Toby Harnden, Telegraph (London), July 12, 2009
A tiny Mississippi delta town has elected its first black mayor after the white incumbent, unopposed for 30 years, faced a young challenger inspired by President Barack Obama’s feat in winning the White House.
In a shock result in Alligator (population 220), Tommie “Tomaso” Brown, 38, defeated Robert Fava, the mayor since 1979, owner of the general store and once his opponent’s boss, by 37 votes to 27.
Mr Brown’s surprise victory was a milestone for Alligator, which is named after the curving lake nearby rather than the alligators that once occupied it. Although the only three businesses in the shrinking, tumble-down town are run by whites, three-quarters of the population is now black.
“They wanted a black mayor,” said a philosophical Mr Fava, 71. “Another Obama–I think that’s what brought it on. I ran on ’30 years of dedicated service’ and he ran on ‘Change’. He promised a swimming pool and a recreation centre, which he can’t do.
“He beat me by 10 votes because he had enough family folks to put him in. But we get along good. He used to work here at the store and there ain’t no problems between us. They were ready for a change and I was too–it’s a weight off my mind.”
Alligator, some 90 miles south of Memphis, was once a thriving town whose population swelled to more than 1,000. Its economic backbone was provided by European immigrants, especially Italians, who came to work on the plantations in the Deep South’s fertile Mississippi delta at the start of the 20th Century.
In the 1920s, the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley railroad ran eight trains a day that stopped at Alligator, dropping off and picking up salesmen who would gamble all day in the town’s Gibson Hotel, built in 1897.
Other visitors would arrive on boats that plied the Mississippi river from Memphis to New Orleans, transporting timber and grain as well as people. Blacks would play the blues along the town’s Front Street and labour in the fields but everything was run by the whites.
A yellowing newspaper cutting in Mr Fava’s store tells how Alligator once boasted “two schools, two churches, 16 brick store buildings, two blacksmith shops, two lumber yards, two doctors’ offices . . . and three modernly-equipped gins.”
The trains stopped in the 1950s and the hotel closed down around the same time and was demolished. Trailer homes now occupy the space where it once stood, one of them lived in by Mr Brown, who works as a cashier at the Fitzgeralds Casino in nearby Robinsonville.
Most of the old store fronts are boarded up and grass grows on the pavements. Vacant buildings have been broken into and vandalised. The alligators in the lake have also gone, chased out by beavers whose dams now have to be blown up by farmers because they cause fields to flood.
All that remains of the town’s once teeming commercial activity is Mr Fava’s Mary Ann’s Country Store, named after his wife; Gator’s grocery and diner owned by his younger brother Ronnie; and Bruno’s liquor and convenience store owned by his cousin Vito Sbravati.
Though some work in the casinos and on the Mississippi boats, most Alligator residents are farm workers, producing corn, beans, cotton and rice that is shipped the 350 miles down the river to New Orleans, from where it is exported.
Mr Brown was the first black man ever to stand for Mayor of Alligator and it took Mr Obama’s election to galvanise him into action. “Obama was a major influence on everybody,” he said, almost drowned out by the chirping of crickets in the sweltering afternoon heat. “He inspired me. I’m not going to take that from him.
“After 30 years, I didn’t think an African-American would be able to be mayor. I didn’t think the position was open to me. When he won, I decided that I knew the changes that needed to be made here and I thought that I could make those changes.
“If we don’t look after our youth, what do we have? The population is dying out and I want more people here. I want better living conditions.
I just want the people to be comfortable. Small towns like this depend on government funding and that’s what we’re seeking.
“I mingle with a lot of the young kids here in the community because if you deal with the people and their problems you understand more what’s going on if you’re out with them.”
The town’s facilities were substandard, he said, gesturing towards the humble town hall, where a “No Loitering” sign is nailed next to the door. “There isn’t even a phone or a fax machine in there. How can we communicate with the outside world and ask for things?” There was jubilation among the town’s blacks after Mr Brown’s victory.
“Everybody out here was whooping and hollering and running and trying to flip,” said Patrina Brown, 25, the new mayor’s niece and newly elected as one of Alligator’s five aldermen.
Some youngsters ran into Mr Fava’s store to taunt him. “They was pulling down their pants, shouting, ‘Kiss my black ass, because we got a black mayor’, swinging their things around and throwing stuff,” said Jennifer Green, 31, a black mother of 10.
Miss Green is dubious about whether Mr Brown, whose duties will include organising contract labour, overseeing the water and sewer systems and distributing any grant monies, can deliver. “He says there’s going to be lots of changes and everything with all these kids running around here.
“But he do the same thing they do, drinking beer and stuff. You’ve got to stay at home and study the town. Alligator is the kind of place where if you leave your door open, when you come back there ain’t nothing in your house.
“There’s guns. Kids knock on your door asking for a beer at three and four in the morning. I get 14-year-olds asking me if I want weed or whatever. They should have just left Mr Robert in there.
“Tomaso won’t do anything about any of it. He’s going to put his hand in the cookie jar just at the wrong time and get caught.”
Her boyfriend J. R. Cook, who is white, disagreed. “It was about time for Robert to get out. He was tired. And there ain’t no saints around here. They may be Christian people but when they get out of church it makes no difference.”
Mr Fava said that relations between blacks and white had been generally good, though crime had increased. “Alligator is a quiet town, except when we get that Voodoo and Rap music.
“There’s only been one murder in all the time I’ve been here. About five years ago, there was a white lady coming in with a black guy and they got into it and he shot her and tried to burn the body up. They got him and he’s doing time in the penitentiary.”
Mr Brown said: “Robert’s coming around and accepting the reality now. I used to work for him and his brother and mow his lawn and stuff. It was a shocker for him after 30 years.”
Up at Bruno’s, at the entrance to Alligator beside Route 61, known as the Blues Highway, dozens of the town’s blacks were spending their Saturday evening outside the store drinking beer and whisky and dancing to music blasting from a boom box. The scent of marijuana hung in the warm air.
Inside the store, Vito Sbravati, 69, and his wife Christine, 65, were doing a very brisk trade. Next to the door was a photograph of President George W. Bush and his wife Laura thanking the couple for their campaign contributions.
The town had changed beyond all recognition, they reflected, since Mr Sbravati’s grandfather had arrived at New York’s Ellis Island in 1905 before making the journey by sea to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi to Rosedale, 30 miles from Alligator.
Mr Sbravati shrugged that his cousin Robert had not been able to get his vote out but said he thought Mr Brown’s election would not make much difference. “I call him Tomaso Obama.”
The couple will be retiring in two weeks. “It’s not about colour,” said Mrs Sbravati, also a third generation Italian-American in Alligator whose mother, an Allegrezza, married Mr Fava’s Uncle Bruno.
“I don’t care if someone’s orange, as long as they’re honest. I don’t go by black and white. I go by right and wrong.”