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Rural blacks replace federal aid with self-help

Modern apartments for elderly and handicapped persons who had never known decent housing . . . loans to farmers and students who had nowhere else to go . . . training for carpenters, masons, painters, and their helpers. . . .

Booker T. Washington would have been pleased.

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The famed black educator, who came here 101 years ago to head the Tuskegee Institute, set out to tackle the grim rural poverty he found among blacks by raising funds to offer them higher education and practical job training.

Today, a black former science teacher educated at Tuskegee Institute, John Brown Jr., is pursuing with success a plan he envisioned 17 years ago to help this area's poor blacks obtain good housing, hang on to their farmland, and improve their job skills.

''A guy like John Brown is an important model as Great Society programs are being cut,'' says Barbara Kincaid of the National Rural Center in Washington, which recently awarded him a $10,000 rural service award from the estate of the late -Winthrop Rockefeller.

The South East Alabama Self-Help Association (SEASHA), which Mr. Brown helped form, has in the past relied heavily on federal funds. But today, having anticipated the time when such funds might be withdrawn, the organization depends mostly on profits from the sale of homes the group contracts to build, interest on loans to farmers and others, and the sale of hog feed and other products through its agricultural co-op. And while not totally immune to the ups and downs of the economy or government funding, the group survives in spite of them.

The housing profits have been used to train minority building contractors in bidding and other business procedures, assist an agricultural cooperative, start a credit union, and support child feeding, water system improvements, and other community projects, says Loretta Jones, SEASHA's vice-president for administration.

''People, through pooling their own resources, can deal with their problems in a community,'' said Brown in an interview here.

Charlie Oliver is one of the people benefiting from such pooling of efforts. He now lives here in a modern brick apartment complex for the elderly and handicapped which SEASHA designed and manages. (It was built by a Montgomery contractor with federal assistance applied for by SEASHA).

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Like many of the residents, Mr. Oliver came from a home without indoor plumbing, a place ''not qualified to live in,'' he says, sitting on a bench near his apartment. A community garden, greenhouse, and health service are part of the project he now lives in.

Another SEASHA project, a credit union, has helped hundreds of people, including a black farmer within a few days of foreclosure and a black student at Tuskegee within a semester of graduating, but broke. The credit union has assets of close to $900,000, says Brown, and it offers people in a nine-county area financial help not usually available anywhere else.

Since 1975, SEASHA has built 105 houses and 100 apartment units. At the same time, some 50 subcontractors and about 35 helpers have been trained in building homes and bidding, says administrator Jones.

This might not seem like much in an urban area. But in a rural area like this one, which has a high proportion of black residents and a considerable number of low-income families, it represents important progress.

Meanwhile, some of the SEASHA programs that had relied heavily on federal funds have suffered. A rural home-repair program is ending due to lack of federal support and community-services projects have lost their VISTA volunteers.

Due to high interest rates, housing construction has been cut back sharply here, as in other parts of the nation. This cuts into SEASHA funds earned from building contracts. Plans for a middle-income housing complex adjacent to the one for the elderly and handicapped are stalled by the high interest rates, says Brown.

Black farmers continue to loose their land due to a variety of factors, including inheritance laws that work to the disadvantage of families that have dispersed to various parts of the nation. And unemployment in the state has been running second highest in the nation.

But a project such as SEASHA and people like John Brown and his staff at least offer hope in difficult economic times. As for Brown's personal commitment to the effort, it is not done for economic gain, says National Rural Center's Barbara Kincaid. People like Brown are ''marching to a different drummer,'' she says.

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