A REVIEW OF
The Mississippi Gulf Coast Seafood Industry: A People’s History
By Deanne Love Stephens
University Press of Mississippi
Hardback, 176 pages
History of Gulf Coast seafood industry brings to life triumphs, struggles, innovations
By Candace Cox Wheeler
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
Through a diligently researched and skillfully written book, Deanne Love Stephens has succeeded in providing a compelling analysis of the Mississippi Gulf Coast seafood industry and its people. From the perspective of a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, well acquainted with this area, her words bring to life the struggles and achievements of the hardworking immigrants who settled in this region.
Published by The University Press of Mississippi, “The Mississippi Gulf Coast Seafood Industry, A People’s History”, is the insightful ninth book in the America’s Third Coast series and is a valuable addition to this treasurable collection.
Stephens creates an impressive comprehensive overview of how this industry formed the culture and economy of this area through multiple research methods, including public oral histories and private family histories. Families with generations of rich heritage in the seafood industry share their personal experiences and stories, handed down through their parents and grandparents, revealing how people in the early twentieth century adapted to natural and man-made disasters to become known as “The Seafood Capital of the World.”
An excellent research tool with outstanding references and notes, Stephens’ informative index provides readers with easy access to topics and names. Browsing through the index, I discovered a familiar name reference which led me to an intriguing story describing my great-grandparents’ arrival on the Coast and their contribution to the seafood industry, as told to Stephens by my late great-uncle, Ellison Hebert, in 2003.
Readers will enjoy a fascinating journey back to the year 1870, as Stephens shows us how five dollars provided New Orleans residents, eager to leave the Crescent City behind for the weekend, an opportunity to board a train on Canal Street with stops in Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Mississippi City, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Pascagoula and Mobile, allowing them to take advantage of the Gulf Coast’s tourist-friendly hotels and abundant fishing resources, before returning home on Sundays.
Thorough research reveals how as early as 1904, fishermen on the Gulf Coast formed the Fishermen’s Association of the American Federation of Labor to negotiate with factory owners, and in 1931, launched the Fishermen’s Union, composed of all nationalities in Biloxi working together to secure better wages and job security. Discover the reasons why Biloxi’s still-thriving cultural societies, the St. Nickoli Slavonian Benevolent Society was founded in 1913 and twenty years later, in 1933, the Cajun French community established the Fleur de Lis Society.
Through fifty carefully selected photographs, the author provides enlightening historical images, giving readers a glimpse of the early seafood industry and its immigrant workers, including French, African Americans, Austrians, Slovenians, Polish, and Germans. She shows us how the arrival of Vietnamese refugees from Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s blended another diverse culture to the Coast’s already vibrant multigenerational medley, influencing the economy of the industry and introducing new boatbuilding techniques. And she shows how the more recent arrival of Hispanic workers, including seasonal oyster shuckers who travel by bus to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, mirrors the way Polish workers arrived by train at the turn of the twentieth century, albeit with much improved working and living conditions.
Stephens describes in detail innovative technology being implemented in the seafood industry today and how natural and man-made disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010, and the opening of the Bonnet Carré Spillway in 2019 have impacted the Coast and its people.
Despite these setbacks, the seafood industry and its dedicated multi-cultural workers continue to persevere and adjust to each disaster, just as their ancestors did before them. Although this industry is no longer what it once was, it is something to be admired and preserved. Stephens does an outstanding job of accomplishing this task in a unique way that will leave both academic and nonacademic readers anxious to share their newfound knowledge with others.
Candace Cox Wheeler is an attorney from Biloxi, where she has worked alongside her husband and partner, David Wheeler, at Wheeler & Wheeler, PLLC, for forty years. Dogwood Press published her first novel, “Cradle in the Oak”. A historical fiction set in 1906, the novel features an intimate portrayal of the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s seafood industry.