Deep South’s Poorest Region – What’s It Like?

Feb 10, 2024 2.5M Views 5.9K Comments

Next to the banks of the Mississippi River is the Delta region, a land that feels removed from America. A distinct culture with a turbulent history… home of blues music and some of the warmest people in the world. Join me as we get lost on a road trip and learn from the ground up from the locals what this part of America is like.

â–ş Video edited by: Natalia Santenello

â–ş Headlund – Small Mirage
â–ş Headlund – Red Moon Rising

[somber blues]
[Peter] Good morning guys,
here in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Today we have quite an adventure.
Going south through the heart
of the Mississippi Delta.
Known as the most Southern place on earth.
Also known as
the poorest region of the South.
Arguably the poorest region
in the whole country.
So the goal is to get out
on the back roads,
meet the locals,
ask the questions,
learn a thing or two
of what the region is like.
Let’s do this.
♪ somber blues ♪
[Peter] Let’s go check out Alligator.
[music fades]
[Peter] How you doing, sir?
Is this Downtown Alligator?
-[man] This the whole Alligator.
-[Peter] Oh, okay.
-The guy that used to own
the liquor store, Mr. Bruno,
and Mr. Brem Bremly,
they dead and gone
but they put alligators in the lake
That’s why
they started calling it Alligator.
Do you like it here?
-Uh, let me be honest with you,
you got a few noses ’round here
trying to get in your business
but other than that,
it’s a nice goin’ town.
You got a few noses around here
trying to dip their noses
in other folk’s business.
-Oh, small town stuff? Everyone
wants to know everyone’s beef?
-Yeah, sometimes you might have to
hit ’em in the nose nose ’round here.
-That’s how you defeat alligators too,
hit ’em in the nose.
That’s what I heard.
-No, take my advice.
Do ’em like I do em.
I stay the hell away from them.
-[Peter laughs]
-I’m talking ’bout the alligators.
They don’t mess with me
I don’t mess with them.
-Yeah, mutual respect. Take care, sir.
-You too.
[Peter] Good alligator advice
when your in the the South.
So this is it.
I’m guessing that’s some government
housing over there, those brick homes.
Looks like it at least.
And you’ve had a lot of people
that have left this region.
At one time there was
a lot of manual labor.
Well, far back, slave labor
in these cotton fields.
And then machinery took over.
So there was the great migration up to
cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago.
And so a lot of people left this region.
Got the post office here.
[locked door clicks]
Well this one’s locked.
“Lobby hours 7:15 to 9:15.”
Let’s talk to this guy.
Seems like a local.
[Peter] What was Alligator before?
[man] Farming community, at one time
there was three different gins here.
You can still… the current one’s
right around the corner there.
-Oh, cotton gins?
And the oldest one was sitting out there.
-There was another one that sit back here
on this road right behind this shed here.
-So when did that dry up?
Probably about the ’80s.
There was just tenant houses
all over the places.
I mean every road you’d go out
would have a line of houses on it.
-Oh, really?
-All this innovation on farming
did away with all that labor.
-Okay, so just way less jobs?
-Way less.
One man farm a thousand acres now
where it used to take ten men, you know?
-So in the ’70s and ’80s
you had people out there picking cotton?
-Oh, yeah.
-How much were they getting paid
back in those days?
Like minimum wage job or…
-It had to be early ’70s.
Now the cotton pickers and cotton choppers
did not make minimum wage.
How they got by that,
they was getting like a straw boss.
-Straw boss, what’s that?
-That’s the leader.
And they would pay him so much
and then he would hire
the choppers or whatever
and pay ’em out of his pocket.
That’s how they got by with it, you know?
-Okay, straw boss would pay the workers
whatever he could get away with.
-He’d pocket the rest?
-Something like that?
-Wow, interesting.
-But it just…
I don’t know, this was a whole
line of buildings.
Had this little gap in it.
-There were stores in every one of ’em.
-This store here on the end…
-Man died in January of last year.
-And they’ve recently shut it down.
-What was that, like a general store?
Yeah, they did cooking,
sandwiches, and all that stuff.
-Cold drinks.
You know, all the farmers
usually went there for lunches and stuff.
-Are you a farmer?
-You better be in this area,
that’s all there is, you know?
There’s no factories or nothing here.
-So you still have work though?
-Oh, yeah.
-Good for you.
-But there was…
…six convenience stores here
at one time.
-Just all along this row?
This was an office building here
for a farmer.
Chinaman had a store and then there was–
-Chinese guy?
-Out here?
Then there was a Jewish guy had a store.
Then there was a Black guy had a store.
-So they were represented.
-You guys get along pretty well out here?
-Oh yeah, yeah.
We don’t have no problem,
we don’t have no law or nothing.
-You have police out here?
Well we can call the county
which is 30 miles away, you know?
-[Peter] That’s the mayor?
-[man] That’s the mayor.
-[Peter] Tommy, you’re the mayor here?
-[Tommy] Yes, I am.
-Okay, what’s going on in Alligator?
-Right now it’s pretty quiet.
I’m trying to keep the peace
but we suffering for business right now
because we just had Gator’s Grocery
close on us
and Mary Ann Grocery closed.
-This one right over here?
-A small store like this shutting down
does affect the town your saying?
-Yes, it’s called a convenience store
because it’s convenient.
Now they have to drive…
Some people don’t have transportation.
It’s hard on ’em, you know what I mean?
-Where do you go for groceries?
-Well we go to Clarksdale or Cleveland.
-Clarksdale is what, 20 miles?
-13 miles.
Trying to get a Dollar General
or something going on around here.
-You guys want the Dollar General?
-Right, we want it.
They’re all over Appalachia,
they’re all over the South.
I don’t understand,
it’s a 13 mile radius either way.
-You know what I mean?
-Let’s tell the general manager
of Dollar General
we need to get them here,
outside Alligator.
-Yeah, we want to get them here.
-On the main road.
-I actually spoke to them already
but they haven’t gave me any response.
Only thing they say,
they was checking on it so…
-Keep at it.
-[chuckling] Yeah.
They want $5,000 for that.
-For this little lot right here?
-You think it’s gonna happen?
-Never, not in my lifetime.
-What price would sell that today? $2,000?
-Yeah, I would say.
I can tell you one thing,
it’s best to be in a small town,
what’s going on and the situation we in
because more in the smaller towns
it’s not being recognized, you know?
If you had a war, what you think
the first thing they gonna hit?
The big cities.
These small things, you gonna waste
your missiles trying to find Alligator.
-So you’re thinking big global conflict?
-And you wanna be in the small towns?
-Okay, have you always felt like that
or that’s a new thing?
It made me think like that
when the situation we got going on now.
Everything is very touchy.
-You guys feel that
out here in the countryside?
-Yes, we do.
-It’s like the country
and the world is a bit touchy?
-A lot of us get prepared for it
and we can live off the grid.
-You know, with power outages.
-That’s true.
-Going out and getting your own food.
-No, if things got really bad,
communities like this,
I think are much better off.
The cities will just be violence.
-City would be chaos.
-All you need is the grid to go down
for three days and it’s just mayhem.
-Yeah, exactly.
-Killing each other for food.
-But here it’s a big difference.
-Here, you wouldn’t have to I think.
-Exactly, you wouldn’t
-Will you guys let me in,
my wife and I, to move here?
-[laughing] We’re more than happy for you.
-I’ll buy that lot.
If it gets really bad I’m in.
-Yeah man,
we’ll be more than happy to have you.
I’m always welcoming
the people to the community.
-We are trying to grow.
We are not just stabilized,
we’re trying to grow now.
In order to grow
you have to have businesses.
Businesses bring people in
so that’s what you need.
-So you need some businesses
to move into those very nice locations?
-Dollar General,
don’t forget Dollar General.
-We need Dollar General.
-On the highway.
-Good stuff, mayor. Thank you.
-All right. [laughs]
That was cool,
just one small town off the highway
and we’re literally
20 minutes into this trip.
From my short time in this part
of the country, that’s how it is.
People are very open.
No BS.
And they have pride
even if their town is on the decline
and stores shutting down…
Like the mayor said, they’re really trying
to bring something back.
It’s crazy, just a business or two can
change the whole feel of a town like that.
It is a bit sad I gotta say
seeing all these things shut down.
A shutdown gas station is a sad sight.
It’s just you can see
there are less people,
less money in the region
than there once was.
But let’s go in deeper,
see what else we can find.
[somber blues]
[Peter] We have the Shelby train station,
now the public library.
And it looks like the downtown.
One business with new paint
but boarded up.
[Peter] What’s going on in Shelby?
-Man, nothing.
-You guys grow up here?
-Yeah, we all from Shelby.
-Okay, so what was it like 20 years ago?
-[man 1] Shelby was nice 20 years ago.
-[man 2] Pumping!
-[Peter] It was pumping?
-[man 1] It was nice 20 years ago.
[Peter] What was going on?
-All this here,
this time of day would be packed.
-Packed with people?
-‘Cause you got nice old buildings,
so there were businesses and everything?
-It was.
-This was a business
right here in Shelby there.
-What happened, the work ran out?
-Shelby [unclear] closed,
[unclear] closed, it was a part place.
They were making parts
for General Motors.
-Okay, so the parts factory shut down.
-And the gin.
-And the what?
-Cotton gin shut down.
-Cotton gin?
Was that good work ever,
doing cotton or no?
-Yeah, it was.
-It was ’cause it kept community going.
-Oh, yep.
So what are people doing now for work?
-Man, whatever they can do,
driving trucks.
Like I said, whatever they can do.
-So you guys need more industry
to come back in?
[Peter] You got a big birthday party
or what’s going on?
-No her mother passed.
-Oh, I’m sorry.
[woman giggling softly]
Ma’am, I can put a seat down.
-If that don’t pop, I’m good.
-You’re gonna pop those
when you close that. Oh, my God.
There we go.
[balloons squeaking]
[Peter] This poor lady
just lost her mother
and there’s, I guess, a party for her
80th birthday and she just passed.
You want me to try closing this?
-If I pop one is that okay?
-It’s okay.
[door slams]
[woman] Oh, it didn’t!
-Thank you.
-[Peter giggling]
[Peter] So we’re gonna help this woman
get balloons back to her place
but that is rough.
Shows you how unpredictable life is.
Many of you have been through that.
I’ve been through that. I lost my father.
And for this lady getting ready
for her mother’s 80th birthday
and then she passes.
So that is rough.
Yeah, from what those guys said
in front of the store
seems like the jobs took off outta town.
See this is so much of America,
these rural areas.
Where the jobs have taken off.
Some people follow them,
some people move,
and others don’t.
Some industry needs to come in
and fill the void
but then how do you get people
productive and working hard
and optimistic on life
if they’ve fallen on hard times?
That’s really the trick I think
we need to figure out in this country.
Is how do you change some of these cycles?
Because it seems like it’s expanding
in areas like here, Appalachia.
I wasn’t around in the ’50s
but from the sounds of it
those rural areas were more thriving.
[Peter] You left here when you were 15?
Where’d you go?
-Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
-Okay, why’d you come back?
-My mom.
-My family, you know?
I’m glad I did come back
’cause I got time to spend,
you know, her last years here.
-That’s important.
-Yeah. [chuckles]
-When my father passed,
he had glioblastoma, brain cancer.
-So it comes quick, he had a few months.
I got on a plane, he went into seizures.
I got on a plane, flew across the country
and saw him like the minute…
He died in my arms.
In seizures and it was…
You know, I wouldn’t rather have it
any other way.
So for you to come back here and
spend those moments is really important.
-So how old was he?
-He was… What was he? 71 I believe.
-Okay, that’s good, he made it to 70.
-‘Cause in the Bible
it says God allows you 70 years
and I learnt that when my mom passed.
You know, they was just
giving me encouraging words and stuff.
-She made it to 80?
-You think the people are nicer,
more soulful down here
than up in the Midwest there?
-They cool up there too.
They just don’t wave as much.
-Down here you gotta wave
a thousand times.
They wave five times at the same person.
So yeah.
-So in Shelby, most people get out?
Is that the story?
I don’t want to say get out
but if they can’t find a job
or you know,
the area’s just so small you can’t…
But you go up to Cordova,
it’s everything up there.
Milwaukee, everything there.
So you know…
-You liked it up there?
-Yeah I did.
So I’m thinking where I’mma move to next
once I do get settled down.
-Where do you think?
-I don’t know.
-You can go anywhere, huh?
-I got so many choices, I know.
[somber blues]
[Peter] Here we have
the great Mississippi River.
2,340 miles long.
Starting up in Minnesota.
Ending all the way down in Louisiana,
out to the Gulf of Mexico.
America’s greatest waterway.
The Missouri,
which is the longest by a few miles
comes in around St. Louis.
But these inter-continental waterways
are what pushed
so much of the commerce in this country.
These barges up and down.
Looks like we have a tourist boat here,
The American Queen.
These towns vary quite drastically.
This is Rosedale which looks quite good.
Coming into this town the homes look nice.
The further in we’ve gone it actually
has gotten nicer, at least here.
Which is interesting.
Okay, so we came through
on the nice part of town.
but it definitely had a different look
than most of it down here.
So usually when things look this run down
they feel a bit edgier from my experience.
In this whole drive today
I’ve felt like zero edginess
going into the gas stations
and talking to random people feels fine.
Oh, this is so cool.
“American Indians began building
these amazing earthworks around 1100 A.D.
The Winterville Society
was ruled by a chief.
Many chiefdoms dissolved in the mid-1500s
when Hernando de Soto’s expedition
passed through.
The Native population had no immunity
to European disease
and many of the people died.
Those who survived regrouped
creating contemporary Indian tribes
such as the Chocktaws,
Chickasaws, and others.”
That’s so cool.
So they had their ceremonies up here.
I never thought
this would exist in Mississippi.
We have some more mountains over there.
“A place of honor,
chiefs and high-ranking tribe leaders
lived in structures
atop of the large mounds.
Temples and other structures also stood
at the summit of the largest mound.”
-How you doing, sir?
-Good, how you doing?
No gas, huh?
You guys are open though?
-No, huh-uh.
We’re remodeling.
-Okay, gotcha.
One new building here in town
looks like a hotel.
Then you have the downtown.
Let’s check it out.
You can see some nice old buildings.
At one time was thriving.
People up and down the streets.
All these store fronts
not happening right now.
There’s some signs of life though.
We got that new bank there.
Let’s talk to these guys.
-Can I ask you a question?
-Sure, absolutely.
-How are things? What’s going on
in Greenville these days?
-Doing a lot of restoration actually.
-Yeah, I see that new hotel.
-Absolutely, Hotel 27, it’s a non-profit
that actually gives back to the community
itself and the revitalization of it.
It’s through Greater Greenville
Housing Restoration Association.
-Cool, so Greenville
is coming around right now?
-Absolutely, coming up. Yes sir.
This is actually a building
they’re gonna be doing soon too.
-That’s good to hear.
So these have been vacant
for a while then, huh?
-Quite a while.
-About 25 years.
-Wow. You guys from here?
-Yes sir, born and raised here.
-My wife is.
-Yes sir, married a Delta girl.
-Married a Delta girl, what are
the characteristics of a Delta girl?
-Oh, that’s tricky, man.
-There’s a lot to that.
-Good women.
-Is that a complicated question?
-She goes to work and comes home,
cooks good dinner.
-Yeah, you can guarantee those things.
-They know what they doin’.
That’s a Greenville girl there.
-Delta girls know what they’re doing?
-Yeah, they cook that country food.
-I love me some cornbread.
-You love the cornbread?
-Oh man…
-I had good cornbread yesterday.
-If they cook good cornbread…
-As you go up more, maybe two blocks,
there are many other buildings.
Democratic Times
is coming back on the right.
We demoed a building for that,
there’s a new IRS building,
as well as there is
High Cotton high-end boutique
and we actually restored that,
the company we work for.
-Oh, cool.
-Greater Greenville.
-So you guys are in construction?
-Absolutely, the whole block.
Yeah, we’re in maintenance,
and construction, many hats.
-So are there a lot of jobs
right now in town?
-No sir.
-Well there’s gonna be a lot more
every time we open a building.
That’s the idea.
-So the goal is to get people to move in?
revitalization of the whole community.
Not just the buildings, yeah.
To have more life back in.
-Okay, so you’re a big believer
in Greenville?
My wife saw this block in the ’80s
and I want her to see it again
in the same lifetime
with the same lights on it.
-So in the ’80s it was happening?
Were you here, sir, in the ’80s?
-I was born, I’m 52 years old,
I’ve been in Greenville all my life.
So the whole street right here
had nothing but clothing stores
and grocery stores
and everything down the whole block.
Man, they tore everything up and now
we trying to get it back the way it was.
-What closed everything down?
Was it cotton leaving or what was it?
-I guess it’s the jobs.
-The jobs left?
-I guess it’s the jobs.
-Did you have some big industry here?
-Like some good jobs in town?
-We had some nice jobs, yessir we did.
-It’s hard to get a job now.
-Ain’t nothing going on.
-Me and my wife moved here
and I struggled for a year
and three months before I found…
This company found me, you know?
Just literally from off the street
to having
a beautiful house in the neighborhood.
My wife works for the company at Hotel 27.
She’s actually heading into work at 3:00.
Her name’s Carrie,
she’s got all the history
if you swing through there.
[Peter] Very interesting.
So there were Italian immigrants
in this part of Mississippi?
-Yes, there were Spanish
and Italian immigrants
that came here and built this town.
A lot of the architecture you see on Main
and Washington is gorgeous buildings.
-The marble on things.
-That explains why it’s so beautiful,
some of these old buildings.
-Yes, so we want to restore that grandeur,
that luster that we used to have.
There was a lot of city pride here
and we’re trying to get our pride back.
-It was firing
on all cylinders in the ’80s?
-Then it went off the cliff?
-It did.
-And now it’s coming back?
-What was it that hurt the economy
back in the ’80s?
What happened here?
-A lot of it was there was
local officials that was here in town.
Like the mayor, the city officials,
and they were not doing
what they should be doing.
They weren’t keeping up
with the town, misappropriating funds.
It was a bad time for Greenville
and it really sucked the life out of it.
Now me growing up here
in the ’90s when I was a teenager,
here on our levy there used to be
about four different casinos here.
-And right around the end of the ’90s
they pulled out.
-Okay, so the jobs went away?
-Jobs just went away and this area,
Historic Downtown, Greenville,
it just started dying, and dying.
All the shopping it used to have.
It used to be a Mecca,
this was where all the shopping was.
You could go right here
on Main or Washington.
You could park,
go up and down the streets.
There’s all the local businesses,
the pharmacies, flower shops.
-Was there any industry in town that left?
-We did the Uncle Ben’s rice factory here.
-That shut down and they’re using
the factory for something else now.
So you think the secret sauce is
the jobs need to come back?
-Yes, and that is part of the initiative
that Greater Greenville is doing
with restoring
Historic Downtown Greenville
is we have more businesses on the streets
that’s gonna equal to more jobs
in our community.
-That’s cool, Carrie.
You’re fired up on your town, nice.
-I am, I moved away for about 15 years.
My dad’s family
was from South Mississippi.
So we lived in Brookhaven for a while
and I just wanted to move back.
I just felt a draw to come home
and when I first got here
I was looking around on the internet.
What’s shakin’ up in town? What’s new?
What’s going’ on here?
And I saw this hotel
and started reading about it
’cause it has our mission statement
on our website that
we’re Mississippi’s only non-profit hotel.
All our proceeds go back into
Greater Greenville
to help fund these things.
-Who’s in charge of this?
Who owns this?
-The Greater Greenville Foundation
owns it.
-We’re owned by that foundation.
-They have their main office
right over here on Central.
-So there are a lot of initiatives
here in Greenville to bring it back?
-Good to hear.
-We have a lot.
A lot of people here are really gung ho
with us to get everything back going.
-What’s the going price for a home?
You know, average home, roughly.
-It’s so hit or miss here ’cause
we either have spots and areas in our town
that is run down and stuff.
You might could get just
a standard family home, $50,000, $60,000.
-$50,000, $60,000? Okay.
-But you’re gonna be putting
a little work into it
’cause the area’s not as nice
or you might go on historic streets
where they have these rows
of nice Antebellum homes and stuff.
Those on the high end
are running $120,000, $130,000.
So it’s just you have
the upscale and the downscale here
and we’re just trying to make
a good mid ground for families.
Where we can have
decent housing, decent neighborhoods.
We’d like to see families
come back to that middle ground.
It seems to be the best
where towns can thrive.
-When you have–
-Yeah, when everyone’s sorta doing well.
-When everybody is doing well.
We don’t have a lower economic crowd
out there in rundown houses.
The neighborhoods are bad.
-Coming from the north side
it looked a little run down.
-That’s how I came into town.
-So that’s the rundown part of town?
-Yes, it is.
We just want to…
It’s the Queen City here.
We wanna get it back going.
We want it to look good again.
Yeah, Greenville is definitely split
between two worlds right now
and it’s good to see that energy
going into the downtown.
They’re trying and there is
that beautiful architecture
but it needs to be filled
with flourishing businesses
that create jobs.
That pay enough so people
can live decent life
where they’re not worried about
the price of milk, or eggs, or gasoline,
and they can
raise their families in security.
And how you do that, I don’t know.
You can see it all over the United States.
All over “flyover country”.
I say that with the air quotes
because flyover country
has some of the coolest people.
So it’s tough to see in this country.
You know, places like Greenville
and so many towns that are suffering,
and when the jobs go,
then everyone’s life sort of deteriorates,
and yeah, you can live off
government subsidies to some degree.
A lot of people have disability.
A lot of people have disability
in this country
and some really need it.
They have an honest disability
and others are just milking the system,
and if you grow up
with your parents doing that
those are your role models.
That’s what you see
and you continue on the trend.
I think it’s really hard
to get out of that world, that cycle.
Right? ‘Cause that’s all you know
and you don’t really have any leadership
or anyone showing you any differently.
So as a country
that seems to be one of our big problems.
Yeah, there’s just a lack of… hope
with many people in small town America.
There’s a lack of jobs.
Most people just want to go to work,
feed their family,
and get on through life.
With that said,
there are also wealthy people out here.
There’s middle class out here.
It’s not easy to explain or show
because it is complicated.
Everywhere’s complicated.
Every situation or topic is complicated.
There’s not one simple answer
for any of this stuff.
[somber blues]
“Belmont Plantation, one of
the few antebellum houses remaining
in the Mississippi Delta
was built in 1857.
Federal troops plundered it in 1863.”
And for those that don’t know
this architectural style came after
the US Revolution before the Civil War.
Very famous down here in the South.
Long driveways, big trees, archways,
Neoclassical designs.
So not that long ago.
You had your master plantation here.
The landholder, the wealthy white family,
their slaves working the land,
picking the cotton.
So it’s a bed and breakfast now?
-It’s a bed and breakfast.
It’s a 9,000 square foot house.
It has an apothecary building out back
and then the smokehouse
was made into a building also.
-That’s cool.
How much a night?
-$165 with breakfast the next morning
and a tour of the place.
The guy that owns it,
his name’s Bradley Houser I believe.
-Oh, that’s cool.
All right, have a good one.
-Thank you.
-There we go.
Turned into bed and breakfast.
Quickly traveling through,
it’s hard to understand
what the cultural temperature is here
between Whites and Blacks.
I mean from my limited time
I feel…
I feel very safe being
the only White guy, many circumstances.
Everyone’s been cool to me.
There’s a lot of interracial couples,
All I can say is I’m glad it’s not 1853
and we’re living in
the time of plantations, and slaves.
Forced labor.
I think most of us are glad about that.
So the country has progressed very far
from what we came from
in our very short history
and I think as Americans
we’re very hard on ourselves.
We don’t give ourselves credit
for our accomplishments.
Especially in these times
and there’s way more work to be done.
Every country can improve,
a person can improve, relationship…
But we’ve gone
in the right direction overall.
And so it’s something to keep in mind
even when you’re in
the heart of the Deep South.
I mean not long ago, really it wasn’t,
there were slaves
out there in those fields.
That’s crazy.
And that’s no longer.
All right guys,
thanks for coming on that road trip today.
It’s part of a greater Deep South series
Alabama and Mississippi for the most part.
I know the Deep South
goes into Georgia, and Louisiana.
Which will be down the road in videos
but for now, Alabama, Mississippi.
Part of the country
I gotta say I know nothing about
and it’s eye-opening,
and very interesting,
and excellent travel.
Great people today
and also one last thing,
I have a separate platform
outside of YouTube.
I’m doing deeper dives.
Going into more of my thoughts
and what I’m learning on these trips.
Behind the scenes stuff.
That link is down below
in the description.
Thanks for coming along.
Until the next one.
[somber blues]

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