How White Flight Ravaged the Mississippi Delta

Alan Huffman, The Atlantic, January 6, 2015

In the Mississippi Delta town of Tchula, there’s a fading columned mansion that once belonged to Sara Virginia Jones, the daughter of a local plantation dynasty. Its walls were lined with nearly 400 works by artists as prominent as Paul Cezanne, Marc Chagall, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol.

Then, in the 1990s, the house changed hands. Today, it is filled with framed photos of the current owner–Tchula’s controversial first black mayor, Eddie Carthan, who was in office from 1977 to 1981–posing with U.S. presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama and the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan.
The irony of this set change is not lost on Carthan, who, as he puts it, went “from being a second-class citizen to staying in a house where the slave-owners used to live.” Carthan grew up in a shack outside Tchula, on property his family purchased in the 1930s as part of a New Deal project. The land was located on a former plantation, which the government bought and divided among several black tenants. His community became a relatively safe haven for African Americans and later formed an important staging ground during the civil-rights era.


But as the mansion’s flaking paint makes clear, the transformation was about a transfer of local power, not wealth. Families like the Joneses have long since left Tchula, taking their business and money with them. The remaining community is 97 percent black and achingly poor.

In the Delta flatlands and the hillier country to the east, the landscape is dotted with towns and cities that figured prominently in the civil-rights era. Like Tchula, many of those places are now languishing.

Greenwood, 80 miles north of Tchula, was one of the main organizing bases for voter registration during the 1964 Freedom Summer. For a while, the town’s fortunes seemed to improve, especially after a large Viking Range manufacturing facility opened there in 1990. But Viking was sold in 2012 and the new owners laid off a large part of the local workforce. Today, the town is two-thirds black and, in important ways, still deeply segregated. Most of the white students go to private academies while black students attend public schools, and its residential areas are divided between two extremes: the leafy boulevards of the affluent white section and the historically poor, black Baptist Town, which is so little changed that it stood in for a 1960s Jackson neighborhood in the movie The Help.


As for Tchula, it’s currently listed as the fifth-poorest town in the nation with a population of more than 1,000. Its last two industries–a sawmill and an apparel factory–closed long ago, and more than 15 percent of its residents are unemployed. Carthan said he has sought help from foundations and state and federal agencies, but his proposals for economic development projects have all been rejected.

“Businesses don’t want to come to a town like Tchula,” observed Anthony Mansoor, who owns a hardware store downtown. “That bothers me. The people in this town worked so hard to get to where we are today, and in a lot of ways, things are better. But the town is broke. That’s the bottom line.”

The situation is impossible to ignore: Among the key towns of the civil-rights era, those with the largest black majorities are frequently in the most economic trouble.


In those days, the Delta’s plantations were plowed by mules, cultivated by workers with hoes, and harvested by hand. After farming became increasingly mechanized in the 1960s, local workers had little to do, and no new jobs were available to fill the void. Jordan said the loss of even the most basic plantation labor helped the civil-rights movement gain traction in the Delta.


But if they lacked social clout, black residents were gaining political power. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the accompanying voter-registration drives, blacks comprised the majority of the electorate in many Mississippi towns and counties. In 1967, Robert Clark became the state’s first black state representative since the Reconstruction era, and over the decade that followed, black politicians were elected into more and more local leadership positions.

When Carthan became mayor in 1977, one of his primary goals, he says, was to “bring the other side up.” “Tchula was like most southern towns, with the whites on one side and blacks on the other,” he recalls. “On the white side, where I am now, there were sidewalks, manicured lawns and beautiful homes like this one. But on the other side was dirt roads, shacks, and 75 percent of the houses had no plumbing.”

Carthan and the board of aldermen set about getting federal grants to make much-needed improvements: “Put in a sewer system, one of the first day-care centers in the state, paved streets, built houses and a free clinic, started a transportation system and a feeding program for the elderly.” These changes were a boon to Tchula’s poorer residents, but they produced few jobs. For the most part, black residents were left to grapple with an economic system that had been designed specifically to keep them in low-wage agricultural jobs.

White residents continued to control most of the town’s wealth and business connections, and Carthan says they “didn’t take kindly” to his efforts: “Tchula’s a plantation town, and they just rejected me.”

Carthan’s detractors often say that the town’s troubles are directly linked to his tenure as mayor, but he claims that white residents launched an elaborate campaign against him. “I stayed in court the entire time I was in office. They were accustomed to blacks who’d bow, say ‘yes-sir, boss,’ that sort of thing.”

Throughout his tenure, the Herald frequently ran front-page stories about his political and legal troubles, which were legion. He feuded with the former mayor, who was white, and with the then-biracial board of aldermen. In 1980, the aldermen tried to replace the black police chief Carthan had appointed with a white one. There was an altercation at City Hall, and Carthan was charged with assault. In April 1981, he was forced to leave office.

Two months after his resignation, Carthan was charged with allegedly hiring two hit men to murder one of his political rivals, Alderman Roosevelt Granderson. Though Granderson was black, Carthan–who defended himself–argued that the charges were racially motivated, that he was being framed by whites. Black farmers raised $115,000 for his bail and the actor and playwright Ossie Davis traveled to 66 cities to proclaim his innocence.

Carthan was acquitted of murder in 1982 but returned to jail on charges stemming from the 1980 fight at City Hall. {snip}

By the time Carthan’s legal battles were over, Tchula’s white population had dwindled away to almost nothing. “Whites felt threatened,” he says. And new businesses didn’t want to fill the void: “People don’t want to come where there’s division and conflict and animosity.” The growing sense of desperation brought an increase in drug use and a corresponding uptick in crime, which led even Mansoor and his wife to move to a Jackson suburb, though he continues to commute an hour each way to operate his hardware store.

Today, Carthan’s vision for Tchula has partially come to pass. The town of about 2,000 residents is governed entirely by black elected officials, and every house has running water. No one in Tchula gets fired from their jobs or is denied credit for upsetting the status quo, as happened frequently during the civil-rights era. The problem is, few people have jobs. Where local workers once harvested cotton or drove tractors on white-owned plantations, or toiled in the local sawmill or coat factory, there is today no visible means of economic support. Dwindling government grants and long commutes to jobs elsewhere are all that’s left.

Carthan makes no secret of his disdain for whites who decamped for other locales, as well as those who continue to avoid moving their businesses to black-majority towns. But he also blames the current, majority-black population. “Three or four generations of people raised on welfare–everybody knows the problem,” he said. “Single-family homes, drug-infested neighborhoods, the youth always on social media, exposed to everything. Ear rings, nose rings, lip rings, baggy pants. I’d expect they’d show some appreciation, but a lot of them don’t know their history. That’s a challenge. It’s very difficult for the teachers to even teach school. They’re rebellious. They have the freedom, the resources. They don’t have the restraints we had in the ’60s.” He shakes his head. “What goes around comes around. We’ve come a long ways, but we’ve got a long ways to go.”


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