Derrick Evans stood in front of the Gulfport City Council in 2005 with photos and documents determined to fight back against the City’s 25-year plan for growth that would eviscerate the historically Black community of Turkey Creek. The City, on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, wanted to buy the land from Turkey Creek families and develop a commercial retail site on top of it.
Evans, a Boston, Mass., teacher who had grown up in Turkey Creek, wasn’t having it. He was ready to fight for his homeland. Leah Mahan’s “Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek” documentary was re-released this year on World Channel to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.
Turkey Creek had started during the Reconstruction period. After slavery ended, four black couples had worked, saved up some money and travelled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Each couple bought 80 acres of land side by side, property that meandered a bayou that they named after the wild turkeys that gallivanted there.
‘The Soul of Saint Joe Isn’t for Sale’
As I watched the Turkey Creek documentary, it hit me—I’d seen this before. Not the actual documentary, but I’ve seen this same scenario play out in a fictional drama on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network called “Queen Sugar.” The documentary starts in 2001 and spans nearly a decade, predating the television drama that premiered in 2016.
“Queen Sugar,” which Ava DuVernay created, co-directed and executive produced, is set in the fictional parish of Saint Josephine, La. Following his death, Ernest Bordelon bequeaths an 800-acre sugarcane farm to his children Nova Bordelon, Charley Bordelon and Ralph-Angel Bordelon; however, that ownership doesn’t come without conflict. A white family, The Landrys, seek to purchase their land. The Landrys own all the land that surrounds the Bordelon sugarcane farm, where other black farmers lease the land at high rates.
Like Gulfport, Miss., the Landrys do not seek to help the black farmers. The audience learns their plans to build a prison on the land and to later construct a highway through it. It’s at one particular city council meeting that Charley challenges those who seek to come in, displace, and disgrace the sanctity of the farmers’ land and livelihood. What’s most beautiful about Charley is her resilience and passion for what she believes is right and fair for those most vulnerable, a strange dichotomy for someone who lived a life of financial privilege.
But as Charley stands up in defense of the farmers, the land and her inheritance, it’s the last line of her speech that really hits home.
“Mr. Callahan, the soul of Saint Joe isn’t for sale,” she says.
‘If Turkey Creek Is Not Careful, It May Be Like an Obituary’
Charley’s line, so poignant, reads so true to who Derrick Evans is and his tenacity to see that Turkey Creek remains in the hands of the black descendants whose founders worked hard to buy and own that land.
“I am a descendent of African American freed men and women who settled my community three miles north of the Gulf of Mexico in 1866 during the first year after 14 generations of slavery that they were free to do so,” Evans said in the documentary.
Freed men and women who used to have to work that land now owned it and could do with it what they please. They cleared the land and established homes, schools and churches. They used Turkey Creek for recreational purposes and baptisms. They created jobs by selling their land to a creosote company that preserved lumber for railroad ties and telephone poles.
“If I’m not careful, if Turkey Creek is not careful, it may be like an obituary,” Evans said, tears glistening in his eyes.
And he was right. The Turkey Creek community is a sacred ground, a fine example of black excellence and black inheritance. It’s not just land for the Turkey Creek descendants. There would be no Derrick Evans without Turkey Creek, and it would be a sin to let his ancestors’ hard work be sullied. It’s so easy for communities like Turkey Creek to be co-opted, desecrated or buried. Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla., is another prime example.
Known as the Tulsa Massacre, a mass of white residents attacked black residents and destroyed their businesses in the Greenwood District.
‘No, You Can’t, and No, You Won’t’
The City of Gulfport was trying its best to erase Turkey Creek off the map and out of history, choosing greed instead. It even built an apartment complex on top of a cemetery full of the community’s settlers and loved ones, blatantly dismissing the desecration of those graves. They wanted to displace a community of 400 people and use their land for commercial retail space that would in no way benefit the community.
Former Mayor Ken Combs called the residents who fought to protect their land “dumb bastards.” Former Gulfport City Council member Kim Savant admitted to having no knowledge of the Turkey Creek community, and yet the City built highways through its watershed and expected the community to sell their land.
These methods seek to chip away at Turkey Creek’s history and culture, but it’s that Black resilience that tells them, “No, you can’t, and no, you won’t.”
In “Queen Sugar,” fictional character Charley Bordelon leaves her comfortable life in Los Angeles to move with her son to Louisiana. She buys a sugarcane mill, becoming the first Black woman to own a mill in Louisiana, and gives Black farmers fairer rates. She runs for a city council seat and wins to represent St. Joe, where, before then, the council had cared little for the people who lived there.
Anything they throw at her, she fights back harder, and Derrick Evans did the same for Turkey Creek.
He sacrificed his teaching job in Boston to move back to Turkey Creek. He applied to get his grandfather’s house historically recognized, which the state denied, but he kept fighting. Evans and his cousin and WJDZ radio personality Rip Daniels streamed a live radio show while taking a canoe upstream on the creek to invite listeners into their world.
Evans also garnered support for a greenway, a buffer zone to protect the community’s wetlands, which led state scientists to discover rare plants along the creek and for the Audubon Society to identify the creek as a critical habitat for birds migrating across the Gulf of Mexico.
Ultimately, Butch Ward, who wanted to use Turkey Creek land as a commercial retail center, backed out.
Taking on Gov. Haley Barbour
The documentary shows that, even after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast and Gov. Haley Barbour took advantage of it, clearing wetland for hotels, casinos and car washes without the community’s permission, Evans still didn’t give up. He took a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer around the country to protest Barbour’s misuse of recovery funds that were supposed to be for affordable housing, but were instead used to expand the port of Gulfport. He traveled 13,000 miles across the country with that trailer, partnering with musicians, activists and others to tell the story of Turkey Creek and the injustices done to the people there.
Evens did it at the expense of his own livelihood and health. This was a labor of love, nothing that Evans was paid to do. Fortunately, his efforts were not in vain. Turkey Creek was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the greenway became a reality.
But their good fortune didn’t stop new threats from arising, as Gov. Barbour’s port expansion plan included a major road that would allow 1,000,000 trucks per year to run through Turkey Creek’s watershed. And then in 2010, the BP oil spill happened.
Evans’ work would never really be done.
“Environmentalists aren’t born. They’re made by necessity, by circumstance,” Evans said in the documentary.
Turkey Creek needed Evans the way Saint Josephine needed Charley Bordelon. He sacrificed a lot so that he could be on the frontlines to protect his ancestors, inheritance and legacy.
So, thank you, Derrick Evans. I’ve only just discovered Turkey Creek, and I won’t forget it. I reckon I have a lot more to learn about the people, the community, the history, the culture, the love and the resilience that exist there.
To watch the “Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek” documentary, you can visit World Channel’s website.