THE LOWER RIVER 115 the war. The loss of most of the cotton crop of 1866 and 1867 to armyworm did not help. A new system of labor was needed. Experiments were made with wages, renting, and sharecropping. Many planters couldn’t afford cash wages, and most freedmen couldn’t afford to purchase land, so by the end of Reconstruction sharecropping emerged as the dominant answer. The sharecropper farmed as much land as he and his family could plant and harvest. They received a portion of the crop minus cost and interest on whatever tools and supplies the farmer provided during the year. Unfortunately, this system was open to exploitation. Planters could charge exorbitant interest on supplies, pad bills, and short the sharecropper on his share at the end of the harvest. Not all planters were dishonest, but those sharecroppers who found themselves cheated had little recourse other than leaving and finding another employer. Reconstruction itself saw many freedmen in the Lower River counties exercising considerable political power and this stirred much white resentment. Giles Hillyer of Natchez, editor of the Unionist Natchez Courier before the war, now supported the effort by white Mississippi legislators to limit the rights and freedoms of freedmen through what became known as the Black Code. The Mississippi Black Code forbade freedmen to own firearms unless in military service or licensed by the local Board of Police. It also forbade them to rent or lease lands outside of municipalities. They were required to carry proof of employment or face arrest for vagrancy. A poll tax that hit cash-strapped African Americans particularly hard was also imposed. The passage by U.S. Congress of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment which guaranteed equal protection of the laws effectively extinguished the Black Codes. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 placed the Southern states except Tennessee under military rule only to be readmitted to the Union upon adoption of state constitutions requiring manhood suffrage and approval of the Fourteenth Amendment. The resulting reorganization of state and local government on a basis of political equality allowed the African Americans of the Lower River counties, a majority in some counties, to engage in local politics. In Natchez and Vicksburg, many local ex-Unionists joined with the cities’African American majorities to build political dominance. A number of capable leaders came to the fore in Natchez. These included a respected minister, Hiram Revels. Appointed to serve an unexpired U.S. Senate term, he became the first African American to serve in that body. After leaving the Senate, he became the first president of Alcorn University, established in Claiborne County in 1871 as America’s first African American land grant college. In 1873, he took a leave of absence from the university to serve an interim term as Mississippi’s secretary of state after the sudden death of James Lynch. Robert Wood, a freeman before the Civil War, served at different times as mayor of Natchez and sheriff of Adams County. The most notable African American leader in Adams County was John R. Lynch, an ex-slave who rose to become the first black Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives. In 1873, Lynch took a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. During Reconstruction, African Americans in the Lower River counties began to build their own institutions. In 1865, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the North-Western Baptist Missionary Convention began to organize African American churches in the Lower River counties. In 1867, the first African American newspaper and Masonic lodge in Mississippi were founded in Vicksburg. In 1866, Ben and Isaiah Montgomery agreed to purchase the Davis Bend plantations of Joseph Davis, who had regained ownership after being pardoned for his support of the Confederacy. For the next fifteen years, they struggled to pay off the debt and fulfill their dream of an independent African American cooperative community. They ultimately failed due to floods, pests, unreliable cotton prices, and some unwise management decisions. In 1881, the land reverted to the Davis family. In 1888, however, Isaiah Montgomery used the lessons learned from the experience to found Mound Bayou, a successful community of African American farmers and business owners in the Delta. The poetry and literature of the region during this time reflect the racial views of whites prevailing nationwide that African Americans were simple, childlike, and needing the direction and protection of whites. This view is most notably expressed in the work of Port Gibson poet Irwin Russell. Russell, like his contemporaries Mark Twain and Bret Harte, was a pioneer of the local-color school of writing that emerged after the Civil War emphasizing the use of vernacular speech, customs, and characteristics for background and flavor. His poem “De Fust Banjo” is his version of an African American folktale about why the possum’s tail is bare later retold in Mules and Men by Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. It tells the story of how Ham, one of Noah’s three sons and believed The sharecropper farmed as much land as he and his family could plant and harvest.