Exploiting Immigrants Old School in Arkansas-Mississippi Delta

Ottawa   Almost every month for the last 3 ½ years I’ve driven through the Lake Village area of southern Arkansas and more recently back and forth across the bridge to Greenville, one way or another, as well. Along the lakeside past the fishing docks, the boat launches, the catfish and barbecue places I’ve often done a double take when I see Regina’s Pasta Shop, heralding the “Italian Tradition” on the banks of Lake Chicot, and thought to myself, “what in the world is that doing here” in the middle of cotton and soybean country?

The mystery was both solved and deepened as the layers of the answer to that question were revealed in an uncharacteristically long piece in The Economist of all places. The eyebrow, headline and sub-head of the story tell a lot of the tale in a spoiler alert. The eyebrow said: “Immigration’s forgotten history.” The headline was “Moses in the Ozarks.” The subhead was: “The ordeal of Italian labourers is a parable of race and migration in the Deep South.” The dateline was both Lake Village in the south and Tontitown in Ozarks of Arkansas near Springdale, the city now famous as the worldwide headquarters of Walmart.

The story starts in 1861 at the Sunnyside plantation owned by Elisha Worthington who shocked the local community not by fathering two children by a slave, but by recognizing them. After the Civil War the plantation passed hands several times ending up with Austin Corbin, described by the business-conservative Economist as “a robber-baron financier and railroad speculator, who, as a founding member of the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews, barred them from the hotel he built on Coney Island.” He couldn’t find labor so he imported families from Genoa, Italy through New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to Sunnyside on a land contract scam, where they bought acreage with sharecropping credit on future cotton crops. Many died. All of the Italians lived through terrible discrimination against them that was common at the time and well into the 1930s, highlighted by the infamous lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans in 1891.

The “Moses” of this story was a Jesuit priest from Italy sent as a missionary to Native Americans in Montana and later assigned to New York to “minister to put-upon Italians,” as they write. He bought land west of Springdale, Arkansas in the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Forty families ditched their land contracts and somehow traversed Arkansas in an arduous and lengthy journey. The pioneers founded Tontitown, named after Henri de Tonti, a 17th century Italian explorer. Despite the neighbors hostility, which included burning down the first Catholic church, Father Bandini was the “town’s teacher, band leader and first mayor, as well as its priest.” Grapes were imported and despite the poorer soil, the cooler temperatures led to a wine industry still present in the area.

As for the Sunnyside shame and scandal, the Justice Department sent an investigator down in 1917 who stopped the importation of Italian immigrants. Their footprints are deep though. There is a part of Greenville called Little Italy. Lake Village became home to many where churches and traditions survived. Discrimination also grew there from the Ku Klux Klan. On the receiving end of prejudice, as The Economist writes, “is a sort of shadow version of African-Americans’, the hardship milder and the ending sweeter.”

There are still modern lessons to be learned from the hidden history of places like these all around us.

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Bond Issues Along Protests on School Takeovers, Privatization, and Charter Expansion

New Orleans  Throughout the country parents, teacher unions, and community groups have been opposing the viral spread of privatization of public school systems and the efforts of charter school operators to expand their footprint in school districts. Perhaps the most controversial maneuvers are the state takeovers of local public school districts by removing duly elected school board members and replacing them with unaccountable managers.

The most famous was certainly the post-Katrina usurpation in New Orleans which has now led to all but four of the more than 100 schools in the district being run by charter operators. School districts have also been taken over in Indianapolis, threatened in Buffalo, in some California districts, and others as well. Despite only a small number of poorly performing schools of the forty-eight in the Little Rock School District, the state of Arkansas asserted control seemingly triggered by outside donors and advocates of charter expansion being opposed by the Superintendent, who was immediately replaced.

These fights have sharp dividing lines, but increasingly the claims of private and charter operators of improved education and test scores has not been proven by the actual results. Advocates of vouchers to accelerate the process of moving students out of public schools have also made progress in more than half of the states in the country and now have a staunch advocate as head of the Department of Education, but recent studies are indicating that students are falling behind in many of these private and parochial facilities. Claims from New Orleans and New York that such programs would decrease racial and ethnic segregation in public school systems are also achieving the opposite outcomes.

In the tug of war over school control, which is often cultural and ideological, the voice of protests have often been simply ignored by state governments and others. Events in the ongoing fight in Little Rock may have found a way to force authorities to hear their opposition using the ballot box to express their anger when presented with a school bond issue. A wide coalition of groups, including Local 100 and Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, opposing the bond issue for new school construction and other programs in the district united under the banner of “Taxation without Representation,” made their protest of the state takeover clear.

Despite a united business community and being outspent by a ratio of ten to one, opponents smashed the bond issue by a margin of almost 2 to 1, 65% to 35%. The district is 70% African-American now and in many African-American precincts the margins against the bond issue ran 90% to 10%. Normally liberal districts in middle-income, hipper Heights area also defeated the bond issue strongly. The turnout was the highest for a bond issue in 17 years. The Governor Asa Hutchinson, whose administration was responsible for the takeover, campaigned for the measure and was embarrassed by the results. The state appointed Superintendent was forced to concede the loss even before balloting ended.

Bond mileage increases on property taxes funding school districts are usually the lifeblood of public schools. Often the district needs the money as much as the taxpayers do in these tough financial times, but even if this is playing with fire, there is no denying the power of the protest when a community unites to oppose privatization, charter expansion, and undemocratic takeovers of local districts. Little Rock protesters and voters may have shown others around the country the path to take to force their voices to be heeded.

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