In this tiny and shrinking Mississippi county, getting a college degree means leaving home behind

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Rural Realities: Education, Workforce, and Progress

More rural residents are graduating from high school, but people in those communities remain less likely than their suburban and urban peers to continue their education. This five-part series from the Rural News Network, made possible with support from Ascendium, explores how institutions and students are meeting their educational needs and the demands of today’s rural workforce.

ISSAQUENA COUNTY — The kings and queens of the South Delta School District tossed candy and waved at their families as the mid-October parade wound through a small town several miles north of this rural county.

“There’s no place like homecoming,” read a sign on a colorful “Wizard of Oz”-themed float.

Homecoming in Issaquena County – the least populated county in Mississippi and one of the smallest in the country — is so popular that locals call it “South Delta University.”

But there is no college here and no public school. It’s a big reason why many of these kids will have no choice when they grow up but to move away.

There are few jobs for college graduates in this county blanketed in farm fields of soybeans, cotton and corn. No factories, no hospitals. The median household income of roughly $24,000 is a little more than half the statewide average.

A single statistic underscores all these factors. Out of the county’s 1,111 residents, just an estimated 42 people aged 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree — meaning Issaquena County’s population has one of the lowest rates of educational attainment in America.

That’s not because young people from this county aren’t going to college. Many families want them to get a degree — and then leave.

There’s little appetite or means in Issaquena to change this reality, a product of generations of decisions that favored powerful, largely white land interests over education and jobs. 

“All my grandkids, they’re going to college,” said Norah Fuller, a Black farm manager, as he watched the football game that Friday night. “I’m going to make sure they’re going to college. Do we want the kids to stay? No. What they gonna stay here for?”

Unless his grandchildren want to work on a farm, it’s hard to say. Outside of local government and a prison, the primary source of jobs are the farms that have existed since before the Civil War. But these days, the white families who own much of the land in a county that’s 63% Black are hiring less, and they have little incentive to make room for industries or jobs that could bring college-educated people back.

So the cycle continues: Year after year, more and more people move away, leaving behind fewer reasons for anyone else to stay.

“Around here, that’s really the only way you’re gonna make money,” said Amber Warren, a 29-year-old mom with an associate degree who after years of applying for jobs finally landed one as a caseworker aide last year making $11 an hour.

Now she’s searching for a better-paying job outside the Delta.

Issaquena County is flat, desolate and strikingly more rural than anywhere else in Mississippi.

Its story began in 1820 when it was ceded by the Choctaw, whose words for “deer river” form “Issaquena.” Wealthy cotton farmers from the East set up plantations. By the eve of the Civil War, a vast majority of the nearly 100 farm operators in Issaquena owned enslaved people, who made up 93% of the county’s population, the highest percentage in Mississippi.

Reconstruction did little to change this imbalance of power. Agriculture continued to dominate. Mayersville, the county seat, became something of a boom town, replete with hotels and saloons as the area grew to more than 10,000 people.

Soon politicians, businessmen and planters all over the Delta were vying for a railroad to come through their town, eager for alternatives to the crumbling, unpaved roads.

Issaquena’s landowners resisted. The county was circumvented.

Stan Delaney and his daughter, Whitney, talk about their family’s connection to the land in Issaquena County, Miss. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Thus began Issaquena’s first major population decline. By 1930, the county had shrunk to less than 6,000 residents. Nearly all the farms were operated by sharecroppers.

Around this time, Stan Delaney’s grandfather crossed the river from Arkansas to Mayersville and bought land.Delaney grew up on it. He dropped out of the private Sharkey-Issaquena Academy in his senior year to farm.

Today, his wife and son help him work the family’s roughly 1,150 acres, which are worth about $1 million. One of the county’s 189 farm producers who are white, he rents the land from his mother.

Delaney wants to see more young people in Issaquena — especially so his 28-year-old son can meet someone. He knows industry could bring that. But he’d never dream of selling the land to make way for it. If his kids didn’t feel the same way, he’d set up a trust so it could never be sold.

“My dad worked so hard, and my grandfather worked so hard and sacrificed,” he said. “That’s your tradition, that’s just your Southern tradition.”

The only educational institution in Issaquena County, Miss., the Head Start serves 41 children from the surrounding area, but only seven are from Issaquena. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

The Head Start, opened in 1964, is Issaquena’s sole educational institution. LaSonya Coleman, the center manager, oversees 41 students, just seven from Issaquena, she said.

Many residents, Black and white, aren’t troubled by Issaquena’s lack of public schools because the population is so small. In rural school districts across the country, consolidation is a common cost-saving measure.

But the reason why Issaquena has no public schools has little to do with population.

In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court took up five cases that signaled it was going to rule on school segregation. Fearing the end of separate-but-equal, white lawmakers in Mississippi in a special session passed a plan to “equalize” the white and Black schools, believing the ruling could be stopped if the state proved it actually funded separate-but-equal facilities equally.

Instead, the plan threw into relief how unequal school funding really was: Black students received just 13% of education funding around that time, despite making up 57% of the school-age population.

In Issaquena, which had no white schools, the plan resulted in the shuttering of the school district, making it the first county in the state to not have one of its own. A 1988 newspaper article notes Issaquena’s 13 public schools closed, too.

Yet Issaquena County has continued to pay taxes to support three public schools – more than $937,000 last year alone – that provide scant economic benefit to the county itself. South Delta is in Sharkey County, the Western Line School District in Washington County and Mississippi Delta Community College, 60 miles away in Moorhead.

“Having a school district does require college-educated people earning not great salaries, but still college-educated salaries, which helps in terms of property taxes, income taxes, all of the above,” said Toren Ballard, an analyst at Mississippi First, an education policy nonprofit.

George Mahalitc, the largest landowner and one of the major employers in Issaquena County, Miss., said he doesn’t want a “big population” in the area. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

If anyone wanted to bring more jobs to Issaquena County, it’d be tough to do it without talking to George Mahalitc first.

With more than 9,200 acres, Mahalitc is one of the county’s biggest landowners and, with about 30 workers, one of its major employers.

He believes Issaquena has no jobs for college graduates, and few for anyone else, because its people don’t want to work, a point of view not uncommon among farmers and landowners.

“What needs to happen is people need to get off their lazy tails and wanna go to work,” Mahalitc said.

Still, Mahalitc admits, “Us farmers, we like it like that. We don’t want the big population.”

Farmers in Issaquena have resisted efforts to develop the land that could bring other industries, even as mechanization means they’re hiring less. And because just 26 farm producers in Issaquena are Black, most of the people protesting development in Issaquena are white.

In 1990,they foiled plans for a $75 million hazardous waste incinerator. A pair of farmers fiercely opposed it, writing op-eds and sending mailers to every registered voter in the county, The vote was 413-315 against the plant, which would have created 79 permanent jobs and increased local tax revenues by an estimated $2.5 million.

The county also voted to legalize gambling (the casino went to Vicksburg). Then came along the 376-bed Issaquena County Correctional Facility, which opened in 1997 and brought $1 million to the county tax rolls. Today it is the county’s largest employer. More than 50 people work there, but many are not from Issaquena. It sits across Highway 1 from Mayersville, bordered by Mahalitc’s land.

County Supervisor Stallard Williams, who represents Mayersville, would like to spend what money the county has on projects to develop Issaquena.

He wants to attract tourism by preserving the home of former Mayersville Mayor Unita Blackwell, the first Black woman to be elected mayor in the United States.

When the Issaquena County Regional Correctional Facility opened in the late 1990s, it promised to bring $1 million in revenue to the county tax rolls, but some locals are skeptical the prison has kept its word. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

The Mississippi River, he says, is Mayersville’s “golden opportunity for economic development,” but the town doesn’t even have a port. He’d like to raise salaries at the prison, which pays a few dollars above minimum wage. Issaquena attracts hundreds of recreational hunters and fishers — but there’s no place for them to buy gas locally.

So many of his ideas require land to generate taxes and to build on. In recent years, some of the county’s land was bought by the state to create hunting grounds named after former governor Phil Bryant. And much of the land is controlled by farmers.

“You have to face reality,” Williams said. “If it wasn’t for the farmers, we wouldn’t have anything around here. But the average young person right now, you got a few of them who will work on a farm, but most are gonna leave here.”

This reporting is part of a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit NewsRural News Network, and the Cardinal News, KOSU, Mississippi Today, Shasta Scout and The Texas Tribune. Support from Ascendium made the project possible.

“If it wasn’t for the farmers, we wouldn’t have anything around here. But the average young person right now, you got a few of them who will work on a farm, but most are gonna leave here.” 

County Supervisor Stallard Williams

“All my grandkids, they’re going to college. I’m going to make sure they’re going to college. Do we want the kids to stay? No. What they gonna stay here for?”

Norah Fuller, a farm manager

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