GREENVILLE TO EUDORA
We had some time in the morning to pull out our laptops and write up notes—fueled by coffee from the nearby Double Quick.
We hoped to catch up completely but it takes time to process the experiences of a community, especially one as full and engaging as Greenville, Mississippi. We took our homework over to Jim’s Cafe for a quick breakfast. Apparently Jim’s is the oldest restaurant establishment in Washington County, and a good place to grab your bacon and eggs! After our morning start, we headed over to our launch spot on Main Street just outside City Hall about 15 minutes early in the hopes of saying our goodbyes to Kyla and the mayor.
Kyla (with the help of Kyla #2) orchestrated our entire Greenville experience—two full days with many “audibles” called along the way. She was so very good to us and important to the Relay project. We wanted to thank her one last time before launching. But wait—the City Hall door is locked. Oh yeah . . . it’s Saturday. How easily we lose track of the day of the week on this journey!
Forced to abort the goodbye mission, Tom went ahead and launched the run out of Greenville down Broadway where the sidewalks were good in some spots and not so good in others. We went past our favorite Double Quick—thanks for the coffee, DQ, and the heat rose up once again (our smartphones said it’s a high of 95 degrees) and the south wind kicked in. These are tough conditions but this is an exciting day.
Our new Greenville friend, Lonnie Smith, joined us at the base of the Jesse Brent Memorial Bridge for one more run together. This time he and Tom went up and over the Mississippi, grabbing the requisite selfie at the top. I waited at the base on the Arkansas side, getting ready for the run to bike exchange, my turn to head out for the next 15 miles or so. To my surprise, a pick-up truck rolled over the highway and pulled up right next to me, rolling down their window… it was none other than Terri McCullough, pilot of the Mississippi River Parkway Commission, and her husband Will. They wanted to welcome me in style to Arkansas and make sure the Sheriff arrived for my police escort to Eudora.
I soon spotted the guys descending the bridge, with Sheriff Ron Nicholls just behind them. They all tagged over to us on the shoulder and we exchanged introductions and niceties and got to the business of changing places. Terri and Will headed home by the levee road, while the Sheriff and I headed on down the highway toward Eudora. Tom drove Lonnie back over the bridge to his car and a final farewell—that is, until he makes the trip up to Minnesota for vegetarian gumbo and a marathon run! (To be continued….)
The ride was smooth sailing at first, even a tail wind perhaps, but the winds shifted soon enough to push against me from the South and I slowed down a few mph. By the end of the ride, the heat was upon me, body sweating like rain. But I had to get off and run now—this was the hardest run yet. Suffocating heat, and yet I couldn’t slow my cadence at first. Eventually I moderated it but a painful run I’d like to forget. The sight of Tom at the turn to the Eudora Cultural Center was a welcome one, and running the last tenths of a mile was all I could do.
As we walked in the Cultural Center, we were met by Sally Tisdale. She welcomed us in and gave us a chance to dry off and get some water. People started arriving immediately. First was a young high school student who serves on the youth council at the center. He’s recently come back from a trip to Washington, DC as a result of his success at the American Legion’s Boy’s State Program where he rose to the ranks of Governor. Two kids from each county were selected for the trip to DC, and he was amongst them. He said it was an amazing experience to sit across from other kids from places all over the country who may look nothing like you but still have your same story, or even “a better story,” he says. This young man attends the public high school in neighboring town Lake Village—Eudora no longer supports its own school.
The public school has a demographic makeup around 80% African American, 18% Mexican, 2% White, he says. The rest of the white population attends private schools or like another young student we met this day, travel to a “Truman Show”-like public school just across the state line in Louisiana. The Lake Village high school recently moved up from a D grade to a C grade, the first student said, so he believes they deserve some more services and attention from the state and school board. The school feels like a prison, he says—it’s all about the uniform—the students are not allowed to be themselves, and teachers are just worrying about their check rather than the students learning. But he is not just making complaints. Even from the student level, he is working hard to raise the value of education at his school, trying to bring in more teachers, better classes, and be an example to other students. This admirable young man plans to go away to college, but also to come back home to Eudora in the end. He wants to do what he can to make a difference in his hometown. He realizes it may not turn in his lifetime, but he wants to be a part of that change, and he feels it takes everyone to contribute.
The other young high school student who had joined us for the conversation is a lover of history, and while he’s not certain of an opportunity for employment back in Eudora after college, he would love to come home and refurbish a particular historic home, finding a way to tell the great history of this area, he says. The history of Eudora was well understood by Reynold, another young man who joined us—by young, this time I mean in his forties. Reynold’s family are longtime residents of the area, owning land along the levee. Even with Reynold, though, the conversation circled back to education, obviously a big issue in this community that has lost its own schools. Reynold sends his children to nearby Catholic Schools which he says have a nearly 50/50 breakdown in terms of racial diversity. He says sometimes race is called out as the reason for the problems here, but he feels its economics. There’s a history of racial tension, but today its the poverty that’s causing the poor school system, and people don’t want to send their children to a school where they won’t end up college ready. Everyone in the room noted how the first young student was the exception with the public school, and even he nodded in agreement.
The afternoon’s events had been organized by Sally Tisdale, a board member at the Cultural Center, as well as newly hired director Stephanie Vetrano. She was born in Mississippi, grew up in Alabama until moving to Lake Village in jr. high or high school. Eventually she moved back out to Alabama, but Arkansas was calling her home. After returning, she settled in Eudora, discovering a property that gave a sense of peace just looking into the trees—her moment of enlightenment. She says you couldn’t give her enough money to move back to Lake Village, but Eudora is somehow special, and different. Stephanie also feels connected with the history of this place—from old, antique and historic items that she collects like bottles from the old Dr. Pepper bottling company to her last dying wish to re-establish the town’s Main Street as a vibrant strip of stores and businesses. Her new job at the Cultural Center, a big shift from her former work running a shop, will give Stephanie the opportunity to play a part in the future of Eudora as she’ll be working with the youth there to envision a better place.
The Cultural Center itself was set up by Sally and others to create a sense of community. They offer a summer teaching program, a collegiate trip, Thursday roundtable sessions with local High School students. They are also building STEAM children’s museum next door (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). Technology is already here in Eudora, Sally says, with an expansion at the old sewing factory where they are working in robotics now. Sally herself is a Eudora High School graduate who lived through the integration of schools from the “school choice” program in 1966 to full integration in the 70’s, and she has seen the decline in education within the county and the departure of white students to private schools. She is doing her part, through the Cultural Center, to give back and make change.
Sally had also invited Eric West and Robert Thomas to join us. “West,” as everyone referred to him, has owned and operated a local barbershop in Eudora for 52 years. He was also a school bus driver for 40 years. Being born and raised just outside of the city limits, he’s seen the change in Eudora over the years—the loss of population, the departure of the 19 grocery stores. “Today we’re begging for one to stay,” he says. He loves his work in the barbershop, though, because there you find a lot of stories. People let their guards down and anyone can come in and talk about anything. When I asked about the progress made in race relations since those early days of integration, West said people in the community are definitely more intermingling, and yet, they still don’t connect. He made his point by saying to another man, a white man, at the table named Reynold Meyer, I know you, and you probably know me, but I don’t know your name, we’ve never had a conversation… Reynold looked back wide-eyed at being called out, but he couldn’t deny it. This prompted a round of introductions around the room that went beyond “my name is X and I grew up here,” to more extensive building up of networks of knowing each other, relationships people had without even knowing it, as well as voicing of other ideals and concerns along the way.
Reynold actually did a lot of the talking at this roundtable discussion, knowing a great deal of history and specifics about Eudora and Arkansas in general. His family has long lived in the area, owning land along the levee. Reynold is in his mid-40’s and has a couple of kids currently going to Catholic school nearby. He says it’s 50/50 black and white. Sometimes race is called out as the reason for problems, he says, but really a lot of it is economics. Poverty is such a big issue this region is facing. But Reynold was raised here, and after college at the University of Arkansas and living in the big city of Memphis for a while, as well as Vicksburg, he decided to come home and farm the family land. This is home. He may be giving up some comforts like Starbucks and malls, but raising his family here is important.
Near the end of our conversation, I decided to ask about local politics. The last time I was in town—a little over a year ago—Sally’s husband Stephen was Mayor. I knew he was not running for re-election, and I met a young man, Jonathan Patrick, working in the mayor’s office who was hoping to succeed him. In the end, Jonathan did not prevail, and the newly elected mayor took office, serving for only seven days before being removed from office over felony charges he had failed to reveal. As we discussed the future of Eudora’s leadership, Reynold said he lives outside the city limits, so he doesn’t have a voice in it. West also lives outside the city limits, but feels folks like he and Reynold should band together in search of a good candidate to replace the mayor, defining expectations for what would lead Eudora back into a good situation. “Why can’t we all sit like we do now? We don’t know each other,” he says. “We need to find the conversation.” Everyone agreed that the new leadership needs to be a realist—“Eudora will never be what it was.” The new leader needs to assure clean water, grocery, pharmacy, clean properties.
After this amazing group discussion, we broke to mingle with a number of other Eudora residents who had just walked through the doors. Refreshments were provided, and we all enjoyed a short documentary about the story of Eudora that had been put together by the Cultural Center in 2007. Saying farewells took some time, but eventually we made our way out to the home of Terri and Will McCullough, our hosts for the night.
They had invited several friends from church over for a feast of fried quail and all the fixings! We didn’t go to bed hungry that’s for sure, and I got one more birthday cake with the candle numbers “39” on top, all alight for me to blow out…. I will never stop turning 39 at this rate!