Erin Hartfield once dreamt of moving to New York and working in the fashion industry. She had enrolled at Mississippi State University hoping to pursue a career in the medical field and instead found a love for fashion design. However, the single mother instead opted to remain in Shuqualak, a small “country” town in Noxubee County in east central Mississippi.
There Hartfield felt comfortable with her four girls playing freely outside. Likewise, Hartfield’s commitment to her daughters drives most of her decisions. She chose jobs that allowed her to coordinate her schedule with her daughters’ schedules such as working at an area daycare and driving a school bus. She ensured they had a Christian foundation.
Her daughters are also a large part of why she chose to run for mayor of her adopted home.
“I have four girls that are fairly young. Plus, I’ve interacted with most of the kids in the city limits,” Hartfield says in response to a comment on her Facebook page. “Working to create activities and programs to help the kids in our community is one of my top priorities.
‘You See How Things Should Be’
Hartfield has had a unique view of the office of mayor. Her mother served as the administrative assistant to former Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree. The families were close. The two families attended the same church, and his wife, Johniece DuPree, even babysat Hartfield while her mother worked. Inevitably, work conversations spilled over into the homes of the two families. It also rubbed off on their children.
“Mr. DuPree has been in my life for a long time, so I guess being exposed to politics you see how things should be and rights that you should have,” Hartfield said.
Hartfield gained leadership experience while as a student at Jackson State University. While earning her bachelor’s in P. E. and Health, she served as vice president of the Health, Physical Education and Recreation (HPER) Club, and president of the Health and Fitness Club. There, she learned the importance of finding common ground with people of various backgrounds, races and customs.
To many in the area, Hartfield is still an outsider. Shuqualak is a small rural town in Noxubee County with a population of around 500 people. More than 30% of its residents live in poverty. It’s also more than 90% Black. Nearly everyone in the town knows each other.
Hartfield moved there with her now ex-husband and three of their four children in 2013. Before then, the Hattiesburg native had just spent a year back in her hometown after moving to Memphis upon graduating from Jackson State University. She had worked as a teacher but knew that the career was not a long-term option for her. In the sleepy town of Shuqualak, she took a job at an area daycare so that she would have the same schedule as her daughters.
Then, Hartfield began to recognize problems in the community, so a little more than a year ago, she decided to run for mayor. Former Hattiesburg Mayor DuPree initially tried to discourage her, but she told him that she felt a calling from God. He knew that she was simply walking the path that their families had before her. He also recognized that she was as qualified as anyone to bring about the change that she wanted to see.
“When you know you have four daughters and to change their future or help shape their future, DuPree told the Mississippi Free Press in a phone interview. “(You) realize that politics is one way you can help shape their future. You can fight from the outside, or you can fight from the inside, and we need both.”
DuPree, who has run for both governor and secretary of state, is deeply rooted in Mississippi politics. He believes that young Black women candidates like Hartfield are now in a special position to have a significant impact in the political world.
“I think the only thing holding African American women back is African American women,” DuPree said. “I think that the public is ready to elect African American women. You see them nationally. You see them statewide, and you see them locally now. Those numbers are going to rise, and they are going to rise because women have now come to the realization that if they can run a home, as difficult as it is, they certainly can do it in the political arena.”
‘You Can’t Win If You Don’t Get in the Race’
Hartfield’s run has not been without challenges. She was initially stalled in turning in her qualifying paperwork by the local municipal clerk who told her that she could not run as a member of the party she listed. Because she is simply a candidate so far and not yet the nominee—the primary is Tuesday, April 6—she can only receive limited support from the Mississippi Democratic Party. The issue was only solved after Hartfield contacted the secretary of state’s office.
“When I got ready to turn in my intent to qualify, I was told that I couldn’t run as a Democrat because everyone was running as an Independent. It’s been a challenge doing things that I know should be done the right way. All we have to fall back on is the secretary of state so you ask questions and call them to (learn) what you do from that point,” she said.
Hartfield is, in fact, running as a Democrat against the incumbent, Mayor Velma Jenkins in Tuesday’s primary, which will decide the winner since no one else is running.
The pandemic has also caused her to rethink how she would make herself known to voters. She has spent much of her time canvassing door to door so that people could meet her. The few small rallies that she has been able to host have been outdoor functions with strict guidelines for masks, social distancing and capacity. However, she feels a growing level of support from residents.
“I think it’s the time. I know I can do the job, and I feel like people are ready for a change,” Hartfield said. “I’ll feel better knowing that I tried to make it better rather than not trying at all.”
DuPree knows first hand how ambitious and determined Hartfield is. In their conversations, she told him that she wanted more for the people of her town. He believes that her life experiences are one of her strongest assets.
“You can’t win if you don’t get in the race, and I think for a long time women have been told that that’s not your place, you shouldn’t do that,” DuPree said. “My mother raised three kids by herself, and I know the difficulty in raising kids today. So if you can raise four girls on your own (as Erin has) then I think you can do anything that you set your mind to.”
Room to Grow, Improve Systems
Shuqualak citizens love living in a rural town with opportunities to enjoy nature, Hartfield says, which she finds special. She also recognizes that there are unique possibilities for Shuqualak to grow.
She would like to see technological improvements that offer convenience for citizens such as providing automated ways to pay utility bills or using an RSS system to send text messages providing information on city events and issues. She would like to seek partnerships with colleges in the area, trading the opportunity for clinical and internship hours for services desperately needed in the small town.
The local elementary school closed its door years ago, and the building now stands vacant. A storm caused significant damage to the facility, and repairs never happened.
When campaigning, Hartfield asks current and former residents what the school was like and how the space can now be renovated and used. The conversations often turn into discussions about how the town can attract young and upcoming families or what activities are needed for the teenagers and young adults already living in the community. Those topics are near and dear to the single mother.
“Once you get into politics, it takes you over because you can see the good you can do,” DuPree said.
“There is nothing better than being involved in something that you can see change and be a part of positive change. That’s what politics can do if you’re in it for the right reason, and I believe Erin is in it for the right reason.”
This profile is part of an ongoing series about Black women running for local office in Mississippi. These profiles are not endorsements.