By Talbert Toole
Oxford native and author Julian Rankin has delved into the story of Mississippi’s Ed Scott Jr.—the first nonwhite owner and operator of a catfish plant in the nation—in his book “Catfish Dream: Ed Scott’s Fight for His Family and Racial Justice in the Mississippi Delta.”
After hearing through the grapevine the family wanted to tell Scott’s story, Rankin met with his daughter Willena Scott-White of Cleveland in 2013 to unravel the truth of her late father.
As he and Willena discussed those crucial moments in their family history, Rankin quickly realized he wanted to write a book unveiling the Scott family’s battle against institutionalized racism in the Mississippi Delta’s agricultural world.
Rankin said one of the reasons he decided to write the book was to focus on the representation of land, which, in “Catfish Dream” meant controlling one’s own destiny— especially for black farmers.
“Ed Scott’s story shows what can happen when someone does succeed, and that is kind of the core of the American dream,” Rankin said. “The land is the core of what Mississippi is because everything grows in the Delta and builds Mississippi.”
Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta in 1922, Scott carried on his father’s legacy of soybean and rice farming. He later added the first black-owned catfish farm.
Before obtaining the land from his father and starting the “catfish dream”, Scott served in World War II beside General Patton. In addition to his service, he marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge at Selma and passed on his knowledge of farming to civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer.
Even after returning home from war, Scott’s battle wasn’t quite over yet. He faced more blowback when the USDA refused to provide loans to him. However, Scott was resilient and used his own money to begin his dream.
With a determination for success, Scott turned his tracker shed into a catfish processing plant. He even reached out to his community and hired neighbors to work the plant.
“The dream of owning a business or pursuing whatever you have in mind for your existence goes back to persistence, innovation and thinking outside of the box,” Rankin said. “Scott embodied all of those things.”
Scott’s story of catfish is spiritually, emotionally and physically a part of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA). He cooked his catfish for the first SFA symposium in 1998.
In 2001, the SFA awarded Scott with their second Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award—an award that is given to an unsung hero or heroine by the SFA and Fertel Foundation.
Like Scott, Rankin is also a part of the SFA family. He received the SFA’s first annual residency at Rivendell Writers Colony in 2013.
“To have [SFA] be involved [in Scott’s life] was really important for the development of the book,” Rankin said. “And ultimately more than me being proud of the book, it just showed the story was worth telling.”
Rankin will speak at Off Square Books Thursday, July 12 at 5 p.m.