AETN > Programs > Delta Dreams
Delta Dreams is a story that is told primarily by a cross section of the men and women, young and old, who live in the community. They include planters and farmers, businessmen and teachers, high schools and college students, working people and small business owners, community leaders and people trying to escape poverty. The program presents a portrait of the area as it was in its glory day, a description of how and why it declined, the formation of a plan for recovery by the community in conjunction with Southern Bancorp and the Walton Foundation; the efforts of local people to start new businesses including building tourism around the town?s history and tradition of music; the troubled and present racial history of the community; and the efforts to overcome the devastating effects of poverty through education.
When a visitor enters the community of Helena-West Helena, passing row after row of abandoned stores, closed factories, decaying homes, and empty streets, it is hard to imagine that this was once one of the most vibrant towns in Arkansas. Cherry Street, the five block main street that was once the heart of the town?s small businesses, seems like a deserted movie set. On each side of the street sit rows of two story buildings many of which are well over a century old, and from a distance seem quite serviceable. But passing by these buildings you discover that most have been long abandoned, their display windows vacant, or filled with discarded clothing or long-ago Christmas decorations.
Helena-West Helena is emblematic of hundreds, perhaps thousands of communities in America that are in similar straits. By understanding this community, it will help you understand how communities are born, thrive, decline, and die, whether they are a small town, a large city, or even a neighborhood.
Helen- West Helena, as the name implies, were once two separate communities. Helena was the original town and West Helena, once part of Helena, separated itself in early twentieth century in a political dispute. Helena was founded in the early nineteenth century, a time when many planters were crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas seeking rich, virgin, land on which to grow cotton. With cotton came slave labor. Black men, women and children, often forced to march hundreds of miles into the Delta, worked in the swampy, snake and alligator infested waters, clearing trees, building ditches, constructing homes and then clearing the fields on which cotton was planted and harvested. The Civil War ended legal slavery. Union soldiers occupied Helena, many of them black. After the war, the community prospered and many local blacks became successful teachers, ministers, businessmen, politicians, doctors and dentists.
But in the 1890s, legal segregation came to Helena, as it did to the rest of the American South. Blacks were legally excluded from political office in the community and were regarded as second-class citizens. In Phillips County, many black farmers, who worked the land of white planters for a share of the crop when it was sold, were often cheated out of their share.
In 1919, one of the worst race riots in American history erupted in Phillips County. Blacks farmers, tired of being cheated by white planters, organized a union and hired a white lawyer to represent them and sue their landlords. At the end of October, as a group of black farmers were meeting in a church white law enforcement officials interrupted the meeting and a confrontation developed. Gunfire was exchanged and a white man was killed. Immediately the sheriff called for whites to arm themselves and hunt ? Mr. nigger in his lair.? Before the killing stopped, an estimated 70-80 blacks were dead (some said as many as 200) and almost 700 were arrested. Five whites died in the riot, at least two of who were killed by the indiscriminate firing by other whites. The massacre reinforced the racial barriers that existed in the town and there were no further confrontations until the 1960s when the Civil Rights movement arrived in Helena.
After World War II, Helena reached its heyday. The population of the town was about 25,000 while the county had almost 50,000. Factories employed almost 4000 workers. Although racial segregation remained, race relations were cordial on the surface despite the tension underneath. Blacks attended separate schools, watched movies in separate theaters, drank from separate public water fountains and waited in separate waiting rooms at the bus station. In West Helena, as one African American resident put it, ?The railroad track separated us from the whites,. Over there was white town and on the other side was black town. And you couldn?t go over there without a white person?s permission?
In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement came to Helena. The Freedom Riders arrived in town. The black community organized demonstrations and boycotts that lasted into the 1970s. The public schools were integrated and many white children attended at first. But hundreds of whites supported a private school for their children in which no black children attended.
Politically, whites continued to control the town until the local election laws were challenged in court. Judge L.T. Simes recalled the outcome. ?I never will forget it. The case made its way to the Supreme Court and in a landmark decision, struck down West Helena?s voting laws. In 1983, blacks were able to elect four members to city council for the first time.
Brian Miller an African American attorney, whose great grandfather settled in Helena after the Civil War, grew up in the last good era of Helena. ?I tell people all of the time that from my upbringing I think it was the best upbringing anybody could ever have. My education was world class. We could go downtown and shop. We had movie theaters. We had skating rinks, we had bowling. There were a lot of things for children to do.? Mary Louise Fiser noted that during the community?s heyday, ?the stores were so crowded on Saturday night that you could hardly find a parking place.?
By the 1980s, it was becoming clear that the town was declining. Factories were closing as market conditions were changing. A labor dispute led to the departure of the Mohawk Rubber Company, one of the major employers of the town. Mechanization and consolidation in the agricultural fields meant more jobs were lost. Small farmers were unable to compete. As jobs were lost, people began to move out of the community. Phil Baldwin, the CEO and President of Southern Bancorp notes that when decline happens, ?you began to lose your middle class. You lose your small business owners. You lose your educators. You lose the people who are that really are the fabric to hold the community together.? Brian Miller who was working in Memphis observed: ?It seemed that every time I would come home, some new store would have closed, some new family that I knew had moved away. It wasn?t that gradual. It happened fairly quickly. I think we went through one period where I mean store after store started closing and then we went through a period that family after family started moving Its not that we looked up and the town changed. It was if we saw it happening right before our eyes. ?
The decline continued into the year 2000. By then Helena and West Helena had a combined population some 14,000, almost half of what it was in the 1950s. With unemployment poverty increased until almost 40 percent of the county lived below the poverty line. The media income for Phillips County is around 13,000 a year, about 1/3 of the national average. With poverty came an increase in crime, drug and alcohol use, and teen pregnancy.. The dropout rate in high school hovered near 40%. Small business after small business closed. Helena lost a good deal of its tax base. West Helena, which had a number of chain stores, was economically better off but politically in chaos. The racial divide on the West Helena city council and school board was deep. There were allegations of improper use of funds. Eventually the state had to enter and take over the management of the schools. The community had reached its lowest point.
Despite this Phil Baldwin, the CEO and President of Southern Bancorp, as well as a number of local community leaders, believed that the town could still be saved. ?But it wasn?t outsiders who were going to do it ; it was the towns- people themselves. We could provide some infrastructure- and there was no question we needed some capital- but the people of the town would have to pull themselves out of the morass.? And Mayor James Valley noted, ?What we needed was someone to help this community help itself.?
One of the first steps upward was the introduction of a KIPP school into the community. KIPP, meaning the Knowledge is Power Program, is a charter school founded by teachers to help bring up the academic levels of communities that are scholastically floundering. KIPP has a track record of raising the academic levels of impoverished students throughout the country.
Community leaders met with KIPP officials. Cathy Cunningham, a local community leader, remembered, ?KIPP was looking around the Delta to see where they might open a school. After we met with them, they didn?t look anywhere else. ?
In 2004, KIPP opened a school in Helena. At the same time, Southern Bancorp, in conjunction with the Walton Foundation, met with a number of community leaders. Their mission was to organize a comprehensive plan for community recovery. ?This wasn?t something that happen overnight,? Joe Black, Vice President of Southern Financial Partners, says, ?We asked people to imagine what the town could be like in 15 to 20 years from now- and what they saw as their priorities.? Once we did this, the Walton Foundation agreed to help finance ventures that would help accomplish that goal. They ranged from a sweet potato storage bin so that small farmers keep their farms by storing and selling sweet potatoes. The community and the Walton Foundation raised or contributed almost a million dollars jointly to finance a Boys and Girls Club so that for the first time in twenty years young people would have not only a place to play, but a place where they could get guidance and academic tutoring,. One of the driving forces to make this project a reality was Doug Friedlander, a Teach for America teacher who, with other teachers and local people, made the Club a reality.
The following year, a political revolt exploded in the town. For almost a hundred years, Helena and west Helena had their own city councils and mayors. When black gained political power in the 1990s in West Helena, racial tension increased rather than diminished. In 2005, five of the councilmen gained office because they had exploited a little known change in the election law filing date that enabled them to run without any opposition. By the time challengers tried to oppose them, they discovered that the deadline had passed. The present Mayor James Valley recalled. ?The black and the white community were both angry at the way this gang of five took office and the way they ran it. Like it was their own personal kingdom. The only way to kick them out of office was for the two towns to consolidate. Then we would have new elections and instead of two councils and two mayors, there would only be one.? A special election was called and consolidation won the support of both black and white voters. A new city council and mayor were elected. The former West Helena councilmen and mayor were defeated.
In the past year, there has been a burst of economic activity. Several new restaurants have opened. The academic achievements of students have dramatically improved, especially at KIPP. A public transportation system is up and running. Local investors have financed a bio-diesel plant, which will soon open. Tourism is increasing and the blues festival continues to attract tens of thousands of people each year. Many abandoned buildings have been torn down.
But even as new life enters the community, new life also leaves it. Every year, hundreds of students graduate from the high school or the local community college. Most say they will never return, except to visit. There are no jobs to match the skills they have learned; still not enough recreational facilities for themselves and their children. Phil Baldwin says the true test of success at revival will be when the graduates return to the community. ?We?re still a long way from there. We have accomplished a lot of things these past three years but I feel that our biggest accomplishment so far is hope. People have begun to hope. But, despite our progress, we still have a long, long way to go.
Richard Wormser has written, produced and directed over 100 programs for television, educational institutions and government. His programs have received over 25 awards. He is presently the originator, series producer, co-director/writer of a four-part television series, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, the story of the African American struggle for freedom during the era of segregation 1880-1954.
The series has received national acclaim and has won numerous awards including the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in television programming, three national Emmy nominations, the International Documentary Association Best Series award, Cine Gold Eagle and the Chris Award. Several reviewers picked The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow as one of the ten best television programs of 2002.
Videoline is presently in production on two films in Arkansas: Lives in the Balance, a three-year documentary that follows four extremely bright middle school children whose family and personal situations put them at-risk from fulfilling their potential: and Hubert's World, a documentary on the struggles of a mentally and severely physically disabled man who is fiercely determined to lead a normal life by having his own place to live, securing a job, and eventually marrying.
Videoline is also in script development on two other projects: Independence, a two part series of the American Revolution as experienced by both Native Americans and African Americans as they sough to realize their own definitions of independence; and Journeying The Trail of Tears (working title) the story of the Cherokees and allied tribes as they crossed Arkansas during their forced uprooting from their lands and homes east of the Mississippi and resettlement in Oklahoma.
Wormser has also written and directed The Elaine Riot: Tragedy and Triumph. Other television credits include: Islam's West (WNET); The Global Workshop (WNET); Lifers: Learn the Truth at the Expense of Our Sorrow (Coronet/MTI); The Fighting Ministers (PBS); Death for a Juvenile? (MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour); The Other Side of Victory (NEH/PBS); Up From The Ashes, (3-2-1 Contact), Joseph (HBO); Landscapes of Hope (PBS), Sesame Street (WNET); Other People, Other Places, (ABC); The Ultimate Machine (WNET).
Wormser's projects has received major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Writers' Guild of America, PBS and the Amax Foundation.
A feature script on the Snyder/Gray murder case of 1927 entitled ?Momie and Bud? was one of two finalists at the Long Beach Film festival and a semi-finalist at Slamdance.
Wormser is an award-winning author and photographer of young adult non-fiction. Among his published works are included: To the Young Filmmaker, Wandering, the History of Hoboes and Tramps in America, Growing Up in the Great Depression; Lifers: Learn the Truth at the Expense of Our Sorrow; Allen Pinkerton: America's Private Eye and American Islam. His books have won numerous prizes including the Carter G. Woodson Honor Book award. He has also written The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, the companion book to the PBS series.
Richard Wormser has taught film and video production courses at the University of Bridgeport and Global Village in New York, and has been a guest lecturer at NYU and the New School. He is presently teaching a course in producing, writing, and directing historical documentaries at the New School this fall.
Wormser has worked professionally as a still photographer and is a former newspaper reporter.
I'm talking about the originator of Heltown, of how Helena became , we call Helena Heltown. And it goes just like this here, take my word for it, this is exactly how it is:
H-E-L-T-O-W-N is the new name and true name of the city you're in Without a doubt this part of south has my label that's Heltown, I'm not telling no lie, Helena has fell down Because of what first of all, lack of occupation Second on the record, no proper recreation Center For the teens to enter And third is word we need a better educational System, So wisdom can show them exhortation For Helena's improvement, that's the medication
On the western bank of the Mississippi River, in the heartland of the Arkansas Delta, lies Phillips County and its consolidated twin cities of Helena-West Helena. Like many rural communities in America, Phillips County is afflicted by a diminishing economy and devastating poverty. Yet in the midst of decline, major efforts of revitalization are generating hope that this town can be saved and restored to the glory days that many people still remember.
I had a great upbringing in Helena. I tell people all of the time that for my upbringing I think it was the best upbringing anybody could ever have.
We had wonderful wonderfultimes with all the parties and dances-the parades. A lot of social activities. Had a lot of good people here. A lot of fun. Always something going on.
MARY LOUISE FISER
The stores were open all up and down the street on Saturday nights you couldn't find a parking place out here. You could hardly walk down the street for all of the people.
We had our own communities and in our communities we had everything we needed. We had grocery stores. We had service station. We had taxi cabs. We had laundry and dry cleaners. We had businesses.
When I was growing up almost everybody's father had a job. And a lot of mothers had a job.
We had a chemical plant on the river that had quite a few you know two to three hundred jobs. We had a pretty vibrant middle class at that time.
We had the river available for shipping. We had rail. We had highways.
We had gins all over the county. I mean every little crossroad had a cotton gin.
When I was a child, farming was the going thing. You know. You could see people picking cotton and chopping cotton- all that.
The soil between the Mississippi River and the White River in Eastern Arkansas is some of the best in the country.
It was a wonderful town, a wonderful community and I thought produced an awful lot of great people.
I think probably if you had to put your finger on when things started going down, I don't think anybody would disagree that it started going down when Mohawk went out.
What was Arkla Chemical eventually sold a couple of time. They closed it down. The grainary sold. They closed it down. The Helena Cotton and Oil Mill is no longer here. Neither is Helena Compress. So, we went from the base from approximately 4000 jobs, probably if we had 1400 today.
So, we've lost you know those major industries who employed young working, family people.
Everywhere you looked there were for sale signs throughout the community.
And, it was it was pretty quick. I mean it wasn't something that happened gradually. It's not like we looked up one day and the town changed. It's as if we saw it happening right before our eyes.
Between welfare and Social Security checks and SSI checks, that was the predominant income of the whole county. That was when I realized that we were dieing.
Farms started consolidating. They became larger and larger.
Years ago, the fields would just be full. You could just drive down the highway and just see people everywhere in the fields. You don't see that anymore.
After Wal-mart took over, we had probably 4 hardware stores on the street and one by one they went until we were down to one. And the same kind of thing happened with the Men's stores, one by one they went.
I think we went through one period where, I mean, just store after store after store started closing. And then we went through a period where family after family after family started moving.
Going to college and getting out of here I said I'd never ever come back. And, I just kind of looked around and went, â??I do not want to raise children here, I do not want to get married here. Why on earth would I want to be here.â?
One day I was driving into town through West Helena, coming down towards Cherry street, the initial emotional impression was one of sadness because what I saw was a grand old city that had lost its grandeur. But, you can still see the remnants of it. And so that's when I started to experience the hope of maybe it's not gone yet and maybe we can do something about it.
I was thinking about the 100 million a year that Southern puts in to this economy through our banking organization and I said to myself, is Helena better off now than it was last year with all of that monetary investment and the answer was no. Money is not all that that's needed. And, we need these other things like education and healthcare and housing.
We started a conversation with the Walton Family Foundation and they had come up with the same idea and what they wanted to do was to bring to bear all of their resources and all of our resources in to one spot and say, by God, we're going to fix this area and we're going to make a difference in this community.
Our core process was to figure out how to allow the community, the citizens that live here to actually take ownership of a community development process. And, so we went to work and formed a steering committee that's made up of 40 to 50 local residents and those folks have spent the last year putting together a strategic plan for this city.
Those committees had blacks, had whites, had women, had men. It bridged age and gender and racial kinds of divisions.
The talking and planning part is over. We're moving into the implementation, action oriented part of the program. And, let's face it, we all like action.
This county has a history of entrepreneurialism.
We need to create an environment to grow homespun businesses.
I think that, that's one of the answers actually, is to stimulate small business, to unlock the spirit that we all have to support ourselves and to do things.
Because I doubt that you're going to get a major industry to come into Phillips County.
We want to have economic development, but I don't think economic development comes into a community until community development comes. Essentially what we want to do is help this community help itself.
I was a shift supervisor at a casino in Biloxi, and I'd done it for about 20 years, and I'm just basically tired of it.
My brothers got the idea for the mini-mall, they all wanted to do something you know out here and you know make a bunch of businesses.
They built a little restaurant and they called me and said â??will you come?â?. I said 'you build it and I'll come'. You know. So, here I am. We come. They put the building up. We come and we did the whole inside.
Basically we've pretty much got our own little community coming in right in here.
We have a bail bondsman, lawyer, a pizza place. We have a barbecue place, a auto mechanic shop, a front-end alignment shop coming in.
I see people remodeling places and fixing up stuff. And, I believe there's going to be a lot of growth coming to this county.
We're all reaching you know to try to improve ourselves and improve the community. And, it's basically hope, you know, hope for the future you know, a better life.
I used to do all the cooking and so forth and when I take her lunch everybody else wanted to eat.
I started thinking and I said well wow. Everybody liked the cooking. So, I guess we need to be in the cooking business.
So, we was riding through Marianna one time and we saw a little concession stand and I said well you know that's the right thing to start of with right there. So, we bought a little small concession stand.
And, we were just noticing this open piece of land. Everytime we'd pass through here we would say well, we wonder who this belongs to, they don't never do anything to it. They don't clean it up.
So, we decided to kind of check up on this. And, we went down to the courthouse one day and checked on this place and they said well wow, we've been trying to find out who that belongs to ourselves. So, we asked another few more people around in the community and they said well, you might want to try the Hardman Lumber Company.
Called him up and asked him could we have a few minutes of his time, and so he granted it to us and we drove to Memphis one day and asked him, showed him what we had, and he said, â??Well, wow. It's been 30 years ago,â? and so he said, â??Well, what ya'll going to do with it?â?. I said, â??Well.â? It's so many kids around here that had nothing to do and so we even had started tutoring them in the evening time and so forth, because you know they were just lost, you know.
So we said that, we would like to make a playground and maybe do our little business there.â? He said, Well, I'm never going to come back to Phillips County.â?
That's what he said.
He said, â??I'm going to give y'all that piece of property.â?
And, I just almost shouted right in the office.
And then we found out that the J-P's had ten thousand dollars that they used towards playgrounds and any kind of recreation.
We kept going to meeting and meeting, meeting after meeting. And then, they decided not to even give us the money, after all the work we had done.
We started raising money ourselves after we didn't get the ten thousand. And, we raised it, and through another company, Modern Woodmen, they matched our money and we did all the work, the fence, and everything our own selves and that's how we came up on the playground.
Because if they wouldn't have said they was going to give us nothing, probably none of this would even be here.
Exactly, because it gave us a drive. After we didn't get the money, I said, â??I got to prove them people wrong.â?
But we wanted to show them that we meant what we was saying.
By us having a business here, kids come. We're here to see it. That's different from all other parks.
We've had a great life here and I hope to keep on.
Everybody assumed that I would be a farmer or that I would work at this business and that's all I would ever to with my life. It was like a set beaten path, and I was bound and determined that I was going to do something else.
Got a job with a firm in Atlanta representing homeowners associations and went to work there for about a year. And I was like chapter 3 in a Grisham novel. I woke up everyday and just wanted to stab somebody to death, I mean I was miserable.
And, I realized that I missed Helena. I can go home and I can be around all these people I grew up with. I just kinda started to miss insanely. It's kind of that weird feeling that I missed home.
When we got through with harvest last fall, I came to my granddad and said, I think I'd like to go to work here at the terminal. He said okay. Do you know anything about biodiesel? I said no. But, it's kinda been on my mind too not a bad idea I think with what we already have.
If we're going to keep this place going, we need a source of income or not just our source of income's going to go but everybody that works for us source of income's going to go.
I really hope it's a good project. I really hope it helps our community. I think it's going to be a positive and a win. But, on the other hand, hey, I'm in it for myself. I want to make money.
I think those two come together in a real good way because I'm a citizen here and a life long resident and I made a conscious decision in the face of a lot of different options to move back home and to pursue this.
Everything that my family has is tied up in this biodiesel project. I mean kinda laying it out on the table. If it goes south, we're lost. I mean. We're really kind of rolling the dice here.
We want it to pay off for us, but we also want it to pay off for all those people that have worked for us for 20 years that are like my family. All those people that I've grown up with that have chosen to come back.
Do I think that I'm going to save the town, well no, that's ridiculous. But, maybe I can help my little piece of it.
Economic development starts with community development, and to start really effective community development, you have to have something that bridges that gap, and I see that as being tourism.
Tourists come into town and they spend money. But, they don't worry about your education system, and they don't need to buy houses, you know. They come and go.
They can be that bridge in between where we are now and where we hope to be.
DR. MARY OLSON
African American tourism is the base here for a future that's true to our past.
This was a Union city during the Civil War.
The Quaker school that was here is history. It is all but forgotten. It was run by African American leaders. Great history here.
Phillips County, in particular Helena-West Helena is a beautiful city with lots of antebellum architecture and old south culture that could be tapped into that would be appealing. The downtown area is historic on the National Register and also has potential to draw in tourism.
If you look at Cherry Street, you see the old beautiful buildings that have kind of fallen into decay, but that can be fixed. Envision antique stores and pubs and blues music halls on the ground floor of Cherry Street.
I have seen people just actually cry in here because they were like on holy ground. I mean. I had a guy from Holland tell me, he said, you know what they call Helena, Arkansas in Holland. I said, no, sir, I do not. He said they call it the blues holy land.
Now, I have never heard that. I have had people come and go wash their hands in the Mississippi River just like you wash your hands in the Jordan River. Now, you think-that's pretty powerful now.
You know Conway Twitty was from here. He was Harold Jenkins. And, you know back in those days before they ever became popular, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, they all played here in town.
There are signs. But, then there are also the counter signs. I would not be the person that would say, Everything is going to be great for Phillips County for the next 10 or 15 year. I wouldn't say that. I would hope that, but I wouldn't say that.
DR. MARY OLSON
We're only kidding ourselves if we think without racial equality, we can have economic development here for real.
Racial equality was a long time coming to Phillips County. The racial hierarchy founded on slavery before the Civil War, was rebuilt on racial segregation after the war. Blacks worked the land. Whites owned it, and all the wealth it produced.
In 1919 when whites discovered that black farmers were organizing to sue them for their long unpaid share of the crop, they unleashed a reign of terror on the black community.
I had 4 great uncles who were killed, who were murdered down in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919. They were down on a hunting trip when an angry white mob came and killed them. They were all professional men. My great uncle who was married to my aunt was Dr. D.A. Johnston and he was from Chicago, had gone to medical school in Chicago was practicing and had a good practice here in Helena. My father, when I talk to him about it, when I talk to my Aunt Doris about it, they really don't want to talk about the Elaine riots and the things that happened. My family that got killed were their direct uncles, but they never want to discuss it.
Colored people had more fear than they've got now. A lot of things that they were scared afraid to talk about.
Nobody knows how many blacks were killed in the Elaine riot. Some said it was over a hundred, others said less. But no matter how many had lost their lives, white supremacy had triumphed. There would be no challenge to the racial hierarchy in Phillips County for the next 40 years.
REV. ARTHUR HUGHES
>Mama always said to me remember you're black, you're black and like Mississippi, niggers have to stay in their place.
Of all of the hurts that I've had in my life, loss of my grandparents Willie and Ella Willis, loss of my dear beloved daughter Michelle Wilson, nothing stings, cuts, like the cut of racism. It can drive you mad. While these other losses will drive you to sadness, the cut of racism can drive you mad.
African-Americans were under a whole lot of oppression. People were afraid to do things, and people didn't have money and funds to do things.
What you see today is not what it was like in the 1950's. There's a railroad track right before you get to the city hall area weren't no black people over there. This side of town, this was called the black town. And, that was white town.
REV. JEROME TURNER
We had movie theaters and of course they were black and white movie theatres. I experienced that time when we even had black and white water fountains.
It was impossible for you to have a black mayor, a black chief of police, that was just impossible. Weren't nobody gonna vote for them. And really, they didn't even let them get their names on the polls.
ORA LEE BURNE
My daddy would say somebody's gonna teach you how to vote. Said it's your time now. My time is not here, it's gone. He said, but, learn how to vote. He said if you don't do nothing but learn how to put that X in the right place, vote.
The Civil Rights Movement arrived in Phillips County in the mid 1960's. The barriers of racial separation crumbled under demonstrations and legal challenges to white political rule.
A lawsuit was filed. Now that lawsuit went to the U.S. Supreme Court and brought about a change in the electoral process in West Helena. Lawsuits in the late 70's but before it was resolved, it was about 83. We had a special election in April and on that day we made history in West Helena, Arkansas, in terms of four African Americans being elected to the West Helena City Council.
That didn't solve our problems because our problems had as much to do with attitudes within each of the races black and white as it had to do with who our representatives were at the city council table.
But racial attitudes remained deeply entrenched within the community. To insulate their children from integration, some whites founded a private academy. This created a division not only between the races but also among whites themselves.
I was one of the leaders and founders of De Soto school which is the local private school.
I think there were a lot of people that felt that integration of the schools was going to deteriorate the schools and that their children were not gonna get the white childrean were not going to get the education that they wanted them to have. I think some were concerned with the customs and habits. I don't mean to generalize this, and the culture that existed in the black community. They didn't want their children exposed to it.
Their kids and grandkids is going to a segregated academy. They don't want their kids to get into the same swimming pool with black kids. They don't want their kids to sit in the same room with black kids. They don't want their kids going out socially with black kids. Their kids belong to private tennis courts and all of that. They don't want their kids to be around black people.
In the white community, there were those that just felt that it was un-Christian for us to do what we were doing at the time. It was just blasphemy so to speak.
When the schools were integrated, I think I was in the 4th grade and it was wonderful the way my parents got behind that effort and really supported the school system. And, there was a group of parents that did that.
I kept my children in the public schools, they had excellent education. One daughter went off and has now gotten her doctorate. I have another daughter got her masters. I have a son that finished college. The problem was basically that as long as the schools were kind of like 50-50 white and black, everything was fine. Soon as it got over to the point it was less than 50 percent white, then the rest of them fled and that's what happened.
Unfortunately, here we are faced with history. People can't seem to get over the history of the town and some of the history of the community that primarily were racial in nature.
Even though the once all white West Helena City Council became racially balanced, and a black Mayor elected, racial division continued. But, black and white citizens came together in protest when five members of the West Helena City Council took office without opposition, because they exploited a little known change in the election law.
Both Helena and West Helena, then voted to consolidate into a single town, with a new council representing all citizens.
The city council members, the black leadership, the five of them who were elected without a vote, saw consolidation as a recall on them. And, to a degree it was. It was appropriate, they needed to go.
West Helena city government had run just completely run amuck. It really was devastating. You know we had yet to be proven corruption in the school board. We had corruption in the city hall and, I mean people were fed up.
In 2006, Mayor James Valley ran for re-election on a platform for municipal reform and racial harmony. To win he would need significant support from the white community >.
I think the issue here in the second election is whether or not Mayor Valley has done a good enough job to deserve a four year term and in my opinion he has.
I think that the mayor has gone in absolutely the wrong direction in most everything he has done.
I just don't think that Valley has shown, hasn't shown me any real leadership ability. The type of leadership the black community has brought to us, over a long period of time, the white community is just not willing to accept. I mean, people that are either are well not prepared for leadership roles is what it amounts to.
I don't think that the people who did not support James were doing it because he was African-American. I think they really sincerely supported Joann. We just felt or I just felt that she was not the best person at this time because she represented the old school, which I represent, my husband represents. Anybody who has been involved in the community in the past, I would consider probably old school. And, I felt we needed to move forward. And, the fact that James was African-American and young, very capable, I thought that was an opportunity for all of us.
Let's talk about issues that affect this community, not whether the leadership is black or white. We've got some real issues with which we need to deal. Our police department is understaffed I think. And, I've been out on the street with the guys to all kinds of calls, to death scenes to domestic occasions. I've been with the fire department, on the various fire calls they have had â?? whether it's a car fire, grass fire, home, or business. I've been with the street sanitation department. I've ridden in the garbage truck. I've operated the garbage truck. I've picked up trash. I've cut grass. I've dug out ditches. I've donewhatever needs to be done. We've got a lot of needs. More than we can ever raise enough money at one time to deal with. But, we can slowly prioritize. And, get the city back in the shape that it used to be in and that most people would expect for it to be in. Our best accomplishment has been the change of environment in city government. People are now trying to work together in ways that they hadn't before. There's less rancor among people in the public discourse. Not everybody is happy. But, they're working on the common goals.
It makes me proud to hear people say, we need to move forward. Not all of them are with me. But, the moving forward together theme is my theme and it just makes me proud to hear people talk about that.
There are signs of racial progress and many are cautiously optimistic. But, racism is not the only problem that Helena must overcome. Almost forty percent of the community lives below the poverty line. The average per capita income is $12,500 a year â?? one third the national average. Without a serious reduction in poverty, the town's recovery may not be possible.
What we're driving through right now is one of the most impoverished are as in the United States. Phillips County, Arkansas is the poorest community in Arkansas. And, the challenge has been how do you lift people out of poverty?
DR. MARY OLSON
Our poverty is predominantly African American and in a great disparity between black and white in our County.
In the Delta, we have a lot of poverty because we don't have the adequate employment.
And, poverty depicts that everyday, whether it's legal or illegal, every act you do is about survival.
What we need to do is work on those opportunities to help in a natural succession to eliminate the poverty that exists. But, a lot of it is going to depend on education.
But the question becomes if we've always been in poverty down here in the Delta, what's different about poverty then and poverty now? I mean, when I was growing up, we would be walking to school, there were people all along the way my little route to school would say,oh you're going to school. Okay you go to school and you listen to what the teacher says, and you learn something. Peopleâ?¦Everybody in the community was interested in kids getting a good education. I just don't see that now.
The parents are not there. You have parents that have to work outside of home, either one or two parents is just not there. The students are raising themselves.
And, we're losing a lot of kids because of this. They're into drugs. They're into the alcohol. They're into lots of things and they have more problems now than we ever could imagine back then.
When you were a kid going to school, what kind of a future did you hope for yourself?
Actually, I had sports in mind. I had sports in mind, football, boxing, and all of that, whatever, I did it all. Pretty much.
But, what did you feel about school?
I loved school
That's why I'm able to rap without using profanity.
Did you go all the way through?
No, I didn't finish. I didn't finish. I got caught up on the streets out here.
How did you get caught up? Tell me about that.
I just failed. Just failed.
How does that happen?
How does it happen? It's easy to fall. Following somebody else being mislead. That's how it happened.
How old were you when that started?
Oh man, I started when I was about 12 or 13 years old.
The churches, the community, the business people, the schools, we've all got to come together. We've all got to show the students that okay, we're all going to work this together and this is what we want from you all. Then, maybe we can get a hand on our students because right now we just do not.
You need good schools to have a good community. And, you need people who believe, even if the schools are not quite functioning like they ought to that they can. And, people are beginning to believe that our schools could not function.
We have no place sitting around that school board table if we are not there to benefit these children. And, unfortunately, the element arose where you have people who came on under the guise of wanting to do the best for the district, but their motives ere not pure, they were strictly political and self-serving. And, here we are today with the State of Arkansas having to come in and the Department of Education that has taken over our district last year.
Parents, I am saying to you tonight, we need you to come and see about your children. Get involved in your children's education.
Also, if indeed we do have parental involvement and we do have cooperation between the schools and the homes, there is no reason why our children will not be successful. We are interested in being number one again. Helena-West Helena will be number one. That means that all of our stars that are running around in these streets, huh? You hear me? I said they're running around in the streets, people. Some of your smartest kids are in the streets. Now parents. We need you to bring them home.
It's hard for the young youth out here. That's why most of our black people are locked up and stuff like that cuz it's not nothing to do out here. They do what they know to do, that's rob, shoot, kill, steal, sell drugs. To me, I feel like they ain't teaching us what they are supposed to be teaching us. They teach us little simple stuff like we on a lower level when they supposed to teach us like everything everybody else know.
This is from the Arkansas Department of Education. This is combined for all Phillips County Schools and this measures the proficiency in math and literacy at each gradelevel. In fourth grade, about half our kids are reading at the correct level. By sixth grade it's plummeted to 17 percent and 14 percent.
To only a fifth of the students are where they should be in literacy and math. This is from 2004 again across the whole county. And part of that, our graduation rate is only 64 percent. We're losing 36 percent of the students and of those who stick around and go to college, a full 80 percent, nearly 80 percent of them need remediation once they get to college. They're not ready to take those college level courses.
Education is a major key to victory in the war against poverty. And, Many teachers are in the front line of the battle. For those students on the verge of choosing the streets over the classroom, the alternative school may be the educational institution of last resort.
Um, people told me that this was going to be the most challenging experience in my life, and I said, I'm signing up. That's exactly what I want. And, that's their marketing ploy. They want to get people who think they can handle anything. I came here the first month, and I was very quickly humbled. Um, there's nothing more humbling than standing in front of a group of people. And, you've been successful all your life. I went to Harvard undergraduate, so it's obviously a place that â?? humility is not necessarily- it's a virtue, but not necessarily something that people practice. I was like- I went to Harvard and I studied in England. I was like, I can do this, right? It's that sort of raw idealism that's like- this place needs teachers. It needs people who will be with the kids every day. And, I came here and the first day somebody said, Go back to China. And, another one said, Ching Chong.
And, the kids will test you. They have wonderful, kind hearts, but they will test you. So, my first month here I was- I was pretty miserable. And, it was the first time that I really felt like I had failed at anything. I felt so unsuccessful. I felt like I was naÃ¯ve. That I didn't know how to reach kids. That I couldn't reach people who had so many emotional issues, whether it be self esteem, neglect-just-this pervasive sense of failure. And, I felt like, â??How can I convince these kids that they are worth-worth loving? That they can truly be something in their lives? And then, I just sort of plowed through it each day. And, now, I'm here, and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. All of my kids know what it's like to be on the outskirts. They know what it's like to be labeled, to be belittled.
My family has been through tougher things than the big breakfast fight. I remember when my sister got pregnant in the middle of her 11th grade. When my parents found out, they were upset and worried that she wouldn't go to college. Other tough things my family went through were when my parents found out that I was smoking, when my uncle died, when my cousin went to prison, and when I retained in the 8th grade.
The most fundamental thing is just to make sure these kids feel cared for. And, it's that simple. And, when you can do that, you can do anything with kids.
The last school I was at, Miller Junior High. But, it was all right. But, it was just like the teachers. They wouldn't care if I did the work or if I did the work. And, most of the time, that's how it was. But, here at STARS, Ms. Quo, she makes sure I do my work everyday. And, then she calls home when you absent and just make sure you always get your extra work, extra credit, homework, none of that happened at Miller. That's why I flunked. That's why I don't think I'd never flunk here at STARS because Ms. Quo, she care so much.
What can you tell yourself to keep yourself from going on the streets?
I just think about all the stuff that I've been through my daddy and how it's so hard for me and him to relate. And, I can't just see my father as a figure because like I said, he ain't no lawyer, he's a convicted drug dealer so I just think about all the hard times that I have and try to accomplish something new in life.
No, he don't be there as much as he should to listen to me all the time.
When you say he's not there, do you mean he's not like in the house or he's just not really listening to you?
He's here. He's just not really listening you know.
He's there. He's not like he just.
Like he just don't really be caring what I be talking about. He care. He always asks me about what I'm going to be in life. What I like doing. But, he don't never work with me on nothing or like that. He helped me fix on the lawnmower and the go cart, that's about all we do.
You've never told him this?
I tell him but he doesn't really care. He cares but not as much like I said he should. Only thing I see that matters is that I got him. So, I work with him. I work with what I've got.
I sort of imagined that by the time I got these kids in 11th grade that I'd assumed the worst about their schooling and their environment and I guess I had assumed that they would pretty much be dulled and dumbed down and just sort of not intellectually curious, not excited about school, not have good work habits.
I've been amazed at how smart some of my kids are. And, I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm surprised by that.
I told them at the beginning of the year that there are 3 things you need to know at the beginning of this course. Number one we work hard, number two there is a pay off for you for working hard, you will succeed and get smarter and number three, I'm going to love you to death. But, I'm going to love you like your grandma loves you. Like the person who asks about school and how you're doing and wants the best for you and the best for your life and in service of that, I'm going to expect great things of you. And, I'm going to hold you to high standards and I'm gonna get on you case when you don't do you homework and I just want you to expect that. And, the reason I'm doing that is not because I dislike you or hate you, it's the opposite.
My job is to educate kids. This I take serious. I tell my students this all the time because I mean it. I am not her because of the money. The money does not keep a teacher in the classroom. And, I want them to understand that first of all. I was born to teach this year. Now, do I get frustrated? Yes. There are some things I get frustrated with. But, life frustrates me sometimes. So, you just have to learn to deal with it. That is what I am trying to teach my children also. Not just math, but how to deal with life when you don't get everything you think you should. There are some that almost have this, at a ninth grade stage, this beaten down attitude that I don't know. I've just been getting by. Why can't you let me get by? And, I just refuse to let them accept the getting by, because life does not allow you to get by. And, I've probably seen it more in the last two years. And, I donâ??t know where that giving up attitude has come from. And, I'm finding it difficult to break that giving up attitude with some of them.
We have great kids, wonderful kids. We have great teachers. We have the whole spectrum of both, but we have this big hump of kids who are much lower than they should be, whose literacy could be so much better, who's math, who are not even coming to school anymore. It's not just the culture of the Delta, but it's the culture of our town, of the young people of them relative to their school.
Here in 7th grade, one in 20, 7th graders, these are 12 and 13 year olds, have either fathered a child or been pregnant themselves. By the time you get to 12th grade, this is from 2001, 2002 you can see up there. The statistics are 1 in 5.
Sometimes I sit back and I kind of wish that I didn't have children because I felt like you know by this time I would be the nurse that I wanted to be or I would be writing some type of article. I could be a journalist if I chose to pursue that.
I've caught up with some of my classmates that have three kids. I have a six month old, they have three year olds, four year olds and are pregnant now. It's horrible you know. Idon't regret having a kid, but I wonder you know sometimes what would have happened if we had you know things to go do you know.
My response to it is to dig in where my expertise is. So I, and some other Teach for America Teachers and local community members who are interested, we're starting a Boys and Girls Club you know. For us, that's the way to tackle it head on.
So, what is a Boys and Girls Club? A Boys and Girls Club first is a place. It's a safe, wholesome place that is open daily during the most dangerous and influential time in a child's life, from 3:00pm when they get out of school when they would otherwise be unattended as we spoke about before, until 8pm
It was very important to us to make sure that when we came out to the community about our intentions to start a Boys and Girls Club that it was going to be a project that would succeed. We had learned that the people in this community had been very disappointed by promises that had been unfulfilled.
Boys and Girls Clubs have led to a decrease in teen pregnancy of 50 percent. They have decreased school absence by 87 percent, increased school excuse me increased completion by 81 percent. They have increased overall GPA by 15 percent, decreased drug activity by 22 percent and juvenile crime as a whole by 13 percent.
In January of 2006, we kind of launched our blitz. And, came out in January announced our intentions in the newspaper, civic clubs, churches, and you know just really beat the bushes everywhere we could. The grand finale was Delta Idol. It was a banquet youth talent showcase. The community came out in force you know. We got 50000 dollar contribution, 70000 contribution, from local businesses. Individuals gave gifts of a thousand dollars, 5000 dollars, 10000 dollars and so on. And, even individuals gave 50 and 100 dollars to the point where we were able to raise over 250000 dollars. And, then having accomplished all that. I don't know. Maybe that made us more attractive to the Walton Foundation.
And just recently they came through and have chosen to support us over 240,000 dollars over three years. So, it's really been astounding that in the 10 months or 11 months now since we've announced. We've raised over half a million dollars or three quarters of a million if you include the building and hopefully some more will be coming soon to renovate the building.
So, my dream is that the Boys and Girls Club would provide this safe positive place so that there is continuity in the life of our students where there is positive messages and positive, a sense of progress so you know and of course. We hope that people will come to believe in this community again.
Our state department called and said we've got some people with the national KIPP Foundation that would like to tour the Delta. They want to come through the Delta and go to five or six towns and see if perhaps they wanted to put a school in one of those. So, we got about 30 people together at the college to talk to the National KIPP people. And, we convinced them that this is where they needed to be and they didn't go to any of the other communities in the Delta.
KIPP school was founded by some Teach for America teachers some years ago. I believe Houston was their first program. They're bringing in an idealism and an enthusiasm and a vigor that we need here.
KIPP usually goes to areas which are economically depressed. They don't have a lot of academic results. School systems are struggling. So, they looked around Arkansas and thought well maybe this model could work in the communities of Helena-West Helena. If you are serious about your child getting an education, if you're serious about your child going to college, this is the place. It will be tough. There is a lot of work involved.
We will ask them to stay after school if their work is not done. There is tough love involved.
I think that the love here is great. The kids, they're more apt to learn mainly because the teachers are more apt to give them the necessary teaching that they need. Think about it. A teacher staying til seven or eight o'clock at night and not getting paid a dime extra. I was teaching in Pine Bluff, Arkansas where I graduated from the University of Arkansas. I taught there for three years and still had the dream of coming back to Helena. The dream actually came from me coming from a poor community and having and basically just seeing people not having much of anything. And, I knew that there could be a better way for young people like myself, when I was growing up in that age, and I just knew that things could be better. That's what made me decide to- it was actually 8th grade when I really just made up my mind and said and said Hey, I want to come back to this community whenever I go to college and graduate and do some great things.
People ask if we're successful and I say not yet because our mission is to send kids to college. So, we have signs that we will be successful increased test scores new building. Kids learning. Kids enjoying school. But, college I mean is the goal. College is the mission.
Our mission is to say to the citizens of Phillips County, the citizens of our five county service area that you don't have to conform to the world in which you have been placed. You don't have to conform to a world of poverty. You don't have to conform to a world of low expectations. You don't have to conform to a world of racism. You can be transformed by the renewing of your mind. And, our role as a community college is to convince people that that transformation is possible and to help them in that transformation. The public schools have become almost entirely African-American. Theprivate schools are almost entirely white. So, for most of our students, this is the first time that they've ever engaged in education in an environment that is- that even approaches an integrated environment.
My ambitions for school, being in a small town and coming from poverty â?? you want more than that. My parents had always instilled in me to do whatever you want to do besides nothing and that's basically what I took to heart and I'm definitely doing that. Doing something great. I see what poverty does and I see what people that are uneducated tend to do. It's higher crime and you know people just don't care and I just don't want o do that. I don't want to be that.
We did some focus group meetings and we did old and young. We did black and white. We did high school students. We did all kinds of folks and we mixed them up a little bit. And, if you took the results and threw them in the air and let them land on the floor and picked up all the results, you really couldn't tell which focus group was which because what people said is we want a safe place to live. We want a place where we can have jobs. We want a place where our children can have jobs, and we want a good education. It doesn't matter whether you are black or white. You want the same things for your life and for the life of your children.
The only group that you could clearly see that was see different was the high school students and that was probably the most depressing focus group we had, because what they said to a tee is as soon as we graduate we're out of here. Every one of them 40 or 50 kids black and white. They all wanted to leave and we've got to change that. We've got to make it so that our high school students want to stay and that if they stay there is a real job â?? not just a menial job but a job with a career.
Hope is I think our biggest accomplishment so far. And, I'm really proud of what has been done here. But, we're so early into it, we have to avoid the optimism. We really haven't gotten where we need to be yet and so there's a lot of hard work ahead.