Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Mary Johnson was a resident of Rose Street back when Rose Street looked very different from how it looks now. In many ways, the story of Johnson is the story of Jackson's demographic history. Johnson had a house at the corner of Rose and Central Street. Though staunchly segregated, the black version of Jackson sat mere streets away from her. Sharing her local neighborhood in the 1960s, she says, were Ku Klux Klan members, people with possible connections to countless terrorist activities against black people, all while living mere streets away from their black neighbors.
Almost 50 years later, former West Jackson resident and private contractor Dennis Warren still won't provide full names, but says some childhood rumors suggested a few of his white neighbors were possibly connected to the 1964 Freedom Summer killings, resulting in the murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Neshoba County. In 2005, former Klan member Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter for his role in the killings.
Today, the streets are different. In 2006, the campaign headquarters of Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman—who is not the first black representative of that ward—sits on Rose Street, directly across the street from where Johnson lived all those years. On the morning of March 24, farther up the street, at the corner of Rose and Robinson Street, black police officers are forcing a young, shirtless black man up against his car.
From 1967 to 1973, Johnson said nearly all her white neighbors abruptly dropped everything and ran like hell.
"The 'for sale' signs just went up everywhere," Johnson said. "When the first black bought a house a few streets over to this street, they all left as quick as they could."
Trapped in Decay
All except for Johnson, that is. For 68 years, Johnson's been living in the same house she played in as a child. She stuck it out as the homes nearby fell into decay. She remained as her own income became fixed. She found herself trapped when her fixed income was insufficient to patch the roof or to repair floors warping with water rot.
After so many decades, her collapsing childhood home, with rotting gray timbers and hideous safety-code violations, took on the appearance of a house already abandoned. Eventually, was just the kind of dilapidated housing that Tillman, whose headquarters sat directly across the street, vowed to remove.
Johnson appeared with Tillman in a campaign ad last year, with Tillman vowing to start construction on a new home within weeks. Johnson and Warren say Tillman has since fallen short, failing not only to build a house but also to offer even general assistance.
"I remember asking Tillman if he would rent those apartments across the street to Johnson," Warren said. He said that Tillman claimed there was insufficient space.
Tillman did not return calls.
'I Just Couldn't Leave'
At first, Johnson did not want to leave.
"I just couldn't leave. It had too much sentimental value," she said.
Nevertheless, she left in January of this year, with a promise from Jackson Mayor Frank Melton that he would build her a new house. Warren, now a Jacksonville, Fla., contractor, joined with Melton in promising her that they could have a new house built for her by Feb. 14. With complete confidence that funding was on the way for a new home, Warren helped her move her things and supervised the demolition.
Months later, Warren sits in Johnson's apartment across the street from her now-empty lot, regretting that he has left an old woman homeless.
"When Melton left there, all the commentaries he made was 'get it done so we can get construction started,' but I'm just flapping in the breeze now," Warren said. "I can't just leave her like this."
Currently, Johnson is living in an apartment complex owned by the West Jackson Community Development Corp. She says she was told that she could stay there for free until her new home is built, but now the West Jackson CDC is telling her that her stay was only supposed to be for a few weeks.
West Jackson CDC Executive Director Linda Carter said the organization volunteered to let Johnson stay at the complex, but never intended for her stay to be indefinite.
"We attempted to work with the city as we always do, and everything was in an uproar, so we said we'd let her sign the lease later," Carter said. "We had a vacant apartment, and we didn't mind letting her stay there. We thought her house would be built by Feb. 14."
The community-based organization has since signed Johnson to a three-month lease. Warren said he is trying to help Johnson gather up the monthly rent and bills, and he is also desperately seeking donations in building materials and construction costs for the foundation of Johnson's new home. Warren says he has beat down the cost of an $80,000 home to "about $15,000 or $20,000."
"I've got most of the major stuff donated. It's just some incidentals that have to be covered. ... If the city can't do anything, then we'll have to reach out to the general public," Warren said.
Warren complains now that he is not sure anymore what Melton meant when he said he would provide Johnson a new house.
"It depends on what the definition of 'is' is. He told me 'we're going to build a house, and we'll take care of what's needed,' but since Jan. 27 we haven't had any more real conversations out of him," Warren said.
"I called him yesterday," Johnson said. "He keeps saying things are lined up and ready to go, but nothing is really happening. He says his hands are tied up with the (Town Creek) Apartments."
Melton blames the hold-up of Johnson's new home on bureaucracy and weather.
"We're going to rebuild her home, but we've had a lot of rain problems. Had some debris problems with trees. We had the trees removed last Thursday, and Mary wanted the house to start on Friday, but all of our heavy equipment is over at the Town Creek Apartments to do what we need to have done," Melton said in a March 23 interview.
"With all the rain we've had, I haven't been able to get the heavy equipment on Johnson's property because the soil is too wet, and it won't sustain heavy equipment."
Melton said he was also wary of Warren, stating that Johnson turned over a portion of $2,800 in FEMA money to Warren.
Warren said the money withdrawn from that account was used to pay for the demolition of Johnson's old home. "It's not like the city paid for it," he said.
At this point, Warren says he's willing to build both the foundation and the house without the city's help, if he can collect enough money to begin the process. Warren says he plans to build a two-story home on the property, with a separate upstairs area for renting out to a boarder if Johnson chooses to supplement her income.
Local Web designer Bob Oertel assembled a site (http://www.helpmary.org) equipped with PayPal for people looking to donate to the cause. "I heard about her trouble, and I just think it's terrible what's happened to her and how she's been living all these years," said Oertel, who also mediates the Precinct 4 COPS meetings. "I want to help her if I can, and I just hope other Jackson residents can help her, too."
Warren complains that local community development corporations, some of which are paid thousands of dollars in city block grant money to rebuild dilapidated housing, do not appear to be doing their part to rebuild housing in West Jackson.
"I don't know what's happening to the money, but you can see the work's not being done. The only work that's being done in the city of Jackson is Habitat for Humanity," Warren said.
Additional reporting by Donna Ladd.
I am pleased to see that Warren and other's are taking the plight of Ms. Johnson seriously! How dare FM continue to provide excuses while he sits in the lap of luxury at his home and this poor woman is now forced to plead for assistance simply to retain the roof over her head! Has it crossed anyone's mind yet that the funds he used to 'play' on his recent vacation would have more than likely been more than enough to pay for Ms. Johnson's housing, utilities and food for at least a couple of months? Oh course not! The why to this is, he does not apparently care about the citizen's of Jackson, and especially the elderly who supply us with their knowledge and wisdom. I challenge everyone to go to the Paypal site and make a donation in effort to assist in the rebuilding of this home that FM took so carelessly and once again without thought process being involved. I will be visiting the site myself and hope that the citizens of Jackson will continue to show the nation that despite FM WE care about our elderly! I don't think the amount donated matters - just think, if 4000 people (a small percentile of the residents of this great city) would donate even $5 each, that would provide the funding for the $20,000 needed to rebuild this womans home. Only $5.00 each! That is such a small amount that would make a huge impact in this woman's life!
- Katie D
Good points Katie. I also challenge everyone to offer any type of help other than money too. We have a lot of people that have skills that can be donated as well. As for Frank, his lies will catch up with him soon enough. I recently read in the JFP where the sale of WLBT had finally been completed. I cannot quote exact figures, but it was well over 750 million. If Frank had only a small share of the station, then surely he could have paid for this woman's house as he said that he would at the begining. But when I think about things, he is already getting his payback over in Meridian MS. He is begging for the judge to let him tell why he lied. The reasons don't matter at this point. He lied then, he's lied to Ms Johnson, I don't remember when the last time that he publicly told the truth. The citizens of Jackson will take care of Ms Johnson. Give it a little time and Frank will be just a bad memory. He is self-destructing. His apporval rating was good in a recent poll, but still a tremendous dropoff from when he first took office. At this rate, he'll do good to have a rating of 30% before he finishes his first full year in office.
I will give a few bucks to this, too.
- Ray Carter
I know I posted on another thread that I was bitter to donate because I didn't want to prop up a promise Melton won't keep; but, seeing the people involved makes me feel better about giving.
Warren says all he needs to start construction is money for the foundation. How much will this cost and is it possible to find a big hearted foundation person who will help by contributing materials or some workmen's time?
There is really a much larger picture here that needs to be addressed. The City can only disburse block grant funds for low income housing to certain "non-profits" such as West Jackson CDC (Lynda Carter). There are programs for down-payment assistance that can go to individuals but apparently there is nothing to help people in a situation like Mary. Is there any accountability of these housing non-profits to be sure they are dealing effectively to help with housing needs? Or, is too much money paying for administrative costs such as salaries, etc? This situation is a perfect example of how ineffective some of the non-profits around Jackson are with actually getting to the people who are in real need of housing.
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