[Points South theme]
Sara A. Lewis: Welcome to Points South. I'm your host, Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. Today we're joining producer Christian Leus on a journey to Mitchellville, Arkansas, a small town in the Delta not far from the Arkansas-Mississippi state line. Mitchellville's story is little known even to Arkansans, but in the 1960s, it was the site of a high profile civic improvement project started by civil rights leader Daisy Bates. The challenges and changes the town has faced—from incorporation to infrastructure to economic sustainability—can tell us a lot about the history of Black towns throughout the country. In the first part of this two-part series, we'll explore Mitchellville's foundations and what it means to be a Black town.
[sounds of rain and geese; footsteps in gravel; car starting]
Christian Leus: This time of year, here in the southern sweep of the Arkansas Delta, the fields of Desha County are flooded with cold water. Bare oak, willow, and cottonwood trees line the ditches and bayous. Snow geese fly overhead. I’m driving along Highway 65, just south of the Arkansas River as it runs to meet up with the Mississippi. Ahead of me, I can see the traffic lights and billboards of Dumas, the county seat. But I’m stopping short of the city limits for a special appointment.
Essie Williams: It just seems like I ought to have something more exciting, exotic to tell you. Nothing exciting about the life that we live here.
CL [in oral history]: Well it’s exciting to me!
CL: This is Ms. Essie Williams. On paper, Ms. Williams lives in Dumas. The closest post office, hospital, and grocery store are all there. But as she explained to me when we talked in her house just off of Highway 65, her address is only a technicality. She doesn’t live in Dumas, but in a smaller town just north of it: Mitchellville.
EW: We’ve always used Dumas as our postal service. I don’t know why we never got a post office here. I’ve wondered, but I never looked into it.
CL: Ms. Williams’ family moved to the area in 1944, to farm land that had been part of a National Youth Administration camp for unemployed workers during the Great Depression. The World War II employment boom lessened the need for the camp, and the land—all 37 acres of it—was put up for auction. The land was bought by the Watson District Association, a coalition of 29 Black church congregations from Desha County and the next county over to the west, Lincoln County. The Association split the 37 acres into individual home-sized lots, made provisions to run electricity to them, and sold the parcels for cheap—as little as $50 for a 50 by 125 foot lot. They named the new community Mitchellville after their leader, Reverend John Mitchell. Ms. Williams’ father, Charlie Kelly, was the town’s first mayor.
EW: Daddy was the first mayor, Mr. Arthur Bowens was second, his wife was third, Joe James was fourth, Bobby Norman was five, and the one we’ve got over there now is six.
CL: Mr. Kelly also ran a store in Mitchellville.
EW: He sold a lot of different items, household groceries and stuff. Yeah, bread and sliced meats and milk and flour and salt and first one thing then another. But yeah, it was a nice place to be. It was inviting.
CL: As the community blossomed, Mitchellville became a new line in a story that had been unfolding for centuries in America, a movement and ideology that still fundamentally shapes how we see our homes, communities, and selves: the Black town. It also became emblematic of the challenges of Black towns, many of them unincorporated, in the 20th century. South of Mitchellville, the majority white Dumas flourished, benefiting from the power, and the poverty, of their Black town neighbor to the north.
Melissa Stuckey: Well, Black towns conceptually is a really broad constellation of spaces and ideas.
CL: Melissa Stuckey is an associate professor of history and director of public history at the University of South Carolina.
MS: We could think about them as broadly as maroon communities established in secluded and isolated spaces in the American South, um, before the Civil War, during the era of slavery, all the way through Black communities, many of them unincorporated, that are still in existence today. There are Black towns, there are Black hamlets, there are Black townships. Um, I live in what I would call a de facto Black town in South Carolina.
CL: Dr. Stuckey links Black towns to their progenitors, Black maroon communities—spaces in mountains, swamps, and forests where Black people who had escaped bondage made entire ecosystems of liberation. Apart from enslavement and often hidden in plain sight, Black maroons cared for and governed themselves and were stewards of the natural habitat. Post-slavery, scores of Black towns were established in the spirit of maroon philosophy, including Nicodemus, Kansas, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and one made famous by the southern writer Zora Neale Hurston, Eatonville, Florida. Dr. Stuckey’s research traces the development of dozens of Black towns established in Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century, a boom that coincided with the tightening of segregation throughout the country. When Dr. Stuckey talks about Black towns, she’s thinking about more than just the racial demographics of a place. In places like Mitchellville, Arkansas, it wasn’t just the citizens who were Black, but also the people in charge—the people owning and selling land, the people managing community resources, and the people organizing local government.
MS: The early 20th century, I believe, is really the height of the Black towns movement. Uh, and a lot of that is because of the entrenchment of Jim Crow in the United States by that period. As rights and protections begin to be diminished in the American South, that's a really full-throated desire to be in a place where they can create their own laws and that they can have a voice in the creation of laws and how those laws are enforced. They can determine what their schools look like. They can determine, uh, what their society looks like, uh, in terms of their own safety, in terms of just their ambition. So ambition doesn't have to be curtailed based on what, uh, the white majority thinks is appropriate for African Americans, but rather that they can create and build, whether it's in business, whether it's in art, whether it's through education as they wish. So that idea of self-determination, uh, and freedom of association are really foundational, uh, looking across the period.
CL: One of the most important things, I think, about the work of Dr. Stuckey and other Black scholars is how it can help us think about Black towns in multiple dimensions. There’s the literal logistical, practical freedoms that Black towns offer, and then there’s the ideological spaces they open up. I asked Zandria F. Robinson, an urban sociologist and professor of African American Studies at Georgetown, what ideas might have inspired the people moving into Mitchellville in the late 40s.
Zandria F. Robinson: I'm reminded that a few years after this, the jazz musician Sun Ra is, you know, moving from Birmingham to Chicago and later is going to be developing ideas of space as the place where, you know, space, perhaps, is the place where Black people can have a planet, he says, all their own, to be able to see what they can do. But before space kind of enters into the consciousness in this way, the town was that. Like the space of a Black town, was that. And so I imagine that in the context of the sort of largesse of World War II, the national mood of World War II, post-World War II, there is, you know, like, “We're great and we're America and we're winning!” And you know, some of that patriotism does give hope to Black folks who have advocated for desegregation, who have pushed for there to be equity and equality. The push in this moment I think is very palpable. And it's emboldened in a lot of ways by these democratic stances that America is taking on the global stage. And Black America is saying, “Alright, let's see what we can do here.”
CL: In the decades after its founding, Mitchellville residents struggled to attain the same quality of life enjoyed by their white neighbors to the south in Dumas. They had limited access to indoor plumbing, their streets were still unpaved, and they had no local schools or hospitals. While people could live in Mitchellville, they couldn’t work there. The town had little infrastructure to support businesses, which meant most people commuted to Dumas to do domestic labor. A few worked at the Puryear Wood Products Company, a lumber mill that set up shop on land adjacent to the town in 1957 that hired more folks from out of town than from Mitchellville. Even though the townsfolk had underwritten the mill with a $200,000 bond, by the late 60s it was employing fewer than ten Mitchellville residents. Ms. Williams moved away from Mitchellville to work as a telephone operator.
EW: When I worked, I worked in McGehee, Pine Bluff, and Little Rock. And then after I retired from the telephone service I worked in Gould, so I never worked in this area. Even though there were jobs available here, I was never fortunate enough to get one.
CL: The upshot was that Mitchellville had a hard time amassing the kind of capital they would need to embark on improvement projects—and as long as they couldn’t improve their infrastructure, they couldn’t attract the kind of investment they needed to become economically self-sufficient. According to Danielle Purifoy, an assistant professor of geography at UNC Chapel Hill, this kind of double bind is not a coincidence.
Danielle Purifoy: I got into studying Black towns through studying extraction. And it, you know, became clear to me too that the focus on toxic industry or hazards was just a sliver of the picture of this thing that we call creative extraction.
CL: For Dr. Purifoy and her co-author Dr. Louise Seamster, creative extraction is a constellation of processes that they see repeated across the stories of many Black towns like Mitchellville—underdeveloped infrastructure, economic stagnation, and reliance on nearby white towns for resources and work.
DP: It's about the actual mode of capitalist development. Capitalist development means that in order for some spaces to thrive, in order for some spaces to have tons and tons of infrastructure and all sorts of the things that we call amenities, there is a shift, right? In the burdens, the waste products of that form of development, that often, or nearly always, go into the politically marginalized communities. In order for this white city, this predominantly white city to thrive, uh, you have to look at who is paying for it, right? Um, and who is paying for it can be people, right?
CL: If we look closely at Mitchellville’s story, we can see creative extraction in action. Dumas reaped the benefits of Mitchellville’s lack of infrastructure, as Mitchellville residents were forced to work and spend their money at Dumas businesses. Meanwhile, the Puryear Wood Company took advantage of the town’s need for economic opportunity and income to build their mill in a spot that would pollute Mitchellville’s air rather than Dumas’s. So what the town got in return for its $200,000 bond investment was new pollution and scant jobs.
EW: They come in and they go back out because they had to get away to go to school and stuff like that. And that caused a demise in a whole lot of areas. You get out of high school and you either leave home or get you a job and it’s just like you’re gone because you’re having to go somewhere to work.
CL: Mitchellville officially incorporated as a municipality in 1963, in hopes that they could access public funds to improve their infrastructure—but, even after successfully incorporating, the town still went bankrupt trying to secure the federal loans and grants necessary to build a municipal water line.
DP: I think for Black towns, what typically happens is that, even if you get past the post and the fight for incorporation, even if you do get that state recognition, the uphill battle and the number of barriers, right, to accessing public funding in fair ways, being able to take on debt as a town in ways that aren't predatory, it becomes an effective barrier for any kind of growth, right? I've seen this over and over again—if you are able to even secure debt, right? These towns are paying off the initial loans, for the very basics, for decades. And that's just to put it in the ground, right? Like your, you know, water infrastructure, you have to maintain it, and you have to have the population base that is stable or growing in order to make the economics of it work. The stakes are high either way.
CL: In her work, Dr. Purifoy is also asking some really valuable questions about how we measure success in Black towns. By 1967, Mitchellville had an illiteracy rate of 75%, and its 150 families had household incomes at or below $2,400 a year. The town was still without a sewage system, and most residents still lived in the small wooden homes that had been moved onto their lots in the 40s. These markers of prosperity—income, infrastructure, conventional education—are ones we’re used to thinking about, and they do give us information about what the town may have been lacking. But they don’t show the whole picture of life in Mitchellville.
DP: I think like important noticing, I guess, that you can do when you're learning about these places—learn as much about what they are doing as you are learning about what's being stripped from them or what's being done to them. Um, and that will, I think, teach you a lot about place practices that sustain communities for generations, right? There is a different kind of geographic knowledge and orientation to place that Black towns have.
CL: Mrs. Williams remembers helping her dad farm sorghum to make molasses.
EW: We raised it, we farmed, I mean big old patch of sorghum. And we had barrels of it. We’d raise it from the seed up. I know that we farmed it until it got to the mill. I remember cutting the tops out of it and cutting it down, and even breaking it into pieces and chew that juice out of that cane. Then we’d take it to the mill and it’d pile up there. Then we had the mule that went around the mill, squeezing the juice out of the sorghum. Daddy had that long old tray, that tray looked like it was long as this room, where he would start that juice down there and work it up and up and up. And by the time it got up here and got ready to be let out of the trough into the buckets, it was thick and pretty. Ooh, that was some good stuff. But it started from something just like water. We would have molasses from the fall of the year all the way through the winter and until it was time to do it again. We never lacked anything.
DP: You know, once you have folks who are able to identify those practices, even if they're not in existence anymore, or to kind of recover, right, some of those histories, it's really helpful for fleshing out, like, things that were lost that can be brought back.
ZFR: You gotta think that for people who were lineaged to this river, whose people have worked this land and who have been enslaved and who have been sharecroppers and who had lost everything, sometimes—there remained some sense that there could be restorative and reparative power also in the delta, also on the river. And I think that's often what people miss when folks are like, “Well, why didn't they just move?” Or “Why didn't you just move?” There's a sense that there is something that can be set right here just with the right tools, with the right access, with the right organization.
EW: Yeah, there’s great potential here in Mitchellville. We’ll survive. We’ll survive.
CL: By the mid-60s, Mitchellville—with all its problems and all its promise—had caught the attention of one of Arkansas’s most important civil rights leaders: Daisy Bates. Bates grew up in Huttig, Arkansas, a small town along the Louisiana border. She had risen to national fame in the 50s, as a mentor to the nine students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School. She was a glamorous figure in skirt suits and pearls, with a formidable political mind. And when Mrs. Daisy Bates arrived in Mitchellville, she kicked off a cascade of changes that would remake the town.
[Points South theme]
SAL: Join us on the next episode of Point South for the conclusion of Mitchellville's story. 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.