[Points South theme]

Sara A. Lewis: Welcome back to Points South. I'm your host, Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. This is part two of a story about Mitchellville, Arkansas. If you haven't listened to part one, you should go do that now and then come back. In the last episode, we learned about Mitchellville's foundations as a Black town and its struggle to gain economic independence. Now let's join producer Christian Leus to learn about the next chapter in the town's history: the Mitchellville Self-Help Project, led by Daisy Bates.

[sounds of rain and geese]

Christian Leus: We’re in Mitchellville, Arkansas, a small Black town just north of Dumas, in Desha County.

Essie Williams: When we farmed, we farmed from sunup to sundown. We were up every morning before the sun was up. I’ve milked cows by moonlight, by daybreak.

CL: This is Essie Williams. She and her family have lived in Mitchellville since before the town was founded in the 1940s.

EW: This was before all these people came in here.

CL: Ms. Williams’ father, Charlie Kelly, was one of the original founders of Mitchellville, and served as the town’s first mayor. By the 60s, the town had grown from just a few families to over a hundred. What once was farmland for families like Ms. Williams’ now held houses, and a growing community of people struggling against extraction by their white town neighbor, Dumas, and disinvestment by the state. That’s when the town caught the attention of one of Arkansas’s most important civil rights leaders: Daisy Bates. Daisy Bates visited Mitchellville for the first time sometime in the mid-60s. Bates, then head of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, had made her name in 1957, when she worked as an advocate and mentor during the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School. She continued to work towards desegregation in Little Rock well into the 60s—but as the industries of white flight and private schools grew, and the limits of court rulings became apparent, she began looking for other places to make change.

[energetic music]

Misti Harper: So I was really excited that you wanted to talk about Mitchellville. It's not terribly understood outside of Arkansas, and it's not terribly understood broadly in Arkansas. You, you pretty much have to be interested in the post-Central High School life of Daisy Bates to know the significance of this community and her work there.

CL: Misti Harper is an assistant professor of African-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke who researches Bates’s life and career. Dr. Harper says Bates was a deeply committed crusader for civil rights and a savvy political mind.

MH: She was very inherently political in the way that she thought about herself once she became an adult. How she wanted people to perceive her. She understood the usefulness of, of appealing to a lot of mainstream traditional ideas about women, but also about Black women, right? And certainly in work that would put her in the public spotlight. And so I think that once she had become the president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP, once she was the clear leader and face of leadership for desegregation in Little Rock, I think that she really relished the ability to be a policymaker, a challenger to the status quo.

CL: Bates first visited Mitchellville to give a speech on behalf of the NAACP and was intrigued by its story as a Black town. It was demographically different from the bifurcated Black-white division of her hometown of Huttig, but the poverty was familiar. According to her own account, Bates was so taken aback by the conditions in Mitchellville that she put down her speech and began asking the gathered crowd about the town. She remembered, “I asked them why they wanted a town in the first place. I could see they had little hope or pride.”

MH: You know, I mean, she talked about how whenever she first visited Mitchellville, there was no public sewer system. Sewage just ran in the ditches. You know, calling the roads that she drove on streets—that's, that's too big of a reach. They're not paved, right? There clearly is no investment being put into this community that I think is just, gosh, 10 minutes, if that, from Dumas. And Daisy talked about, too, just like the pain of seeing residents’ own apathy to their situation. Why go to school? Why try? There's no escaping Mitchellville's poverty or just the myriad of social conditions that have been placed around this town. I think that Mitchellville spoke to something very deep in her that here is a community that is continuing to live in appalling conditions.

CL: For Bates, that first visit to Mitchellville presented a two-fold opportunity: a chance to help and a chance to lead.

MH: So when she gets there, she's met with curiosity more than anything else. You know, and the people who are interested in, in seeing or listening to Mrs. Bates, you know, Mrs. Bates who spearheaded desegregation. They're there because of celebrity, which is flattering to her. Daisy in a post-Central High School world was looking for political relevancy again. For all of her innate ambition to continue being a civil rights activist and leader after Central High School, it's just this beautiful moment where I think she taps back into who she was as a little girl in Huttig and who she became, and what she knows these people can become if they have the resources.

CL: For Daisy Bates, that impromptu town hall was the seed of an initiative that would fundamentally change the town, in good—and more complicated—ways: the Mitchellville Self-Help Project.

[thoughtful music]

CL: Daisy Bates began work in earnest on the Mitchellville Self-Help Project in 1967. At the time, Bates held a position as a rural training leader in the Office of Economic Opportunity, or OEO, in the state government. Even from its earliest conceptions, the Mitchellville Project was ambitious: a multi-pronged, multi-million dollar campaign to bring improved infrastructure, education, employment, and a self-sustaining sense of community pride to the town. Ms. Williams’ father and sister both worked closely with Bates during her time in Mitchellville.

EW: What their conversations were like, I don’t know. I just know they got along well together. My sister used to talk about her regularly. She was the first secretary for the city of Mitchellville.

CL: In October of 1967, Bates enlisted Dr. Bob Riley, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University, to create an economic survey of the town. Dr. Riley and his students interviewed Mitchellville residents and compiled a detailed report, which Bates then took to Washington, D.C., where she pitched the project to the Department of Agriculture. By January of 1968, Bates had a reply from John A. Baker, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, who wrote, "You made a favorable impact here on your visit to Washington… I have directed each of our agencies… and their personnel to cooperate in making a success of this most worthwhile undertaking. You can be assured of their help wherever possible." Over the next seven years, Bates organized and oversaw an incredible amount of work in Mitchellville. In 1968, she began living in the town full time; in 1969, she estimated that federal funds allocated to Mitchellville totalled over $1 million. Bates directed the money into laying a sewage system, paving roads, obtaining a fire truck, buying medical equipment, building a community center, establishing a credit union, and starting up a laundry list of professional training and adult education programs. In August of 1969, she told the Arkansas Democrat that she was declining national speaking engagements and all other activities not related to the Mitchellville project. She said, “I feel that my job is here… You really don't know what poverty is until you've lived with it.” Even though many of the project’s initiatives relied on obtaining outside funding through grants, loans, and donations, the framing of the project itself emphasized self-help above all else.

MH: There is, especially in Daisy, this ethos of, “Let's turn inward, let's build something that reflects who we are as Black people. Let's take a hold of this and, and instill not only necessities, you know, create things that will have lasting practical use, but also that will instill pride in who we are.” Daisy is very much invested in this bootstrap idea that I think is most closely associated with Booker T. Washington, while also tapping into something that Dr. King is doing in the last years of his life, which is focusing on the economic uplift of Black America. Daisy has this streak of Black power ideology.

CL: On the public stage, it seems that Bates’s “bootstraps” framing was at least in part a strategy to obscure the radical politics at the center of the project of building and empowering a Black town. White-run papers celebrated the seemingly apolitical project, reporting multiple times that Mitchellville residents “refuse to talk about civil rights or any movement supposedly aimed at pointing out the faults in the government.” This narrative of self-sufficiency with minimal to no government help is a dance between uplift and respectability politics and Black power politics. Bates shared her bootstraps plan with state and federal agencies; meanwhile, in Mitchellville, she drafted a reading list for a community Black History class that included WEB DuBois, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.

MH: She definitely wants these people to reevaluate who they are, what they're capable of. And even though they are accepting money, they are applying for grants, they are working with the state, which, which is of course, you know, still controlled by majority white officials. She very much wants Mitchellville to reflect their ingenuity, their creativity.

Zandria F. Robinson: There's a lot of people power that I would imagine is in the air at this time in Mitchellville, as it was across the South.

CL: This is Zandria F. Robinson, urban sociologist and professor of African American Studies at Georgetown.

ZFR: You've got the desire for labor organization. You've got this spirit of renewed civil rights organizing both around labor and around access and equity. And this is about schools, this is about public accommodations. But you've also still got the rule of Jim Crow. And so I think of places where people can actually get together and sit and talk about issues and organize around them as some of the most significant places of power in our society. It's in this density in these places. Again, this is not density that you could see if you zoom up on the census map. But these are the places of change. These are radical places of change and possibility.

CL: In 1974, nearly a decade after that first visit to Mitchellville and seven years since the beginning of the Mitchellville Self-Help Project, Daisy Bates left Mitchellville to move back to Little Rock. She had suffered a series of minor strokes, and her deteriorating health meant she could no longer oversee the Mitchellville project.

MH: I think Daisy would have continued living and working in Mitchellville, protecting what she and Mitchellville residents had been able to build in those seven years. I think that she would've stayed there indefinitely. And I think Mitchellville is just this incredible moment where Daisy has amassed, now, respectability and clout. And now here she is, this woman who has stood alongside Dr. King and Bayard Rustin, and, and she has been in these rooms and these spaces of power, and she's worked with presidents and, and she comes back to Mitchellville and she is determined to lift up all of the other Daisy Lee Gatsons she can find. At the same time, Daisy falls into this pit of very much being a, a savior. And this, this is not some sort of character indictment. Daisy is a gloriously fully actualized human being. She enjoys feeling like she is saving this community, and she is their archangel, right?

CL: Over the seven-year course of the Mitchellville project, Bates regularly butted heads with other community organizers in the town. At one point, Bates stood up in church and called out the Puryear Wood Company for polluting the air and hiring people from out of town. Shortly after, the mill left Mitchellville. While some townspeople were glad to see the mill go, others said that Bates had run them out, costing the town the few valuable jobs the mill provided.

EW: There were several people over there working. Where their location was I don’t really know. But yeah, several people was over there working, they were coming in, they had those saws going and so somebody had to operate them.

CL: In her work mentoring Mitchellville’s youth, Bates also overstepped the boundaries of the town’s parents.

MH: She takes in this young girl, I believe her name was Linda, to essentially raise for about three or four years. This girl is now living in Daisy's trailer, and basically, like, it's a combination of, sort of like a junior community college experience, like combined with a charm school initiative. She is really trying to invest in Linda to create this super kid who is going to be this model of education and political savviness and all of these things. But she crosses a line. She goes to Linda's parents, who are absolutely alive and love their daughter. She asks them if she can formally adopt Linda. And whenever they're like, “No,” you know, this breaks her heart and it makes her angry. And she sort of emotionally shuts down from that family, from Linda, which is traumatizing to this kid, right?

CL: On a deeply personal level, Mrs. Daisy Bates was single-minded in executing her vision of what an improved, self-sustaining Mitchellville would look like. And while this made her an incredibly efficient fundraiser and organizer, it also meant that she acutely felt the pressure of the project’s success or failure. After she left Mitchellville, many of the projects she fostered began to decline—the credit union closed, and community programs faltered. The community center she helped build is still standing, but is rarely in use.

EW: I don’t know what happened to the building. I don’t know if it dilapidated or if they just moved away and nobody else moved in to take care of it. I don’t know which it was. Used to be activities up there all the time. Children would, that was their place away from home, the community center. They did a lot of lunches for young kids back then. Had nice summer activities for the children, swimming and doing whatever. The building is there now but I don’t even know if it’s—I don’t think it’s in full operation any more for anything.

CL: But the end of the bootstrap project was far from the end of Mitchellville. 2024 marks 80 years since the Watson Association first purchased the land that became the town. Through the decades, through extraction and disinvestment, through effort and hope, there are still families, like Ms. Williams’, who love to call Mitchellville home. Her son, Terrence, wants to become a farmer like his grandfather.

Terrence Williams: All the animals around you, raising them and seeing to them. And you got all kind of trees and stuff growing, you know, fruits and nuts. And everything’s provided right there, you know?

ZFR: When I think of the futures of places, there's going to be a continued resistance. We see it as people protest, as people make themselves known in neighborhoods that have been gentrified, and then have the police called on them for making too much noise. And in the smaller towns like Mitchellville that have such a long history that have fought so long and hard to stay in existence, the community engagement there, there's going to begin to be cultural production that comes out of that, that can be seen elsewhere. There will be something that comes from that space that sort of makes their presence known. Maybe not to the whole nation, but just to the region. And this is how you begin to sort of recognize this is going on in this place, this is happening in my place too.

CL: There are so many other places like Mitchellville. From maroon communities, to early 20th century Black towns, to modern incorporated cities, Black people have sought the freedom to govern themselves without the perils of bondage, oppression, and extraction. At the same time, Mitchellville’s story is unique—it was founded in a time of hope and optimism, when rapid mechanization allowed the processes of creative extraction to work with ever-increasing speed. Today, 50 years after Daisy Bates left Mitchellville, the town faces a declining population, a persistent lack of education and work opportunities, and a dwindling sense of community. When I first met Ms. Williams, she explained about her address—that the Dumas post office obscured where she really lived, the community that nurtured her, the family history she’s so proud of, the land that holds memories and hopes for the future. These things, like so many Black towns, are missing from the traditional map—and they tell an ongoing story about Black people striving to be free.

EW: I know I’m very contented right here. And I’m so glad I was brought up at the time I was, so I could learn what I have learned.

[Points South theme]

SAL: This episode was produced by me, Christian Leus, and Zandria F Robinson. Thank you to Dr. Melissa Stuckey, Dr. Danielle Purifoy, and Dr. Misti Harper. Thanks to Essie and Terrence Williams and to the Desha County Library. Post-production and score thanks to Curtis Fye and Trey Pollard of Spacebomb. This episode is supported by the Arkansas Humanities Council. Visit oxford american.org/pointssouth to find more episodes, plus films, photographs, and more from the world of Points South.