as a benefit for the university’s chapter of Amnesty International.

Hodges is continuing his research about the Mississippi Delta and is currently gathering information about the namesake of his hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi. He is an avid Tennessee sports enthusiast and is married to Carolyn Hodges, dean of the Graduate School.

C O N T A C T :

Christine Copelan (ccopela7@utk.edu)

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