Photo by Habiba Alcindor
Locals in the sleepy Delta town of Mileston, Mississippi, where King Cotton once reigned supreme, have lately begun to note a resurgence of wild fig trees and blackberry bushes, while creatures like lightning bugs, bees and caterpillars have bounced back after enduring heavy casualties from the harsh pesticides used to combat cotton’s archenemy, the boll weevil. Calvin Head, a farmer and local leader, together with a handful of other small farmers in Mileston, a New Deal planned community, sees an opportunity in today’s shifting economic environment to nurture another fragile population: its residents.
Mileston is part of Holmes County, which happens to be the poorest county in the poorest state in the Union. Less cotton means fewer jobs at the cotton gin; alternative cash crops with shorter growing cycles have similarly reduced the need for labor in the field, much of which is now provided by migrant workers. The Mississippi Delta region is also the national epicenter of obesity, with all its attendant health complications.
But Mileston itself possesses a rich cultural history as fundamental to its identity as its red earth. It was conceived as an experiment in cooperative living during the Depression and came into its own as a result of collective action in the ’60s. The wisdom accrued by past generations has informed the community’s idea to grow and distribute its own food through a farmers’ market program.
Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration, vast tracts of land were purchased from wealthy landowners, outfitted to facilitate a communal–some might say socialist–agrarian culture and then populated with poor people. In Mileston, black sharecroppers otherwise consigned to eking out a subsistence on the land of white plantation owners were transplanted to plots as large as 100 acres, which–with hard work, technical guidance and financial assistance in the form of low-interest loans–they could eventually purchase from the government.
By the 1950s, most of the tenants had become landowners, and Mileston was firmly established as an all-black resettlement community, one of thirteen in America. Head’s grandparents Robert and Pecolia were among these first landowners. His grandfather, a carpenter, built the town’s community center, now in ruins.
While deteriorating economic conditions and discriminatory practices by the white power structure whittled away at black ownership of land in the decades that followed, African-Americans continue to constitute 75 percent of Mileston’s population and own more than 70 percent of its land. In addition Mileston retains a community-oriented ethic that distinguishes it even from nearby Tchula. "Just four miles down the road," insists the Rev. Tom Collins, who participates in the farmers’ market program and whose small congregation is based in Tchula, "and you talk to people, and their ideology is totally different from what’s down here. Totally different."