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Mississippi Delta Families Slowly Gain Against Poverty

Self-help effort initiated by local black minister has belatedly brought the small town of Metcalfe amenities long taken for granted by most Americans. LOWER MISSISSIPPI DELTA

ANNABELLE HARE wants to move into her new brick house so badly she can taste it. She can see it from the cramped, ramshackled ``shotgun'' house she's living in now with her daughter and five grandchildren. ``I'm so tired of this, I can't tell you,'' she says, while feeding her month-old grandson on a couch jammed up next to a double bed. Soon she'll have four bedrooms, air-conditioning, and central heating. The children excitedly guide a reporter and photographer through the mud to the new house. All it needs is bricks on the outside, which will be put up as soon as the rain stops.

The Mississippi Delta, celebrated in literature and in blues, is a pocket of the kind of poverty people call third world. In some ways it is a vast rural ghetto, with cocaine dealing, black-on-black crime, and 23-year-old grandmothers. Those are big-city problems without the philanthropic and government agencies that the cities have to ameliorate them. It is a forgotten part of America. But it's changing.

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``This extraordinary place strikes me as the American face of Zimbabwe, a country sorting out the debris left by the eradication of legal segregation,'' writes Tony Dunbar in ``Delta Time'' (Pantheon: New York, 1990).

To understand how things got this way, take a look out the car window: horizon-spanning fields of cotton, rice, and soybeans, created by centuries of the Mississippi washing over its banks, leaving layers of rich soil. Square catfish ponds carved out of marginal land. A white mansion on a small plot of grass rises out of rows of crops. Tiny sharecropper cabins look deserted but they aren't. An occasional graceful tree silhouetted against the sky. It doesn't look like much has changed since plantation days, but much has.

Ms. Hare, a nurses aide, and her community have seen enormous change in little over a decade. Metcalfe (pop. 1,090), on the fringes of Greenville, is an all-black town created by former slaves. It is bootstrapping itself into respectability.

Up until the late 1970s, Metcalfe and other black communities lacked water, sewer, and gas systems, paved roads, street lights and low-income and elderly housing - things white communities take for granted. In 1965, the Rev. S. L. Lindsey, who later became mayor, began a self-help effort by collecting $10 a year from residents to pay for basic safety measures like street lights.

Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), a nonprofit community development organization, heard about his efforts in 1977 and offered to help Metcalfe incorporate as a town. Incorporation opened a spigot of funds for municipal services that towns normally receive from local, state, and federal sources. It also enabled the community to raise private dollars.

Now Metcalfe has a town hall, police and fire departments, 210 new multifamily units, and 68 new single-family houses in neighborhoods with paved streets. Across the tracks, where redevelopment has yet to occur, people wait patiently for new housing. An apartment complex for single mothers, formerly barracks from a closed Air Force base, is almost ready for occupancy. And Chico-San, a rice-cake manufacturer, has moved into Metcalfe.

MACE has helped five black communities do the same thing. And learning how to use the legal system to open up coffers has empowered blacks. Blacks now serve as school principals and superintendents, policemen, sheriffs, mayors, and state and federal legislators.

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But if access to power is there, the resources often aren't. The economic tide of the '80s seems to have washed right by without leaving any alluvial soil. According to ``Delta Time,'' the depression of the area came several ways: the mechanization of farming drove blacks north, the state built bypasses around small towns, the Arab oil embargo killed off gas stations, Walmart and other chain stores killed off the little stores, unskilled jobs moved to Taiwan, and no high-skilled jobs moved in. Even if they had, the poorly educated and unskilled work force would not have benefited.

Catfish was supposed to be the economic savior of the region, and its marketing has proved profitable - 360 million pounds worth last year. But most catfish farmers are white. The blacks that work in the industry are mostly single mothers who fillet fish at processing plants; jobs, yes, but low-skilled, low-wage ones with little opportunity for advancement.

``The question is, to what extent are humans able to shape their own destinies if resources are not there?'' says Prof. James Cobb, formerly of the University of Mississippi, now professor of history at the University of Tennessee.

The Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission was created by Congress in 1988 to examine the common problems of the seven states that make up the larger Delta region. It recently issued a report that pinpointed the region's deficiencies.

ONE is encouraged by the attention [of the report], but that is a long way from getting action,'' says Professor Cobb. ``The great tragedy is that there is a feeling of, `Well, we tried the War on Poverty here and it didn't work, so we shouldn't consider anything dependent on federal expenditures.' But the War on Poverty was run by the local white power structure which used it to stifle civil rights activity. The amount of money spent on welfare is insignificant compared to the huge farm subsidies.''

Under the plantation system, owners took care of slaves, some better than others. The new ``bossman'' of the plantations, now called farms, is the impersonal face of government. The region is dependent on federal farm subsidy checks and welfare and unemployment checks. And the government, people say, tells you what to do and how to do it.

``Mississippi gave up one set of chains of one group for chains for everybody,'' says Dr. Charles Washington, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. He is referring to detailed state laws that stifle government flexibility, economic growth and relations between people.

``The state has so much potential - it could become a state envied by all others if it would only seize the opportunity to do so,'' says Washington. ``The political linkages are such that the freedom to break out and create is held back by old linkages and old ties.''

Observers say part of the reason the Delta is in trouble is its dual education systems; whites primarily attend private schools, blacks public. Companies have a hard time attracting employees to the area because of it. And much capital that could be used for investing is tied up in tuitions. Parents take out second mortgages on their homes, and local bankers say the family debt level is dangerously high. Dr. Audrey Sydney, principal of Washington School, a sparkling, well-equipped K-12 ``independent'' school, says that the primary reason more blacks don't attend is the $2,000 tuition. Washington School has two black students this year, for the first time, a doctor's daughters.

``You hear whites pulling their kids out [of public school] because of `quality' and discipline,'' says Larry Farmer, president and CEO of MACE. ``It's merely an excuse rather than saying we don't want our kids in an integrated setting. We have two separate systems, both mediocre, and we're all paying the price. It's draining the few resources we have.''

Others say it's because the schools are not just integrated, but majority black. Those that keep a 70 to 30 ratio of blacks to whites, they say, can maintain integration. Some white business leaders who send their children to private schools support the public schools by having their businesses adopt them, says Janice Faust, a counsellor at Greenville High School, which is 90 percent black.

The black and mixed high schools struggle with problems of high dropout and teen pregnancy rates, and lack of clothing.

``Our kids usually come to school clean,'' says Leland High School principal Harry Dickman, to dramatize the problem. But the public schools have money for programs that Washington doesn't, like robotics, satellite hookups, and computer research. A white student, Kim Cummings, says she went to a private school for a while but likes it better at Leland.

``I can't see paying that much money just to go to a private school,'' says Kim. ``I'm doing what I want to do and I don't care what people think.''

Others look at how far things have come and have a more upbeat perspective. Gov. Ray Mabus instituted a sweeping reform of the education system. The goal is to have Mississippi educationally competitive by the year 2000.

Tommy Hart, executive director of the Industrial Foundation of Washington County Inc., is bleary-eyed after a late night of putting together a presentation for a Chicago meeting to draw industries to the area. But he's fired up about the region.

``We have a product that is very marketable to certain segments of the population,'' Mr. Hart says of the area. He points out the eight nearby industrial parks and the presence of companies such as Chico-San, Lazi-Boy, and Uncle Ben's Foods. He's also sporting a pin given to him by the mayor of Osaka, Japan. Mississippi business leaders are actively courting Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Korean investment.

US Rep. Mike Espy (D) of Mississippi, elected in 1986, was the first black since Reconstruction to represent this area. Reelected with 46 percent of the white vote, he says he sees more harmony between the races.

``The state is pulling together in a more cohesive way than it ever has before,'' says Mr. Espy. ``People are saying the best hope for the Delta is to concentrate on the bottom third of the socioeconomic categories. I see that happening. More people are concerned with day care and enabling young mothers to go back to school and take advantage of training opportunities. That's something we wouldn't find years ago.''

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