My “witness” Part 4: Greenville:Greenville, MS is a Mississippi River port city in the Mississippi Delta. A book about the Delta calls it “The Most Southern Place on Earth.” That is quite true. Our family moved to Greenville is late August of 1971. Unbeknownst to us, when the 1969 Supreme Court decision Alexander v Holmes County, ordering unified, non-segregated school districts in Mississippi came down, a community meeting took place at the Buster Brown Community Center to plan for private academies to educate the White children in Washington County whose parents could afford the tuition. By the time we arrived in Greenville in 1971, those private schools had been built and were up and running. Most other communities in the Delta, the Jackson area, and any other areas of the state where Whites were not in a clear majority likewise established private schools, with the goal of continuing “separate, but (un)equal” education. The State Legislature even appropriated money to support these private schools. I was about to start seventh grade, so the larger political events were unknown to me. It’s certainly clear, with 50 years of perspective, that the decision to withdraw White students from public schools in Mississippi was a nearly fatal self-inflicted wound to the communities that made it. A strong, well-funded public school system is the single most important economic development tool any community has The economic struggles of the Delta over the last 50 years make that clear, well beyond any moral or ethical issues raised by continuing resistance to lifting up ALL in the state. I began seventh grade at Coleman Junior High School. I soon learned that Coleman had been the “Black” high school in Greenville. Major League Baseball player George Scott, and NFL players Gloster and Willie Richardson had starred for the Coleman Tigers before their pro careers. Numerous other athletes, scholars, and other professionals were Coleman alumni. It’s clear to me, now, that re-purposing the building as a “Junior” High School, while apparently “practical,” was also an act of cultural erasure. I recall the football stands being dismantled while I was in PE that 1971-72 school year. There may have been a safety-related reason, but that was, likewise, a kind of cultural erasure. The obvious divide in the Delta is between Black and White, but there is, likewise, a “caste” system within the White community. At the top are the owners of the means of production and distribution. Those would be owners of agricultural land and of the towing companies at the Port of Greenville. Just behind would be the businesses directly supporting the owners-Cotton Brokers, Agricultural Equipment dealers, other vehicle dealers, fuel brokers, etc. Just behind would be the professionals, doctors and lawyers, vets, etc. In a position sort of by himself was Hodding Carter, III the owner/publisher of the local newspaper. There were also small business owners, restauranteurs, service stations, etc. In a unique position were the Chinese grocery store owners. These were not “Black,” but not quite “White” either. Ethnic Chinese children moved from the “Black” to “White” schools in the Delta in the early 1950s. White clergy were “hired help,” if sometimes well compensated “hired help.”My mother was a department manager at a private hospital. She was a woman doing a “woman’s job.” She was not well paid. She was definitely part of the “hired help.” We were in a somewhat isolated position. In Mississippi the first two questions people ask are “Where are you from and Who are your people.” Well, we weren’t “from there” and our “people” were out of state. Furthermore, my mother was a divorced woman in 1971, long before that became “trendy.” As our family did, we found our way to church, in this case First Baptist Church. This church had all the White castes, from “owners” to “hired help.” There was also a “Chinese Mission” that had Chinese language services on Sunday afternoons. There were also second and third generation native English speakers who attended “regular” Sunday School and Worship. That’s a lot of (necessary) throat clearing. I’ll talk more about my experience of church and school in Greenville at a later time.
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