(Tunica, MS) If a ditch could force a county to face its faults, Sugar Ditch is it.
Back in the mid-1980s, the ditch running through the town of Tunica was full of human waste.
Now, the raw sewage is gone, but beneath the concrete are lasting memories of people living in squalor and filth.
Conditions many say weren’t fit for an animal, but it’s all people who lived on the ditch had.
“I don’t know. Ain’t nowhere else round here to go,” one resident said back then.
“I wanna keep these pictures and show them to my grand children,” said 66-year-old Chester Fleming who once lived on Sugar Ditch.
He holds on to a $2 painting he bought of Sugar Ditch years ago, pointing out the shack he once called home.
It’s a reminder of how he lived as he started his family, with the little they had.
“An out house what they called it. That stuff run right down to the ditch. It’s why they call it Sugar Ditch,” says Fleming.
Then, segregation was still a part of life for people in Tunica.
African-Americans lived in homes with no electricity, barely a roof, and just two rooms.
The $15 a month rent was all they could afford.
They even made their own toilets.
“I got a 5 gallon white bucket. You know 5 gallons. I used that bucket and I take it to that ditch right there and pour it in and bring my bucket back, hose it out and sit it outside so it can air out,” one resident told us back then.
The deplorable conditions got the attention of Reverend Jessie Jackson who called it ‘America’s Ethiopia’.
Hundreds of thousands of federal grant dollars had been used to improve Tunica’s town square, while one street over citizens were forgotten, lost in time.
“No one could deny what they saw with their own eyes, how people lived,” says Community Activist Joe Hawkins.
He says the spotlight finally brought change to Sugar Ditch.
Landlords were ordered to hook up to town sewer lines and provide indoor plumbing.
Funding came to move residents into new homes.
Today, where shacks once stood, there is now a senior housing development.
A fence now surrounds parts of Sugar Ditch.
It’s been filled in with concrete, no more raw sewage.
But Joe Hawkins says the changes can’t hide the challenges still facing this community.
“We are just getting to the point where we have infrastructure out in some of the areas where you can have at least running water coming to the home. We still have some who do not have sewage,” says Hawkins.
By the 1990s, casino lights put Tunica on the map with promises of jobs and money.
“Maybe the former board thought dollars from the casino would never dry up. They lowered taxes and used casino revenue to run the County. But once casino revenue was cut in half, now we are at a point we are gonna have to raise taxes,” says Hawkins.
But where misery once flowed, a new generation of hope is emerging.
Joe Hawkins points to a new wave of African-Americans in local government.
People like Dennis Turner, who grew up in the shacks, now write about it in “The Boy From the Ditch”.
There’s also Neketta Dean, who grew up on Sugar Ditch, but decided to come back to Tunica after finishing college and getting advanced degrees,
She is helping start community based food programs and Senior Services.
“We are here because we know the challenges that we faced before, that we are still facing and we know we still have a long way on paving the way for our future for Tunica County,” says Dean.