GREENVILLE, Miss.—In the 1927 flood of the Mississippi Delta, every inch of Greenville was engulfed in water for three months. In some parts of the Port City, the water line sat well above the roofs of the homes below it. Its residents fled to refugee camps; many lost their livelihoods.
When the waters subsided, the people of Greenville returned to rebuild their city, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told a Greenville crowd on Friday, April 1. After the flood of 1927, the town would recover, but there were more challenges to come for the people of the seemingly sleepy town with the Great Depression just ahead with a Civil Rights Movement against often-violent white resistors just a few decades ahead.
Once Jim Crow was legally dead, Greenville saw white and economic flight out of the once-thriving town on the banks of the Mississippi River whose fortunes were historically made with cotton, catfish and commerce.
Even in many feet of water, Greenville’s newspaper continued to operate back in 1927; the segregated town’s banks did business; power and phone services remained on. Some residents traversed the town in rowboats, and others fled via steamboat when the rain allowed.
“You have faced incredible challenges, and you have met those incredible challenges with incredible strength,” Harris told a small group of business owners and others gathered to hear her speak at the Delta Center Stage Theater at 300 S. Main St. “Greenville is a place built by the ambition and aspiration of its people.”
The town indeed started to thrive again after the 1927 flood, at least for many white people. In 1960 Greenville’s population rose to a new high of 41,502—adding 26,695 people since the 1930 census—and by 1990 the population had swelled again, reaching 45,667 Mississippians.
Over time, the economy in the Mississippi Delta at large had begun to decline for myriad factors, which Columbusl, Miss., native Birney Imes documented in a photo story for PBS in the 1980s. By then the town and schools were officially desegregated, causing the upheavals of white populations seen across Mississippi; with flight of tax base comes economic challenges, boarded-up businesses and poverty.
Delta counties, with the highest percentage of Black residents, have yet to recover: Good jobs are scarce, wealth inequality is still dramatic, and too many formerly thriving towns are in a state of disrepair and neglect, with some like Marks in Quitman County struggling to keep a real grocery store in town. In the 2020 census Greenville reported just 29,670 residents, down 13.75% since 2010 and 35% since 1990. Many locally owned businesses closed their doors, with boarded-up spaces close to where the nation’s first Black woman vice president chose to cheer Greenville citizens on and lay out initiatives that may help the river town thrive again.
Harris came to the 82.4% Black town of Greenville to talk about the Biden administration’s efforts to ensure that small business owners get resources they need to rebuild, especially in underserved communities like Greenville.
“America is a nation built by people who see what can be, unburdened by what has been,” Harris said, pushing a message of hope. “People with the ambition, and the aspiration, to transform dreams into reality.”
A block away from Vice President Harris’ remarks, unable to attend the speech without pre-approved credentials, community members stood outside a home with broken windows that sat just before the Secret Service blockade.
A few older African American women—dressed in Sunday’s best—held signs supporting Harris, unable to be deterred in their excitement. Other onlookers gathered beside them as Secret Service members confirmed the identities of politicians and press to pass through the barricade.
A Message for Small Business Owners
Vice President Harris’ speech didn’t bother with pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric; she was concerned with addressing the economic obstacles that keep underserved Americans from reaching their full potential—hurdles like racial discrimination, language barriers, and a lack of interest from banks in small and rural communities.
“Turning ambition and aspiration into action often requires capital—capital to start and grow a small business, or buy or renovate a home—and it requires financial services,” Harris said. “Services like checking and savings accounts, credit cards, and lines of credit, financial information and good advice.”
“As you know well, not everyone in our country, sadly, can access this essential support,” Harris said. “Black and Latino homeowners are rejected at a higher rate when applying for home loans from traditional financial institutions—even when they have credit profiles similar to the other applicants. Many Asian American business owners in particular, immigrant business owners, face language barriers that limit their ability to access capital and banking services.”
“And people who live in the rural communities often lack access to traditional banking services of income,” Harris said. “This includes many Native Americans and here in the Mississippi Delta, many Black folks.”
As recently as 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that Mississippi-based BancorpSouth was using discriminatory lending and redlining practices in Black and Brown communities, for which it agreed to a $10.6-million settlement in 2016.
“So let us acknowledge also that while they play an important role in the growth of our economy, traditional banks have not always seen the visions of small business owners of color, small business owners who are women, small business owners who live in rural areas and small business owners who serve low-income communities,” Harris said in Greenville.
“Community lenders, on the other hand, were created to see that vision and to support it.”
Harris highlighted recent federal programs the administration has rolled out to help small businesses. It made $27 billion available to support small businesses, homeowners and communities of color through the Emergency Capital Investment Program, the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program and the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund, a White House press statement supporting her visit stated Friday.
Helping the Programs Succeed
Before Vice President Harris took the stage at the Delta Center Stage Theater, Mississippi businessman and CEO of Hope Credit Union Bill Bynum—a community lender like the ones Harris later discussed—spoke to the crowd about just that.
Bynum’s credit union is a lending firm dedicated to serving small businesses in underserved communities, he explained in his speech, and it started right in Greenville with its first commercial loan office opening there. It has since grown its membership base in the Delta cluster to more than 3,000.
Bynum’s first-hand experiences showed him how helpful credit unions could be.
“When I was growing up, my mother had to work multiple jobs to support my sisters and me,” Bynum told Mississippi Free Press reporter Kayode Crown in a phone interview on Monday, Nov. 23, 2021. “She wasn’t able to get a loan from a traditional bank.”
Eventually Bynum’s mother was able to buy the family’s first home from a credit union without a loan from a traditional bank.
“There are so many more people who are outside the economy and looking in who don’t have access to a bank account and rely on payday lenders and check cashers for basic financial services that others can take for granted,” Bynum said in the 2021 interview. “There’s so much more that needs to be addressed.”
The Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFI, fund program that helped Hope Credit Union expand across the South isn’t a new concept. CDFIs, invented in the 1990s, focus on lending in underserved communities, as Forbes explained it. CDFI funding comes from the Emergency Capital Investment Program, or ECIP, which Congress established in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, the Department of the U.S. Treasury explains.
Bynum’s credit union is “a proven model to stop this trajectory of entrenched poverty and create a new future for generations of Americans, in the South and all across rural America,” Teresa Heinz stated in a Nov. 18, 2021 press release, explaining why the Heinz Awards selected Bynum for their $250,000 award, the Mississippi Free Press reported in November 2021.
Bynum isn’t the only Greenville local whose business success has hinged on the CDFI program.
A Homegrown Business
Before she spoke at the Delta Center Stage theater, Vice President Harris met with local business owner Joyce Johnson at her store, Joycee’s Embroidery, Fabrics, Alterations & Sewing, just a few miles away.
The local Delta Democrat-Times newspaper wrote about Johnson’s talents in a clipping she keeps framed in her shop.
Johnson had picked up sewing from her Aunt Eddie B when she was about 12, she told the DDT, and after she graduated from Riverside High School in Avon, south of Greenville, sewing helped her pay her way through Delta State University in nearby Cleveland where she earned a bachelor’s in business administration.
After years working as a payroll clerk for Western Line School District, Johnson decided it was time to use her sewing talent to become her own boss. Eventually Johnson was able to save up enough money to put a down payment on what would soon become Joycee’s Embroidery, Fabrics, Alterations & Sewing in Greenville.
On the day the vice president spoke nearby, Johnson’s dresses were displayed in the front window and sewing-themed knick knacks and trophies Johnson has collected over the years lined the inside her small store.
The COVID-19 pandemic put Johnson’s store into jeopardy. The business needed a $10,000 loan, a sum much too small for most banks to consider for a business loan, Harris later explained at the downtown theater on April 1.
With the help of Hope Credit Union, Johnson was able to secure a loan to keep her store afloat, the sewing entrepreneur explained to the crowd as they waited for Harris’ appearance.
Hope Credit Union loaned Johnson just over $10,000—an amount too small for most traditional banks—”but it was an amount that was transformative for Miss Joyce,” Harris said in her speech.
“It was an honor to have her in my presence,” Johnson told the Mississippi Free Press after the event, reflecting on Harris’ visit to her store.
“It was very nice,” Johnson said. “She shared a lot of information for small business people and information on what they’re trying to get done for small businesses and entrepreneurs.”
Canton, Miss., Mayor William “Jordan” Truly Jr. was also enthusiastic about the programs in Vice President Harris’ speech about 120 miles from his Madison County home, and how they could help local commerce in towns like his own.
“This is a gateway for small businesses, and small businesses are in dire need of capital in order for their businesses to survive,” Truly said. “Small businesses really happen to be the matrix and the mattress of our country—not so much the big corporations, we know about them.”
“It’s small folks, in small communities and small towns, who need the help of these community lenders so that they can grow and they can prosper and contribute to our country and to the community,” Truly said.
Missisipian and Assistant Vice President at BankPlus Denise April also attended the event. BankPlus is a Mississippi-based bank with its corporate headquarters in Belzoni, Miss., a Delta town. It has 59 branches.
“I think her message was on time,” April said, referring to the emphasis Harris placed on helping small businesses.
April says she attended the event to witness history in the making. “You never think that there’s going to be a woman president, but there’s always hope that there’s one so, yeah, we never thought there’d be a Black president,” April said. “There’s always hope.”
Untapped Economic Potential
Greenville Ward 6 City Councilman James Wilson remembers better times in the Mississippi Delta, when his city was better able to live up to its nickname.
“We used to be the Queen of the Delta—we still are the Queen City of the Delta—so if Greenville goes, then everything else is going to go,” Wilson said.
In her speech, Vice President Harris recounted hearing a similar sentiment from Bynum.
“If you really want to know what’s going on, you come to the Mississippi Delta,” Harris said, repeating a line from a previous conversation she had with Bynum.
Wilson thinks Harris chose Greenville, in part, as a way to bring attention to under-appreciated areas. “Small cities and municipalities have a lot of things to offer, and they’re not being explored enough … we already know what California got, what Los Angeles got, Chicago, New York.” Wilson told the Mississippi Free Press. “But what about the Delta?”
“it’s just so committed for her to be taking the time to come to a little small community like Greenville, which is the heart of the Delta now. I think she’ll be able to take back things and find that we have a lot of things to offer, the Delta, so we’re thankful that she came,” Wilson said.
“I think it was great and wonderful for the community,” Wilsom said. “I admire what Biden and her are doing for the small communities.”
Choosing to Spotlight Greenville
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, whose district includes the Mississippi Delta, helped introduce the vice president before her speech.
“Greenville, Mississippi, is unique in that you have the only African American president to visit, and now it has the only African American vice president to visit,” Thompson said, referring to former President Barack Obama’s 2008 visit to Greenville on the campaign trail.
“… They could have chosen to go to any town in the United States,” Thompson said. “They both chose to come to Greenville, Mississippi.”
Thompson is Mississippi’s only Black elected official in the U.S. Capitol, even as the state is 38% Black.
During her speech Harris recalled her experiences with Thompson as a colleague in Congress, and mentioned having seen him at a White House event earlier in the week.
Harris concluded her visit to the Mississippi Delta with a stop at a local grocery store, The Clarion Ledger reported. Many Mississippi counties inside the Delta and beyond are struggling with food insecurity and are classified as food deserts, with few if any quality grocery stores available for residents, from rural Noxubee County to the capital city.