HUGE PROBLEMS REMAIN. Half of the African-Americans in Greenwood live below the official poverty line, many literally on the other side of the railroad tracks from white neighborhoods. One DSA teacher, Allen Wood Jr., recalled that on Valentine’s Day, when Wood reminded students to hug their mothers, a 10th-grader said he hadn’t hugged his mother since the fourth grade: Given their relationship, it hurt too much. Another had gone to jail for assaulting his mother’s boyfriend, who was assaulting his mother.
DSA students need to learn the basics and also believe they are part of a broader world and can live in it, if they choose. Teachers try to expand students’ vocabulary, often asking, “Who knows what this word means?” For example, most students had no idea what a “peer group” is, and they thought “enigma” had something to do with the “N” word. The Delta was the cradle of great blues musicians like B.B. King, but students often don’t know the history of the blues and jazz, let alone the music of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.
Wood described his students as “tough, resilient, and smart. Teaching them is akin to pouring water on the desert: They soak up practically everything.” For example, young men usually put on coats and ties for their senior pictures at high school throughout the United States, but only one DSA student had worn a tie of any type at any time. None of the students owned a coat or suit. They had a keen interest in learning more about clothing, how to tie ties, etc., so Wood showed them videos about sartorial matters, and every student soon was able to tie a tie.
That was just the start. Memphis hovers over the Delta, and some tailor shops there had created a charitable organization, the “Memphis Suit Project.” MSP asked customers to donate “gently worn” suits that would be cleaned and sorted by sizes. MSP selected DSA as a recipient organization, measured the students, tailored the suits to those measurements, embroidered the students’ names into the coats, and then presented the suits—along with shirts, ties, belts, and shoes—at a special ceremony.
The Greenwood Commonwealth told that story on March 3, 2017, and quoted Dominick Brown, the ACT high scorer, saying his new suit “makes me feel great. I feel like I am being The Man. I can take any job I want to.”