In Mississippi, a look at one town's progress

Located about a mile from Greenville, Miss., this nearly all-black town is in the midst of the Mississippi Delta - rich land once tilled and harvested primarily by black farm workers.

The agricultural wealth they helped produce added to the prosperity of farms and cities even as towns like this one slumbered in the shadows for decades - often without running water, lights, paved roads, or decent houses.

Today machines do much of the farmwork once done by hand. So families, many of whose ancestors were slaves, have been freed of the long hours of stooping in cotton fields under the delta sun. But most families have not been freed of poverty bred by generations of poverty and dependence.

Yet things are changing - slowly - in some small towns like this one. In Metcalfe (pop. about 1,300), where nearly two-thirds of the residents are elderly, decay seemed to be winning until the mid-1960s. Today new homes are replacing crumbling shacks; residents have piped water, a sewer system and natural gas lines, a fire truck, and a one-man police force. A railroad spike manufacturing plant has opened in the town. Even the run-down town hall is slated for replacement.

Metcalfe has become an example of what federal money (about $10 million in loans and grants) can do to an otherwise forgotten, poor town. The questions raised by such progress are whether other poor communities across the nation can duplicate what has been done here - and whether the federal government will pay for other Metcalfes.

''It's going to be hard (for other towns to duplicate the progress here),'' Metcalfe's mayor, the Rev. S. E. Lindsey, said in a Monitor interview in the old house being used as town hall. Metcalfe got most of its federal help ''before all this tightening down began.''

Some of the programs that contributed to progress in Metcalfe are being scaled back by the Reagan administration.

Had it not been for the go-between, federal-fund-seeking assistance of a private, nonprofit group, the town might have gotten little help. But the staff of the Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), which promotes progress of minorities in the Delta, has gone all-out to help the town.

And MACE staff members, interviewed at their headquarters in Greenville, say substantial Metcalfe-like progress can be made elsewhere with the right combination of remaining federal funds and private help. (MACE gets much of its funding from the Ford Foundation and other private sources).

Some of the results of the progress in Metcalfe are quite evident. Gracie Cooper, a senior citizen here, has moved out of the two-room, wooden shack with gaping holes in the sideboards and roof into a new apartment. She says she likes the running water (which she did not have before). But some things seem confusing to her. When this reporter visited her, she had mistakenly left the heat on during the hot afternoon and had been forced to open her doors for air. She asked for help turning the air conditioner on.

Much remains to be done. Costello B. Thomas still lives in a three-room, decrepit house (about 450 square feet) with 10 children and grandchildren. The roof leaks; there is only loose plastic for windows; the door is falling apart; there is no indoor plumbing. After all the beds are filled at night, four children have to sleep on the floor. ''The mosquitoes are eating us up at night, '' she says.

''Black people in this state have always been in a depression,'' says Larry Farmer, director of training for MACE. ''Those of us who can earn have an obligation to help those who can not.''

MACE president Charles Bannerman apparently feels the same way. He has helped start black-owned businesses under the auspices of Delta Enterprises (begun by MACE and also headed by Mr. Bannerman). His own salary is about $22,000 a year, he says.

Bannerman says people can't sit back and wait for the government to help an area.''You gotta make it happen.''

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