Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

The Depths Of Poverty In The Deep South

Andrew sat a table in a bar with no sign outside drinking a Bud Light tallboy. The windows were boarded up from the outside and the only source of light was a bare light bulb sticking out from a fixture on the wall. Behind him, gray-haired men sat at the bar watching an old kung fu movie on a grainy television.

“I spent my whole life on the plantation around the corner,” Andrew* said, and took a drink from his tallboy. “My entire family worked on it—dad, brothers, uncles. Our family must’ve gone back three or four generations on Mr. Peaster’s farm.”

He remembered helping his father plant and harvest crops when he was a boy, steadily gaining more responsibility on the farm as he got older. After graduating from high school, he started working on the farm full time.

“Mr. Peaster liked having me around ’cause I was good with tractors and equipment. When something broke down, he was glad he had hands on the farm that could fix it instead of having to call a mechanic. Paid me a couple extra bucks whenever I fixed something, or let me take an advance on my paycheck if I wanted.”

For over 30 years, Andrew saw the farm as an idyllic, self-contained community. Much of his extended family lived on the plantation, and when Andrew was old enough to have a family of his own, Mr. Peaster worked with him to build a small house for his wife and children right beside the house in which he grew up. Mr. Peaster also ran a general store on the plantation, which carried all the groceries and supplies the families needed, so they hardly had any reason to leave the farm at all.

But then a couple of years ago, Mr. Peaster sold his farm to an adjacent plantation owner and gave the families a few weeks’ notice before they had to move out. While tenant farmers like Andrew’s family are given housing as part of their compensation, they don’t have the typical legal protections afforded to property owners and renters—a fact Andrew had to discover firsthand.

“Felt like the rug was just pulled out from under me,” he said.

A local farmer

A local farmer

CREDIT: Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

Tchula, Mississippi is a quiet farm town in the heart of Delta blues country. The blues arose as an outlet for black people in the face of economic hardship, social strife, and racial inequality, issues that share the same origin as the music’s aching melodies: the plantation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Mississippi Delta was considered one of the most fertile areas for cotton production, which drew speculators to invest heavily in the area, both in money and manpower. Large plantations were established and the demand for slaves skyrocketed. In the years before the Civil War, slaves made up the majority of the population in the region, and slavery in the Delta was considered particularly cruel.

After the Civil War, black people were viewed as second-class citizens. While the decades following Reconstruction showed some signs of promise—black farmers were able to purchase land, for example, and by the turn of the century owned an estimated 12 millions acres of farmland across the south—this promise was dashed with the onset of Jim Crow laws. Discriminatory loan practices lead to many losing their land, and state legislators amended Mississippi’s constitution to effectively disenfranchise black people. Throughout the 20th century, they struggled to gain the most basic rights afforded to American citizens, fighting both institutionalized white power and abject poverty. While Mississippi is no longer the arena for systemic racism it once was—black people hold leadership positions at the local and state level, for example—towns like Tchula continue to battle profound poverty that is an outgrowth of the institutions established during slavery. Today, unemployment in town hovers around 20 percent and over 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, leaving Tchula all but sapped of its vitality. Amid the boarded up buildings and sidewalks strewn with empty beer cans, it’s easy to spot the misery of the blues, but hard to find the soul.

Eleanor

Eleanor

CREDIT: Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

On a country road on the outskirts of town, Eleanor sat on the front deck of her singlewide trailer.

“The post office used to be down the road on the corner, along with the train depot and cotton gin,” she said. She gazed across the cotton field on the other side of the road, an expanse of shimmering white bolls that stretched to a distant tree line. “Mr. Jenkins, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Brewster all had stores around here. Mr. Russell, too—he owned the juke joint, and Mr. Kelly owned the movie theater.”

Today, there is no post office or cotton gin in town, and certainly no movie theaters or juke joints. Empty homes that once housed generations of families now deteriorate behind veils of shrubbery and vines, some amounting to little more than a pile of wood boards. Eleanor’s old house, which stands beside her trailer, similarly sat in disrepair.

“I lived in that house for 45 years, only moved into this little trailer six years ago,” she said. “The place was in bad shape for a long time. Every time it rained, I knew I’d have to get up and move to one of the dry spots in the house.”

The exodus of residents and businesses started in the ’50s and ’60s as the Civil Rights movement rattled the Deep South to its core and upset the status quo in town. Gin owners were reluctant to process cotton from black farmers, and local businesses resisted service to an integrated clientele. When the social order of segregation was disrupted, white flight beset the area, draining predominantly black towns of money and resources. As opportunities diminished in these places, black people were forced to leave, too, seeking better lives in northern cities like Chicago and Minneapolis—an exodus that coincided with the tail end of the Great Migration.

“As more and more people left town, I watched as the vacant houses were torn down,” Eleanor said. Witnessing the steady deconstruction of her hometown in the wake of fleeing neighbors and family would seem like a harrowing experience, but it gave her a strange sense of relief. “Many of those houses had been around since slavery, and for generations our people lived in those little shacks across the south. They only stood as a reminder of bad times—seeing them torn down made me happy.”

What followed wasn’t a rebirth, however, but a lukewarm continuation of the racist traditions from the past. The old slave shelters may have been destroyed, but the same tired, overworked hands continued to toil in the fields with little hope of upward mobility.

Mayor Zula Patterson

Mayor Zula Patterson

CREDIT: Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

When Mayor Zula Patterson was to elected office in 2013, the town had a crumbling infrastructure, suffered from rampant unemployment, and had few resources at its disposal.

“This is an underserved community,” she said. “We need to improve the infrastructure here, but with a small tax base and only a few stores in town, there isn’t much revenue coming in. We need a new fire station, we need new police cars, but we don’t have the funds. We’re doing everything we can to raise money, but it’s gotten to the point where we’re asking other towns to donate old squad cars.”

Funding is so limited in Tchula that the town is having difficulty paying its employees—even it’s most senior officials.

“Payroll was yesterday,” Patterson said. “But I didn’t get paid.”

According to Patterson, the lack of recreational activities and scarcity of jobs are two of the biggest problems in Tchula. “If we could create a program with local farmers or [businesses], we could get these people jobs and give them something to do every morning.” A program of this nature, she explained, would not only keep young people busy and provide them with a nominal income, it would also give them purpose. “It would assure them that ‘I am somebody—I can be somebody.’”

Andrew

Andrew

CREDIT: Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

Following the Civil War throughout much of the south, slavery was abolished but simply replaced by sharecropping, leaving the existing power structure largely intact. White plantation owners allowed black families to live on their land as tenants in exchange for labor and crops. What little money these families made from farming was exhausted on bare necessities, such as food and clothing, which were often purchased at stores on the plantation that were run by the landowner. Over time, conditions on these farms improved, though not dramatically. Some plantation owners, for example, afforded tenants a semblance of ownership over the plot, or “cut,” of land they lived on—though this sense of ownership often was only a figment.

“There’s over 30,000 acres on this farm, and I can tell you each plot of land based on the family that used to own it,” Andrew said, driving along the dirt road that wound through the old Peaster plantation. “That’s how we kept track of the farm. This here’s the Cromwell cut, over there is the Phillip cut, and beyond that’s the Wright cut.”

The plantation, however, wasn’t a community of individual farmers working their plot of land to form one unified farm under Mr. Peaster. In order to circumvent limitations on federal agricultural subsidies, plantation owners often placed sections of their land under their tenants’ names, which allowed them to collect additional subsidies but didn’t give the tenants any real stake. These practices became clear to Andrew when he was forced to vacate the home and land that, for years, he had considered his own.

The small house where Andrew raised his family on the farm still stands, though today it’s dark and empty. The living room floor is littered with debris and the carpet is pulled up in spots. A few possessions linger in some of the rooms—a chair, part of a bed frame, a few toys—as if they couldn’t pack everything up in their rush. At the end of the hallway, Andrew opened the door to a small room and stepped inside.

“This is where my son slept,” he said. He walked across the room and yanked on the cord of the blinds, sending streaks of light through the clouded window.

Andrew in the cotton field

Andrew in the cotton field

CREDIT: Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

Beside Andrew’s old house is a concrete foundation where the general store once stood, and Andrew’s childhood home was on the other side of the house, though nothing remains of it today. At the end of the property, dense rows of cotton plants abut the yellowed grass of the backyard.

“Going to be a good harvest this year,” Andrew said, kneeling at the edge of the yard. “You can tell by the way it looks like a layer of snow across the entire plantation.” He reached out and touched one of cotton plants, separating the seeds from the boll with ease. “It’s a shame this old house sits here empty. Just seems like a waste.”

After being forced off of the farm, Andrew was left with no equity from the home he lived in or the land he tilled. Additionally, working on the farm provided him with no insurance or benefits, and certainly no severance package after losing his job. Andrew was completely unprepared to take on life outside of the farm.

“There were a few farming jobs around here, but I knew none of the owners treated their workers right,” he said. “If a tractor broke down, they’d cuss at you and maybe even hit you. And if it rained for a month straight and there was no work on the farm, that was a month without pay.”

Andrew left Holmes County to work on big rigs in Jackson, even though it meant being separated from his wife and children who stayed behind.

“Luckily, I knew about mechanics from working on tractors and machines on the farm,” he said. “But I didn’t have any credit, so I couldn’t rent an apartment in Jackson, and I couldn’t get a loan either. So I had to stay at a motel for $320 a week. That was most of my paycheck right there.”

While on the job a few months ago, Andrew felt a pressure in his chest followed by a sharp pain that shot down his neck and arm. He had suffered a minor heart attack, and was forced to leave his job in Jackson while he recovered. He filed for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), but the process has been difficult—in order to receive SSDI benefits, an applicant must prove a certain amount of work history, but he had little documentation of such history on the farm. With few options left, Andrew moved into his parents’ trailer outside of Tchula, waiting for his doctor’s approval to return to work.

“When I first lost my job on the farm, I was bitter toward Mr. Peaster,” he said. “But then, after a while, I became bitter toward myself. I just wish I had been better prepared.”

Eddie Carthan

Eddie Carthan

CREDIT: Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

No resident is more familiar with Tchula’s history of racial inequality and injustice than former mayor Eddie Carthan. Elected in 1977, Carthan became the first black mayor in a Mississippi Delta plantation town since Reconstruction. His victory was celebrated by many Mississippians, but the 27-year-old mayor had his work cut out for him—even in the late 70s, Tchula continued to struggle with issues of race that much of the country had addressed in decades past.

Carthan entered office with the goal of improving life for Tchula’s underserved black population. He solicited grants from the federal government to fund public works projects, which created jobs and improved living conditions for many of Tchula’s poorest residents.

But he also clashed with many powerful figures, and the town council eventually staged a sort of coup, unlawfully appointing Jim Andrews, one of Carthan’s opponents in the election for mayor, to chief of police. After a scuffle between Andrews and Carthan, during which Andrews refused to step down from the position, Carthan was given an unusually harsh three-year sentence and forced to leave office.

This didn’t mark the end of Carthan’s persecution from his opponents. In 1981, white leaders in Tchula teamed up with the district attorney to bring falsified charges of murder against Carthan. The district attorney sought the death penalty in the case, but after a drawn-out trial, Carthan was ultimately found innocent.

Following the trial, he returned to his father’s farm in Tchula. Today, at 65, Carthan remains an active voice in the conversation about racial inequality in America. He speaks at churches, schools, and community gatherings throughout Mississippi, and also meets with college students who pass through the area as they retrace the Freedom Trail.

“Unarmed black men are being gunned down in the streets without having committed crimes,” he said, “but they’re not being treated as victims. It’s happening in Ferguson, New York City—all across this country.”

He also sees racism at the highest levels of government, where Republicans continually block Obama’s initiatives. “Racism has gone underground in this country under the guise of the Tea Party,” he said. “To me, they’re not any different than the Citizens’ Councils of America, just under a different name. Because their aims and goals are the same: Turn back the clock.”

At the same time, he admits they aren’t the only ones to blame. Black politicians, he believes, are also responsible for not fully capitalizing on their positions of leadership—positions for which his generation helped blaze the trail.

“Years ago, when blacks were elected to office, they had an energy to do something, to make a change. More blacks are being elected to office today, but [lack] that energy. We had a sense of urgency to do better than those who came before us, we knew we’d have to struggle—but there was a point we had to prove.”

This lack of strong leadership led Carthan to run in the 2015 election for District Supervisor in Holmes County, a return to politics after it nearly cost him his life 35 years ago. He wants to help revitalize the area, but believes the energy and determination for progress ultimately has to come from the bottom up, starting with the black electorate.

“A lot of [voters] today have become complacent, and that won’t get the job done,” he said. “People don’t seem to understand the importance, the value of the vote anymore.”

Ernie

Ernie

CREDIT: Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

“Been back here about 10 years now,” Ernie said, sitting on a concrete ledge that runs the length of Jefferson Street. “I left for Milwaukee when I was 21 to live with my sister. I worked up there and helped take care of her kid. Had no intention of coming back, ‘cept to visit. Then I came back when my mama got sick, and I knew I’d have to stay for good.”

Ernie, who is now in his 50s, hasn’t been able to find steady work since coming back to Tchula. The majority of jobs are nearly an hour away in factories or processing plants, and he says they avoid hiring older workers. With limited opportunities for work, he has to find opportunities to make money on his own.

“There are ways to [get by]—collect cans, do some yard work for a few dollars here and there.”

Many people in town simply give up looking for work after months and even years of fruitless searching. Rejection on that scale, he explains, takes a serious toll on a person.

“Like these folks here,” he said, pointing to a group of men drinking beer and chain smoking under a big tree. “They just hang around all day because there’s nothing else to do. They sit under that tree and drink, drink, drink. They drink so their memories will leave them. But they’ll learn soon enough that don’t work—you sober up and they come right back to you.”

Ernie’s cousin, Marcus, turned the corner in an old, beat-up van and parked beside the package store. He stepped out and joined Ernie on the ledge. He was taller than Ernie, but the two shared the same broad grin and tired eyes. Marcus has lived in Tchula longer than his cousin and works as a carpenter—but he admits it brings in little income.

“You could probably say I’m poor, I wouldn’t disagree,” he said. “But my attitude is, I’m just a pilgrim. I know I’m not going to be here forever; I’m only passing through. To me, poverty is about attitude—I [can’t be] focused on planting roots on this earth and seeing the fruits of my labor. I’m too old for that now.”

For Marcus, getting by in Tchula was about coming to terms with his circumstances and hedging his bets for something better to come.

“I’m able to pay my bills on time and I got a vehicle—even if it’s not the best looking thing in the world. Sure, I collect food stamps, but at least I’m able to fix myself a hot meal every night in my own place. Most importantly, I have God. God has bigger plans for each of us beyond this place, so I’m content.”

Tchula Hardware

CREDIT: Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

Alonso Lewis II is the Director of Victims Services in Tchula, serving as the point-person for a variety of issues that afflict residents, including domestic abuse, substance abuse, and sexual violence. From his perspective, there’s one particular root cause behind the lethargy in Tchula: alcoholism.

“When alcoholism takes hold in a place, the people stop caring,” he said. “Their homes are gonna go down, [and] if they have businesses, the businesses are gonna go down, too.”

Lewis says alcoholism in Tchula has been steadily increasing over the last three or four decades as more businesses that sold liquor opened in town. Today, these stores make up the majority of businesses that remain. There are no pharmacies or clothing stores, but there is a package store, a lounge called Da Mixx, and two gas stations that sell alcohol—the latter being the largest vendors of liquor in Tchula. Every morning, plastic display barrels are filled to the brim with ice and cans of beer inside the stations, and by closing the barrels are nearly empty. A wall of refrigerated cases housing tallboys and six packs are steadily depleted throughout the day as well.

“There are a number of stores here that contribute to the [disengaged] mindset of the people and created a culture that didn’t look to the future,” Lewis said. “That culture took about 40 years to [develop], and it’ll probably take a number of years to [reverse it]—to motivate people and not allow the wrong businesses to spread negative influences in the community.”

The first step toward solving this issue, he says, is education.

“We need to reach out and catch young people from the beginning,” he said, “both inside and outside of the classroom. A lot of young people don’t have anywhere to go when they’re confronted with alcohol abuse and the issues that stem from it, such as sexual abuse, domestic violence, and drug abuse. That needs to change.”

Lewis is working with three women in Tchula, all of whom have been exposed to substance abuse, sexual abuse, or both, to open a home for young residents battling these issues—an “alternative to living out on the streets.”

Uprooting the widespread alcoholism in Tchula will prove to be tough task, considering the extent to which it’s become normalized in day-to-day life. Police officers look the other way when people drink in public because, according to the mayor, they know most residents can’t afford the ticket for public intoxication, and the town can’t afford to pay the county jail to house an offender if an officer makes an arrest. Every afternoon, 18-wheelers from various beer companies pull into the gas stations on Route 49 like clockwork, restocking their inventory and providing a seemingly endless pipeline of intoxicants to the town. Even the calendar on the mayor’s desk, which contained all of her meetings and appointments, was a promotional Bud Light calendar.

Lewis understands the extent to which alcoholism has become normalized in Tchula and maintains no illusions about the difficulty of reversing the long-standing culture it’s created.

“For some of the older members of the community, the only solution I can offer is God,” he said, a hint of sadness in his voice. “It’s going to take a long-term solution to address this issue, and by the time we start to make progress, these people may be gone.” He added, “We need to create a system that will offer a fresh start and a new direction.”

J.R.

J.R.

CREDIT: Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

As much as some might want to, leaving Tchula behind isn’t very easy.

“I’m ready to move to a place that’s thriving,” said J.R., a Tchula resident in his mid-20s. “But my girlfriend’s not ready to leave her family behind. Family’s real important around here—it’s why so many people stick around, and I can respect that. So for the time being, I’m here and just have to make the most of it.”

Earlier that afternoon, J.R. went to the public library to submit an online application for a job at the Nissan factory in Canton, which is about an hour away. A few months back, while working at a catfish plant in Macon, he got into an accident that totaled his car. He was forced to quit his job when he could no longer make the daily commute.

“I was a little banged up at first, but I’m ready to work now. Without a car, though, it’s almost impossible to find work—all the jobs around here are at least half an hour away.”

His job at the catfish factory, like most jobs in the area, paid minimum wage, which made it difficult to make ends meet.

“I was earning maybe $250 a week after taxes. Gas for the week was probably around $100, so you were taking home more like $150. After paying for rent, bills, and groceries, that was your whole paycheck. Saving wasn’t an option. If you wanted to save, you had to do without in one of those areas—go without food or utilities.”

J.R. is hopeful he’ll land the job at Nissan, which he says would be a step up from the catfish plant. “At Nissan, I’d be making around $12 an hour, so saving might actually be possible.”

In the short-term, though, he’s concerned most with providing for his family, and especially his two young daughters.

“I should hear back from Nissan in the next few months, and I’m really hoping it comes through,” he said. “At the very least, I’m just hoping to have a check in time for Christmas.”

*Some names have been changed to preserve privacy.

Tags

Scott Rodd is a freelance writer currently based out of Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Salon, the New York Observer, and The Source, among other publications. Read the other essays in his series on the poorest towns in America here, here, and here.

« »