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Although Mississippi's wealth was built on the backs of chattel slavery, numbers show that Black farmers in the state's unincorporated communities continue to be disenfranchised by Big Agriculture. Photo courtesy Luke Pamer from StockSnap

Repairing Racist Inequities: Who Are Really Mississippi’s Unincorporated?

Historically, Mississippi has always shared an autonomous exclusivity in the United States of America. The Magnolia State was born out of chattel slavery and was officially brought into the Union in 1817. The white population in Mississippi is 59.1%, while the Black population, which I refer to as the American Descendants of Slavery, or ADOS, is 37.8%. 

Agriculture remains the cash crop of Mississippi’s economy. However, Black-run farms on average remain far smaller than those of their white counterparts. American Descendants of Slavery in Mississippi have historically experienced discriminatory governance, resource extraction and environmental racism. A 2012 United States Department of Agriculture study stated that out of 54,971 farm operators in Mississippi, only 6,627 were Black

Footprint Farms is a 68-acre speciality farm that grows fruits and vegetables and raises livestock. Fertile Ground Screenshot by Alex Warren.

Danielle M. Purifoy’s research on unincorporated communities helps us understand the importance of outreach to Black farmers, as well as low-income and impoverished families in these areas of our state. “To live unincorporated is to live the good life—if you have money. Your services are private—you likely have your own septic system, your own water well, your own trash valet,” Purifoy writes. 

You may even access private ambulance services and volunteer firefighters. When something goes wrong on your property, you fix it on your own terms. And most importantly to many suburbanites—you don’t pay to fix anyone else’s problems.”

Unincorporated communities offer residents a suburban feel. Most own their homes, and their residents tend to be conservative. For example, Foxworth, Miss., is an unincorporated community that has voted conservative in the past six presidential elections to date. As of 2018, it has a total population of 536, but the Black poverty rate is 24.2% even though the Black community only makes up 19.2% of the total population. 

Isaiah Montgomery, born a slave, founded Mound Bayou. Photo: Public Domain

One of the earliest independent Black unincorporated communities in Mississippi was in Mound Bayou, founded by Isaiah Thornton Montgomery in 1887. Joseph Emory Davis—the brother of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis—sold 840 acres of dense swampland to Benjamin Montgomery, who hosted a colony of freedmen farmers from 1867 to 1886. Mound Bayou was home to one of the earliest self-governing Black communities in the United States. 

Ironically, after being incorporated in 1972, more than half of the population in Bolivar County currently live below the poverty level. The Black population in Mound Bayou is 99.3% and has a poverty level of 50.3%. 

Black farmers in unincorporated communities in Mississippi continue to be disenfranchised by Big Agriculture and Wall Street. Our lawmakers have turned a blind eye to this corruption. Farmers actually owned very few farms themselves. Investors in boardrooms across America have purchased hundreds of thousands of prime Delta land. 

Continued Land Grab By Big Agri-Businesses 

The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association owns one of the largest pension firms in the United States. It has a portfolio of more than 80,000 acres of Mississippi farmland alone. Most of their acquisitions have been in the Delta region, holding more than 130,000 acres along the Mississippi River. 

Black soybean farmers in LeFlore County are now competing with bio-engineered products that are cultivated with laser-guided tractors and crop-dusting drones. Hancock Agricultural Investment Group manages more than 65,000 acres in the Delta. In Washington County, TIAA bought 50,000 acres for $200 million. 

American Descendants of Slavery in Washington County make up 72% of the population and own less than 11% of the farmland. 

County governments are mainly micromanagers that work on behalf of the state and the county constituents. They do not work on behalf of individual unincorporated residents. Local incorporated governments rely on their local constituents as their tax base. When local governments annex unincorporated areas, the pattern has been to annex wealthy White communities to increase their tax base. 

American Descendants of Slavery who find themselves living in unincorporated communities in Mississippi are being faced with discriminatory policies including housing disparities, land and mineral theft. These communities do not have a mayor, city council, local fire department or local police department. 

Moreover, the lack of accountability to taxpayers in these communities make them vulnerable to corruption by county officials. State officials knew of widespread lead-based poisoning in LeFlore County Erica Hensley, a former Mississippi Today journalist, reported earlier this year about the environmental racism that is occurring in Greenwood.

Nearly half a billion gallons of raw sewage leaked into the Pearl River in the first three months of 2020, according to a quarterly report by the City of Jackson. Photo courtesy Nick Judin/Jackson Free Press

In her report, Hensley cited Greenwood Mayor Carolyn McAdams saying: “The devastating effects of lead exposure in children are as bad here in Greenwood, according to limited data available, as anywhere in the state: Three percent of children tested in Leflore County from 2012 to 2017 showed high lead levels—well above the state average and one of the highest in the state.” 

The overflow of Jackson’s west bank interceptor generally can occur when water flow exceeds the pumping capacity of the Savanna Wastewater Treatment Plant, according to a quarterly report by the City of Jackson. Excessive rain, high river levels, equipment failure or a combination of the three can cause insufficient pumping capacity. This was a similar problem in Lowndes County, Ala., which I wrote about in a previous Voices piece for the Mississippi Free Press. 

The runoff of hazardous waste affects low-income and poverty-stricken families living in unincorporated communities who do not have access to adequate resources to treat their now hazardous drinking water, destroying the environment in which they live. 

Conservative and liberal lawmakers continue to be influenced by lobbyists who support these forms of redlining and exclusionary zoning practices. The Trump administration has not lived up to his promise to allocate resources to Black farmers, who mainly live in unincorporated communities. Mississippi has the fourth largest rural population at 51.2%, and the largest city with more than 100,000 residents is Jackson.

Solutions For Unincorporated Residents 

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has overseen millions of dollars in federal contracts that have not gone to Black farmers. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives was one of the casualties of the lack of funding from the Farms Bill’s Food Box Distribution Program. A local nonprofit called the Mississippi Rising Coalition has been instrumental in delivering fresh produce and goods to residents across Mississippi who live in food deserts via this program. 

ADOS Mississippi co-founder Leo Carney with Mississippi Rising Coalition’s LaRonne Lewis Sr. at a Black Lives Matter rally in Gulfport, Miss. Photo courtesy Leo Carney

Laronne Lewis Sr. is a board member of the Mississippi Rising Coalition that reached out to our ADOS Mississippi organization to voice his concerns about the lack of support from political advocacy organizations. “We need to get from behind the computers and get in the streets,” Laronne said as we discussed the lack of funding from the Department of Agriculture and what our organization could do to help. 

I agree that political advocacy is needed to help bring forth policies like Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand’s Justice For Farmers Act to help return millions of acres of farmland back to Black farmers. 

Nevertheless, there has to be a concerted effort from nonprofit and political advocacy organizations to include reparations as a caveat to any reparative-justice legislation. Many of the policies that nonprofits support are simply class-based and do not address the specific wealth gap that persists between ADOS and other groups in America. Every piece of legislation that has been introduced should reflect a grassroots effort to combine reparations for American Descendants of Slavery and a Black Agenda. 

As a result of the dying need for political advocacy grows, our state Mississippi ADOS Chapter has begun to mobilize political activists in the four congressional districts in Mississippi. We have enlisted the support of local elected officials and state representatives to help push forward a comprehensive reparations bill in Mississippi. 

We have drafted a reparations bill for the state of Mississippi that has similar language to the California Reparations Bill (AB 3121) written by Maureen Simmons of UC Berkeley. It was introduced by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D) of California and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

Our chapter has reached out to Secretary Mike Espy; Mississippi State Reps. Zakiya Summers, De’ Keither Stamps, Abe Hudson and Jeramey Anderson; District 1 congressional candidate and law professor Antonia Eliason;  and the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus in an attempt to gain their support for reparations for American Descendants of Slavery

After speaking with our Black leadership and white allies here in Mississippi, I am confident that we all can come to a point of redress and atonement for centuries of injustices against American Descendants of Slavery. 

Until then, we have yet to be fully incorporated into American society. 

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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