How White Flight Ravaged the Mississippi Delta
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.
When Carthan was a young boy, he says he’d have risked punishment for simply walking past the Jones mansion without a proper reason. “I look at the house now, how beautiful it is and well-built it is. I was told slaves built it,” Carthan said, sitting at his desk in the central hall, surrounded by his political memorabilia. “And I think about how well they lived back then, and how we lived back then. This house is huge. There are five bedrooms. It has three full bathrooms. We didn’t have bathrooms at all.” He pauses to let the contrast sink in. “It’s something to focus on,” he says.
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, 25 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.
Nearby Clarksdale, where Martin Luther King held the first major meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1958, dwindled in population beginning in the 1970s. It underwent a brief renaissance in 1995 after its former resident Morgan Freeman opened an upscale restaurant and the Ground Zero Blues Club next to Clarksdale’s storied blues museum. But the restaurant has since closed and entire blocks of the downtown area currently stand abandoned.
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.
“The richest land this side of the valley Nile!” The plantation owner Big Daddy Pollitt used those words to describe the Mississippi Delta in Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The fertile soils stretching from near Memphis to Vicksburg along the Mississippi River once supported a lucrative cotton economy; before the Civil War, the city of Natchez, farther south along the river, had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the U.S.
After emancipation, plantation owners relied upon sharecroppers to grow and harvest their crops. To keep the system in place, white leaders studiously kept out industries that might lure their laborers away from agriculture, as historian James Cobb reported in his seminal book about the Delta, The Most Southern Place on Earth.
Carthan saw that resistance firsthand. In Tchula, he said, “We couldn’t get factories—the power structure would block it. They didn’t want folks leaving the plantations.”
State Senator David Jordan, who grew up in Greenwood, observes that employment opportunities in the Delta have always been tightly interwoven with politics and race. His family lived and worked as field laborers on one of several plantations owned by the family of U.S. Representative Will Whittington, and the school year ran from December to April to enable children to help with the crops. As a teenager, Jordan worked at a white-owned store, where his tasks included learning the types and brands of various illegal liquors. (Mississippi remained a dry state for more than 30 years after Prohibition was repealed.) Once, Jordan said, a customer asked the store owner, “‘What you educatin’ that nigger for? I need him for a tractor driver.’”
“We just accepted it,” said Jordan, who graduated from high school with Morgan Freeman in the 1950s and went on to attend Mississippi Valley State University. “Wasn’t anything we could do about it.”
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.
“Field hands were being replaced,” he said. “They were being paid $9 a day, and they paid $20 a month in rent, but when the cotton picker came, there was less work. People had no other trade. They got laid off, and the landowners pushed the shanties down, and those people had nowhere to go. There was a lot of dissatisfaction.”
Dissatisfaction was nothing new in the Mississippi Delta; this was, after all, the birthplace of the Blues. But when the plantation jobs disappeared and no new industries rose to take their place, the dissatisfaction turned into desperation. Many blacks migrated to Northern cities like Chicago, but Jordan refused to budge. “I said, ‘I’ll never leave Mississippi. I’m gonna do something—I’m gonna get even some kind of way.’” Jordan eventually sued the city of Greenwood, forcing it to adopt a more representative system of government. After that, he was elected to the city council and then to the state legislature.
Throughout Freedom Summer, these activists ran into fierce resistance from white business leaders. Mansoor, who was born in Honduras of Lebanese descent and arrived in Mississippi as an exchange student in the 1950s, recalled that blacks who took part in the voter registration drives were often fired from their jobs or denied credit at stores and banks.
Whites who opposed segregation were likewise targeted. Hazel Brannon Smith, then the fiery publisher of The Lexington Advertiser, editorialized against the segregationist white Citizens’ Council in 1964. In the process, she said, her offices were “bombed, burned and boycotted,” and she was later bankrupted by a rival Citizens Council-backed newspaper.
“My life had always been comfortable in Lexington,” Smith wrote in an editorial published in 1984, on the 20th anniversary of Freedom Summer. “My two papers in Holmes County were paid for. I wore good clothes, and drove a Cadillac convertible. I went to Europe on vacation for four months and had more money in my bank account when I returned than I did when I left. But the boycott and the hate campaign wore my business down. The Council-backed newspaper depleted my advertising revenues, and I fell into deep debt.”
Mansoor’s business suffered after 1967, when one of his Tchula stores was the setting for a showdown between the Ku Klux Klan and a black activist named Edgar Love. According to Love’s account in the book Thunder of Freedom: Black Leadership and the Transformation of 1960s Mississippi, Klan members cornered him on a dark street and pursued him into the store. Love hid behind a counter and drew his pistol, and when the first Klansman entered, Love trained his gun on him. Other Klansmen followed and began turning over counters and racks, “just demolishing the store,” says Mansoor, who remembers telling his pregnant wife to run home. “I called the sheriff—his name was Andrew Smith—and he said, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it.’” The standoff ended when Love turned himself over to a trusted white police officer who took him to jail in Lexington, the county seat, “for protection,” Mansoor said.
Love was later released, and Mansoor took some of the Klansmen to court for demolishing his store. He lost the case and his defense of the activist led to a boycott of his business. The bad feelings persisted for decades: Twenty years later, when his store caught fire, arson was suspected though never proven. “My wife wanted to move to California,” he recalled. “But I said, ‘No way I’m going to let them drive me away.’”
In the early years of the civil-rights era, most of Tchula’s white residents remained, including Sarah Virginia Jones, who was described in a Memphis Commercial Appeal article as a member of “the leading family of Tchula.” She operated Refuge plantation with her brother and lived out her life in the mansion, even after her neighborhood became racially mixed. Jones was known for her garden-club work, her civic and beautification projects, the parties she hosted for high school seniors, and the artwork, which covered every eye-level wall space in her home. (She acquired most of it from a New Orleans art dealer, a Tchula native who regularly visited her home to offer pieces for her review.)
Throughout the 1970s, the Holmes County Herald gave ample space to white society news, down to minute details like the time Jones went shopping in Memphis with a friend. There was little mention of life on the black side of town.
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. A 1986 NBC segment about Carthan’s trials noted that he was seen by his opponents as “a conniving troublemaker” and by his supporters as “a folk hero.” The local district attorney, Frank Carlton, acknowledged on camera that he had struck a deal with Granderson’s alleged murderers: After serving two years in prison, the two men claimed that Carthan had hired them to do the job. Carlton offered to drop the charges against them if they would testify against Carthan in court.
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.”
Eighty miles to the southeast, the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, stands in stark contrast with Tchula. Philadelphia was the site of Freedom Summer’s most brutal event: On June 21, 1964, three young civil rights workers were killed by Klansmen after being apprehended by local law-enforcement officials. James Earl Chaney, a black man from nearby Meridian, was beaten and shot three times; two Jewish New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, were shot through the heart. All three bodies were discovered two months later, buried in an earthen dam.
But after decades of public notoriety and internal strife, Philadelphia has become one of the most successful towns in the region. The economy is diverse, drawing on a mix of farming, manufacturing, forestry, and service industries, with the added boon of a nearby Choctaw Indian casino. The county has also set up an enterprise incubator to provide office, manufacturing, and warehouse space to startup businesses.
James Young, the town’s black mayor, says this economic expansion was possible only because white residents faced the shame of their past. “People didn’t turn away,” Young said. “They didn’t move away.”
The self-examination didn’t start immediately. “During that season when the civil rights workers were missing, there was heavy tension in the air, a lot of frustration and disbelief,” recalled Young, who was a child at the time. “It sent shockwaves through the community that no one was safe. I remember lying on the floor of our living room with my father and a gun.”
Philadelphia’s prominent white families were chagrined by the way their city and county were being portrayed by the media. In particular, one December 1964 article, written by New York Times reporter (and later executive editor) Joseph Lelyveld, reported negatively on the city’s “business class” and its reaction to the murders.
Former Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus was 14 at the time, and he remembers that his father invited the Times’s editor, a Philadelphia native named Turner Catledge, to meet with the local businesses community. Influential locals turned out from the hospital, the newspaper, the lumber industry, and the glove factory. “The Klan and the Citizens Council were essentially running the county,” Molpus recalled. “The question was, where was the white leadership?”
As in Tchula, whites who supported integration were being openly targeted. “They threatened to burn my father’s lumber mill down if he didn’t fire a list of employees they gave him who had gone to NAACP meetings,” said Molpus. “But he hired three guys with deer rifles who were as bad as they were to stand watch, and they didn’t burn him out.”
Catledge had met with President Lyndon Johnson the night before the meeting in Philadelphia. Molpus remembers sitting on the floor next to the visiting editor: “He was drinking scotch, and now and then he’d hold his glass down and tinkle it around and I’d take it to my mother to make him another.”
Throughout the evening, the group’s grievances centered more on the town’s negative portrayal than on the murders themselves. “The business guys were furious,” Molpus said. “They wanted him to get rid of Lelyveld. We’d had churches burned, homes burned, a guy got his skull broke, there were three kidnapped, and the discussion in the business class was just about how the press is making us look like hicks.” After listening to their complaints, Catledge turned the discussion back to the larger issues. He told the local leaders, “‘There’s a moment in your life to step up and demand this stop,’ which offended everyone in there. Somebody said, ‘You’re from here, Turner, but you’re not one of us anymore.’”
Another moment of reckoning came in August 1965, when a local white woman named Florence Mars was pulled over on her way home from a party. As Molpus put it, Mars was “a very outspoken, courageous woman from a well-thought-of family—a very gutsy woman” who supported Martin Luther King and the protesters who marched with him through town. When she and her sister were stopped on the road, Mars had reportedly had too much to drink.
“The way things were done then, when someone like her was pulled over, they’d let her go,” Molpus said. “But they threw her and her sister into the drunk tank. And the community got together on a Sunday night and said, ‘This has got to stop,’ and it did stop. It took something happening to one of their own, from a prominent family.”
Even then, there was a lingering sense of denial about the civil rights murders. “Preachers were saying of the civil rights workers, ‘They came looking for trouble, and they found it.’ I heard that from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church,” Molpus said. “The murderers were in control. They were still in law enforcement. These were killers.” Even state officials refused to prosecute. In 1967, seven men were convicted in federal court and sent to prison, but the longest any served was six years.
Over time, Molpus said, the white community became more circumspect about the crime and what it meant for the future of the city. When federal court-ordered school integration came during the 1969–70 school year, Philadelphia chose not to establish all-white private academies as other nearby towns and cities had done. “I think the people had examined their souls, really, and the decision was made to keep the schools integrated,” Molpus said. Louisville, 30 miles down the road, was culturally and economically similar to Philadelphia, but its white residents decided to send their children to private academies, Molpus said. Today, Louisville is economically depressed.
Molpus partly credits the crusading editor of the Neshoba Democrat, Stanley Dearman, for helping change Philadelphia’s outlook. In the late 1980s, he ran a series of articles that humanized Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, the three men killed by Klansmen in 1964, for local residents. “He went to New York City and sat down with Dr. Goodman. She told him about her son sending her a postcard saying people were friendly in Philadelphia, the day before he was killed.”
Then, in 1989, Molpus and Dearman decided to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the murders by holding a memorial at Mt. Zion Church, which had been used as a voter registration site during Freedom Summer. The building had been torched by the Klan, and the three civil rights workers had been returning from it at the time of their murder. The families of the three murdered men attended the gathering in 1989, along with a crowd of several hundred—including Molpus, who apologized for what happened on behalf of the state.
In 2000, Philadelphia held a multi-racial leadership conference, where Molpus was keynote speaker. “I said until we remove this shadow or at least attempt redemption, nothing is going to happen. They wanted an industrial park, to plant roses at the visitors center. I said we’re known for one thing: as the place where these three kids were killed for doing a patriotic duty.”
In 2004, Dearman invited Carolyn Goodman to speak to the Philadelphia Coalition, an interracial group cofounded by the Democrat’s new editor, Jim Prince, and the head of the Neshoba County NAACP, Leroy Clemons. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood attended and listened to Goodman’s moving personal account. The following year, he reopened the case and Edgar Ray Killen, the 80-year-old Baptist preacher who had orchestrated the murders, was convicted of three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
In 2009, when the majority-white electorate voted in Young as Philadelphia’s first black mayor, national news outlets reported that the town had finally risen above its history. Young was invited to the White House for Christmas that year, and then to a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden. And in 2010, he received a civil rights award from CORE, the Congress On Racial Equality, which was one of the organizers of Freedom Summer. Because he was only a child during Freedom Summer, Young asked the group why he was given the award. “They said to think of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner: ‘You’re the manifestation of their effort.’”
Today, unemployment in Philadelphia is lower than in most Mississippi cities (5.8 percent as of December 2013, compared to 7.3 percent statewide) and its per capita income is higher. Its schools are strong, despite the fact that Philadelphia is as geographically isolated as Tchula, located about 50 miles from the nearest interstate highway. Along with its other industries, the town is benefitting from a new influx of tourism. “The chamber of commerce now does civil rights tours,” Young said. “They’ve got a little brochure. We’ve had people come from London, South America, Australia.”
Still, Philadelphia is exceptional among Mississippi’s former civil-rights battlegrounds. The state as a whole has more black elected officials than any other, but the ongoing segregation and economic decline in so many places is evidence of persistent, deep-seated problems.
“Businesses are not going to go to a place where there are not strong public schools,” Molpus said. “That says the community is ill. If the poor are in public schools and the affluent go to private, that community is ill. The public schools in virtually every town in the Delta were abandoned by the whites. That will take decades to fix—it’s a historical legacy. The poverty cycle hasn’t been broken.”
When Eddie Carthan bought the Jones mansion in the late 1990s, the house had been sitting vacant for years and its legendary artwork had been moved to the Mississippi Museum of Art. He also bought the formerly white church across the street, whose congregation, he says, refused to speak to him when he showed up, unbidden, one Sunday after his election as mayor. Now he’s the pastor of that church, which is all black.
On a recent afternoon, as Carthan ruminated about the future of Tchula at his desk, his wife, Shirley, tutored a group of young girls at the mansion’s long dining room table. The girls were members of the church Carthan pastors; only two of the congregation’s adult members have jobs. “They’re the poorest of the poor,” Carthan said.
Carthan also owns a century-old, formerly white-owned hardware store that anchors the downtown. Business is typically slow there, and most of his wares are covered in dust. There is more activity in Mansoor’s store, though much of it centers on the free doughnuts he provides each day to the city’s seniors. Though he now lives an hour away, Mansoor said he refuses to give up on Tchula. “For the most part, it’s better in Mississippi than a lot of places,” he said. “People know each other. They try to get along. People change.”
As evidence of the latter, Mansoor recalled an episode involving one of the Klansmen who demolished his store. After he died, Mansoor said, “his mother reached out to me and I took care of her for years. I’d go by and see about her, pick up her groceries. She’d cook me the best biscuits and sausage, and when she died she left me an old Ford car and a .38-calibre pistol. It was amazing. She wanted to be friends to make up for what they did.”
But such changes of heart have done little to improve Tchula’s economic fortunes. The majority of white residents fled town without making amends or doing anything to reverse the decades of economic oppression. For that reason, Tchula, unlike Philadelphia, must rely heavily on outside assistance.
Near Mansoor’s store on a recent morning, unemployed men lingered under shade trees behind the modest town hall, where Zula Patterson, the current mayor, was preparing to attend the ribbon cutting for two federally subsidized low-income houses. According to Patterson, such grants are few and far between. Asked what the town needs most, she replied, “What do we need? We need everything. But now we need police cars foremost. Our streets need to be redone. We need to try to find somebody to open some businesses. Nobody is really coming in until we get our infrastructure improved.”
Meanwhile, the subsidized houses represent the first new construction in a long time. They might not seem like much, but as Patterson said, “We’re trying to make things better. We’re doing what we can.”