In the Mississippi Delta, 30 percent of black women who contract cancer are dying as compared with 19 percent of white women. A cancer foundation named after Mississippi Civil Rights Activist Fannie Lou Hamer, is working to change that alarming rate.
"Like right now we're driving from Greenwood to Greenville", said Freddie White-Johnson.
Freddie White-Johnson clocks hundreds of miles crisscrossing the Delta, promoting awareness about cervical, breast, colon and prostate cancers. The married mother of two says talking to people one-on-one is the best way to convince them to be screened. She works to help people who are struggling with basic needs like food and water before she even brings up cancer prevention.
"You see a lot of poverty. The houses that people live in, not having running water. Not having heat. No job. Lack of resources and just lack of people who really care," said Johnson
Sixty-one-year-old Barbara Young of West is cancer-free after battling breast, stomach and cervical cancer over 20 years.
"She didn't see me as just a person out there. She saw me as a human being that was in need of her services," said Young.
The mother of three says she and her husband both worked two jobs before she became ill. Losing her income was a financial strain. Young says Johnson accidentally dialed the wrong phone number one day and called her instead.
"And the Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer Foundation came in my life that day. The foundation was able to provide me with transportation money. It also provided me money for any things I needed to do there at the house like your light bill, your water bill, whatever. She never questioned that," said Young.
Outreach is a major portion of the work Johnson does through a non-profit she founded in 2004, called the Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer Foundation.
"I do it from my heart and all I want to do is go out there and make a difference, to the point that I leave a legacy," said Johnson.
The 56-year old named it after Hamer, a civil rights activist from Johnson's home town of Ruleville. When she was a child, Johnson remembers Hamer bringing food to her family when they were in need. Hamer was born in 1917 and died from untreated breast cancer in 1977.
"People knew Miss Hamer from the saying 'I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired,' I thought it would just be a better fit and that people would give more towards the cause since she's nationally known," said Johnson.
Hamer was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964--in opposition to the state's all white delegation to that year's Democratic convention. Hamer spoke before a committee at the convention. She told them the plantation owner where her family lived and sharecropped, warned her she had to go because she registered to vote.
"He said, well I mean that, if you don't go down and withdraw your registration you'll have to leave. And then if you go down and withdraw, said you still may have to leave because we're not ready for that in Mississippi. And I addressed him and told him, I didn't try and register for you. I tried to register for myself," said Hamer.
Johnson explains that when her father was dying of lung cancer in 1977, the same year Hamer passed away, he called her to his bedside. Just as Hamer fought for civil rights, her father wanted her to fight for people in the Delta to have access to healthcare.
"He wanted me to go to school and get a good education and come back and help the people like us. I didn't understand how I was going to be able to help people. So, it took all these years for me to understand what he wanted me to do and how I was going to do it," said Johnson.
Armed with a masters degree in public administration, Johnson is also program director for a cancer prevention division at the University of Southern Mississippi. She works out of the state department of health office in Greenwood. Johnson collaborates closely with Dr. Alfio Rausa, a district health officer with the department. He oversees 18 counties. Rausa says they began tracking the incidence of breast cancer 20 years ago.
"The problem that we found when we looked at the numbers is that the Blacks in the Delta here, had one fourth of the incidence of breast cancer compared to the whites. But they died four times more," said Rausa.
According to the Mississippi Cancer Registry in the Delta, between 2008 and 2012, 30 percent of black woman who contracted breast cancer died compared to 19 percent of white women. Last year the foundation provided more than 650 free mammograms to women ages 40 to 64.
"Well, there's nobody doing this in the Delta. We've got an area of the state that's depressed, economically, educationally, health wise. I mean you name the problem and we've got it," said Rausa.
Johnson says it takes grants and donations from supporters like the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, local county boards and the City of Greenwood to do the work. Last year the State of Mississippi gave them a $300,000 donation toward a new 2.5 million dollar, cancer resource center.
They plan to break ground on the 10,000 square foot facility this summer. It will include a clinic and computer center. Johnson hopes it'll spark more support for the cause.
Freddie White-Johnson visited Ralph Walls at his home on a plantation in Doddsville, to see what he may need and to speak with him about prostate cancer screenings. Below is a look inside his home on video. Wall says he pays $150 per month for rent.
Johnson is hoping to obtain a Katrina cottage for him. At the time of Johnson's visit, he did not have heat. This is a photo of an electric fireplace the Fannie Lou Hamer Cancer Foundation provided for Walls.
Video inside Wall's home.