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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I’m Not Complaining, but What a Week

New Orleans  Returning exhausted from stops in Shreveport, Louisiana, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Greenville, Mississippi, somehow I can’t get these weird signposts of the times and odd ends out of my mind. Normally, I would let them go, but somehow this Chief Organizer Report is going to be a report on the chief organizer, so bear with me.

Bargaining four nursing home contracts in Shreveport, the company already wants to include language making the Affordable Care obligations moot, even while the whole operation continues forward in the stalemate of Congress and presidential politics.

A studio chair and some folding chairs for WAMF, the new low power FM radio station that we just got on the air in New Orleans, was donated to us in Bossier City across the river (thanks Butlers and Clarks!). In a pleasant middle income suburb between a mall and an expressway, I parked my big truck, doors wide open in the driveway of the unoccupied house waiting for Local 100 organizer, Toney Orr from Arkansas, to help me load it all in. Neighbors drove by and up and down the driveway next door. No questions asked, even as we hauled the furniture out. Is that weird?

In Little Rock, despite six months of work on the Home Savers Campaign and running PSAs on KABF referring calls to Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, that yielded little, we finally broke through and within 48 hours found a trove of both Vision Property Management and Harbour Portfolio rent-to-own and contract to purchase houses throughout central Arkansas. We had boomed out to visit victims in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania and here they were right under our noses! The lesson, even when the spirit is willing, we have to shore up the capacity to account for how often the flesh of our operations need more underwire. Capacity matters, even a little can make a huge difference, and that’s worth remembering. Oh, and, a Home Savers organizer, Dine’ Butler, was the big finish of the well-regarded Reveal podcast, home visiting a victim in Detroit.

Capacity, capacity, capacity, it comes up again and again, and amazingly we stumble around trying to find it even when it is kicking us in the knees and pushing us to the ground. One kingdom after another lost for lack of a horse. Our biggest underwriting partner at KABF was being stymied on promoting its great work, because we had never pressed hard enough for the spots for them to realize if they gave us copy we could produce them quickly or allow hosts to do “reads.” Ouch!

Visiting radio station WDSV in Greenville for the 7th month, it was the same story with a different verse. Frustrated and stalled in achieving their mission after 5 years on-the-air as the voice of the people in the Delta, they were being held hostage by technology too large and complicated for them to easily access to master the ladder to the heaven they sought. The magic and miracle is not that we can fix that, but that it takes so long for us to marry problems to solutions, so that we can move forward in our work.

Sometimes I’m racing so fast that I miss how easily it is to stumble on the simplest steps. I wish it were just me!

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What Happened to Community Economic Development Strategy?

Civil Rights activists with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union occupied one of the empty buildings at the airbase to protest poverty, homelessness and political repression in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, MS January 31, 1966.

Civil Rights activists with the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union occupied one of the empty buildings at the airbase to protest poverty, homelessness and political repression in the Mississippi Delta. Greenville, MS January 31, 1966.

Greenville, Mississippi    Driving between New Orleans and Little Rock on my monthly route to oversee the 100,000 watt KABF in Little Rock and our union operations in Arkansas, you hopscotch from Vicksburg, Mississippi on Interstate 20 to Tallulah, Louisiana in one of the poorest parishes in that state, and go north on highway 65 through Sondheimer and Transylvania until you cross into Arkansas and Eudora. When you come to the dead end at the lake, you can either go left to Lake Village and on up to Little Rock or go right for sixteen miles and cross a modern newish bridge over the Mississippi and land in the delta town of Greenville. I had heard there was a small radio station facing some challenges in Greenville and though I had been missing a connection, it was only a half-hour out of my way to do some cold doorknocking and see if there was any way I could lend a hand.

I was interested in more than WDSV 91.9 FM and 1500 watts of power. In trying to track down the folks at WDSV, I had hit the web to see if MACE, Mississippi Action for Community Education, was still alive and well. It turned out that in fact the old “twin” organization, the Delta Foundation, was actually the license holder for WDSV. When ACORN was still a young organization in Arkansas and starting to expand, we would frequently cross paths with MACE and the Delta Foundation. Funders would ask how we were different and in some cases, suggest we should stop this community organizing stuff and just do economic development like Delta. Ed Brown, the founder of the Delta Foundation was from Baton Rouge, and was helpful when I was opening the ACORN office in New Orleans where he was living then before moving to Africa and later Atlanta. Charles Bannerman, his assistant from New York City, who ended up as the executive director of Delta was a legendary fundraiser and the darling of foundations, large and small, until his untimely death, and many ACORN leaders and organizers were Bannerman fellows over the years, which has become his legacy. Larry Farmer, the MACE community organizer, was my buddy and ally on the Youth Project board. I had been out of touch for decades, so it was worth a detour just to see what was up.

The Mississippi delta is one of the lowest income areas in the country and with its African-American majority the scene of civil rights struggles that in many ways haven’t ended yet. Economically, when you drive through Greenville, you see an abandoned housing project, for sale signs on empty warehouses, and downtown vacancies side by side with current commercial operations. When people talk about economic recovery, the conversation lingers over decades rather than just the last few years.

The Delta Foundation’s building was big and on Main Street. They had been in the small, select group of organizations that were the model for what community economic development might mean in the 70s. Two ladies saw me in the parking lot looking across the street at two radio stations. I was wondering if WDSV was over there, rather than here. They said, no, and showed me the side door where you entered the building. A woman operating a site where you could enroll in pre-TSA airport screening, helped me find the station and called up for folks to come visit with me. We then had a productive session that finally had to end after three hours so I could get on to Little Rock.

Visiting with them and with one of the original founders, Spencer Nash, who was on his way to retirement and had come back to Delta and Greenville from McComb where he had been a judge to run the organization. There had been some problems and a significant debt had to be retired, but in talking with him, it was clear the challenges were deeper than that for Delta. Their strategy had been to buy small manufacturing plants to create jobs in the Mississippi delta region. I asked him about a plant that I remembered they had bought in Memphis that made window fans. Long gone. Nash told me they had also recently sold their plant in Little Rock where they made retractable attic stairways. They had one small manufacturing operation still in the Greenville area. What happened? Nash said that competitors had moved to Mexico, and the Delta couldn’t compete on the labor costs. They provided loans and other small services now in addition to operating the radio station. In some ways their highly touted economic development strategy had been collateral damage swept up by the tidal wave of globalization that has exacerbated inequity by obliterating decently waged manufacturing jobs.

Seems like for this strategy to have continued to work, we would have needed a policy that “sheltered” job development projects like those owned by Delta from NAFTA and the backwash of globalization. We didn’t. And, we won’t, and it’s too late now. AM/FM, KABF, and WAMF, will help WDSV become a community force for our friends in the Delta, but there needs to be a broader and more effective strategy that works for today. Nash told me that my friends and comrades had now all passed away as well, but the problems remain and the banner has to be carried forward!

***

Please enjoy Dwight Yoakam’s Purple Rain. Thanks to KABF.

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