The Dimming Mystique of Mileston

By  |  August 25, 2020
Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi, 1939, a photograph by Marion Post Wolcott. Courtesy the Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Color Slides and Transparencies Collection (Library of Congress) Marcella Plantation, Mileston, Mississippi, 1939, a photograph by Marion Post Wolcott. Courtesy the Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Color Slides and Transparencies Collection (Library of Congress)

 

The names of tiny hamlets collide with each other as I drive along Highway 49 through the Mississippi Delta. A town named Eden hints that a section of this flat expansive terrain once felt more like a paradise than it may seem at the current moment, when it looks more abandoned than idyllic. The sign pointing toward Egypt conjures up the voice of Burl Ives as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, growling in his famous baritone, telling you that you are driving through some of the richest land this side of the valley Nile. Rusting gins in once-thriving communities serve as a reminder of the dominant role of cotton, much like the empty or abandoned commissary stores that were at one time the center of activity. Today they stand as worthwhile relics of a bygone era.

It’s easy to overlook these communities that dot the Delta landscape or to write them off as merely the slowly decaying detritus of King Cotton. They feel a bit like footnotes that can be scanned and skimmed, holding details of interest only to an elect few and of marginal significance to the masses. But if you begin to wipe the dust off the names of places in the Mississippi Delta, different stories begin to emerge. And like most Mississippi stories, they hold their surprises tightly inside.

One of those places is the tiny community of Mileston, named for the plantation that once encompassed the land where the town now sits. It rests on the western edge of Holmes County, south of the muddy and slow-moving Big Black River and just north of Bee Lake. It was this place that Marion Post Wolcott documented in more than one hundred Farm Security Administration photographs in the 1930s. Eventually the land of the Mileston Plantation that she captured with her camera was purchased by the federal government and sold in pieces to some of the same sharecroppers she froze in time with her camera as they chopped cotton.

Mileston is a place I, too, would probably ignore without looking back had my family not once lived on this land. Two of my sisters were born here. Before I was born, my parents lived right next door to what was once the Mileston store and post office, on the same spot immortalized in Wolcott’s photographs. It was nothing special, just a standard two-bedroom house built by the government for the resettlement project that made sharecroppers on this land independent farmers. Both of these buildings are gone now, but I can imagine them on the seemingly deserted stretch of Delta land in the same way that I can sense the youthful spirit of my parents whenever I am here. To be honest, I visit Mileston more than I do my parents’ graves; it is here in the Delta that I can again imagine them as vibrant people, a way of dimming the memory of the pain of watching their decline into illness and old age.

 

My father arrived in Mileston young and idealistic in 1949, with a newly minted agronomy degree from Tuskegee Institute. He worked at the tail end of the transition of this land from sharecropping to landowning. At night he taught GED classes and farming techniques to World War II veterans like himself, and by day vocational agriculture at the local school. When my parents married, my mother joined my father in Mileston in 1951—they met while at Tuskegee—and she became a teacher in this community as well as the girls’ basketball coach for the high school.

I’d always wondered what brought my parents to the Delta from their own now-deserted south Alabama towns of Edna and Prestwick. When I asked, my normally loquacious father would just say one word: opportunity. It was not until I was an adult that I learned of the connection between the opportunity my father was seeking and the remnants of a dream initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In the late 1930s, the Farm Security Administration, an agency of FDR’s New Deal—and the same organization that employed Marion Post Wolcott as a photographer—established a series of model farming and industrial communities, thirteen of which were reserved for blacks. One of those communities included the Mileston Plantation, the only black resettlement community in Mississippi. With the purchase of ten thousand acres of rich Delta farmland and a capital investment of $886,436, the federal government hoped to transform the lives of one hundred and ten families of former black sharecroppers who would live there as landowners. The Great Depression made the land affordable.

The government’s plan, as outlined in a 1941 Department of Agriculture memo, was that these former sharecroppers “would develop an exemplary pattern of rural life for the Delta Negro. He has been given the security of tenure and a chance to take hold for himself on the right soil of the plantation county.” Plans called for a school and community center, which served to anchor the Mileston Plantation’s residents in spite of what might potentially go on around it: that is, white racists using intimidation to dominate the minds and bodies of African American men and women. Low-interest loans were provided to these farmers for the purchase of the land as well as housing and farm equipment. The Farm Security Administration also established a farm cooperative so that rather than being sharecroppers, these families would be shareholders in their own farming operation in addition to becoming landowners.

But there were elements of the old plantation structure left in place. The way the bureaucrats at the FSA saw things, it was best to maintain a system that mirrored the old: small farms operated by individual families and centrally managed by the cooperative. In the new system there were no white overseers, and the feeling was that if black residents had a proprietary interest in the operation, they could become self-sustaining farmers.

Of course, there was some resistance to the Mileston plan from the descendants of the Delta’s wealthy white settlers, those people Mississippi writer David Cohn tagged as “pioneers with means.” Many were opposed to a communal—some might argue socialist—farming culture populated with poor people. FDR’s Resettlement Administration got its share of resistance from Mississippi politicians and residents. First, local governments worried that they would not be getting their fair share of tax receipts from resettlement communities like Mileston and appealed to Mississippi’s segregationist members of congress, Senator Theodore G. Bilbo and Congressman William Whittington. In response to queries from these politicians, in December 1936 the Resettlement Administration stated to local officials in Mississippi that “land bought by the Federal government for resettlement purposes will pay its pro rata share of all taxes.” But once the issue of taxes was settled, Congressman Whittington, speaking of another resettlement project that same year, voiced what was the real concern: independent farming communities run by black farmers would disrupt the longtime system of white paternalism in the Delta. Writing on behalf of “the citizens of the Delta” to the regional director of the Resettlement Administration, Whittington expressed alarm at “all aspects and the theory and practice of this project.” “Thoughtful citizens now regard it as a hot-bed of radicalism and as a breeding place for agitation of discord between landlords and tenants,” and might be “productive of trouble,” Whittington noted further.

The worries of the political class in Mississippi began to filter down to ordinary people. Two years before my father’s arrival in Mileston, a 1947 newspaper editorial warned, “At this time there is great talk about the Negroes getting power in this section. If anything hurries the day when the Negro takes a big hand in our financial and political affairs, it will be through the Co-op movement.” The politics of intimidation would not be set in motion directly by the co-op movement, but instead by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating the desegregation of public schools, which bred discontent among whites in the Delta and across Mississippi.

109110 Eubanks DoyleRuins from the FSA-era community center and school building remain near their original site in Mileston, Mississippi. Photograph by Rory Doyle

 

It was in the mid-1950s that my father, employed at the time as Holmes County’s Negro County Agent—an advisor to black farmers through the county cooperative extension program—realized that it was time to leave. During the post-Brown environment of massive resistance—not just to integrated school education but to black progress in general—the Delta no longer felt like a safe place for his growing family. The murder of Emmett Till served as one sign of looming hostility, but there were also others. In March 1955, Circuit Judge Tom Brady—who would later be appointed to Mississippi’s Supreme Court at the height of the civil rights movement—spoke to a packed high school auditorium in the town of Tchula, roughly six miles up the road from Mileston, calling the attack on segregation an “all-out war.” “The question of segregation today is only a small segment in the plan to destroy Christianity and the world,” Brady told the white citizens of Tchula. Men like Brady and Senator James Eastland incited scared whites to make life difficult for black people in Holmes County, particularly the black independent farmers in Mileston. With this environment of white hostility, my father believed that the work he came to do in the Delta would be diminished and his goals might never be accomplished. By 1956, my father chose to be transferred to south Mississippi, which had a larger network of black landowning farmers stretching back to right after the Civil War. It was there that my father thought his work could make a difference.

In spite of the dangers that existed in the Delta, my mother stayed behind until my father could find a place for the family to land. Then one day she received an unexpected phone call from her doctor over in the town of Lexington. He urged her to leave as soon as she could, never explaining why. “Trust me, please just go,” the doctor later cautioned during an appointment, when he gave my sisters vaccinations. My mother took her children and left, never fully understanding the urgency, but eternally grateful for his insistence. In the last months of my mother’s life, she told me that story over and over like a mantra. Until she died, she believed the doctor’s push for her to leave may have saved her life and her family.

A year after moving south, my family bought a farm outside the town of Mount Olive, just two years after my birth in 1957. It was eighty acres, a parcel of land that was larger than anything we could have purchased in Mileston or anywhere in the Delta. In the Delta, black landowning was rare and suspect. Rather than working to build a network of black farmers—an effort that in the Delta my parents realized might cost my father his life—my family opted to leave. But I know leaving was something my father never wanted to do. And that is why I keep coming back to Mileston: I want to understand why.

Black farmers owning their own land and profiting from it was what my father thought would lift the Delta out of poverty. Mileston survives today but it seems just barely. Few of the tidy homes the resettlement commission built survive, replaced by now-rusting trailers. The town school sits empty, a victim of declining population and consolidation. Now I find myself back on this spot of land frequently. And I am overcome with pangs of survivor’s guilt that my family left it. It is both the connection I feel to this land as well as a sense that my family committed a breach by leaving it behind that draws me back.

109110 Eubanks Doyle 2Calvin Head poses for a portrait near his farm cooperative headquarters in Mileston, Mississippi. Photograph by Rory Doyle

 

My first memories of coming to Mileston are from late springtime trips there with my father when I was around seven years old. In what I suspect was a sentimental journey for him, we’d make the trip from our home in south Mississippi, deep in the hills of the Piney Woods, up Highway 49 to Clarksdale to visit one of my father’s college friends, stopping in Mileston along the way. Since it was just the two of us, rather than peering through the small backseat window of our Volkswagen Beetle, I was allowed the privilege of sitting in the front seat so that the road opened up in front of me. I always knew when the Delta was approaching, since it seemed as if everything changed when we reached Yazoo City. The kudzu-covered hills disappeared, and the land flattened out completely and became more expansive. By the time we arrived in Mileston, the horizon appeared so endless that it was as if my father and I had entered another world. As far as I was concerned, we had.

On our first trip in 1964, as dusk approached, a glow covered the two-lane blacktop and seemingly everything around us. I was mesmerized, as if under a spell. The light was a reddish yellow, a color I witnessed in the sky on my south Mississippi farm but was perhaps blocked by the contours of the landscape. In the Delta, the light covered everything like a canopy and the wide vista of the landscape made its luminance feel endless. Of course, night always approached before we arrived at our final destination of Clarksdale, but the memory of the light hovered around my dreams. Each year when my father asked me to make the trek with him again, I never hesitated.

The last trip I remember my father and I took together was probably fifty years ago, right before I entered high school. By then, I was beginning to think about college and a way out of Mississippi. The wistful gaze that overcame my father’s face each time we got to Mileston is forever seared in my memory. It comes back to me each time I visit.

The post office is long gone, as is the store I would visit with my father, replaced by the West Holmes Community Mart and Farmers Market. It is run by Anthony Givins, a retired teacher from Florida who is hoping to make a go of it in the Delta by working with a new version of a farm cooperative that has sprung up here. He’s working with Calvin Head, who grew up in Mileston, to make the store a place where local people can buy fresh vegetables grown right in the fields of Mileston.

Despite his fifty-eight years of age, Calvin Head’s face lights up in a boyish grin whenever he speaks about Mileston’s history and its connection to his current project. He runs the West Holmes Community Development Organization, which seeks out high school students to plant and harvest vegetable crops on land donated by farmers in the area. Right now the land bears the bleak brown cast of winter, but when you look at the sprightly gleam in Head’s eyes you can tell he is already thinking about spring planting. Fresh from a day of rabbit hunting in the upper Delta, on a balmy winter afternoon Head tells me that he is trying to keep the spirit of the old Mileston farm cooperative alive, although he is growing vegetables rather than cotton. Each year he finds fifteen to twenty young people who work with him to sell vegetables to a broad market: residents enrolled in the USDA’s Women, Infants, and Children program can redeem their vouchers for produce, plus they sell at farmer’s markets as well as to corporate clients like Walmart and Sysco. During the harvest season students earn about $700 each month; while not a living wage, it is a help to supplementing their family incomes, which are close to the poverty line. Some are even saving money for college.

“I would like to see this place growing enough food to feed itself,” Head said, echoing the original goal of self-sufficiency outlined by the early resettlement community. He’s telling me all of this just outside the building that houses his cooperative, right next to what was once the post office and town store. In the founding plans for the resettlement community, each house was set up with a barn, a smokehouse, a spot for a garden, and a small orchard of fruit trees. About a dozen of these houses remain, but they have a distinctive L-shape, even with modifications made over time.

Head’s challenge with his program is finding available land, and he has met some resistance in his efforts to persuade growers to devote more of their acreage to his vegetable crops. Soil healthy enough to grow vegetables is in short supply, due to the land’s decades of growing cotton as well as its constant exposure to pesticides. Plus, pesticide drift from aerial spraying can obliterate vegetable crops. “We have land here from the old FSA project, but the people still making money in the Delta are white farmers,” Head said with a hint of regret. “They get to put pesticides wherever they want, which makes it hard for me to grow the vegetables that can sustain this co-op.”

Indeed, on several of my trips to Mileston I have seen crop-dusting planes flying overhead. On my visits here as a boy, fruit orchards—another victim of pesticides—used to be as much a part of the landscape as cotton fields. Because of the overwhelming presence of these chemicals on the landscape, Head can’t even do his rabbit hunting nearby and has to head north to Quitman County. The grasses that once sustained the rabbit population are all gone.

After talking with Head, I go to visit the site of the community center and the Mileston School where my mother once taught. I visited the school and community center four years ago, and they were still standing then. In 2018, they were torn down. 

A woman walking by sees me looking at the school’s abandoned set of steps and, with a bright smile, introduces herself as Lolvone Williams. I tell her of my connection to Mileston and explain that I am hoping to find some of my mother’s former students, if any remain. The next thing I know, Lolvone has whipped out her phone and has me talking to a man by the name of Griffin McLaurin, whom my mother taught in tenth grade. His family moved to Mileston from my hometown of Mount Olive, the reverse of my family’s migration. 

A week later, I pay McLaurin a visit on the twenty-eight-acre plot of land his family purchased in the 1940s. When McLaurin greets me on his front porch, he tells me that the last time he saw me I was toddling across the lawn of my family’s farm in south Mississippi. At the age of eighty, he lives in one of the original houses built by the resettlement project, the same one his family moved into in 1941. It even has the original wood stove.

I learn that McLaurin’s uncle, B. F. McLaurin, was the administrator of the Mileston project. His uncle’s wife, Sezzie, taught home economics at the school and also worked with local women to teach them how to cook, can vegetables, and keep house. As families were leaving during the Great Migration, his uncle saw an opportunity for his brother to own some profitable farmland, with richer soil than they had on the small plot they shared with their large extended family. So, the family pulled up stakes in the Piney Woods and headed to the Delta. “The key thing I have tried to instill into young black people I meet is that there is nothing like owning a piece of God’s great earth,” McLaurin tells me. “For black people in the Delta, Mileston was their forty acres and a mule. That is just what it was for my family.”

To live in Mileston in the 1950s and 1960s you had to fight, and McLaurin was willing to go to battle. Along with twelve other men from Mileston, in April 1963 he went to register to vote with Hartman Turnbow, who, in a bizarre turn of phrase, famously said, “I came here to die to vote.” Today, McLaurin is the only member of the group who survives. McLaurin was also there when Mileston became a command center for the civil rights movement in Holmes County and he played a crucial role in the movement, from championing civil rights to getting black public officials elected. In 1967, his work was critical in helping Robert Clark become the first black state legislator elected since Reconstruction.

McLaurin tells me that he knows my father never wanted to leave Mileston. “But he also knew that this project could have grown but the state of Mississippi was never going to allow it,” he said. While my father saw the promise of Mileston, he also understood the forces that in time would work to destroy that promise. So, it was the slow decline that he witnessed each time we visited that led to the wistful, somber expression I remember so well.

As McLaurin describes what his farm looked like when he moved there in 1941, with its garden and fruit orchard, I realize that what my father did when we left Mileston was to create a place that mirrored it in south Mississippi. The safe, rural, Southern upbringing I had never could have happened in Mileston. After talking with McLaurin I feel absolved of my guilt that my family left. But still, each time I visit I know the regretful expression of my father has now migrated to my own countenance. And I fear that I may be one of the last to visibly express that plaintive yearning I feel about this place.


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W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of Ever Is a Long Time and The House at the End of the Road. His next book, A Place Like Mississippi, is forthcoming. A 2007 Guggenheim fellow, he is currently a visiting professor of English and Southern Studies and writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi.

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