Best and Brightest Flee the Delta as Jobs Wither in the New Agriculture


The day Cleo Dunnings said goodby to her daughter, they both realized a bitter fact of life: The road to success often leads one way--straight out of this Mississippi Delta town.

With no job and no strong prospects, Donna Dunnings Sidney moved north, following a route many of her peers have taken, packing their skills, their dreams and part of this town’s future.

“It’s frustrating that a community I grew up in, that I lived in, that was a part of me and my family, could not open doors to me,” said Sidney, 25, an accounting graduate who left Helena in 1987 for Chicago, where she works for the Cook County assessor.

“I felt if I could have stayed, I could have made things a little better and right some wrongs.”


“It’s very sad,” said her mother, a city council member. “We’ll continue to lose them until we get something for them to do.”

This Mississippi River town typifies many communities in the Delta region, which includes parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee.

It hungers for jobs to hold on to young folks, yearns for the golden era when stores were open and streets were crowded and dreams of the day when prosperity will come back to stay.

Helena “pretty much reflects everything the Delta has been and is--both in promise and problems,” said Ken Hubbell, director of the Delta Cultural Center.

It has the river but poverty, a legacy of strained race relations but new efforts by blacks and whites to work together.

The biggest prospect for the future is a $35-million slackwater harbor and industrial park, partly financed by county residents who recently approved a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase.

“It’s a hope,” said Rod Frazier, vice president of Quincy Soybean Co. “We don’t really have much else to stake our hopes on in this area.”

The 2.9-mile-long harbor holds enormous potential: One study estimates that it could create 30,000 jobs within 15 years of completion in 1993.

And Helena has other big plans. The $8.5-million cultural center, which will include a museum, performance stage and archives, is being built in this land of cotton and home of the blues.

There’s already a tourism draw: the King Biscuit Blues Festival, which attracted 40,000 visitors last year, from as far as Sweden and New Zealand.

But while bringing in outsiders is important, so is keeping insiders--the next generation.

“You raise a family up and what can you offer to your kids?” asked Jessie Blakely, a liquor store owner, surveying weed-filled lots from his window.

Two major forces contributed to Helena’s troubles: the post-World War II agricultural revolution when machines replaced man, and the loss of three industries in the mid-'70s and early ‘80s that employed more than 1,200 people.

The result is a giant gap between haves and have-nots.

“The lack of a viable middle class is one of the problems of this area,” said L. T. Simes II, an attorney and radio station owner who lives in adjacent West Helena. “We have a lot of poor people and a lot of rich people.”

Although there are stately Victorian mansions in this town of 9,500, around the downtown area about one of three stores is closed.

Of about 34,700 Phillips County residents--a 21% population drop since 1960--more than 30% were on food stamps in February.

As in many Delta counties, there’s great disparity between whites and blacks, who make up 55% of the population. In the last census, for example, the white poverty rate was 14.6%, for blacks, it was 61.8%.

A gap also exists in education. Some 25% to 30% of county residents can’t read or write. And though unemployment rates have dropped, 1989’s 13.2% county average was 2 1/2 times the national level. Blacks fared far worse than whites.

For many, the advent of combines, tractors, the cotton harvesting machine and pesticides was the beginning of the end--eliminating, by the estimate of one U.S. Agriculture Department demographer, the jobs of three-quarters of sharecropping families.

According to a 1985 report, 75% of blacks working in the Delta were directly involved in agriculture in 1950; in 1980, it was 14%.

Other jobs have emerged in the Delta including vegetable production in Arkansas and Tennessee, catfish farms and processing plants in Mississippi.

“It’s been said in a number of circles nothing has changed from the plantation era but the crop--instead of cotton, it’s the catfish industry,” said Wilbur Hawkins, executive director of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission.

“We have replaced one low-paying job with another,” said Larry Farmer, president of Mississippi Action for Community Education.

But Blakely, the liquor store owner, thinks Helena’s day is coming.

“Anything worthwhile is worth waiting for,” he said. “I think our town will come back.”