By Ryan Velez
In the 1960’s, Greenwood, Mississippi was a hotbed of protests and organization during the Civil Rights Movement. While much of the national eye has turned away from the town since that turbulent time, one photojournalist is trying to draw attention to what Greenwood has become today. Over the past four years, Matt Eich has been documenting life in Baptist Town, a largely Black and poor neighborhood formerly home to blues legend Robert Johnson and actor Morgan Freeman. Eich’s interest mainly draws between the wealth divide between Blacks and whites in the community, and his recent photo essay to ABC News puts the gap on full display.
Mississippi is one of the states with the highest percentages of Black people, but this group is much more likely to be poor than their white neighbors. Greenwood is no different, where whites are less than a third of the population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 49 percent of Blacks and 8 percent of whites in Greenwood lived below the poverty line in 2010. Eich himself admitted, “While we like to pretend that segregation is behind us, the numbers reflect a different reality in the economically-challenged neighborhood of Baptist Town.”
As is the case in many communities like Baptist Town around the country, one of the major reasons that poverty is so rampant is due to a lack of viable employment opportunities. In the past, Baptist Town residents worked in industries like cotton and catfish production, but as jobs left the Delta, this prosperity gave way to poverty and crime, a stark contrast to the white-picket fences and new homes being built on the other side of town. Blacks between the ages of 20 to 24 in Mississippi had an unemployment rate of about 32 percent in 2012, much higher than the state’s overall unemployment rate of 9 percent. Those who don’t turn to crime struggle in a sort of informal economy, where you may pay a neighbor to repair something for you rather than turning to a professional.
The images of the community paint a bleak picture, but also show that the people of Baptist Town haven’t given up hope, trying to succeed any way possible, even with the greatest odds. One example is football, which plays a big role with the young men of the community. “When you look at the Mississippi Delta, there aren’t a whole lot of options, a whole lot of dream chasing going on,” says coach Darrell Sproles, 31. “When you add the element of the Delta Blaze, it’s a way of keeping hope alive. It’s a bunch of guys coming together, trying to make their dreams come true.” Religion and family togetherness also play a big role in a community where, from the outside, it seems like there is little to look forward to.