When Unita Zelma Blackwell and her neighbors filed the paperwork officially converting the community of Mayersville into a town in 1976, it was still primarily a village of tin-roof shacks. Many of the tiny three-or two-room structures sat on cinderblock and brick pylons. Walls had no insulation, and phones were a faint wish for most residents. Walls and floors contained countless cracks and gaps between wood planks, leaving no protection against the inescapable cloud of Mississippi mosquitoes on summer nights. Residents claim you sometimes got used to the buzzing.
“We had to stuff paper into the cracks every now and then,” says Mayersville resident Annie Fields Cartlidge, a longtime resident of the Mississippi Delta since 1952. "Stuffing the walls" was a kind of annual or bi-annual ceremony for some families she told unitablackwellhistory.org.
Water came from a well, hopefully clean, and the concept of electricity from the walls of your home sounded like magic. Blackwell's own home had no electricity in 1963, according to Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee communications employee Mary King.
"Rural electrification had not reached Sharkey and Issaquena Counties," King told unitablackwellhistory.org. "(Blackwell) was using kerosene lamps when I stayed with her. If you’ve ever been around a kerosene lamp you know they're quite a pain in the neck."
When actress Shirley MacLaine stayed with Blackwell a few years later while covering local efforts to fend off terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Blackwell's home was still unfit for modern technology.
“Shirley MacLaine slept in (my) front room there,” Blackwell told the Delta Democrat Times in 1995. “I didn’t know she was a movie star. She came in looking for a place to plug (her things) … she had all these shiny boxes full of tape recorders … I didn’t know they had wall plug-ins at the time.”
Blackwell’s humble shack earned the name “Freedom House” for its use as a sanctuary for traveling civil rights activists during the dangerous “Freedom Summer” voter registration drives of 1964. By discussing the apparent wealth in their own lives, the chatty visitors hammered home the humiliating reality of Mississippi's Black and white wealth disparity in the world's richest nation.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s and throughout the 70s and 80s that Delta residents in places like Mayersville began peeling away from shacks. Sharecropper wages had been stagnant for generations, with wealthy landowners paying a $3-a-day pittance. Many farm workers had to survive on loans until their seasonal pay arrived near the Christmas holiday. And whatever investments it took to grow the crop, be it fertilizer or pesticide, came out of sharecropper pay, not the landowner's profits.
The U.S. government eventually stepped in and raised the federal minimum wage to $1 per hour in 1967, and by the time of the town’s incorporation in 1976, the minimum wage was up to $2.30.
Blackwell ran for mayor immediately after helping incorporate the town, and then applied for federal and private grants available only to incorporated communities.
Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), founded in 1965 as an anti-poverty program to help nonprofit organizations and public agencies lift communities out of poverty, was one of many nonprofits working with Blackwell and outside planners to upgrade and replace homes. The town of Alligator, MS, for example, got about 10 new brick homes that are still in use today. Many of the programs used buyer-friendly tactics to surmount owners' crushing poverty. Houses of Last Resort, for example, would first agree to buy old shacks from the owners, tear them down, build new houses in their place and then enter into an agreement with the city to charge occupants $50 or $60 a month for five years, and then later grant the occupants ownership. Federal Community Development Block Grant Money funded much of this construction throughout the 1980s.
Age-old barriers to Black home ownership still persisted, however. Securing traditional home loans was difficult under a banking system built to keep Black people "in their place." Black residents still lingered in plantation shacks, while those in towns lived in "no-count houses owned by white people," according to Blackwell.
Lasting improvement to a living situation often meant home ownership, but that would require winning loan approval from white-led government lending agencies. During the 1960s, administration leaders were just as loathe to approve Black applicants as white-owned banks. The persistent, exclusionary standard even applied to the Farmers Home Administration, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency created expressly to provide loans for rural families and farmers.
In her book Barefootin', Blackwell claims the FHA was even deliberately "dragging its feet" on her own home loan.
"I finally had to file a lawsuit against them for discriminatory practices in order to get our FHA loan approved," she wrote.
Her lawsuit joined similar legal action filed by plaintiffs across the nation and together the litigation helped set FHA and federal policy for other Black applicants. The Los Angeles Times even noted in 1992 that "the first buildings you see (in Mayersville) are trim brick houses, part of the Deer River project financed by the Farmers Home Administration."
By the time Blackwell and her family had moved into their new brick home in 1967 Blackwell was working with the National Council of Negro Women to help other Black residents achieve home-ownership. One of her more successful programs included the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development's Turnkey III program, which offered federally-subsidized lease-purchases for qualifying applicants in Mississippi towns like Gulfport and Indianola, as well as places in Oklahoma, Dallas and Ohio.
Blackwell personally pushed for new public housing in Mayersville after the town's incorporation, and much of that residential construction remains in good shape today.
Johnny Butler, 88, still lived in a public housing facility right across the street from Blackwell’s old home as recently as 2022. His apartment was part of a $550,000 federally funded complex of 20 units for the elderly and disabled. His home at Unita Blackwell Estates opened in 1987. For some residents these accommodations were their first experience with indoor plumbing.
Butler still attributes his home and most of the town development to its first mayor.
“(Blackwell’s) legacy means a lot,” Butler said. “She was one of the first people to get the show started. This apartment here I think was one of the first one’s she got built. Just about all the improvement you see in town she just about did it.”
Blackwell worked with city aldermen (many of them veterans of the local Civil Rights Movement) to establish public water and sewer systems. She and state planners also oversaw the paving of preexisting roads and the creation of new roads serving new homes. To protect the new housing, Blackwell's administration secured the community's first fire truck.
Today the town is a collection of modest homes and gardens, many containing rows of sunflowers. A tourist on the nearby Mississippi River levee can still see the occasional tin-roof shack, but these buildings now serve as tool sheds or storage houses. Critics say much of the "modern housing" hasn't changed in 35 years, however, and that the fight against Delta poverty must continue.
"We still have a long way to go," said Harvey Johnson, Jr., who worked with the Mississippi Research and Development Center to help Blackwell and other town leaders bring water and sewer infrastructure to the Delta in the 1970s. "I came back through some of the towns we worked in back then and they just haven’t changed that much."
Poverty and economic mobility are still worse in the Mississippi Delta than in many places in the developed world. One in five households here live below the poverty line, while Mississippi, itself, is ranked 50th out of 50 states in poverty. Former President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty in 1964 brought a slew of job training, adult education and loan programs, but evolving economic trends since the 1980s put new focus on technology and globalization, which primarily favored urban locations. Decades of state indifference and disinvestment further aggravated Issaquena County's 43.3 percent poverty rate. The same Census claims only 33 percent of the of the county population has access to broadband internet, and only 3.4 percent of residents have a bachelor's degree or higher.