For generations, plantation owners strove to keep black laborers on the farm and competing businesses out of town. Today, the towns faring best are the ones whose white residents stayed to reckon with their own history.
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.