We started the day at the Mayor’s office for a brief conversation before launching into our day.
As usual, Kyla was there to keep us on track and deliver us to the library for our first scheduled interactions. We started in with the Mayor, asking how he became interested in civic action after moving back to Greenville, Mississippi! from his time at Howard University. Apparently Mayor Errick ran for city council right away upon moving home, feeling the call to serve his community. He and his twin brother have a history of being involved in “government”—starting in school, serving on student council all their years, with Errick as class president throughout every year of high school.
During his tenure on the city council, he focused his efforts on several issues within the black community, especially trying to keep up a daycare for black children. While the daycare eventually closed, Errick Simmons saw the opportunity to take on even greater challenges throughout Greenville and decided to run for Mayor. He ran on a “One Greenville” platform, and believes in working to welcome the least of our brethren, like the gospel says. An example of this work is his newly created Council for Homelessness which is working to change perceptions as well as provide services like housing, food, and job placement.
One of his first initiatives when coming to office focused on the centrality of faith to this region and community. As Mayor Errick explains, the black church—and likely the white church as well—is a pillar of the community. It organizes people, provides oratorical skills for youth growing up, he and his brother played basketball and football in Church sports leagues. He took the opportunity to use this focal point of the community to launch an interracial and interfaith initiative called Worship by the Water, a prayer gathering that happens by the river every fifth Sunday about five or six times a year. Most recently, Worship by the Water was led by the Catholic priest in town, sharing a message of respecting the water itself by being more aware of the plastics we use, keeping them out of the water—an important message, according to the Mayor.
We also learned about another much needed program called “Get to College,” a partnership between a non-profit and the city to help the youth of the community prepare for the college application process, especially the daunting FAFSA forms. Filling out forms like FAFSA can be nearly impossible, especially when parents have no personal experience with it and no computers at home sometimes. To show leadership from the top of the community, the Mayor has committed the city’s resources to the program on an annual basis. As we discussed the details of the program, Tom affirmed the Mayor’s involvement commenting how important it is to have such leadership and almost immediately he called Kyla in. Apparently Kyla had questioned taking on one more project, mainly because it lands in her lap, and the Mayor asked Tom to testify to its importance from his experience so she could hear and know the great worth of the work she does. She nodded and agreed, and said oh yes, it’s coming together.
Mayor Errick packed a lot into a twenty minute conversation…. We’ll need to circle back with him some time in the future if not to discuss more of his initiatives, perhaps to even collaborate on some. It was time to cross the street to the Library once again, and waiting for us there were Captain Howard Brent and Chief L. D. Williams. We noticed a bright orange Volkswagen Thing parked outside the library and saw a short man with horn rimmed glasses standing with a very tall and well adorned walking stick—this was L. D., easy to spot, and we would be sighting him often over the next day and a half… As we got down to talking, we learned that both men started their careers on the river as deck hands early in their youths, and they’ve been on the river ever since—in the end both claiming the vessel as their own but for different reasons. Captain Howard calls the vessel his own because he was responsible mainly for the crew, while Chief LD claims the vessel because he was responsible for the boat and all of its intricate inner-workings. They’ve both traveled to the top and bottom of every river navigable by tow boat within the Mississippi River watershed, and they’ve seen the many changes in the tow boat and barge industry over the years. Greenville—once the “tow boat capital of the world”—no longer has any active tow companies today, they said. In large part, this shift resulted from the corn embargo during Jimmy Carter’s administration followed by a fuel tax on river vessels that has continued to increase and impinge on profitability of small towing companies in the Delta.
They’ve both since retired. Captain Howard still owns some farmland that he’s put into trees as a conversation area. The legacy of his father, who started Brent Towing, lives on through the Jesse Brent Lower Mississippi River Museum and Interpretive Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi as well as the Jesse Brent Memorial Bridge on Hwy 82 crossing over the Mississippi River into Arkansas. Chief L. D. makes his retirement by driving his orange Volkswagen Thing around downtown Greenville where he lives on the 200 Block just off Main (the 100 block is under levee now, he tells us). He also carves variously adorned walking sticks—of which he gave us each one, mine from crepe myrtle and Tom’s from bamboo! We ran into him several times as we explored downtown Greenville, always riding top down in the Thing, walking stick keeping him company.
We moved off the river and into the schools of Greenville for our next conversation. Rev. Albert Calvin was born in Lakeport Arkansas but has been in Greenville since he was 2 years old. He’s the pastor at Mt. Horeb church, established in 1864. God spoke to Moses on Mt. Horeb, he tells us. Albert’s only years away from Greenville were his college years, first to Coahoma Community College, then Jackson State. He’s got a handful of degrees and certificates – Bachelors, Masters, even a Doctor of Divinity.
When Albert grew up, he was the child of teenage parents—mother and father ages 16 and 17 respectively. The decided to have him live with his grandmother who was just in her 30’s at the time, but later his mother had several more children that she raised herself. Albert tried to build a relationship with his brothers and sisters, but he wasn’t as enmeshed in their family circle since he lived apart. Living with his grandmother, and also living in town, he had some opportunities with schooling to see the importance of education beyond High School. He explained that schools were still segregated at the time, and also schools out in the country for the plantation communities were on an abbreviated term due to planting and harvesting versus those in town being a standard 9 months.
At the time there were very few buses taking kids to school as well, and some kids were walking 3 or 4 miles from the south side to get to the main high school. Those kids were never late, though, Albert said. While Albert went on from Greenville to college and higher degrees, he explains that even his own siblings, much less many of his peers at the time, were just trying to finish high school—just trying to get out as fast as they could, he said. Some didn’t make it through high school even, others went into the military and made a career that way. Some moved out of the Delta altogether hoping for a change. Albert has one brother who ended up in prison, and he is the only one in his family who stayed in contact with the brother for some time. Albert feels responsible for his siblings in large part, needing to be a good influence and attempt to shepherd them toward college or careers, or even just out of trouble.
When Albert returned to Greenville after college, he says factory and industry work were common in town. He even worked a factory job for a few months and made quite a good living, but when he got the opportunity to teach—which was his training—he took it. The teaching contract paid for a year 1/4 less what he had made in total at the factory for 4 months! But over time, he pursued that masters degree, earned his years of teaching, moved up into administration, salaries improved, and the reward of working with young people in his home community has all been well worth the challenge those first few years. Also, in the end, only a couple of those industries still remain—Uncle Ben’s and US Gypsum.
Albert first became a principal at the Solomon School, which he remembers being built out in some farm land that had been set aside for the new school. While he picked cotton in the field, he watched the construction of the school, and later when he walked in as principal, he thought, I’ve “made it to the pinnacle.” He was now in charge of a school he couldn’t even walk into years ago. When he taught history, Albert would always supplement the core curriculum with his own research, and he filled in those stories and details that the standard history books didn’t cover. He taught Mississippi history, United States history and civics. He says he followed the advice of one of his college mentors: “if you want the students to want what you’re offering, don’t be boring!”
During his time teaching, he saw the shift from fully integrated Greenville schools to a new kind of segregation due to “white flight” to the private schools and academies. Now the demographics in the Greenville Public Schools have become skewed heavily toward a predominantly black student body. Albert has strong beliefs about running a good school, and needing more good teachers. He’s not sold on the idea of “Teach for America” coming in to help Delta schools—he’d rather more “veteran teachers” come back and work in the schools. He wants to see more men in the classroom as well, always working to keep his school with a balance of men and women staff and teachers, but seeing a shift toward mostly females at all other schools. In the end, he sees teaching as a way of giving back and has done a great deal through his teaching and his pastoring to bring more unity and harmony into Greenville—his biggest hope for the future.
We left Rev. Calvin and went to lunch at the Butcher Block around the corner, running into Camille Brown briefly. The hamburger was as huge as the counter clerk said it would be and the salad was just as enormous. Our light lunch turned into a feast—can’t escape it in the South, it seems! We took a walk around downtown to aid digestion and eventually made it back to the library for 1:00 PM interactions.
James Johnson met with us first. He was born to a great father and great family, he says—his dad an X-Ray technician. James was a 1978 grad of Greenville High School and went into the military, serving in the military police. He traveled quite a bit to places like Alabama, Frankfort, Korea and Japan. Then he returned to Greenville and into management positions at Payless, Auto Zone and Holiday Inn Express. That’s when he says his “storm” moved in. His dad went through a series of treatments for prostate cancer and wasn’t getting better. On Sept 16, 1989 James was called to the hospital by his dad, who was heavily drugged by now. He told James to take care of his wife and baby sister. He and his dad had been very close over the years and he went into a period of deep despair. As he puts it—he gave up on life.
We learned about his missteps. Apparently he actually started selling drugs while in the military in Korea. He says it was all about the money—they weren’t paying much back then, and he got in with the Korean mob. While overseas he did get caught once, but they only reprimanded him and took one of his stripes—no court marshall or anything. When he came back stateside, he continued to sell but never to use until that “storm” set in with his father’s death. At that point, he got swept into a crack cocaine addiction that made him run through everything he ever held precious to him. That’s when he really got caught, writing bad checks as it were. Conviction, prison sentence, opportunities, parole violation, and a cycle that kept him returning to incarceration. All the time he was praying for direction, but as he puts it, “the Lord wasn’t answering.” He finally got into a 2-year program that allowed him to progress through five stages of rehabilitation and re-integration. One condition though, if you “come apart” you go back to prison. He never came apart.
Today he is Director of Maintenance at the Greenville Airport. A job where he not only manages a crew of five, but also puts his accumulated skills and knowledge to work. HVAC, electric, groundskeeping, mechanical, equipment. As James puts it “I fix everything”. He says he may retire in 3 years, but he’s also got several rental properties producing a good income for he and his large family. James considers moving one day out of the Delta, perhaps to Texas where he has a grown daughter living and working near Houston. He wants opportunity for his young kids, especially his stepson who is 13 years-old and struggling to stay on the straight and narrow. We look forward to keeping up with James’ story.
To close out this very full day of interactions, Phield Parish and Ben Nelken met us at the Library for a conversation. Right away the two men seemed to know each other and joked about being twin brothers, despite Phield being African American and Ben of Jewish descent. Phield was born across the river in Arkansas but moved to Mississippi at a young age—his dad was a porter for the railroad, a “white man’s job,” Field said. He doesn’t know why his dad was given the job, but according to Phield it began a trend of he and his family being treated differently, being set apart from other blacks. Phield is a former Chamber of Commerce president, former Rotary Club president, and was president of the Port Commission at one time. Thanks to a football scholarship coupled with an academic scholarship, Phield went to college at Alcorn State. After returning to Greenville, he work as a guidance counselor, bought a businesses, and eventually invested in rental properties. To Phield, money is sacred. He was taught by his parents “to put salt on your money” to preserve it, so he’s always been a saver and it’s paid off.
Phield left us, so we turned to Ben for his story. Ben’s family came to Greenville in 1900. They were store owners, and owned the banks, amongst other things. He joked that since they were Jews, they were God’s chosen people and did well for themselves. In Ben’s mind, Greenville was an “oasis of tolerance” relative to other Delta communities—less lynchings and the sort, but things were still pretty bad. He says that even today “voluntary segregation” still occurs. The black community that has joined the Rotary club rarely shows up to meetings. There doesn’t seem to be a willingness to come together, even for common interests. But Ben has been doing his part—he ran for City Council at one point, served on the Chamber of Commerce as well. He built a movie theater and started up several museums inviting representation from all communities. He does seem to be getting weary of doing so much for so long and is waiting for the next generation to get involved and take up the stick. He’s also hopeful for some of the black leadership to start to bridge the divide he’s felt so long within the community. Ben continues to make Greenville his home though because the people here know him and he knows them. He’d just sit and watch TV in a city like LA. Instead in Greenville he can get out and make a difference, and it seems he has.
Our day of interactions was finally done, so we said our final goodbye’s to the library meeting room (ice cold though it were), and made our way over to Doe’s Eat Place—recommended by the Mayor amongst other locals. The menu is limited, but you know it’s good, and Tom and I tucked into a plate of tamales, a rare cut of bone-in ribeye and a side of fries. With our two Lagunitas IPAs to keep our mouths refreshed, we did what damage we could do, and wrapped up what seemed like another half pound of steak to take in the cooler! Crashing was our only option once back at the hotel. Another solid day’s work done, and another night’s rest much needed!