BATESVILLE, Miss.—Pastor Terry Townsend parks his truck at Patton Lane Park after work, ending his shift at the U.S. Post Office just to begin his next as a part-time City of Batesville employee trying to improve the green space he grew up playing in.
Townsend didn’t want a job at the park but when he approached the Batesville Board of Aldermen at its Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2021, meeting to question the conditions at the park, the elected officials offered him one.
“My concern is if you take a picture of each one of the parks in the city, … they don’t look the same,” Townsend told the board. “The upkeep and the equipment is outdated, even cutting the grass. The basketball courts that the kids play on is cracked, those kinds of things. … I know y’all spent a lot of money to get the baseball field up to date, but there’s other things out there that need to be upkept and updated.”
“What can you do to help us?” Batesville Mayor Hal Ferrell asked Townsend.
“I didn’t come to ask you for a job,” he said. “ I’ve got a job.” He works for the U.S. Postal Service.
Still, Townsend said, he would be willing to take on the role.
“We’ve had a lot of issues with destruction down there,” Alderman Stan Harrison said. “I think you know; I don’t know how much, but I hear it.”
“I hear you say that, I heard that on Thursday—(but) a lot of stuff was fair wear and tear,” Townsend said. “And the second thing is, who’s out there watching it?”
To Black Batesville residents like Townsend who remember the park’s better days, its recent state of disrepair reflects a long history of purposeful official neglect of the majority-Black community that surrounds Patton Lane Park. Recent changes in policy, new officials and Black activists are working to reverse and repair effects of that history, but underrepresentation, understaffing and even public silencing stand in the way.
Battles Supposedly Already Won
Gloria Tucker is tired of fighting battles her community had supposedly already won. The president of the NAACP’s Batesville chapter knows the long history of struggling for equality in Panola County, about an hour south of Mississippi’s border with Tennessee. Batesville, named for a Methodist minister and train conductor, grew into a town after the construction of the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad in the 1850s and got its charter in 1866. Initially devoted to farming and cattle-raising, the area was the site of numerous plantations with enslaved workers.
After the Civil War and Emancipation, Panola County quickly became a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan violence, even by Mississippi standards, with 24 documented Ku Klux Klan murders there between August 1870 and December 1872, Michael Newton wrote in his book, “The Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi: A History.”
By the 1960s, Panola County was a hotbed of both civil-rights activity and white resistance.
Mississippi phone companies refused to serve Tucker’s family, native to Batesville, for many years for their role in Mississippi’s Civil Rights Movement.
Her father Earl, a World War II veteran, and uncle Frank, were among the plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit that opened the area’s voter rolls to Black residents. Her brother, Allen Marshall Tucker, was one of only seven Black students who remained at the all-white Batesville High School into the second year of integration at that grade level. Her youngest sibling, Alice Denise Tucker, endured harassment as one of the first Black students at her elementary school.
The family was only able to secure a phone line after Tucker married, using her then-husband’s last name to get the line. Now the 76-year-old Black woman is one of the county seat’s long-time citizens wondering why Patton Lane Park doesn’t look like its counterparts on the other side of the train tracks.
“What about Patton Lane?” Tucker asked from the front row as Batesville Public Works Director David Karr stepped away from the podium at the Tuesday, March 1, 2022, Board of Aldermen meeting.
At the previous meeting, Karr had sought permission from the aldermen to get estimates on replacing broken lighting at James Trussell Park, an area with a larger concentration of white residents. “What about Patton Lane?” Batesville Alderman Bobby Walton had also asked at the Tuesday, Feb. 15, meeting, after the board approved Karr’s request.
The aldermen then unanimously voted to get estimates to update Patton Lane’s lights as shown on page 230 of the Tuesday, Feb. 15, meeting minutes.
But at the March 1 meeting, Karr only presented estimates for lighting at Trussell Park. Walking away from the podium, he ignored Tucker’s question, as well as one from the Mississippi Free Press.
When this reporter approached Karr again minutes later, he denied that the board had authorized him to seek estimates for lighting updates at Patton Lane Park, but said he had reached out himself for estimates on updates on the lights. Still, the minutes show otherwise.
Walton, the alderman who asked for lighting estimates at Patton Lane Park, is the only African American member of Batesville’s board out of five representatives; the town is 46.2% Black and 48.4% white, while Panola County is 48% Black and 46.8% white, the 2020 census showed.
Then, Board Restricted Public Participation
After Gloria Tucker’s comment at the Tuesday, March 1, meeting, Batesville’s Board of Aldermen—four white men and one Black—began discussing an ordinance to prevent such future outbursts. Ideas of locking the board-meeting doors and banning non-residents from commenting at meetings circulated the board room, Ferrell said.
Eventually—in a city that already did not allow public comment at public hearings—the board unanimously passed an ordinance that forbade anyone not on the meeting agenda from addressing the board altogether.
Mayor Ferrell, who is white, issued a veto of the new order on Thursday, March 9, but the aldermen overruled him in a 4-1 vote at the March 15 meeting, with only Bobby Walton voting in favor of the veto.
Alderman Harrison successfully motioned for the ordinance to include a permanent list of visitors to the meetings who would not be subject to the new restrictions, however. The list includes representatives from the Panola Partnership, North Delta Planning and Development, Mendrop Engineering Resources, Panola County Board of Supervisors and department heads, state or federal officials representing any part of Panola County, any person engaged in contractual business with the City of Batesville and Jeremy Weldon of The Panolian newspaper, or his proxy.
Even before the March 15 ordinance, Batesville’s meetings were not run quite the same way as other cities. In 2021, their meeting agendas and minutes were not yet available online; their meeting minutes, agendas and livestreams are new in 2022.
After Tucker asked to be added to the allowed list of speakers at the Tuesday, May 17, meeting, Walton motioned for her to be added as a NAACP representative. Walton’s motion failed, with Batesville’s aldermen voting 4-1 against it.
The anti-transparency ordinance is only mentioned in meeting minutes, not agendas, meaning that citizens could not have known it was up for discussion beforehand. The board’s discussion of this ordinance isn’t on meeting agendas for the Feb. 15, March 1 or March 7 meetings, but the March 15 meeting minutes reference a vote for it on Tuesday, March 1, briefly described on page 259 of those minutes.
Progress at Historically Neglected Park
Pastor Townsend has only been working at Patton Lane Park a few short months, but residents like Batesville native William Henderson have already noticed massive changes at the historically neglected park. He is the owner of the eatery that shares its fence with Patton Lane Park.
“It used to be that the only time they’d come out there to cut the grass was when they were gonna have a game on the softball field,” Henderson said in a Tuesday, May 24, interview at his store.
He pointed out the hole in the park’s fence that came from a long-ignored fallen tree.
Parks and Recreation Director Heath Fullilove spoke with the Mississippi Free Press on May 24 in Batesville’s new public works building and firehouse on Van Voris Street, alongside Assistant Public Works Director Newt Benson.
Fullilove became Batesville’s first full-time parks director when the City created the position in 2018, and has about 15 years of experience in parks maintenance and management.
“When I first came here … I called it Lake Patton Lane because mainly it always held water,” Fullilove said of the neglected park in West Batesville, a historically Black neighborhood. “We spent about $15,000 on laser leveling and new dirt on the big field.”
Since Pastor Townsend’s speech at Batesville’s Sept. 22, 2021, aldermen meeting, Patton Lane Park’s bathroom doors have been replaced, the concession stand cleaned, the splash pad recommissioned and the t-ball field lined.
“The bathrooms were very outdated,” Fullilove said. “We just got through putting new toilets in it. We got brand-new doors up on all of them. The doors were rusted and falling apart.”
Fullilove says a lot needs to be updated in the city’s parks.
“It’s old, you know, but everything we have is old,” Fullilove said. “We have nothing new around here except for the Indian mounds, and there’s really nothing out there, you know, but grass.”
Middle Woodland Period ancestors of modern tribes built the Batesville mounds, which are north of the small city, about 2,000 years ago, the National Parks Service says. Archeology graduate student Nikki Mattson helped open The Mounds as a park in 2018, completing the 30-year-long archeological project University of Mississippi professor William Haag began in the 1950s.
Fullilove and Karr have only been in their positions for four years, and Benson for two, they said in interviews. “We can’t speak for the past 30 years; we can only speak for the past few,” Benson said.
Segregated History of Patton Lane
In 1954 Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated schools unconstitutional, but a 1999 study by Mississippi Rev. Carl Lindgren for the University of South Africa found that not a single Mississippi school district desegregated in the decade following the Brown decision.
Lindgren studied the process of school desegregation in both of Panola County’s school districts, interviewing numerous residents to build both his 200-plus-page study and the oral-history archive that came with it.
Mike Amis, a former teacher who served as a South Panola School Board member when the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare ordered schools to desegregate in 1968 after their original plans failed, spoke with Lindgren in a series of interviews spanning from 1993 to 1998. Amis, a National Guard veteran, died in 2016 at age 78.
“Rather than fighting it, we decided that this was perhaps our opportunity to get something from the federal government so we adopted the policy that we would give … (the government) something if … (the government) gave us something,” Amis said, as recorded in the document. “At that particular time we decided that we would totally integrate the high school if (the federal government) would build these new classrooms for us. They did.”
Amis’ testimony in Lindgren’s dissertation provides insight into how white community leaders interacted with the community that lived around what was then the all-Black Patton Lane High School.
“We then stated that we would totally integrate the elementary grade by proposing to move the junior high school out to Westside school, which was a formerly all black facility,” Amis told Lindgren, as stated in his dissertation. “We stated that the purpose being was that we felt like the community would accept Westside more than Patton Lane which was located in the black section of Batesville.”
Amis told Lindgren that at the time, in 1969, there was talk in the white community of buying up all of the property down Patton Lane—the road on which the park and school sat—west of Panola Avenue and putting up cyclone fences along the street.
“As far as I was concerned that would have been a slap in the face to the black community,” Amis said of the long-abandoned plan in his 1993 interview with Lindgren. “We were going to buy up all the little houses, raze them or move them and build a road of cyclone fences.”
In September 1970, 18 Black parents signed a petition to sue the school district with the aim of reopening Patton Lane School for all races, discontinuing renovations at the old elementary school, integrating school busing in regards to both race and gender, eliminating discrimination against Black students and curtailing funds for the new junior high school.
The petition predicted the district only intended to use Westside temporarily while working to build a new junior high school. Although the case was dropped before seeing court, those 18 parents were soon proved right.
Both North and South Panola School Districts would soon struggle with overcrowding as a result of closing former all-Black schools, rather than desegregating all the schools. Instead, the districts decided to build new facilities and expand a few old ones, none of which included any all-Black schools.
Eventually, Patton Lane High School was demolished, and the park was built in its place, alongside a community center.
Just a week before his interaction with Gloria Tucker, Karr along with his assistant director, Newt Benson, had talked to the Mississippi Free Press about conditions at Batesville’s parks. As the public works director for Batesville, Karr oversees the city’s departments for gas, water and sewage, parks and recreation, water treatment, streets and the civic center.
One of Pastor Townsend’s complaints at the Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2021, meeting had been bathroom maintenance and access at the park.
“The bathrooms down at Patton Lane, when they weren’t being used, they were being locked, and then they were being broken into at night,” Benson said. “The doors were getting kicked open, and they were going in there and junking them up. We’d fix it, and we’d fix it and clean it up and fix it, and the next week they get kicked in again, and then we—”
Karr interjected to blame park users: “And then there were some problems because some people had some keys, and they would open the bathrooms and not lock them back when they were done down there. So what happens? They get trashed, the bathrooms get trashed.”
Batesville’s city budget data show that the Parks and Recreation Department consistently spends less money than allotted to them. In 2016 there was a $527,994.12 difference between the budgeted amount and what was actually spent on parks. Similarly, $817,441.26 went unspent in 2017, $804,520.24 in 2018, $504,271.05 in 2019 and $349,932 in 2020.
The city’s parks and recreation department consists of the director and assistant director, one full-time laborer and six part-time workers, Karr said.
Batesville’s parks system is structured similarly to those in towns close in population, like New Albany and Senatobia, but has different proportions of employees. For example, New Albany has an inverse proportion of administrative and maintenance. In Oxford, a city about 3.8 times the size of Batesville, there are nine administrative parks roles for every one maintenance worker, the parks commission website says.
Patton Lane’s Community Garden
Across the street from Patton Lane Park, there is a community garden. The rows fill with plants in the heat of Mississippi’s summers.
Melvin Tucker is the community outreach director for the garden, and Gloria Tucker’s brother. As children, they both attended the all-Black Patton Lane High School, which stood where Patton Lane Community Center is today, beside the park.
The garden has been there for six years, Tucker said.
Volunteers meet there at least two days a week, but more often after the plants have sprouted—like they have now. The garden hasn’t experienced vandalism.
“There’ve been a few incidents, but they’re so minor; it’s just kids playing around,” Tucker said in a Tuesday, May 24, interview with the Mississippi Free Press. He explained that damage to the garden has been limited to a few pulled-up seedlings over extended periods of time.
Another community garden volunteer spoke with the Mississippi Free Press on Tuesday, May 24, but reached out later that night to request her name not be used, citing concerns around recent news events.
“They need to come out and find out what’s needed, but that’s never the case,” the elderly African American woman said of Batesville aldermen. “When we’re in, when you’re in the city council meeting it is all about what Batesville needs, not what the community needs.”
The volunteers pointed out the security cameras above their garden and in the park. They were the first of 31 cameras the City of Batesville installed in a $600,000 project. The Batesville Police Department monitors them.
Newspaper: Funding Parks Act of Re-segregation
The Panolian, the long-time local newspaper, runs the addresses of arrestees, including those who live on Patton Lane, but does not mention where anyone was arrested, if or when charges are dropped, or report follow-up information. The Panolian website says it copies information directly from the Panola County Jail log and publishes it.
On Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, The Panolian published an opinion piece by white Panolian editor Jeremy Weldon declaring that the re-establishment of parks programs at Patton Lane Park is an a violation of “the loathsome Separate But Equal Doctrine, struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954.” Why? Because mostly Black Batesville residents who live nearby use them. He also called the hiring of Rev. Townsend to look after the park “bad policy” and called for “community-wide participation” in the same park, instead of spending money on both of them.
“Batesville’s aldermen have decided to operate under the decision of Plessey (sic) vs. Ferguson, saying the city will maintain separate facilities at Patton Lane (99.99 percent minority used) while purporting to give the attached families the benefit of equal services,” Weldon said, giving no indication that he recognized the irony of his statements.
Earlier in his piece, Weldon provided insight into why there weren’t programs at Patton Lane Park.
“When he was hired as director, Heath Fullilove told aldermen his goal was to form citywide leagues for youth sports, pointing out that Batesville’s population isn’t large enough to have separate programs at Trussell and Patton Lane—there just aren’t enough kids for that,” Weldon wrote. He did not disclose in the column that he was writing about his own brother-in-law. He told the Mississippi Free Press that he did not mention the conflict of interest because most people in the town of 7,200 people know.
A Tuesday, July 6, 2010, article from The Panolian mentions the programs that were at the Patton Lane Park at the time, the kind Townsend grew up participating in.
Weldon discussed his column in a Monday, July 18, call with the Mississippi Free Press.
“The easy way out for the board is to say, ‘well fine Trussell, here’s your money, Patton Lane, here’s your money,’” Weldon said. “It should be one park system, and if one park isn’t getting their fair keep-up, well, then the board needs to make the park department bring them up.”
“Maybe I made my point wrong,” Weldon added about his Plessy v. Ferguson argument.
In his Wednesday, Feb. 23, column, Weldon reported that Ward 2 Alderman Bobby Walton had raised a motion to replace the lighting at Patton Lane Park, but did not mention that it was actually approved at the meeting, despite the board’s unanimous vote shown in the city’s own meeting minute archives.
“Earlier this month the president of the Panola County NAACP and a newspaper reporter from Mississippi Free Press in Jackson, openly questioned aldermen about a vote to take bids on street light repairs at Trussell Park,” The Panolian’s Wednesday, March 23, unsigned editorial said, mentioning the interaction for the first time in the paper.
‘It’s Two Sides of the Tracks’
Local father Anthony Whitehead grew up playing in Patton Lane Park, and happily returned when Rev. Townsend asked him to volunteer as a mentor for his church’s program last year. When the City restarted the park’s league, Whitehead transferred his children to the Patton Lane Park baseball program, away from the private local park.
Returning now, he says, things are not the same.
“They don’t care about the park like they used to,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead said neighborhood residents performed much of the park’s upkeep when he was a child there. “It’s two sides of the track,” he said, when asked why that was.
Nineteen-year-old Jaqualyn Hamilton was a child in the program until he aged out. “I had an older mentor,” Hamilton said. “He taught me how to become a mentor so I’m mentoring now—mentoring the kids, keeping them on the right path, helping with schoolwork, tutoring when they need tutoring.”
Hamilton is in his seventh year with Townsend’s program, now hosted through Patton Lane Park. “We would’ve been just a bunch of boys in the streets without it, but Hope Mentoring Program brang everybody in,” Hamilton said of his time outside of school.
Henderson, the store owner, described years of neighborhood residents replacing Patton Lane Park’s basketball nets themselves in a Sunday, May 1, interview.
“Not too long ago they replaced them; before that, 30 years (before),” Henderson said.
Townsend confirmed Henderson’s statement, but added that the City had installed the most recent set of nets. Fullilove said that the nets were replaced in his tenure, but cannot speak for anything before he took his position in 2018.
‘They’ve Got Parents, They’ve Got Cars’
Prior to Terry Townsend’s recent employment at the Patton Lane Park, Trussell Park hosted all city sports league practices that had previously been held in both parks.
“The league is not designed for people at Patton Lane; the league is designed for the city of Batesville,” Fullilove said in a Tuesday, May 24, interview. “The league at Trussell is not designed for people at Trussell; it’s for the city of Batesville. Anybody can play in any one of these leagues we have.”
The City of Batesville has no public transportation; it is a 1.7-mile walk between Patton Lane Park and Trussell Park, 2.3 miles from the last houses on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
“They’ve got parents, they’ve got cars,” Fullilove said. “I mean, I don’t control how they can and can’t get to somewhere? I mean, I offer a league.”
“As far as equality goes, I spent probably just as much money at Patton Lane as I had at any other park,” Fullilove told the Mississippi Free Press. He explained that he has replaced cut fences, refinished basketball goals and added dirt to the field.
In the May interview, Fullilove and Benson explained why they did not originally request updated lighting for Patton Lane Park alongside updated lighting for Trussell Park.
“The lights at Trussell, there’s a few of them that are not operable,” Fullilove said. “The lights are so old; you don’t just go replace one thing so in order to get the lights back to where they’re supposed to be … you can’t just replace one.”
“We knew it was going to be over $50,000 to replace the lighting at Patton Lane, so that’s more of a budget at the end of the year,” Benson said. “We’ve got to make sure we have that money.”
‘A Motion Doesn’t Mean Anything’
The Tennessee Valley Authority has been waiting several years for Batesville to make decisions on an estimate it produced for replacing the lighting at Patton Lane Park, TVA representative Scott Fiedler said on a Wednesday, March 2, call.
The Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Authority is in the same position of waiting on Batesville; it provided estimates a few years ago, as its representative Keri Davis said on June 16. But the City of Batesville never asked it to move forward. Alderman Dennis Land, who works at TVEPA, suggested that the Mississippi Free Press talk to Davis when reached on Thursday, June 15.
On Tuesday, June 21, the City once again authorized Public Works Director Karr to seek quotes to replace lights at Patton Lane Park. He presented energy consumption data from a company called Truly Green Solutions, attached with charts to the meeting minutes, in a plan to replace lighting at the park’s basketball courts.
Despite the history of neglect for the local Black school and then the park that replaced it, most days plenty of local children and teenagers spend their evenings at Patton Lane. More than 140 kids signed up for the spring baseball and softball program this year, Townsend said.
On the nights when the Patton Lane Park teams practice, parents and siblings wait in the bleachers. They talk, and some of the older girls braid each other’s hair. Across the park, dozens of teenagers and children play on the basketball court, while others use the playground or splash pad.
Just beyond the entrance to Patton Lane Park, the flowers keep growing in the garden the community built and tends.