What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Rural Poverty

Unemployment, depopulation and the legacy of slavery in Jefferson County, Miss.

Lauren Kaori Gurley March 27, 2017

An abandoned house in Fayette, Miss. (Photo by Imani Khayyam)

JEF­FER­SON COUN­TY, MISS. — In 2001, Michael Muham­mad, a 45-year-old bak­er from Detroit, moved 1,000 miles south to rur­al Fayette, Miss. Muham­mad saw oppor­tu­ni­ty in the town’s cheap land, low prop­er­ty tax­es and small but tight-knit African-Amer­i­can Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty. He and sev­er­al oth­er fol­low­ers of the New Nation of Islam pooled their resources for what would be the town’s only bak­ery — and in 2004, Fayette Bak­ery and Cof­fee Shop opened for business.

Like many former slave plantation counties, Jefferson County is divided into two distinct classes: a land-owning elite that is both Black and white, and a large, impoverished majority that is almost entirely African-American.

But busi­ness was slow, and Muham­mad soon began pick­ing up night shifts at a motel in a neigh­bor­ing coun­ty. To increase sales, his employ­ees took turns dri­ving a food truck from Jack­son to Baton Rouge, sell­ing frit­ters, donuts and bean pies. Muham­mad real­izes today that local spend­ing will prob­a­bly nev­er be enough to sup­port the bak­ery. In 2012, retail spend­ing for the year in Jef­fer­son Coun­ty, pop­u­la­tion 7,507, amount­ed to less than $2,900 per person.

Fayette is the only incor­po­rat­ed town in Jef­fer­son Coun­ty, Miss., the third least pop­u­lous coun­ty in Mis­sis­sip­pi and the six­teenth poor­est in the coun­try. Its unem­ploy­ment rate is the sec­ond high­est in the state. But it defies the stereo­type of rur­al pover­ty in at least one impor­tant way: Of the 3,143 coun­ties in the Unit­ed States, Jef­fer­son Coun­ty has the high­est per­cent­age of cit­i­zens who are African Amer­i­cans (85 per­cent of the county’s pop­u­la­tion in 2013).

Media rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Black pover­ty typ­i­cal­ly spot­light the seg­re­gat­ed inner cities of the Mid­west and Mid-Atlantic, like Chica­go, Detroit and Bal­ti­more. But less than half of the African-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion in the Unit­ed States resides in cities. Sub­urbs and exurbs are home to 43 per­cent of black Amer­i­cans, while 14 per­cent live in rur­al areas. That 14 per­cent has a pover­ty rate of approx­i­mate­ly 34 per­cent — twice as high as that of rur­al whites. Nation­wide, African Amer­i­cans have a 24 per­cent pover­ty rate, while whites have a 12 per­cent pover­ty rate. Sim­i­lar­ly, met­ro­pol­i­tan blacks have a 25 per­cent pover­ty rate and metro whites 12 percent.

Like­wise, recent pub­lic­i­ty giv­en to rur­al pover­ty in the Unit­ed States has been lim­it­ed to a dis­cus­sion of white Trump sup­port­ers. Judg­ing from these accounts, one might imag­ine rur­al Amer­i­ca as a sea of unbro­ken white. In fact, Black peo­ple (who over­whelm­ing­ly vote Demo­c­ra­t­ic) make up near­ly 20 per­cent of the rur­al poor.

In Octo­ber, In These Times trav­eled to Jef­fer­son Coun­ty, and spoke with both coun­ty res­i­dents and nation­al experts on the con­di­tions of rur­al Black pover­ty. Mil Dun­can, a rur­al soci­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Hamp­shire who has done exten­sive pover­ty field­work in the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta, Appalachia and New Eng­land, says that white pover­ty and Black pover­ty in the South are more alike than dif­fer­ent. Nonethe­less,” she adds, Black peo­ple in the South face the addi­tion­al bur­den of real, inescapable racism. … Poor rur­al Blacks in the South were always exclud­ed from decent schools and good jobs, and the lega­cy of that dis­crim­i­na­tion endures today.”

Michael Muham­mad out­side of his bak­ery and cof­fee shop. (Imani Khayyam)

Scrap­ing and scrapping

Dur­ing the 20th cen­tu­ry, Jef­fer­son Coun­ty lost more than two-thirds of its pop­u­la­tion, which peaked at 21,000 in 1900. Apart from Fayette, the coun­ty is made up of sev­en unin­cor­po­rat­ed com­mu­ni­ties and a hand­ful of ghost towns. A Google search of Jef­fer­son Coun­ty, Mis­sis­sip­pi” returns few hits, aside from a few web­sites about South­ern his­to­ry and geneal­o­gy and the home­page of the coun­ty government.

For L.C. Whis­tle, 60, who was born and raised in Jef­fer­son Coun­ty, it’s clear what caused the exo­dus. There ain’t been no jobs,” he says. These days he col­lects and sells old car parts and machin­ery to recy­cling plants. In the 1960s, res­i­dents remem­ber, one of the county’s largest employ­ers, an auto deal­er­ship, moved away. More than 40 years lat­er, the coun­ty has yet to attract new indus­try. This leaves most res­i­dents with three options: Leave, take a min­i­mum wage job or (like Whis­tle) find infor­mal work. You might make enough to live,” says Whis­tle, but you ain’t gonna get rich.”

Sher­iff Peter E. Walk­er, who is Black and has served Jef­fer­son Coun­ty for six con­sec­u­tive four-year terms, argues that chron­ic pover­ty in Jef­fer­son Coun­ty is a symp­tom of the community’s low work eth­ic and depen­dence on wel­fare. Those who real­ly want to work — they do work, even if they have to go out of town to work,” Walk­er tells In These Times. But then we have those who real­ly don’t desire to work, they just hang out on gov­ern­ment assis­tance, do what­ev­er they can to make a dol­lar. Drug deal­ing is some of it.”

In 2011, 31 per­cent of Jef­fer­son Coun­ty res­i­dents received food stamps, com­pared to 14 per­cent nation­al­ly. The jail incar­cer­a­tion rate in Jef­fer­son Coun­ty is more than 19 times the nation­al aver­age, accord­ing to the Vera Insti­tute of Justice.

Walk­er says that the solu­tion lies in shift­ing the community’s val­ues towards self-reliance and action. I’m hop­ing that one day the trend of fam­i­lies … instill­ing in our chil­dren to be depen­dent on the gov­ern­ment for sup­port, that that will change,” he says.

Sher­iff Peter E. Walk­er has served Jef­fer­son Coun­ty for six con­sec­u­tive four-year terms. (Imani Khayyam)

Walker’s argu­ment is referred to in the social sci­ences as the cul­ture of pover­ty” the­o­ry — that the poor are steeped in a cul­ture of hope­less­ness, depen­den­cy and igno­rance, passed down through the gen­er­a­tions. Through­out the 1980s and 90s, the the­o­ry trick­led into the main­stream polit­i­cal debate, gain­ing trac­tion in the anti-wel­fare plat­forms of both Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can politi­cians. The degrad­ing label of wel­fare queen,” first coined by a Chica­go Tri­bune reporter, became a favorite of Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan in his cru­sade to dis­man­tle New Deal pro­gram­ming, a move that would impact both poor whites and poor Blacks. Many social sci­en­tists and activists crit­i­cized the cul­ture of pover­ty” the­o­ry for demo­niz­ing the poor as lazy and free­load­ing, and for over­look­ing the role of insti­tu­tion­al and struc­tur­al forces in the per­pet­u­a­tion of poverty.

Those insti­tu­tion­al forces are read­i­ly appar­ent in the rur­al South, where the lega­cy of slav­ery con­tin­ues to vis­i­bly shape the econ­o­my. Like many for­mer slave plan­ta­tion coun­ties along the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er, Jef­fer­son Coun­ty is divid­ed into two dis­tinct class­es: a land-own­ing elite that is both Black and white, and a large, impov­er­ished major­i­ty that is almost entire­ly African-Amer­i­can. In 2015, few­er than 1 per­cent of Jef­fer­son County’s white res­i­dents lived below the pover­ty line, com­pared to 56.1 per­cent of Black residents.

White descen­dants of plan­ta­tion own­ers make up most of the landown­ing elite in Mis­sis­sip­pi, accord­ing to Mar­vin King, a pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­sis­sip­pi in Oxford. But he notes that the 20th cen­tu­ry saw the rise of a small Black mid­dle class, some of whom acquired large estates in Jef­fer­son County.

Oui­da Pittman is one of these excep­tions. Her father — an African-Amer­i­can school­teacher — inher­it­ed an estate from his father, a clever busi­ness­man, that includ­ed sev­er­al lakes and hun­dreds of rolling acres of corn, cot­ton, but­ter­beans, sweet pota­to and okra. The Pittmans raised and butchered hogs for pork-chops, bacon and smoked sausage. The town always thought my fam­i­ly was rich,” says Pittman, who today makes a mod­est liv­ing as a child­care provider. Her fam­i­ly no longer farms, instead hold­ing their land for per­son­al use. Still, they remain rel­a­tive haves in a com­mu­ni­ty of have-nots.

The con­cen­tra­tion of land own­er­ship shaped Jef­fer­son Coun­ty, con­tribut­ing to a vicious cycle of lim­it­ed job oppor­tu­ni­ties, low edu­ca­tion lev­els and low pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty that can be found in much of the rur­al South. Wes­ley Whit­tak­er, a pro­fes­sor of agri­cul­ture at Alcorn State Uni­ver­si­ty, a his­tor­i­cal­ly black land-grant insti­tu­tion in Lor­man, Miss., says that land­hold­ing elites have long pre­vent­ed eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment in the region by restrict­ing the land to forestry and per­son­al use instead of pro­vid­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for devel­op­ment and farm­ing that could bring jobs to the area.

You have very large landown­ers in this par­tic­u­lar area,” Whit­tak­er says. Some­body who grows forestry will keep the land [restrict­ed] for years, reap­ing the tim­ber. And after they reap it, it takes a long time until they can con­vert it into crop­land, so there’s not a lot of rur­al crops.”

This small group of landown­ers also retained a stran­gle­hold over local polit­i­cal pow­er. The [plan­ta­tion own­ers] were wor­ried about unions and about civ­il rights orga­niz­ing, and so they delib­er­ate­ly kept many peo­ple from get­ting an edu­ca­tion or from par­tic­i­pat­ing in civic life,” says Dun­can, the pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Hamp­shire. In the ear­ly 1990s, there was still very real exclu­sion of African Amer­i­cans from civic life [in rur­al Mis­sis­sip­pi]. If they worked for change, they would be punished.”

Exo­dus begins

In the 1930s, Blacks fled Mis­sis­sip­pi in large num­bers, hop­ing to escape the insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism of Jim Crow and find union­ized man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs in north­ern indus­tri­al cities. By the 1940 cen­sus, the state had become major­i­ty white for the first time. Between the 1960s and 1990s, fed­er­al civ­il rights leg­is­la­tion and fears of forced inte­gra­tion accel­er­at­ed white flight from major­i­ty-Black coun­ties like Jef­fer­son Coun­ty. As a result, the state’s rur­al Black pop­u­la­tion grew small­er but more con­cen­trat­ed, leav­ing Black com­mu­ni­ties vul­ner­a­ble to neglect and dis­in­vest­ment from the state.

In today’s deeply seg­re­gat­ed rur­al South, where Blacks often do not come into direct dai­ly con­tact with whites, racism oper­ates in the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry allo­ca­tion of state and fed­er­al fund­ing. Since 1999, Black com­mu­ni­ties in the state have received bil­lions of dol­lars in set­tle­ments for cas­es involv­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion in the state’s high­er edu­ca­tion sys­tem and in the allo­ca­tion of farm sub­si­dies. In 2015, a white state rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Mis­sis­sip­pi made a state­ment imply­ing that schools in African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties didn’t deserve addi­tion­al fund­ing because all the blacks are get­ting food stamps and what I call wel­fare crazy checks.’ ” Because many white fam­i­lies opt out of the pub­lic school sys­tem, Blacks make up a dis­pro­por­tion­ate per­cent­age of the stu­dents in Mis­sis­sip­pi pub­lic schools — which rank fifth low­est nation­al­ly in annu­al spend­ing per stu­dent, at $8,263. And in a March 2016 report, the U.S. Com­mis­sion on Civ­il Rights found that Mis­sis­sip­pi was lim­it­ing Black com­mu­ni­ties’ access to fed­er­al­ly sub­si­dized child­care services.

Clarence Hill, 65, stands in Fayette Help­ing Hands, the com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion and cloth­ing shop he runs. (Imani Khayyam)

Choos­ing to stay

The decades-long north­ward migra­tion of Blacks was spurred in large part by the brazen— and vio­lent — racism of the South. Clarence Hill, 65, remem­bers those days. It used to be you see a white per­son com­ing down [the side­walk], and you bet­ter get out on that road,” says Hill.

Hill is a retired truck dri­ver who now runs a sec­ond­hand cloth­ing shop in Fayette. His moth­er — a share­crop­per — sin­gle­hand­ed­ly raised him and his sev­en sib­lings while his father served a 10-year prison sen­tence for rob­bing and assault­ing a white man.

Hill recalls lynch­ings in the coun­ty as recent­ly as the 1960s. A lot of peo­ple got hung in that cour­t­house,” Hill says, ges­tur­ing down Main Street in Fayette. In Hill’s shop hangs a dark, fad­ed poster of Mar­tin Luther King Jr., look­ing out in front of an Amer­i­can flag.

Things are dif­fer­ent now, he says. “[The racism here] isn’t as bad as it used to be. They got it more cov­ered up now.”

The exo­dus from Jef­fer­son Coun­ty con­tin­ues, but these days, the pri­ma­ry rea­sons are eco­nom­ic. Priscil­la Hous­ton, a 23-year-old Jef­fer­son Coun­ty native, says that grow­ing up, she and her friends dreamed of mov­ing to cities like Atlanta and Mem­phis. “[My friends] say, I can’t wait to leave Fayette.’ I’ve said that sev­er­al times.” As they got old­er, both of her broth­ers moved to more pop­u­lous parts of the South. Those who leave for col­lege often nev­er return.

Priscil­la Hous­ton sits in Fayette, Miss. (Imani Khayyam)

Hous­ton is an excep­tion. After grad­u­at­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Mis­sis­sip­pi in 2015, she decid­ed to move back in with her par­ents in Fayette, where she began work­ing a min­i­mum wage job at a local day­care cen­ter. She missed the hos­pi­tal­i­ty of Fayette, she says.

Clarence Hill says he has con­sid­ered leav­ing. It ain’t that I love it here,” he says. But I got every­thing here; there ain’t no sense in start­ing over.”

The pub­li­ca­tion of this sto­ry was sup­port­ed by a grant from the Mar­guerite Casey Foundation’s Equal Voice Jour­nal­ism Fel­low­ship Award.

Lau­ren Kaori Gur­ley is a staff writer at VICE’s Moth­er­board on the labor beat. She is a for­mer con­tribut­ing writer to Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times and In These Times intern. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @laurenkgurley.
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