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Cover story

Little county housing group creates a village

Tunica, Miss.

The year was 1992. The little nonprofit Tunica County Housing Authority was ready to build a modest new house on Academy Street for a black family. The plan was not popularly received in white-dominated Tunica. The lumberyard suddenly didn’t have supplies, the concrete pourer was out of concrete, the housing inspector wouldn’t come to inspect the site.

“The white community did not want the house built within the city limits,” said Freddie Brandon, Tunica Housing president. He noted that the town boundary weaves so that the area’s largest black community is cut out.

When Dominican Sr. Angela Susalla bought the land, he said, “people thought it was for a white family.” Susalla, along with Sr. Gus Griffin, who staff the Southern Missions Social Services, at that time were on loan to the housing project.

Tunica Housing persevered. The Academy Street house was completed. The neighbors offered to buy it to tear it down. Instead, a black couple with one child bought it, lived in it for several years, sold it, paid back the loan to the Sacred Heart Southern Missions, then moved to a larger house.

The emboldened little housing group successfully applied for a $500,000 state economic development grant to develop the proposed 21-home Nellie Johnson Village, named for the housing project’s first president. (The town fathers were offended by the grant and the next year applied for one of their own. They received it, did not spend it, and finally sent it back.)

These incidents don’t mean all whites are opposed to new housing for blacks. Minnie Carter, project executive director, explained that the first three acres for Nellie Johnson Village had been donated by a white woman, Banky Godbold. The new housing was to be open to white families, but only one white person made an initial inquiry, and did not pursue it.

Tunica Housing faced two problems. It had to raise not only the construction money, but also raise sufficient additional funds to keep the sales price below cost for low-income buyers.

Each potential homeowner got $10,000 from the Federal Home Loan agency, and the project borrowed $1 million, plus HUD-originated money, for construction. The Mercy Sisters’ McAuley Institute provided technical assistance.

Subsidy money came from private sources, with $100,000 from the state and funds from the local United Way. Houses that cost close to $82,000 were sold in the $42,000 to $46,000 range. A local casino donated refrigerators and stoves. A typical Nellie Johnson homeowner is a casino worker, such as Marie Jackson, a single mother with four children who works the 3-to-11 shift.

Today the village is about to sell nine more houses, at roughly $58,000 each, well below their cost. Families contributed sweat equity, making it possible to attract even lower-income families into home ownership. Eleven more houses will complete the village.

The town didn’t do badly, either. The Nellie Johnson project had to build its own sewer system. It taps into the Tunica town sewer, and though Tunica didn’t help with sewer construction costs, it collects the sewer fees.

Given that outsiders to Mississippi can have a distorted perspective on racial issues in the state, Brandon was asked what’s changed for the better, and what hasn’t changed in this region of Mississippi. He answered: “There’ve been changes in the county, the county’s doing more. But if you’re talking about color, race, nothing. It’s the same thing, but hidden now more than it was.”

Before the casinos opened up and provided employment, Tunica County had an odd distinction, said Susalla. It was the poorest county in the United States and had the highest number of millionaires as a percentage of the population.

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000