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Alternative Spring Break in Leland, Mississippi – Day 4

In March, 2010, CWE Director Dona Yarbrough brought nine Emory students to Leland, Mississippi for an Alternative Spring Break with Habitat for Humanity. These are her thoughts on that experience.

Blog 4: Thursday, March 11, 2010

It’s hard to believe we are leaving tomorrow.  Today I worked on attaching blue insulation foam to the outer walls of the house.  Many of our students put up the roof.  I worked under the tutelage of Roxanne.  She and her husband were called by God to travel around the country in their RV, building homes all over the country for Habitat.  They’ve been doing it for 18 months.  Soon they will have to stop and work for a few months in order to, as Roxanne puts it, “feed our Habitat habit.”  When Roxanne talks about the joy and freedom of selling all of her stuff and reducing her life to RV size . . . well, it makes you think.

It is incredible to watch the love that has blossomed between our students and the Care-a-vanners.  I know it is amazing for our students to work side by side with people who have made service a huge part of their lives, and I know the Care-a-vanners are invigorated by being around sincere, smart, fun, and hard-working young people.  After just four days, these groups – separated by three or four decades – are playing cards together, laughing together, and hurrying to be able to sit next to each other at meal times. Tonight we ate a Neisa Ray’s, a restaurant in Black Dog, one of Leland’s African American neighborhoods.  My table could not get over the baked chicken, perhaps the best I have ever had in my life. Copies of recipes, requested earlier in the week, were passed around:  Poppy Seed Chicken, Ramen Noodle Salad, Poor Man’s Éclair, and Sicilian Meatloaf. Reverend Ray and some of his congregation provided the entertainment – gospel music, Delta style.

As is the case in most of the United States, churches in Leland are self-segregated by race. The Habitat build is an event that brings Black and White churches together in a common cause – to raise money, to feed volunteers, and to work on the houses.  It’s clear that over time cross-racial friendships have been built while houses were being built. That means a lot in a town that began as the site of three large slave-owning plantations.

At the end of the evening, we had a hard time leaving –we all had to hug everyone twice, promise to swap pictures over the internet, and take one final photo with our favorite Care-a-vanner.   As Davis, one of Leland’s long-time residents and a Habitat volunteer, said, “You have left a little bit of yourself here with us, and we hope you will take a little bit of us home with you.”

Alternative Spring Break in Leland, Mississippi – Day 3

In March, 2010, CWE Director Dona Yarbrough brought nine Emory students to Leland, Mississippi for an Alternative Spring Break with Habitat for Humanity. These are her thoughts on that experience.

Blog 3: Tuesday, March 9, 2010

It rained all day today, so in the morning we did tourist things in Leland.

Yes, there are tourist things to do in Leland.

Jim Henson, inventor of the Sesame Street and Muppet Show Muppets, lived in Leland as a child, where he played on the banks of Deer Creek with another boy named Kermit. Kermit and Deer Creek were part of Henson’s inspiration for Kermit the Frog.  When I was a child, I also played on the banks of Deer Creek and walked across the wooden footbridge to the Leland Chamber of Commerce, now the Kermit the Frog Museum.  That was our first stop.  My parents came over from Houston and met us there.

Next we went to the Blues Museum in Leland, a small but incredible place. Leland is on Highway 61, the “Blues Trail.” We saw incredible photographs by Bill Steber, a local artist.  One was of a chain gang, a group of working Black male prisoners dressed old-fashioned black-and-white striped prison uniforms. A card underneath the picture said it had been taken in 1997.  I was shocked – I had never seen prisoners working on the side of the road in those uniforms, only in the more modern orange jumpsuits.  My mother looked at the picture and said, “No, we would always see prisoners working by the road in those uniforms.  You’ve seen that many times.”  I’m trying to figure out why my memory thinks those images only come from old movies.  Have I been blocking them out?

The Blues Museum also included a large display dedicated to “Son” Thomas and his son Raymond “Pat” Thomas, both blues musicians and folk artists from Leland.  My mother, the middle school art teacher, taught Raymond, and Raymond’s father was a guest teacher in her class.  From Son, the children learned about woodworking and pottery.

Tonight we ate dinner at the Mennonite Church in Leland.  This was my favorite dinner last year.  Although I am troubled by the extremely traditional gender roles that appear mandatory in this community, I can’t help but feel warmed by this friendly congregation.  The women wear long, modest, obviously handmade dresses, no makeup, and their hair pulled back in buns.  The men wear jeans or kakis, work shirts, and beards.  The women are excellent cooks; I even scored the recipe for “gourmet potatoes,” a brilliant dish involving a lot of cheese, sour cream, and cream of chicken soup.  The highlight of the night was the performance by the Youth Choir. To me they sounded like an Alan Lomax field recording from the late 1930s, or a scene out of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

Alternative Spring Break in Leland, Mississippi – Day 2

In March, 2010, CWE Director Dona Yarbrough brought nine Emory students to Leland, Mississippi for an Alternative Spring Break with Habitat for Humanity. These are her thoughts on that experience.

I should mention that this year in Leland we are spending a week working on two houses.  One had only its concrete foundation and wooden frame this morning.  By the end of the day it had three of its outside walls, a tub, and the beginnings of a front porch.   The second house was a Habitat house that the owner skipped town and foreclosed on.  I heard her story from a neighbor, and let’s just say that drugs and depression seem to be involved. The house was broken into, its front door kicked in:  homeless people may have lived there for a while.  The walls, ceilings, and floors are covered with grease and grime.  It is a sad little house that we are rehabilitating into one full of promise, for a new family we hope will find happiness there.

Now for a little story about gender.  Last night, we were served a delicious Southern potluck welcome dinner at the Leland United Methodist Church.  When the came time for us all to introduce ourselves to the rest of the group, every single Care-a-vanner couple stood up together while the husband introduced them both.  Virtually without exception, the wife stood silently by her man, not saying a word.

The next morning, I saw these same women hauling out lumber, cutting boards with the chop saw, gripping various power tools.  I watched a little grey-haired lady teach one of our students, Eddie, how to use a circular saw.

A handful of older men were clearly the leaders of our group.  They had to be – they were retired electricians or builders, or they had picked up enough traditionally male skills over a lifetime to know how one goes about building a house.  But in retirement they had shared many of these skills with their wives and were now happily teaching them to 18- and 19-year-old Emory students, most of them women. Giddy with excitement, Sarah worked with one Care-a-vanner to install a new toilet.  Another man taught Jean how to use the electric screwdriver and make sure she didn’t electrocute herself while taking out light switches.

Many tasks here still fall along gender lines:  Our meals are served by “church women,” and I doubt any men have made the chicken casseroles and deviled eggs we are enjoying.  I worked this afternoon with an all-women cleaning crew to wash the walls and mop the floors of the “rehab house.” But earlier in the day two tiny women in their 60s taught me how to measure boards and cut them with the chop saw – an impressive tool my father would never have thought to teach me how to use.  And that felt powerful.

Alternative Spring Break in Leland, Mississippi – Day 1

In March, 2010, CWE Director Dona Yarbrough brought nine Emory students to Leland, Mississippi for an Alternative Spring Break with Habitat for Humanity. These are her thoughts on that experience.

March 8, 2010  5:10

I just finished my first day of work on the Habitat for Humanity build in Leland, Mississippi. I’m tired but happy to be back where I was born. Leland is a town of four or five thousand residents, predominately African American and poor. I’m told the unemployment rate is now around 30%, but the truth is that Leland has been struggling, and some might say slowly dying, for decades. My mother, who grew up in Houston, Mississippi, got her first teaching job here, right out of college.  That was in 1969, and happened to be the first year of desegregation in the Delta. The school system decided to integrate the teachers a year before integrating the students, and my mother – who’d spent her whole life being taught in segregated, white schools – was assigned to Abraham Lincoln, the Black middle school.  She was twenty-one years old.

I was born a year later and started school at Leland Elementary in 1976.  By that time any white families with means were sending their children to private school, so my school was 80 or 90 percent Black. My Charlie’s Angels lunch box was a badge of my class status: I was one of the few children there not on the free lunch program.  My parents, now both teachers at the middle school, witnessed daily the intense poverty of their students.  There was little hope of anyone “getting out,” going to college, etc.  Many of the children lived in dilapidated shotgun shacks, literally on the other side of the tracks from the white neighborhoods.

Now more than thirty years later, I am back in Leland with nine Emory college students on Alternative Spring Break.  Leland Habitat has built almost 30 homes over the last decade, moving mostly single mothers out of shacks or sub-standard apartments and into new little homes they will one day own.  We are here with more than a dozen Care-a-vanners, a Habitat term for mostly retired couples who travel from build to build in their RVs, helping to put up homes for other people while they, in some cases, have sold their own homes to adopt a life of nomadic service.  They are some of the most incredible people I have ever met – more about them tomorrow.