Traveling through the Delta

BLues music in Red's Juke Joint

Ed Whitfield recently spent a few days traveling through the Mississippi Delta. Here are some photos and reflections from that trip. The above photo was taken at Red’s Blues Club in Clarksdale MS.

A stop in Mound Bayou MS is always inspiring to me. This is the cradle of Black independent development in the USA.

Founded by former slaves, this was the first and largest Black town in the U.S. It boasted having the best health care in Mississippi. It had a successful bank, insurance company and later an agricultural cooperative that ginned it’s own cotton and treated people fairly. There was a big business in sweet potatoes too.

The fraternal group whose sign you see below grew out of a secret society which had planned to recruit an army across the country to fight to free slaves. It gave up these plans only after the civil war broke out. The hospital that it founded offered care to people from all across the state. The boarded up building in the photo is the lodge hall of the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor.

Despite its small size and poor funding, Mound Bayou had – and still has – excellent schools, winning competitions against larger better funded schools across the state in music, academics, and sports. The girls just won the state basketball championship with a 31 – 0 season. The schools are being threatened with closing from consolidation efforts to increase diversity and gain more funding. This will be a great loss.

Knights & Daughters of Tabor - Mound Bayou

Knights & Daughters of Tabor - Mound Bayou


The Riverside Hotel was once a black hospital in Clarksdale Mississippi. The room I stayed in, shown below, was one of two operating rooms. I mused about how many people had died there and that is when I was told that Bessie Smith was one. She never regained consciousness after an operation in which her right arm was amputated following a severe traffic accident.

In the period since its conversion to a hotel in the 1940’s, many other notable entertainers stayed there. Now it is the temporary home for blues tourists from Europe and Japan who are seeking more authenticity than comfort. There are common toilets in the hallway, and if you get cold during the night you can knock on the wall and the host will come into your room to light the un-vented heater. But two people can stay there for $65 which includes tax.

Riverside Hotel sign

Ed at Riverside Hotel

Riverside Hotel room where Bessie Smith died


Leaving Clarksdale Mississippi this morning, the site where bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical skills, I passed the Hopson plantation. Over a thousand slaves and their share cropping descendants once worked on this plantation. The former slave owners sold the homes of black agricultural workers to the devil for a mechanical cotton picker made by International Harvester.

In 1943, newspapers from across the country came to witness the beginning of the end of blacks in cotton. From split school sessions that subordinated education to the cotton season, to being totally dispossessed from the land in little more than a generation, it was quite a transition. This picture shows the commissary at the Hopson plantation which is now converted into a blues venues with an on-site motel where visitors can stay in a remodeled, air conditioned share cropper shack.

Hopson Plantation


This morning before leaving the Mississippi Delta, even though I was running late, I had to stop by the memorial to my hero Fannie Lou Hamer in her home town of Ruleville MS. This is a bigger than life bronze that overlooks her grave site on a small park.

Ed Whitfield at the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden

Fannie Lou Hamer historical marker

Fannie Lou Hamer memorial

Fannie Lou Hamer statue

Fannie Lou Hamer tombstone

Schumacher Center: Economics, What’s Esthetics Got to Do With It?

Jane Jacobs

This article was originally published by the Schumacher Center for a New Economics.

In her 1984 book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, the remarkable Jane Jacobs writes not about economics, but about economic life. She observes economies in motion, not in stasis, and argues that city regions are the heart of that economic life – pulsing, changing, and engaging in “exuberant episodes of import-replacing.”

She worries that the policies of nation states hold back the individualized development and diversification of cities, leading to stagnation and deterioration. She seeks examples of how cities can counter this generalized tendency to decay under the monoculture of a national economy. She finds hope in the cultivation of differentiated form and style. That is to say, she finds it in esthetics.

In the final chapter of Cities and the Wealth of Nations, titled “Drift,” she references a Japanese anthropologist, Tadao Umesao, who “observes that historically the Japanese have always done better when they drifted in an empirical, practical fashion than when they attempted to operate by ‘resolute purpose’ and ‘determined will.'”

Umesao coins the phrase “an esthetics of drift” to describe this characteristic. Jane Jacobs adapts this concept to describe what is required of cities to remain open to the place-based innovation that will foster creative and appropriate new small businesses.

“In its very nature, successful economic development has to be open-ended rather than goal-oriented, and has to make itself up expediently and empirically as it goes along.”

“‘Industrial strategies’ to meet ‘targets’ using ‘resolute purpose,’ ‘long-range planning’ and ‘determined will’ express a military kind of thinking. Behind that thinking lies a conscious or unconscious assumption that economic life can be conquered, mobilized, bullied, as indeed it can be when it is directed toward warfare, but not when it directs itself to development and expansion.”

“All big things grow from little things, but new little things are destroyed by their environments unless they are cherished for reasons more like esthetic appreciation than practical utility.”

Wendell Berry made much the same argument in his historic 2012 Jefferson Memorial Lecture, but he would use the word “affection.” It is lack of affection for community, for place, for people, for land that has wrought such an ugly economy and degraded the countryside and the lives of country people.

Judy Wicks would call it “Love.” (See video below.) Her love for her Philadelphia neighborhood, for her customers and staff, for goats and pigs and chickens, led her to grow the particular business that was the White Dog Cafe, and to shape its particular relations with the farmers who raised the greens and pork served at the restaurant. There will be no chain of White Dog Cafes. There cannot be. It grew from a specific aesthetic, a cultivated affection, and the boundless love of a single woman. But it inspired replication – suggested a form and style – and led to a bubbling up of other “new little” enterprises in the city – a step towards turning Philadelphia into the vibrant, diverse, job generating, import-replacing city Jane Jacobs would wish.

This Valentine’s Day, the staff of the Schumacher Center sends its love to all those entrepreneurs and their citizen partners who have cultivated an “esthetics of drift” in their business approach, cherishing their place-inspired creations, and encouraging multiple episodes of lively imitation.

United for a Fair Economy’s State of the Dream 2015: Underbanked and Overcharged

Dr. King at the March on Washington

United for a Fair Economy (UFE) just released their annual State of the Dream report. Included in that report is an historic overview of the policies and practices that have helped to create our existing economic inequality. The following Tweets highlight some key pieces of the UFE report.

People of color and women still suffer disproportionately from the effects of these policies that were enacted decades ago, when overt discrimination was the accepted norm.

Click here to learn more and see all of the Tweets collected at Storify.

To learn more about United for a Fair Economy go to: http://www.faireconomy.org/

Pitfalls of Buy Black/Black Capitalism

Buy Black (via Twin Cities Daily Planet)

During recent Kwanzaa celebrations there was a call for collective economics. “Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.” This was explained by many as a call to “Buy Black” with others accepting that it was a call for supporting “Black Capitalism.” I want to offer a critique of this understanding from the standpoint of what would be progressive and beneficial in a transformative way to the black community.

Continue reading Pitfalls of Buy Black/Black Capitalism

After Years Without a Grocery Store, Greensboro Neighbors Are Building One Themselves — And They’ll Own It

goldie-wells-highlight

This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. Today’s theme is “The New Economy Is Close to Home.”

In Northeast Greensboro residents just want a grocery store.

In the late 1990’s the local Winn Dixie that had served the neighborhoods around Philips Avenue for many years closed down. Winn Dixie and other large grocery chains divided up market territory resulting in the closing of some stores despite their profitability. The loss of this Winn Dixie turned Northeast Greensboro into a food desert.

Continue reading After Years Without a Grocery Store, Greensboro Neighbors Are Building One Themselves — And They’ll Own It

Jessica Gordon Nembhard on the history of cooperatives and the civil rights movement

Jessica Gordon Nembhard
Jessica Gordon Nembhard

Our friend and colleague Jessica Gordon Nembhard will publish her new book, “Collective Courage: A History of African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice” in May. She spoke to Colorlines.com about this critical, but often overlooked, part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Continue reading Jessica Gordon Nembhard on the history of cooperatives and the civil rights movement

Sitting in Metacom’s Chair

View from Metacom's Chair
View from Metacom's Chair
View from Metacom’s Chair

Going out to Metacom’s Chair, which sits overlooking Mouth Hope Bay, the City of Fall River, Massachusetts, and what was once all land that my Pokanoket and Pocasset Wampanoag ancestors inhabited, was a frequent occurrence throughout my childhood. It’s been over 400 years since Metacom, the Sachem of the Pokanoket tribe and also known as King Phillip, sat in that chair to see the land and bay. Over the past 400 years the landscape has shifted drastically, much of it due to the colonization that has taken place, which also impacts the increased shifts in climate change. If one is to sit in that chair today the current view is something like this.

Continue reading Sitting in Metacom’s Chair

This weekend: Building Solidarity Economies in North Carolina through ReWeaving!

ReWeaving North Carolina

People from across North Carolina are headed to Greensboro this weekend for the ReWeaving NC conference. This event brings together people interested in building a new economy based on solidarity, cooperation, and sustainability.

ReWeaving North Carolina

Several staff of the Fund for Democratic Communities are presenting, along with our friends from PB Greensboro and the Renaissance Community Coop. It will be a great space to think and dream and plan together about the North Carolina we want, and have already begun, to build.

Continue reading This weekend: Building Solidarity Economies in North Carolina through ReWeaving!

Ed Whitfield on why the “teach a man to fish” parable is a “mean spirited lie.”

Ed Whitfield at 2013 reRoute Conference

Ed Whitfield spoke on the opening panel of the reRoute conference in Boston a few weeks ago. He used his “water holes and fishin’ poles” metaphor to discuss how the current economic system we operate within is fundamentally designed to prevent communities from developing their own wealth and directing their own future.

You can view the entire panel discussion here, and more from the conference here.

Thanks to Eli Feghali of the New Economics Institute for editing this piece out of the longer panel discussion from reRoute.