Last modified: Monday, December 5, 2005
African Americans work to preserve their culture in the storm-damaged region
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Dec. 5, 2005
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By Koran Addo
GULFPORT, Miss. — The ability of African Americans to sustain a political voice along the Mississippi Gulf Coast will be tested between now and early next year when reconstruction plans are expected to be finalized.
While each community will make its own decisions about redeveloping storm-damaged areas, a statewide commission has been meeting to come up with recommendations for local governments. Five members of the 40-member Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal Commission, appointed by Miss. Gov. Haley Barbour, are African American.
One of those is Felicia Dunn-Burkes, president of the Gulfport NAACP. On a recent morning, she talked with a reporter in her storm-damaged home about the kinds of decisions facing her battered community. One she worries about is the decision the Gulfport School Board has already made to sell the 28th Street Elementary School.
Other than a damaged roof, the historic school is still structurally sound after Katrina. That raises questions as to why the school, which services the predominantly black Villa Del Rey and Rolling Meadows neighborhoods, needs to be torn down and moved to a new location.
Since the early 1900s, 28th Street Elementary has anchored its surrounding neighborhoods, with churches and after-school programs, like the ones offered at the Isaiah Fredericks Community Center, springing up around it. If the school is sold, Dunn-Burkes worries that families will go with it, fragmenting the community and threatening one of two historically black voting districts in town.
Commenting on her concern, Glen East, superintendent of the Gulfport school district, said there is no racial component in the decision to sell 28th Street. Rather, the school is the only one in the district that borders a semi-industrial part of town and selling it is an opportunity to build a new school for the children in a more residential setting.
But Dunn-Burkes points out the symbolic value of keeping the school where it has always been. "Just like the White House has significance to a certain parcel of land," she said. "So do our schools, why should anyone try to take that away?"
The concern for Dunn-Burkes and many of the 33,000 other African Americans living in Gulfport and nearby Biloxi is that racial disparities of the past might present themselves again during the rebuilding process post Katrina.
James Crowell, president of Biloxi's NAACP chapter, worries that African Americans had to "stomp their feet" to get five African Americans on the commission, a number (13 percent), well below African Americans' share of Mississippi's population (34 percent) or even Harrison County's (21 percent). He said five members are not enough to ensure that cultural issues African Americans care about are given their due -- for instance, repairing historic monuments like the house of former slave Pleasant Reed, now an African American history museum.
"We have to be sure that what is being discussed openly is what's being spoken about behind closed doors," he said. "I don't know if that will be the case the way the commission is constituted right now."
The commission is made up of several committees including infrastructure, of which Crowell is a member. These report directly to the 40 commissioners. Once all of the recommendations are in, Gov. Barbour will meet early next year with the board of supervisors in affected counties to plan the next step -- rebuilding.
Will Longwitz, communication director for the commission, said the governor went through a painstaking process to include viewpoints from every race and class on the commission. "We are taking the community approach, because that is the right way to do it," he said.
The ability of a community to right itself when faced with adversity is predicated on a pool of wealth, something that black communities along the Gulf Coast have never had. For Crowell and Dunn-Burkes, a proactive approach, lobbying for the interests of African Americans, early in the rebuilding process, has to compensate for a lack of money.
So while most people along Mississippi's coast wait for FEMA to map out the safest places to rebuild, hope their insurance companies don't drag their feet and pray their neighborhoods still have that distinct flavor they had before Katrina upset normalcy, the vigilant in the African American community watch, wait and pray themselves that progress made by African Americans over decades won't wash away like so many of the buildings along the coast.
Koran Addo is a graduate student studing journalism from Washington, D.C.