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GREENWOOD, Miss.—The Mississippi Delta is the poorest part of the poorest state of our 50, and one four-letter word dominates the thoughts of economic planners contemplating improvement: jobs. But mention the Delta city of Greenwood (population 16,000) to someone from NBC News, and the response is likely to be another four-letter word: race.
NBC in 1966 broadcast a documentary set in Greenwood that showed the chasm between white and black attitudes. The network came back in 2012 with a Dateline NBC show that concentrated on Booker Wright, a brave African-American waiter who told the truth in that first documentary, suffered a beating for it, and was later killed.
Greenwood, though, is not all about race. The big issues of Detroit and Houston—infrastructure, schools, taxes—roil Greenwood as well. Interviews with the white mayor, the black state senator, the white newspaper editor, the black school board head, the leading white philanthropist, and others showed me that Greenwood leaders cannot just play checkers as do their peers in other cities. They must play a far more complicated game of chess and watch every piece, black and white.
Leaders need to remember the past yet not be bound by it. The Help, a hit movie about 1960s race relations shot in Greenwood, brought money to the city, and Greenwood Mayor Carolyn McAdams has in her office a director’s chair from the film—but it also makes it harder to look away from Dixieland’s past. Greenwood’s section of the Mississippi Blues Trail boasts one of the three purported grave sites of Robert Johnson, who “sold his soul to the devil” to become the best guitar player around, but racism was one reason blacks had the blues.
Tim Kalich, editor of the 6,000-circulation Greenwood Commonwealth, which three times in a row has won an award as Mississippi’s best small city newspaper, calls himself Greenwood’s biggest cheerleader and biggest critic. He sees progress—“We’re more honest about race than lots of places”—but much of the black community is still poor. The city council, once all white, now has an African-American majority that reflects Greenwood’s one-third white, two-thirds black population.
While businesses and some blocks are integrated, whites tend to live north of the Yazoo River and blacks south of it. Greenwood High School, white-only for decades and briefly 50-50 black/white following court-ordered integration, is now 98 percent African-American and the 2013/2014 recipient of an F grade from the state Department of Education. Greenwood’s much-superior private schools are almost entirely white with the exception of a new evangelical entry, Delta Streets Academy, which is largely black.
‘If you want change, you need to be the change. Excuses are monuments to nothing.’ —Bill Clay
And yet, Greenwood does not vote entirely in racial blocs. McAdams, who is white, won election as mayor in 2009 with 57 percent of the vote, including 270 south-side votes. One hundred years after the death of Booker T. Washington in 1915, some African-Americans focus much as he did on the importance of improving education and building businesses. Others are more like Washington’s prime critic, W.E.B. DuBois: They focus on political power.
One leader who focuses on education and business, public schools board president Bill Clay, met me at Greenwood Mentoring, the after-school tutoring program he created in Baptist Town, a black part of the city. Sixteen children ranging in age from 6 to 12 sat in the building’s little chairs one afternoon, getting a snack along with spelling and arithmetic help. One wall displayed prints of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, indicating the program’s desire to expand the world of some kids who had never traveled more than a few miles from Greenwood.
Other posters had biblical themes such as the Ten Commandments or “Fruits of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace,” and the program raises part of its financial support at prayer breakfasts. Clay, 6 feet 6 inches, sat in a child’s chair, his long legs spread before him, and emphasized personal responsibility: He said for some teens it’s “much easier to blame the system” than to understand “the reason why you need to pull your pants up.” He said those who would “much rather talk about programs than bring solutions” were enemies of progress: “If you want change, you need to be the change. Excuses are monuments to nothing.”
David Jordan, a leader more in the political power tradition of W.E.B. DuBois, met me in Greenwood’s dark-paneled city council room. Jordan, born in 1933, has been for years both a council member and a state senator. The council chamber, with its big green raised chairs for members, brown blinds, and a Greenwood city seal displaying a cotton bale, is meant to impress: Jordan, long excluded from political power, clearly relishes what he’s attained.
Sitting beneath three blown-up, sepia-tone old Greenwood photographs, Jordan vividly recalled the racism he had witnessed. As a student in 1955 he sat in on the trial of two white men accused of murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till for reportedly flirting with a white woman. The men received a rapid acquittal and then told Look magazine they had killed Till. Jordan recalls Dick Gregory leading civil rights marches through Greenwood in the early 1960s: When police unleashed dogs to attack demonstrators, Gregory said, “We will march through your dogs! If you get some elephants, we’ll march through them. And bring on your tigers, and we’ll march through them.”
How important is Greenwood’s racial history? Depends who’s writing and displaying the history. Greenwood’s Museum of the Mississippi Delta last year displayed seven pretty but romanticized paintings of blacks working in the fields or driving cotton-filled wagons. It also had on a wall a small photo from 1963 of African-Americans walking in front of the courthouse. The caption noted that civil rights demonstrators were “beaten with clubs and attacked by dogs”—but no photo showed the beatings or dog attacks.
Jordan, though, sees his career as one of marching through dogs, elephants, and tigers. He remembers his exclusion from Greenwood High as both a student and, later, a science teacher, but he overcame that as did a classmate, actor Morgan Freeman. Jordan’s memoir, written with Robert Jenkins, From the Mississippi Cotton Fields to the State Senate, is a testament to the power of hard work, and he sees his octogenarian role as helping tough-minded African-Americans get their share of patronage jobs.
WHILE CLAY AND JORDAN are political rivals and dueling patrons, their emphasis on education is a common denominator. Clay said, “I am tired of our kids graduating from the Greenwood Public School District and can’t read.” Jordan wrote in his memoir, “Education is the only opportunity for black people’s advancement … they must learn to burn the midnight oil in order to obtain a good education.” He told me of his recent experience walking the corridors of Greenwood High: “Too much noise. Too little respect. Gotta have discipline. No substitute for it.”
Mayor McAdams, a 1966 graduate of the high school that excluded Jordan and Freeman, agreed with that analysis as she emphasized a triad of concerns: education, job creation, public safety. The gray-green walls and blue wing chairs of her functional office spelled business without ostentation: Before becoming mayor she spent 14 years as business manager of the state prison in Greenwood, and before that was Section 8 Coordinator at the Greenwood Housing Authority.
Because members of different racial groups interact daily in Greenwood, she sees opportunity to transcend the past: “People know each other intimately and learn who they can trust.” But racial animosities remain: One year ago Johnny Langdon, an African-American serving as acting police chief and ready to retire from the force after 29 years, gave a memorable farewell address in the city council chambers: After lambasting McAdams for trying to exert control over the police, he said, “I’ll leave you with these words: Antichrist, Beelzebub, deceiver, destroyer, liar, seven heads and 10 horns on Satan, the Devil himself. That’s the Carolyn McAdams I know! Have a good day.”
The specific disagreements that led to the verbal assault do not seem to have been that great: Langdon told the Greenwood Commonwealth that McAdams had told the police department to tow an abandoned vehicle, and that she had wanted to require police officers to provide proof that they had car insurance on their vehicles. But black/white (and perhaps male/female) friction turned a spark into a conflagration that for a time overshadowed McAdams’ success in balancing the city budget for the first time in years.
WITH JOBS HARD COME BY in Greenwood, the battle for government and public school positions is intense. The civil rights movement and agricultural mechanization both began changing Greenwood a half century ago. I spent one morning on a Greenwood-area farm and harvested some corn by sitting in a combine’s air-conditioned cab: Much better than walking the fields in triple-digit heat, but each machine took the place of many men and women.
The headquarters of the largest U.S. producer-owned cotton cooperative, Staplcotn, is in downtown Greenwood. It’s a natural location for the organization founded in 1921 to increase the marketing clout and financial acumen of cotton farmers. But downtown is also the surprising home to a company beloved by gourmets, the Viking Range Corporation, maker of upscale kitchen appliances and cookware.
Fred Carl Jr. founded Viking three decades ago. A shy entrepreneur, he grew up in one of Greenwood’s affluent families and thought of pursuing architecture in a big city, but instead decided to stay in his hometown: “part of my DNA, or maybe insecurity.” Carl saw a foodie wave beginning and rode it with style, correctly predicting that Americans who spent more time in their kitchens and admired star chefs would pay to have ranges as good as their heroes used.
Carl insisted on producing luxury goods in poor Greenwood. Vocational training in the city’s schools was “a joke,” so he pushed for improved practical education but also did his own training. Downtown Greenwood at best was blighted and at worst a war zone, so Carl started investing in civic improvements. When dealers came to look at appliances, they needed places to stay and eat, so Carl in 2003 opened downtown a cosmopolitan boutique hotel, The Alluvian.
A 2004 New York Times article, “The Stove Groupies’ Pilgrimage,” praised the hotel’s “goose-down duvets on its beds and Aveda toiletries in its black-marble bathrooms.” The following year Viking opened a 7,000-square-foot spa, a bakery, and a cooking school where visitors could learn how to make pecan-crusted catfish, Hoppin’ John, and sweet potato souffle. Soon other ventures flourished in the blocks adjacent to Viking and its hotel: boutique retail stores, a bookstore, art galleries, restaurants, and antique stores.
Carl’s investments were financially rational, but they weren’t necessarily profit-maximizing: They were the products of love for a community. That four-letter word, love, translated into jobs: By 2007 Viking had 1,400 mid-level and manufacturing employees in and around Greenwood. Early that year a column by newspaper editor Kalich celebrated what Viking had done in and for Greenwood, but warned that “the community should prepare itself in case the bubble ever pops.”
The bubble popped during the Great Recession of 2008. Over the next four years layoffs dropped Viking’s employment but enabled the company to stay in the black and become an acquisition target for The Middleby Corp., a food-service equipment company based near Chicago. Carl sold Viking to Middleby at the end of 2012, telling employees in a Dec. 31 email that he would stay as CEO and “all of our employees would stay right where they are.”
That arrangement lasted for one month. On Jan. 31 Middleby laid off 20 percent of Viking’s employees, and Carl resigned as CEO. Middleby said that would be the end of the layoffs, but more came in November 2013, and other executives from Carl’s team resigned. Kalich wrote in a Nov. 17 editorial, “It’s been painful to see Viking retreat from its position as Greenwood’s leading corporate citizen. Since Middleby took over, charitable donations have been scaled back as has Viking’s community involvement—things that Carl would put money and people into even though there was no identifiable payoff for the company’s bottom line.”
During that period, though, Middleby stock rose 70 percent. One year later, on Nov. 18 and 19, 2014, Middleby CEO Selim Bassoul brought key investors to Greenwood so they could “touch and feel what we’ve done.” Bassoul boasted that he had taken a “business that was not growing, that was literally break-even, in two years to 20 percent” profit margin. Kalich wrote, “Bassoul is obsessed with the bottom line, and it’s paid off richly for Middleby’s stockholders.”
TWO NEW DEVELOPMENTS signal hope for Greenwood employment and education. Fred Carl Jr. still loves his city: I asked whether he’d accept the offer from Middleby now, knowing what has happened, and he said, “Probably not.” Carl has started a new business, C3 Design, with the goal of building in Greenwood luxury pre-fab housing that could be transported to areas where the building costs are high. (Luxury pre-fab sounds like an oxymoron, but so did world-class ovens manufactured in Greenwood.) Carl hopes to employ 50 persons to start, and grow from there.
Another startup now completing its third year, Delta Streets Academy, also arose out of love rather than financial calculation, and it’s had to scrape to survive. Delta Streets has programs for boys in grades 7-12, including academic tutoring, sports, Bible studies, and a summer camp program.
Thirty boys attend the academy itself, housed in Greenwood’s First Baptist Church. Their teachers could earn more elsewhere, but their goal is to catch these boys walking on the edge of educational failure before they fall into unemployment, poverty, maybe crime and jail.
And why? The mission statement reads, “Delta Streets Ministries is committed to sharing the love and compassion of God through the transformational power of hope through Jesus Christ in the impoverished and under resourced parts of Greenwood, Mississippi.” Greenwood has seen lots of hate, as Emmett Till learned in 1955 and Booker Wright 10 years later, when he told NBC that in his waiter work, “I keep that smile. Always learn to smile. The meaner the [white] man be, the more you smile—although you’re crying on the inside.”
Can philanthropy and Christianity transcend both tears and forced smiles?
Listen to Susan Olasky’s report on Greenwood, Miss., on The World and Everything in It.
Listen to another report by Susan Olasky’s on Greenwood, Miss., on The World and Everything in It.