12-06-2016  7:58 am      •     

GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) -- For Thelma Barnes, visiting Freedom Village is just too hard.
As a secretary for Delta Ministry in the 1960s, Barnes helped establish Freedom Village, a community for Black farm workers who needed a place to live and a way to make money after being forced off plantations.
Barnes says her occasional trips to Freedom Village now remind her of the huge difference between her vision for the community and its present reality.
"I just put too many hours of work in there to see how it turned out. It's too depressing," said Barnes, a stately 83-year-old with a soft but authoritative voice.
When she goes to the village 12 miles southeast of Greenville, a grim scene confronts her. About a dozen homes stand at the 400-acre site today _ fewer than a quarter of the 50 houses Delta Ministry originally planned.
The homes have been damaged by years of flooding and neglect. While the village once boasted a laundromat, convenience store and Head Start site, their buildings are now shuttered, and no new businesses or organizations have replaced them.
"I try to stay away from there because I can't help them," said Barnes. "And it hurts that I can't help."
Barnes' assessment of the current state of Freedom Village reflects the opinions of many: Somewhere along the line, the experiment failed.
Original residents of Freedom Village who still live there tell a different story. While they recognize that the community has fallen short of its early promise, they express pride in their homes and hold out hope their fortunes will change.
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Delta Ministry had big plans for Freedom Village. The agricultural innovations of the 1960s -- mechanized cotton-pickers, herbicides and pesticides -- left hundreds of low-skilled workers unemployed and homeless in the Delta.
Political turmoil also contributed to this new population, as plantation owners often evicted employees who participated in civil-rights activities.
"The white man, after we joined the civil-rights movement, he told us we got to go," said Inez Miller, who moved to Freedom Village from a Sunflower plantation in the late 1960s and remains there today.
Delta Ministry, an organization that aimed to bring racial reconciliation, wanted to help, so it purchased land meant to provide housing and income for the former plantation employees. The organization offered literacy and vocational classes and required residents to help build their own homes.
"The hope was that it would become a place where people who were displaced from farm labor could find a place, make a home and become a part of a community of people who were striving to better their lives," Barnes said.
The community enjoyed early success. Residents grew wheat and soybeans and set up a ceramics studio so they could sell crafts.
"When I left the village project (in 1970), it was doing well. It was accomplishing its purpose," Barnes said.
Problems soon grew. The low-lying land made the community prone to flooding. The community could not raise money to build the more than 30 houses it needed to reach its goal of 50. While a handful of businesses expressed interest in building a factory, no industry ever moved to the site.
When the Mississippi Action for Community Education hosted the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival at Freedom Village, the community received about $10,000 a year in rent. After the festival relocated, Freedom Village lost its one reliable source of income. According to Washington County records, the community has been late in paying its taxes every year since 1985.
People familiar with Freedom Village offer a host of explanations for why the project did not meet its goals.
Some believed it was a bad idea from the start.
In his history of the Delta Ministry, Mark Newman wrote that many members of Delta Ministry worried that Freedom Village "would simply transfer poor people from one form of dependency to another."
Others blame prejudice against Delta Ministry and its connection to the civil-rights movement.
Joe Myer, who worked at Freedom Village for two years in the 1970s, likened his attempts to secure grants and loans for the community to "butting my head against a wall."
"I wasn't really met with people seeing (Freedom Village) as an opportunity. They were seeing it as a problem. They wanted to stop progress there," said Myer.
The Delta Democrat Times' editorial board criticized area citizens for refusing to help the people of Freedom Village.
"They are being frozen out of this area's compassion because of their connection with the Delta Ministry," a 1966 editorial said. "They stand as the symbol of our repeated failures to reach out and put into practice the creed we hear preached and, so often, preach."
Those closest to the project blame the absence of strong leadership for the problems.
Barnes said the community's directors did too little to promote self-sufficiency in the residents, who were accustomed having their lives controlled by plantation owners.
Barnes cited the failure of the laundromat as an example of why community leaders should have been stricter. She said people would break into the laundromat at night and steal money from the machines, but the community leaders did nothing to punish the thieves.
Some believe that after decades of weak management, persistent flooding and economic stagnation, Freedom Village should close.
"There is no solution to the problem other than that we need to find a way to relocate those people and close down the village," said state Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville.
But the original residents of Freedom Village say they have no desire to leave.
"I call this my home," said Ora Wilson, a 91-year-old founding resident, as she sat in the three-bedroom, cinderblock house she helped build in the 1960s. "I'm going to stay here until I see Him."
Her daughter, Cathy, agreed.
"We really don't want to give up," she said. "Freedom Village can move forward."

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