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BIG CITY: Scenes from a poverty tour – Part 2

By Kirk Ross

Scenes from a poverty tour – Part 2

This is the second in a series of columns on poverty, inspired by a recent North Carolina NAACP-sponsored tour of high-poverty regions of our state.

The bus rolled out of Raleigh about dawn heading east to Washington, or, if you’d rather, Little Washington. Some of us – students, community leaders and organizers; a few lawyers; some press; and several reverends — were still shaking off an early-morning start.
Bishop Gene Hatley was at the wheel as we paralleled the Tar River through Wilson and Greenville into sound country. Along the way, each town got a little smaller and the spaces between them sparser.

We got to Washington, our first stop, around 10 a.m. and rode to the heart of town to a gathering at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a church founded in the waning days of the Civil War and now located in a brick-and-wood jewel built by former slaves and their children in 1902. The church’s official history includes this description:
“Metropolitan was not left untouched by the Depression, however. Terrorist groups pitted poor Whites against poor Blacks. But the members of Metropolitan continued caring for one another. Landowners who owned small businesses and farmed would share their food with poorer families. Church members worked to continue the academic, spiritual, and material growth of the children. This self-reliance and hard work were the keys to getting Metropolitan through the Depression.”

Today in Beaufort County, almost 10,000 of its 50,000 residents live below the poverty line. During the recent recession, the number of people on food assistance has skyrocketed from 6,185 in September 2007 to 17,172 as of September 2011. (Even so, Beaufort County would be one of the better-off places we would visit on the tour.)

With the community hit hard by the recession, the church, led by Rev. David Moore, is a refuge once more for a growing number of neighbors. Volunteers prepare daily meals for the hungry and have set up an emergency shelter.

It had gotten down below freezing the night before we arrived and around 20 people who had nowhere to go in a town whose motto is “Pride in the past, faith in the future” spent the night in the Metropolitan’s basement.

Upstairs that morning, in a sanctuary lit by the January sun streaming through ancient panels of stained glass, we heard the first round of stories that for the next two days would be eerily similar – stories of lifelong struggles against the odds and what little was built or saved lost because of a storm or a battle with an illness or an employer shutting down.

Those who stood up to tell their stories were not the caricatures drawn of the poor, but the real poor, the invisible poor.

Charlette Blackwell Clark, who cleans houses for a living and lives in a storm-damaged trailer she cannot afford to fix, said she is “tired of struggling, tired of being beaten down.”

Like so many, she is being turned away or put on long waiting lists to get some assistance to pay for the repairs. She might, as she puts it, “talk country,” but she understands the consequences of budget cuts in housing-assistance programs in a way no policy analysts can feel. This is her home, and she doesn’t want to leave.

“Let me get on my feet right here in Washington,” she said. “I’ll strive to do whatever I have to do.”

There were people like Charlette, real fighters, at each gathering. And there was almost always someone – often a veteran – who retuned home, saw things through new eyes and pondered the chasm between this nation’s words and our deeds.

Waylon Whitley, from the small Beaufort County community of Pantego, was one of them. He stood at the lectern at the Metropolitan and told us of returning home and beginning a 21-year fight to get sewer service and decent drinking water for his community.

Pantego is one of those places where the lack of infrastructure is a legacy of racial inequality, where black neighborhoods with no services are surrounded by white neighborhoods that have long had them.

Whitley said that when he started the fight for services in 1985, his community was living in third-world conditions. Changing that wasn’t just a question of finding money for the infrastructure, but battling an entrenched political system and an attitude among too many that nothing could be done to change things. It’s a message he continues to preach.
“We owe it to ourselves to insert ourselves in the situation and make it better.”

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