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Unita Blackwell : MacArthur Genius Award Caps a Creative Political Life

August 02, 1992|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is the author of "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer," to be published in January by NAL/Dutton. She interviewed Blackwell in her home in Mayersville

MAYERSVILLE, MISS. — To reach Mayor Unita Blackwell's town of Mayersville, you drive 12 miles west out of Rolling Fork, Miss., on a two-lane road through acre after acre of cotton plants and soybeans. People have been leaving this westernmost part of the Mississippi Delta in a steady stream since machines took over planting, weeding and picking the crops. Some towns have disappeared; others are sorry shells of themselves. But in Mayersville, pop. 500, the first buildings you see are trim brick houses, part of the Deer River project financed by the Farmers Home Administration.

For developing this housing, as well as demonstrating creativity in approaching other problems in her hometown and state, Blackwell was recently awarded a $350,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. This year, the foundation gave its "genius grants" to 17 women and 16 men, among them other activists, philosophers, poets, photographers and novelists. Blackwell was also cited for going back to school at age 50, to earn a master's degree in regional planning at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

MacArthur Fellowships are designed to free creative people from economic constraints. You don't apply--you're nominated. The tall, ebullient mayor, who earns $6,000 in her job, says if she could find whoever nominated her, she'd "hug them so tight."

Blackwell, 59, the first black woman elected as a mayor in Mississippi, helped in the historic 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge to the state's all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention. In April, she concluded a term as president of the National Conference of Black Mayors, two years that included starting a building fund for a permanent headquarters and leading a delegation of mayors to China.

Divorced, Blackwell is raising her 13-year-old grandson, Jermaine. She plans to set aside some of her fellowship money for his college education. A woman who grew up picking crops and still speaks in the rhythms of the Delta, she says that, although she never had time to develop any hobbies, she likes nothing better now than to go fishing or to take two or three books and go off and read. Her house is on the edge of town, next to a garden plot full of beans, lettuce, kale and onions. Across the street is another small housing development, the Unita Blackwell Estates.

Question: When you became mayor of Mayersville, what was the town like?

Answer: Well, (there) wasn't any decent housing. The whites had a few houses. We had roads that was not paved;we didn't have a water system--decent water. We started with getting water, because I started a utility district. You see, all this was going on at the same time. Because I came out of the era of the '60s, the Movement, we were used to doing several things at the same time. . . .

We were getting the Mayersville utility district. I became the president. We had some whites on there, but they said it was better if I become the president so that I could get the money, because they felt I knew how to go out and try to find it. Then the issue came up that what were the other things that we needed to do? We needed to be incorporated. . . . So they asked me, would I do it, would I help with it? . . . We were going to start empowering people by incorporating and getting people in office.

Q: What's the job situation now?

A: Not that much left. That's one of the problems I guess all of us have. People don't have the kind of adequate jobs they want, but around us, some of the people are working on farms. Some of the men are working "on the boat," they call it, which is the U.S. Corps of Engineers. They go out and lay slabs aside of the Mississippi River to keep the river from taking away the land.

Q: And I saw a Bunge Corporation down the road.

A: Yes. That's a grain bin. That's where they take a lot of grain. Three or four people work over there. They take in the soybeans for the river, because the barges come down the river to pick them up.

Issaquena (County) used to be a booming place, way back in the first (part of the) 1900s, and now it's turned into a place where people leave; so you have to try to make a life for the people who are here and the ones who are growing up. . . .

There's a lot of them leave and go to places like Los Angeles, where their relatives are, looking for better jobs. And it's not there--it's not always there. That's the reason I tell folks that we need to take the small towns and develop those towns and . . . find ways of having jobs in those towns, then they wouldn't fill up the cities.

Q: When you were talking about water, was it that there wasn't any water, or people didn't have clean drinking water?

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