Betty Mae Whitfield knows the sound of rats scratching. “You hear them under the house all night,” said Whitfield. “They cut in through the floor.” That is not difficult: the house is rotting wood on the outside and cardboard on the inside—a tumbledown three-room shack in Tunica, Miss., the poorest county in the poorest state in the United States. And the 41-year-old Whitfield, along with her parents and seven-year-old son, live in Tunica’s most blighted slum, an allblack shantytown called Sugar Ditch Alley which lies between an open sewage ditch and, at one place, the allwhite First Baptist Church. “The smell gets real bad from the ditch sometimes,” said Whitfield, “and all kinds of things float up, like dead dogs.” She shook her head, looking at the jumble of junk that plugged the hole under the kitchen sink. “It’s pitiful,” she said, “having to live like this.”
Light years away: Tunica, on a somnolent swatch of Mississippi delta flatland, is home to 9,652 people, 73 per cent of them black. It lies 55 km southwest of Memphis, Tenn., where Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a motel balcony in 1968. But it is light years away from King’s dream of racial equality. Compared to the lives of many American blacks who have met with better times in the past quartercentury (page 22), Tunica is more like an enduring nightmare of segregation and black poverty. Over 67 per cent of Tunica’s blacks live below the federal poverty line—an annual income of $7,412 for a family of four—and about 75 per cent qualify for federal food stamps. And now, following a much publicized visit by Rev. Jesse Jackson last July, federal officials have approved funds to raze the Sugar Ditch shanties and build low-income housing. Still, some Tunica blacks say that their problems are too profound to be eased by anything that money can buy. “The whites here have practised racism so long they think it’s right,” said Joe Eddie Hawkins, a worker at the county welfare office. “And some blacks have lived under it so long that they think it’s right.”
The same might be said of people in many other areas of America—North and South, urban and rural. But in cotton country the 122-year line back to the bad old days of slavery seems as
straight as the roads. White families own enormous spreads that are still called plantations. Some of them are still partial to houses with white columns, and some—about 35 in Tunicaare reportedly millionaires. Their black workers sometimes live in tenant shacks on the plantations, although
their numbers have dropped dramatically since the mechanization of farm labor in the 1950s. In fact, the population of Tunica has diminished by half in 30 years as black workers streamed north on Route 61 to seek work in northern cities.
Last resort: For those who stayed behind, Sugar Ditch Alley became a last resort. The alley runs for several blocks behind the business district of the town of Tunica, seat of the county of the same name and, according to its welcome sign, “A Good Place To Live.” For years the tin-roofed shacks sat de-
caying while the town received hundreds of thousands of federal dollars to build an airport, where many planters keep their private planes, and to beautify the downtown area. Two years ago, officials said, the federal department of housing and urban development turned down an application for
a grant to demolish Sugar Ditch.
At about the same time, out-of-town reporters began to discover Sugar Ditch and its 200 residents. But its national notoriety began when Jackson, in a comparison with African famine during his July visit, described Sugar Ditch as “America’s Ethiopia.” Tunica officials bridled at the ensuing news coverage. Said Mayor James Wilson: “We are not the only ones that have these problems.” But the publicity brought results. From around the country churches and individuals sent truckloads of clothes, food and toys to
Tunica, sometimes with bizarre effects. Lena Simmons, a Sugar Ditch 11-yearold, was quoted as saying that she wanted a black doll for Christmas—and now the rundown shack she shares with her mother and seven siblings is lined with $20 Cabbage Patch dolls.
Other consequences also resembled a sideshow. After Sugar Ditch resident Margaret Boyd told reporters that her shack had no indoor toilet, her landlord installed a commode in the shack’s entrance and raised the rent from $45 to $65 to help pay for it. Although officials denied that the publicity played a role, the most important development took place in Washington last fall when federal agencies approved $4.6 million in federal loans and grants to demolish the shanties, close the ditch itself and build 144 subsidized apartments. Additional funds will provide 17 trailers and temporary housing for people in the worst of the shacks.
Segregated: But the troubles of Tunica’s blacks are not confined to Sugar Ditch. Schools are still essentially segregated. When a federal court ordered desegregation in 1969, white residents simply transferred their children to a private school called the Tunica Institute of Learning, leaving the public school 97 per cent black. Even the current public school superintendent, B.H. Papasan, sent his children to the private school. Said Papasan: “At the time I felt that I was doing what was right—it was a social issue, not an educational issue.” In politics, a handful of blacks now holds key elective posts, including a state senator and a county supervisor. But some blacks charge that planters use the threat of firing to intimidate laborers at election time.
Those attitudes apparently die hard. “There are people in our county who will never reconcile to desegregation,” said county welfare director Pattye Sue Tucker, who is white. “That’s in a person’s heart.” It is in the pocketbook, however, that Tunica’s blacks— and some poor whites—need immediate help. County leaders, who had once fought to keep industry away to avoid losing their agricultural workers, are now trying to attract factories to increase the county’s thin 360-job manufacturing sector. But they have no railroad or major highways, and they expect industry resistance to a largely unskilled black work force. That does not sound hopeful to many welfare-reliant blacks. “I want a factory job,” says Margaret Boyd. “I’m 37 years old and I ain’t got a dime.” In the Mississippi delta, birthplace of the blues, black Americans still have no shortage of sadness.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.