If not familiar with ‘Fighting Okra,’ many knew the fruit’s ‘bite’
By John Howell Sr.
Back to this “Fighting Okra” business that a recent visit by Delta State University President William LaForge brought to mind.
During the 1980s, DSU adopted the Fighting Okra as its unofficial mascot. A clever artist created an okra pod with shaggy eyebrows, fists clenched inside boxing gloves and a mean scowl. It is, albeit unofficial, the best mascot anywhere.
That said, I wondered if the DSU president knew anything about biting okra or better, stinging okra — the kind that so many in Panola County became intimately familiar with from the late 1950s through the early 1980s.
In the late 1950s, H. J. Jacobs and his son, Bud Jacobs, set up an okra-buying operation to buy the fruit (yes, botanists classify it as a fruit). Jacobs contracted with farmers to raise a certain acreage or fraction of acreage of okra, sold them the seeds and guaranteed he’d buy all they could raise in a summer season at a set price per pound.
The concept was not new to Panola farmers. During the 1940s and ‘50s, they had raised strawberries and sweet corn for shipment to northern markets. With the Jacobs the main produce was okra.
Farmers agreed to pick the pods and bring them to the market in the Northwest Mississippi Livestock Showbarn property that then covered the block between Country Club Road and Highway 51. They agreed to pick them each Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, otherwise the okra pods would grow too long and tough in the summer heat.
It was hard, hot work. Okra plants and especially the fruit are covered in tiny spines that leave bare hands itching, burning and stinging. Most people who picked okra in the hot summer sun covered themselves with gloves and long-sleeve shirts to keep those spines away from their skin.
That’s where so many people in Panola County became familiar with the bite and sting of okra.
People of a certain age long for those good ole days, but I’ve never heard anyone who wanted to go back and pick okra again.
During the 1960s, Panola okra production became a focus of civil rights activities in the county. More on that Friday.