Turkey Creek: Historic African American Community In North Gulfport

North Gulfport is home to the historic African American community of Turkey Creek.

In 1866, a small group of recently emancipated African-Americans exercised their newly acquired rights of citizenship, property-ownership and self-determination to purchase and settle the 320 acres or “eight forties” that came to be known as the Turkey Creek community…. Named for both a brackish stream flowing northeast towards Bayou Bernard and an abundance of wild turkeys in the area, the Turkey Creek community found itself nestled in one of North America’s most diversified natural habitats.

It is no coincidence that the 1866 settlement of Turkey Creek by African-American “Freedmen” took place at the beginning of the Reconstruction era, which occurred from 1865 to 1877. During this critically important period of American history, the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) permanently outlawed slavery in the United States; the Fourteenth Amendment (1866) granted ex-slaves US citizenship and “equal protection under the law”; the Fifteenth Amendment (1868) gave black men the right to vote; and, for the first time ever, millions of blacks and whites across Mississippi and the South opened savings accounts, purchased land, and attended free public schools, etc. Prior to Reconstruction, a community quite like Turkey Creek had not been possible on Mississippi or American soil….

It is also important to note that the pioneers who settled the poorly drained “eight forties” were every bit as visionary, industrious and innovative as the men who, decades later, would establish the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad, the Port of Gulfport, and the city of Gulfport to the south. With far less financial, political or social capital than the celebrated founders of Gulfport, Turkey Creek’s early settlers … created arable land to practice sustainable agriculture and developed a viable, self-sufficient American community bound together by local customs and institutions. Clearing footpaths and wagon trails to follow the upland’s winding crest, they built their own homes, farms, businesses, church and school….

It is notable that some southern black communities thrived in surprising and remarkable ways during the era of Jim Crow. The Turkey Creek community stands out in this regard due to several factors, including: its relative isolation and autonomy; the land wealth of its residents; its ample supply of both creek and deep-well water for drinking, cooking and cleaning; its abundance of edible plant, fish and wildlife; its relatively steady job opportunities on Creosote Road; the entrepreneurial spirit of many residents; and the community’s exceptionally close-knit bonds of kinship, faith and neighborly cooperation. Even the thickly forested wetlands to the south, east and west served historically to protect the settlement from hurricanes and other undesired intrusions….

The Turkey Creek community’s highly valued independence and cultural continuity remained essentially undisturbed until the mid 1980s. At roughly the same time that federal authorities shut down the creosote plant (1986), an ordinance was passed locally requiring Turkey Creek residents to cap their prized water wells and tie into Harrison County water. These two important events were the first major rumblings of a new day to come. Since then, a barrage including airport expansion, annexation by Gulfport, land speculation, deforestation, wetland destruction, commercial sprawl, spot zoning and political isolation have all severely endangered this priceless gem of Mississippi and American heritage. Notably, unsightly sprawl on Highway 49 and Creosote Road has continued to spread to within feet of Turkey Creek homes and yards. Even the community’s historic cemetery … was largely destroyed by redevelopment in 2001. In that year, the Mississippi Heritage Trust listed the entire community as one of the state’s Ten Most Endangered Historical Places.

(Excerpted from Turkey Creek Community Initiatives.)

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Before Katrina: Modern Day Debtors' Prison In Gulfport, MS

Gulfport, MS was in the news over the weekend with a jaw-dropping story. Saturday’s US News & World Report told of a class action suit against the city, concerning what amounted to a debtors’ prison before Hurricane Katrina:

Last July, a homeless man named Hubert Lindsey was stopped by police officers in Gulfport, Miss., for riding his bicycle without a light. The police soon discovered that Lindsey was a wanted man. Gulfport records showed he owed $4,780 in old fines. So, off to jail he went.

Legal activists now suing the city in federal court say it was pretty obvious that Lindsey couldn’t pay the fines. According to their complaint, he lived in a tent, was unemployed, and appeared permanently disabled by an unseeing eye and a mangled arm. But without a lawyer to plead his case, the question of whether Lindsey was a scofflaw or just plain poor never came up. Nor did the question of whether the fines were really owed, or if it was constitutional to jail him for debts he couldn’t pay. Nobody, the activists say, even bothered to mention alternatives like community service. The judge ordered Lindsey to “sit out” the fine in jail. That took nearly two months.

[U]p until Hurricane Katrina hit, [Gulfport police were] beating the pavement looking for those who owed fines for things like public profanity–at $222 a pop. The result of Gulfport’s fine-reclamation project was that while it collected modest sums of money, it also packed the county jail with hundreds of people who couldn’t pay. The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gulfport last July. Attorney Sarah Geraghty says that before bringing the case against the city, she witnessed hundreds of court adjudications involving Gulfport’s poor in which no defense attorney was present or even offered. Many defendants, Geraghty said, were obviously indigent, mentally ill, or physically disabled, like Hubert Lindsey; some had been jailed for fines they had already paid. One mentally ill woman attempted suicide by jumping from an elevated cell in the county jail after she was picked up for having failed to pay several city fines; the lawsuit alleges that police then grabbed her again on the same charge a few months later, causing her to miss the surgery scheduled to fix the broken bones in her feet.

As we attempt to understand the observable disparities in who gets relief and what gets rebuilt, it is important to keep in mind the city’s demonstrated attitude towards its poor. It is also important to keep in mind what strips of pavement the city was beating and whom it tended to be looking for. The Amended Complaint from the lawsuit, which attorney Sarah Geraghty has sent me, describes

a special force of police officers charged with patrolling the streets of Gulfport to arrest citizens who have failed to pay fines assessed by the Gulfport Municipal Court. These officers conduct periodic sweeps, during which they search the streets for people who look as though they might the City old fines. During these sweeps, the officers go into predominantly African-American neighborhoods and stop people in the streets without any independent reason or suspicion, but for the sole purpose of checking to see if they owe the City old fines. Those who owe fines are taken to jail.

The state of Mississippi has the highest percentage of Black Americans in the country [PDF]. Second is Louisiana. Mississippi and Louisiana are pretty much tied for the highest poverty rates in the US, both hovering just below 20% statewide. We cannot discuss the effects of Katrina and the issues around reconstruction without serious, ongoing considerations of race and poverty.

Further Reading
• Sun Herald, “A lawsuit alleges that practices in Gulfport’s Municipal Court are creating a DEBTORS PRISON
Southern Center for Human Rights Indigent Defense Cases In The News

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