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Racial Wealth Divide

Depths of Poverty in the Deep South

Research & Commentary
June 18, 2015

by Scott Rodd

The residents of Tchula, Mississippi live with deep poverty that stems from slavery and Jim Crow.

By Scott Rodd

Credit: Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

Credit: Scott Rodd, ThinkProgress

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.

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.

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.

Read more at ThinkProgress:

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.

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