Thursday, February 22, 2007

Another Student’s Mississippi Perspectives

I want to give a shout-out to Dartmouth College. I’m hardly the only student here who has done lots of Katrina work – I can think of three students currently spending their term in Biloxi, MS. At least two others spent three months working with the Evangelical Free Church of America before I spent my term with EDOLA. Under the guidance of Dean Stuart Lord, the Tucker Foundation, Dartmouth’s charitable arm, has made Katrina recovery a top priority. We’ll be sending at least nine service groups to the area next month for Spring Break – I’m not sure if that’s nine trips total, or just nine Tucker Foundation trips. Whichever it is, that’ll be hundreds of students – more seem to go each break, which is great, I was worried fewer and fewer would go as time goes by. It is interesting to see school groups come from a long-term volunteer perspective – you get hundreds of volunteers for Thanksgiving or other holiday weekends, and then nothing, or perhaps just older church groups, for a few weeks before another holiday spike. Finally, you can read about the efforts of Dartmouth Professor Quintus Jett here. I see Prof. Jett at just about every hurricane event here, but only learned his name from this post.

One of the students currently in Biloxi is Eli Mitchell, a freshman who, like me, hangs out at the Edge (campus Episcopal ministry). She’s sending out occasional e-mail updates from Hands on Gulf Coast. Here’s her first note, and some of her pictures. I’ll post the others in the coming days.

“I just enjoyed a scalding outdoor shower, but it was okay because the heat was balanced with cool rain. (I apologize to everybody for whom this is repetitive, but setting is key to understanding my “adventures.”) I’m staying in what can only be described as a warehouse owned by a church. The warehouse is set up to house about 150 volunteers. The first picture was taken from the loft looking down onto the eating/socializing area. For comfort, there are couches, three computers, and wireless internet (so I’m actually typing this in my bed). My bed…is in the loft. It appears in the second picture. (Mom, I’m sorry I didn’t clean up before I took the picture.) The woman on the left is leaning over her mattress on the floor. These living arrangements were fine for my previous two trips, but I will seriously consider moving into a tent (there’s a tent village behind our warehouse) once the rain stops. I just checked…the rain isn’t going to stop. I hope y’all are enjoying the snow up north!

Today, we rode in the MLK Day Parade in East Biloxi. The homeowners’ whose houses we are fixing rode on the float (a house) with us. As we were getting ready for the parade we noticed two beauty salons and a shoe store had floats. We feared aloud, “What if there’s nobody to watch the parade? It seems like the whole town is IN the parade.” Operating on this fear and drunk with power, we threw all of candy and beads (it is the south) within the first half hour. We were so excited to see one family on the sidewalk (remember, we were scared everybody was in the parade) that we literally threw them an entire bag of tootsie rolls. We then learned that the parade had not yet started; we turned onto Division, the technical beginning of the parade, and were swarmed with little kids running up to the float asking for beads and candy. Turns out, not the whole town was in the parade. What were we to do? Please appreciate how many people were there…the third picture was taken about half way down Division Street, the fourth as we were driving past JR’s. I personally hated the floats with no candy whenever I was dragged to the Hanover Fourth of July Parade. Out of fear that the little kids would ransack our float in search for candy and beads that we no longer had, we ransacked it ourselves. We found that one last dum-dum hidden under one of the chairs and threw it into the crowd, we gave up the lobster necklaces we desperately wanted for ourselves (and had justified not throwing because it could be dangerous), we handed out dust masks from the tool bin, we did not throw the crushed mint in the middle of the truck bed (but we were about to). We were desperate for them to not hate us. Want to know what’s really cool? They loved us anyways. Everybody saw our Hands On signs and started cheering, screaming their thanks to the organization.

Martin Luther King Day is a big deal around here. The parade concluded with a Battle of the Bands at Yankie Stadium (where Salvation Army is based). Three universities and one high school marching bands competed in this battle. The last two pictures show first how many people are there and second the size/uniforms/overall impressiveness of the bands. East Biloxi has a history of civil rights activism. This part of the city is 40% white, 40% black, 20% Vietnamese, and 5% Hispanic (those were the numbers I was given…you’re just going to have to deal with the fact that it accounts for 105% of the people). The city of Biloxi is 80% white. The schools, however, integrated relatively easily. This is because Keesler Air Force Base brought in many different people so, although white, these new citizens did not carry a deep southern mindset. The old money beach-front property homeowners, however, did. (I have no pictures of these mansions; I hope this suffices as an explanation of what they once were: And they exercised this mindset over the one thing they cared most about: the beaches. Black citizens organized “wade-ins” to oppose the segregation laws that kept them off the beaches. The Supreme Court ruled in favor the black protestors in this case because the beaches were built by the Army Corps of Engineers and were, therefore, federal property. And that is a brief history of civil rights activism in Biloxi, MS.

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