If you’re a young adult in the Mississippi Delta, you have two choices — leave for more opportunities or stay and face a high unemployment rate. MPB’s Alexandra Watts reports on how one Delta town is working to change that.
Marks native Judy Bland reflects on her town as she drives on a rainy day.
“I went first through twelfth grade here,” She says as she drives through town. “Of course, it was completely different times. There were jobs available then…agriculture related jobs were plentiful. Just so many people worked in those fields.”
Half of 16-to-29 year olds in Quitman County, where Marks is, are unemployed.
Bland volunteers with The Marks Project, a group working to improve the area. The group was founded by Mitch Campbell and Jaby Denton and has worked on providing a fitness center, partnerships with colleges and now, a brand new job training center.
Bland said the center will partner with two community colleges and offer 18-to-29 year olds training in specialized fields — training needed after a local vocational school closed.
Marks native Manuel Killebrew sits at local restaurant Country Kitchen. He’s on the board of supervisors and hopes the center brings trade and other skill oriented jobs to Marks.
“If they offer the classes there, they could get a skill,” he said. “They’re talking about building trade, auto motor mechanic, welding, forklift, GED. A lot of people need that in order to go out and work. We have no licensed plumbers here in Quitman county. There’s no licensed electrician here. If we could get people trained for that, they could create their own jobs.”
Fifty years ago, while still in high school, Killebrew participated in the Poor People’s Campaign Mule Train alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
He went away for school, but the Marks in recent years has fewer agricultural employers like farms and cotton gins.
“We only have two gins in Quitman County now compared to about 14 or 15 back in the sixties and early part of the seventies. People continue to move out because there’s no jobs here.”
According to the Center for Population Studies at the University of Mississippi, Quitman County has seen its population decrease almost 20 percent from 2000 to 2010 - the last time the census was taken. That’s the highest compared to surrounding Delta counties.
Most leaving are between the ages of 20 to 29, and retired educator Shirley Morgan believes job opportunities are a reason why.
“Everybody, I believe, wants to be successful. In order to be successful, you have to have a source of employment, and in order to have a source of employment, there has to be some businesses,” she said.
Bland wants the center to be a place where young people can contribute to the economy in a county where poverty is higher than the state’s average.
“If they obtain a skill, we hope that some of them will get training and maybe open small businesses here, and they can get assistance with planning to do this and even financing,” she said.
When businesses are looking to come to the Delta, the principal of Madison S. Palmer high school, Walter Atkins Jr., said they look at education.
“When you invest in the education, businesses are more prone to look any places like the Delta as an option. But it’s more like what the community can provide a business coming in.”
The Marks Project and the Quitman County School District have worked together to improve school ratings. In 2017, the district received a D grade. This year, the district has a C grade.
Although high school senior Kimberly Bailey will attend college away from the Delta, she understands why people stay.
“I know personally I kind of want to leave into a bigger place,” she said. “But some people like it here, and they want to see their town flourish. And they want to put back into their town, which I totally understand, ‘cause even if I do move, I still want to help where I came from.”
She says the job training center will help her peers find work and contribute to revitalizing the area.
According to data from Kids Count and County Health Rankings, 35 percent of Quitman County 18 to 24 year olds are not employed or in school, compared to 32 percent for the Delta and 17 percent for Mississippi.
Some may question why people choose to stay, and Judy Bland gives her reasoning.
“I’ve lived other places, but there’s just no place like it. You feel like if you need something, there are so many people who are willing to help you. I love the Delta. Just everything about it, I love the area, I love the people. Even in retirement, it’s still where I want to be.”
Twenty percent of Quitman County residents are between the ages of 18 to 29. The new job center’s goal is to give those individuals a reason to keep calling the Delta home.