"Ground Zero of Someone Else's Future"

A Dollars & Sense interview with Mississippi Activist Derrick Evans

This article is from the March/April 2006 issue of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2006/0306evans.html


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This article is from the March/April 2006 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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They say you can't go home again. You can, of course, except that "home" will be a different place from the one you left. No one knows this better than Derrick Evans. Evans grew up in Turkey Creek, an independent African-American settlement north of Gulfport, Miss., with what he calls "a very rich, bottomless tradition of oral history." That tradition inspired him to become a historian; he left for Boston, where he lived for 20 years and taught history. A few years ago, he made plans to return to Turkey Creek to film a documentary about the area. What he found was a community that had been annexed to Gulfport against its will and was facing a range of political and ecological threats to its existence. Evans decided to remain in Turkey Creek; he founded and directs Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, whose aim is to promote sustainable local development that is both environmentally and culturally sensitive. D&S editorial collective member Ben Greenberg spoke with Evans in January. --Eds.

text version of image

(photo credit: Lolita Parker, Jr.)

Ben Greenberg:You've had a complicated journey since you've been back in Mississippi. Can you talk about that?

Derrick Evans: Once we started filming, there was a series of realizations. I realized that the celebration of our history, the documentation of our history, alone, wasn't going to save Turkey Creek. I realized that the story of Turkey Creek was clearly as much about contemporary events as about the rich, fascinating Americana that lies looking backwards.

The next realization was that I needed to be involved in the present and the future of Turkey Creek--I needed to get into the fray. And a fray it was! We had some huge environmental justice battles ongoing when I arrived. People in this community were running themselves ragged going to public meetings and hearings on so many little bonfires: development, land-use decisions. I was needed to speak and write directly to the issues--be it the Army Corps' flood control study on Turkey Creek, or the City of Gulfport's 2003 Comprehensive Master Plan--all of which just spelled doom for this community, and which were very poorly and shoddily thrown together by these public agencies. So I gradually became something of an urban planner, rebutting the nonsense coming out of some of these forums.

You know, Turkey Creek was annexed to Gulfport in 1993 or 1994 without a vote. Elsewhere in America, the folks vote as to whether they will be annexed by some other municipality. Not here. Initially the city of Gulfport didn't even want them. Gulfport tried to annex only the affluent areas north of I-10 and create a city shaped like a barbell, but a judge told them no, you have to take all or none. So Gulfport annexed us, even though we didn't want them and they didn't want us. But then, folks there began to look at their grid maps and aerial photographs and saw that the Turkey Creek area was the greenest, the most undeveloped, and the closest to the interstate and the airport. So they began to think of this as the economic center of gravity for the city and even the region's future.

That brought me to the next realization: I had to become very familiar with local and state zoning law; local, state, and federal envi-ronmental law; ecological science. So I took a class to become a certified Mississippi "Master Naturalist." You know, I'm out in the woods taking an oral exam to see if I can distinguish accurately between a long-leaf pine, a slash pine, or a loblolly pine; the relative proportions of clay or silt or sand in any given soil sample. So this historian's odyssey has now come to include ecological as well as cultural heritage. As it should be--I always taught that history begins with the physical geography of where people are.

BG: Can you expand on what you mean by "ecological heritage"?

DE: Even though I grew up here, I didn't know even a fragment of a fraction of what there is to know about the ecological identity of the place here--and it has turned out to be very important information that then translates into good urban planning.

There's a cultural landscape, there's a sociological landscape, there's the class and race distribution, and there's also the ecological profile. And what you'll find is that the unresolved problems pertaining to any one of those issues can be overlain on a map: that the lowest-lying land is typically where black folks, generations ago, would have acquired their land; where they would have settled and developed their communities, which would have been the least disturbed by 20th-century infrastructure; and that now, in the wake of a "Mississippi miracle"--the economic revitalization of the coast, for example, the advent of dockside casinos--would be the most ripe or prime for redevelopment. Not at all unlike Roxbury in Massachusetts. Roxbury lies smack in the middle of the only direction for the city of Boston to revitalize, regardless of what the priorities are, whether it's to build more skyscrapers or provide more housing for middle- and higher-income folk. Likewise, we here are sitting in the same boat as Harlem, or neighborhoods in San Francisco and elsewhere, sitting in ground zero of somebody else's future.

So I've formed partnerships with some pretty nontraditional "civil rights activists"--like ladies from the Audubon Society, who now stand with us to protect the creek. Now that it's publicly utilized for birding and for kids to go canoeing and learn about native habitat, that helps ward off sprawl. The church here, Mount Pleasant, got involved and created an environmental ministry because of this trans-formation of looking at ourselves and the ecological context around us.

This is really important because this is a low-lying area, a very small watershed. We get 70 to 80 inches of rainfall per year that falls into a 17,000-acre bowl. A lot of water, small area--not a good place for a whole lot of what we call "impervious surfaces" like rooftops, parking lots and roadways without some provision being made to re-create the natural function of the watershed so that low-income communities like Turkey Creek, North Gulfport, Forest Heights, or even more affluent areas like Long Beach to our west, don't flood, which historically they didn't.

There are people here who'll tell you that developers and local politicians have just been trying to flood us out of existence, because with each piece of land, they haul in a bunch of red clay, which is basically impervious, dump it in the wetlands to build up land on which to put a slab or a parking lot, and then on the slab they put a building, a big 'ole Wal-Mart or something.

During Katrina, my mother was rescued from a house--the water reached her chest. She was with her 95-year-old husband, who never had and never would evacuate before any storm out here, because there was never a need. We have traditionally had woods behind us for thousands of feet as a windbreak, and hundreds of acres of wetlands to handle the runoff. But nobody had even done a comprehensive assessment of the total loss of wetlands to make it clear that houses three and a half miles north of the beach would be flooded to the degree that they were.

So anyway, those are the types of things that I didn't know anything about, and they were part of my steep learning curve after coming back home, and they're a big part of what I do as the founder and director of Turkey Creek Community Initiatives.

BG: Before we get into Katrina's specific impact, can you give an economic portrait of the African-American communities in this area and the larger historical context that they exist in?

DE: Let's start with this: In December 2004, Congress designated this entire area as a National Heritage Area. The law cited the significance of Native American history in this area, and of more recent settlers from Europe, but made no reference to African Americans in its list of cultural diversity that warranted federal recognition.

BG: I'm curious who sponsored that legislation.

DE: Senator Lott, the entire Mississippi delegation. The funny thing is, they didn't do it on purpose. It didn't even occur to them--talk about the invisible man--that the Gulf Coast, like the rest of Mississippi, which is synonymous around the world with "Black," had an African-American dimension that would even be attractive for that narrow little purpose of cultural tourism.

BG: Actually, I think there's some awareness of that since civil rights tourism seems to be a growing industry in the South.

DE: That hasn't sunk root on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I assure you. In fact, prior to Katrina, most Americans didn't know Mississippi had a Gulf Coast. For a variety of reasons, the state's Gulf Coast, which has its own particular African-American experience over time--this wasn't a plantation economy--is not really synonymous with the rest of the cultural, economic, political, and civil rights history of the state.

There's a rich African-American history here. Just in Gulfport you've got Magnolia Grove, Old Hansborough, Mississippi City, Soria City, Gaston Point, Central Gulfport--which we used to call "The Quarters," i.e., the slave quarters--Turkey Creek, Old North Gulfport. These are old settlements. The area economically revitalized after the Civil War as a rail and shipping hub; African-American railroad workers, stevedores, laborers started to populate pockets close enough that they could work in the local venues but far enough from the beach to keep segregation kosher.

There was a cottage laundry industry in every one of these communities. There's a semi-commercial laundry facility back here where my great-grandmother employed at any given time four or five women to use big old washpots and those heavy cast-iron irons to do laundry that they carted daily from the beach front, the hotels and residences.

Today, you've got casino- and tourism-driven feudalism, coupled with militarism, constituting much of the local economy. Katrina has probably raised the cachet of the casinos and the military bases even more as the two main mules that are gonna pull us out of this mud. Government contracts for shipbuilding; bigger, wider roads and highways for trucking. Deeper, wider, dredged out shipping lanes for shipping; free trade agreements. Bigger and better casinos with more bells and whistles. More of the same is the economic forecast, because they can't imagine anything else.

BG: On a more local level, can you talk about black property ownership? Has it remained constant through these economic shifts, or increased or decreased?

DE: It's decreased. In my family: Sam and Kessiah Evans came out of slavery and purchased 80 acres of land. Of that, 20 or 25 might be left. One issue has been out-migration since desegregation. Folks from my mother's generation began going off to school or to other states and cities to work, and not come back.

Another issue--a terrible thing--is heirs' property. Probate lawyers go about identifying heirs to a property owner who died without a will and determining their degree of kinship; then they subdivide the estate proportionally. If one heir, who's entitled to 1/3,000th of the estate, wants the cash value of their rightful legal inheritance, they can go to a judge and ask for that estate to be appraised and sold within some time limit. Well, if I'm the so-and-so casino company or Walt Disney or Nissan who wants to build a plant on that property, I might find one of those heirs and get them to push for this. So the estate administrator can end up having to sell the property and disperse to the myriad heirs their proportional share of the proceeds. And the guy with the cash to buy it all, which is often not a family member but a business interest, ends up with that land. That's how a lot of black folks lose their land--through heirs' property dilemmas.

And then of course, too, there are tax foreclosures. In Mississippi, if the taxes aren't paid on a property for three years, it's advertised in the local newspaper each year, and somebody can pay those taxes due down at the courthouse. And if they do so for three years consecutively, they own it. People who are land rich and cash poor, which African-Americans have always been since the Civil War, poor whites too--there's a pandemic of land loss. That occurs here in Turkey Creek quite a bit. One of the things that TCCI seeks to do is to stop that shift from happening any further.

Look at this one: Mississippi leads the nation in African-American home ownership. We have overcome, right?

BG: But it's also got the highest rate of poverty, right?

DE: Yeah. That home ownership includes trailers! People inherit land or buy a piece of land for $5,000, and bring in a trailer. Now they're a homeowner! But there's no mistaking the poverty or the disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

BG: Let's talk about Katrina. How were Turkey Creek and some of the other communities you work with here affected?

DE: When Katrina hit, these communities were already blighted. Most of these homes had never met what is currently the Gulfport city code for houses. A lot of the people didn't have insurance. Although this community didn't fall as far as, say, the beach front, which was leveled by a 30-foot tidal surge, out here we have the least capacity to recover. It's an issue of class: the lowest level of recoverability.

This community banded together during the storm. Eight young men went out when 911 wasn't responding and rescued some two dozen people from homes where they would have died had they not done that. They went down towards the bridge and started fishing people out of their homes and their attics and wherever they were trapped. And we didn't lose a single life--which really underscores the community's longstanding sense of autonomy and self-reliance and its ability to take care of itself in certain respects.

Then after the storm, like other African-American communities, it appears that Turkey Creek, North Gulfport, Redball, these low-income areas, were not the first to receive relief. In that initial climate of chaos and confusion in the days after the storm, people fended for themselves and got to be pretty doggone creative. I was actually out of town. I came in a few days later with a couple of friends with 600 gallons of gasoline for generators and trucks. I knew if we could get the men and women out here some of the basic things that they know how to use, once they got up off of their knees and onto their feet, they would help get this kind of support to others who they knew as well as I were the least likely to get the early attention.

But I should say, after Katrina, it brought out the best in some people and the worst in others. One of the groups which clearly it's brought the worst out in is the owners of apartment complexes and rental housing stock. For instance, there's a nearby community at a housing development called Redball, with some 200 families. Redball had minimal damage--it had two-story buildings and the damage was incurred entirely to the roofs or second-floor apartments. Most of those people didn't evacuate. They're poor folk, they didn't have anywhere to go, and really, they weren't anywhere near a flood plain. And they're living in solid brick publicly subsidized houses.

Immediately after the storm, it appears to be deliberate that they were not delivered any water or ice or food. They had to hijack a bread truck. Then they had to set a tree on fire, this big old dead tree, to get the National Guard to come out there. This is what they told me. And then, allegedly, the owner of the building hired an armed security force to walk around the place and tell those people to stay inside where they had no air conditioning, because there was no electricity. Police started arresting them; people were harassing them for being out in the grounds of the complex. And they tell me that when food deliveries did come, they'd dump the stuff on the other side of a six-foot fence that they'd have to climb over to get! And then the landlord or the manager went and told each one of them--about 57 families were there--"You're not being evicted but you gotta be out by Monday 'cause we gotta do work on this place and when it's done you can come back." And so we heard about this and we went over with some lawyers that the Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights had brought down and told them, "Don't go anywhere," filed for an injunction to stop it, and those people are still there now.

That's just one scenario. Down here you could rent a two-bedroom house for $300. But now anybody who has a rentable home, shotgun house, apartment in a complex to rent, has just raised the rent so much because these relief workers--they're not relief workers, really disaster workers--have come in. The locals have been priced out. If you don't own your own home or it's not livable, you're screwed; there's no reason for you to even really be here. So the average Joe's assumption is that that's by design--they want us out.

BG: What kind of damage has there been? Are people in trailers on their home sites? In trailers elsewhere?

DE: The United Methodist Church has been the most efficient and effective relief force I've seen since Katrina, and because of its presence in Turkey Creek, a lot of people are getting work done in their homes and getting back into their homes.

I would say a third of the homes had serious water damage. Every house out here was damaged. I mean, trees fell like nobody's business on top of homes and ripped off roofs. Every house out here was damaged enough that it requires the scale of rehab that would require the pulling of a permit that would then require the house to meet code, which before the storm it didn't. The house my mother was rescued from flooded up to here--four-and-a-half feet. Well, when the relief volunteers with the Methodists came in, they had to rip out the walls to get rid of the mold infestation. Now the walls are open, and in any city in America, including Gulfport, before you put them back in, you gotta rewire that building to meet the code. The walls are open now; you gotta handle it like it's new construction, right? Again, these are people by and large who don't have the financial resources to repair not only the hurricane damage, but to bring the place back up to code which it never was before. That was the universal dilemma out here.

BG: So do you have the city honing in on this?

DE: Luckily not. The city's so busy with everything else that we don't have any code inspectors riding around doing that. Also, luckily, UMCOR [The United Methodist Committee on Relief] came into this community with their resources, and in addition to disinfecting the houses, they're rewiring them and they're meeting code on a lot of them. They're working with the neighbors. The people here know how to bang nails, know how to hang sheet rock, know how to take a car jack and jack up the house and re-level. If you can give them the resources and the help, people know how to live in the environment they've been in for six or seven generations. You just gotta give them the help, and don't hold it against them when they don't have it and force them to bulldoze or what have you.

That's happening all over the coast in Black communities that are similarly situated: older housing stock doesn't meet code. Here's another irony: those now represent some huge percentage of what's left of potentially recognized and protected heritage structures. The Gulf Coast from Mobile to New Orleans had one of the highest concentrations, maybe the highest concentration, of registered sites per capita on the beach front; they got leveled. Less than a year after the Mississippi coast was designated as a National Heritage Area to promote cultural tourism, now those sites, private homes and public buildings, are gone. So with all this promotion of the coast's cultural heritage, it's what was north of the tracks that still does stand, oftentimes located in disinvested black communities that haven't changed a lot over time architecturally.

So on the one hand, now there's a mandate and even some resources for revitalizing existing housing stock in the name of heritage preservation. The president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation said that Katrina could very easily be construed as the worst cultural disaster in American history, and that Congress and others need to take proactive measures to prevent that from happening. He further stated that a lot of what he was talking about are those shotgun homes and humble bungalows in previously marginalized com-munities on the Gulf coastal plain and in New Orleans.

On the other hand, the local municipalities, which never had any respect or regard for African-American history as part of coastal history and heritage, see them as buildings that need to be bulldozed either because they're "unsafe" or because the area they are in is better used for redesigned built landscapes for those cities.

The only exception was Turkey Creek, because for years Turkey Creek has been the squeakiest wheel on other issues. So lip-service reference to Turkey Creek became almost like the litmus test of a public person's familiarity with African-American identity or needs on the entire Gulf Coast. But there are many other communities. I for one have no intention of seeing Turkey Creek become the stand-in for public discourse about and resource allocation toward African Americans.

BG: So this is part of what you were saying before about the need for coordination among communities in this region.

DE: We've been working on that. I've gone to Moss Point, to Pascagoula. The National Trust sent in 300 architectural historians and structural engineers to meet with these municipal leaders and let them know that they were not allowed to use any of their own monies to demolish any potentially listed historical properties. One thing I was surprised to see FEMA doing was sending teams out here to make emergency assessments of cultural resources that are still here. What they found was that the local leaders were providing them very beach-centric or downtown-centric data because they didn't know that the blighted black community was probably the oldest or second oldest community within their own cities. And so they're like "Oh, it's all gone." They came to Turkey Creek and we did a thorough assessment, and now we're being fast-tracked by the State Department of Archives and History for recognition as a culturally and historically significant neighborhood. But I used that opportunity to say to them, "What about Gaston Point, Moss Point, the Old Quarters, these other places?" So they started going to these places that I would map out for them. I would give them enough economic history of that place so they can start getting that ball rolling for them as well. And I've met with community groups from some of these neighborhoods, to promote heritage as a component of our housing and community revitalization in the aftermath of Katrina.

Well, the two architectural historians and the structural engineer that I worked most closely with in making these referrals--they weren't getting them from city halls--are no longer with FEMA.

BG: Both before and since Katrina, you've been doing a very multifaceted kind of organizing in this area. Can you talk about what you've learned?

DE: We've got to be really creative. We've got to re-invent, in the 21st century, what the movement means. I can assure you, and I think Katrina helps me assure you, that if there's not some wedding of traditional civil rights issues with environmental justice--and add to that land-use vigilance, i.e. conservation where it's appropriate, heritage preservation where it's possible or appropriate--it's only a matter of time before there will be no Black south.

BG: I know from other contexts, the word "heritage" has a certain kind of resonance here in the South. Scott B. Smith, a civil rights activist from Alabama, talks about how the white cult of "heritage" is one of the ways in which the traditional white power structure exerts its muscle around community life in Montgomery and elsewhere. Here you're using the language of heritage in order to protect and sustain African-American communities.

DE: Very much. When I talk about saving Turkey Creek culturally and ecologically, interestingly enough, the ecological component makes it possible for me to go over to a trailer park that's occupied mostly by white folks and say, "Look, if this creek doesn't get cleaned up from the toxins that are being leached into it and making it unfishable and unswimmable, the folks behind it are destroying the Southern way of life." And they're like "Yeah!"

In Mississippi you have a straight-up "civil rights" issue, like the flag--which frankly, as long as it's a state run by closet Klansmen, they can keep their closet Klansmen flag so that it accurately represents where we are. The African National Congress didn't try to get rid of the South African flag, they got rid of Apartheid, then got rid of the flag. Since we're such a symbol-oriented culture, we sometimes place these symbols ahead of the meat-and-potatoes issues, like the fact that Mississippi only spends $7,000 per year per child on education.

And unconventional partnerships with people like hunters, bass fishermen. In Mississippi, when you go straight civil rights you're going to get a two-thirds/one-third split. You have to get half of the white folk over to the one-third that are black on an issue. Sometimes the way to do that is to downplay the phrase "civil rights" or the word "race," even though that's largely still what it is, but if you can conjoin that with a land-use decision--you know everybody around here who's not rich has been screwed by the Mississippi miracle, whether it's by flooding or what have you--then you have a chance.

There've been three times in this state's history when the eyes of the nation and the world have been on it to the extent that it has or could spell serious social change. The first one was, of course, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Then obviously the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the summer of 1964. Then third, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina brought a potentiality that is yet unfulfilled. So the question now is, what happens?

Ben Greenberg is a freelance journalist, Dollars & Sense collective member, and author of the blog Hungry Blues (http://hungryblues.us). He recently joined the staff of Physicians for Human Rights.

Issue # 264, March/April 2006