Half Pints and Rain Barrels: Hunger in Alabama
By Wayne Greenhaw
Vol. 2, No. 7, 1980, pp. 17-19
A dark-skinned woman with a sharp straight nose, aged twisted lips,and legs slightly bigger around than a half dollar, Annie Bell Brown looked surprised when more than forty people walked into her scrub-brush front yard.
She sat on a ragged old sofa somebody else had discarded years ago. She leaned forward and dipped Garrett snuff, and she cradled gnarled arthritic fingers gingerly around a swollen elbow that hung limply in a sling. A week before a local teenager had found her lying in a dirt street of Black Jack. Her arm was broken. Small dogs played around her frail body. The young man picked her up and carried her to an emergency room nearly twenty miles away.
Annie Bell Brown is one of about two-hundred residents of Black Jack, a no-man’s-land tucked between Saraland and Satsuma in Mobile County in south Alabama. Neither the county nor the towns will claim the territory.
A native of nearby Plateau, where she was born with a twin sister seventy-four years ago, she now wiles away her time on the porch of the one-room unpainted shanty for which she pays twelve dollars a month. The dwelling is furnished with a wood heater-stove, a rundown mattress on rustied springs, a refrigerator, and a rickety chest-of-drawers.
When the forty-some-odd people from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Washington D.C. visited her on a Coalition Against Hunger tour, Mrs. Brown, a widow, showed surprise in her big brown eyes. “I don’t get no food stamps,’ she said. “I don’t have the strength to stand in line all day,” she added. Asked if she could use food stamps if somebody brought them to her, her face lighted. “I sure could,” she said.
“I don’t know nothing about no Medicaid, Medicare or anything else like that,” she said. She receives a check for nearly $150 each month from Social Security, she said. “That’s from my husband, who passed,” she explained.
In a cupboard near the stove sat a one-pound plastic of black-eyed peas and a partial can of Luzianne coffee. In the refrigerator was a half-pint of milk and a jar of peach preserves.
Asked about plumbing, she pointed toward the rear of the shack where an outhouse teetered at the edge of a ditch. And she said the pump where she got her water was some fifty paces down the dirt road.
Sipping the strawberry Kool-Aid offered by Bill Edwards, a young man who has been fighting Alabama hunger most of his adult life, she half-whispered, “The Lord sent y’all. I know He did.” And local Black state senator Michael Figures took down her name and address. He said he would have someone with a food stamp form
to her front porch by nightfall.
On the way north into Choctaw Indian country, Bill Edwards said that this is what his Coalition Against Hunger is all about. “We want to make the public aware that problems like this exist in our communities.” And a man from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development agreed. “It’s not just in the big cities of Washington, New York, Newark, Atlanta, it’s everywhere,” he said.
Within an hour the group bumped down a clay road in the Piney Woods near the Alabama-Mississippi border. Tall, handsome, Roman-nosed John Rivers, a fourth generation Choctaw, told about the problems of being the third race in a south Alabama county “where nobody ever wanted anything to do with you. We were told by the White people that we were not theirs. And the Black people didn’t want us. When I was a boy we had three separate schools for the three races in Washington County.”
He guided the way to a small frame house where a sickly olive-complected child clung to the skirt of his undernourished mother. The woman said her husband had died six months earlier. She was on food stamps, but they barely provided enough food for her and her four children. The other two boys and a girl were in school. As the group tromped through the crowded cabin, a representative from the county pensions and security office almost fell through the floor when her foot weighed upon a loose board.
Less than a half-mile away the group pulled into the grassless yard of a tiny house. It looked like something a middle-class child would build as a play hideout in the backyard of a suburban home. Out of the front door of the plywood and cardboard dwelling ran a three foot high little boy with a beaming round face and twinkling brown eyes. “Hi,” he said, “my name’s Bubba.” And the first woman reached down and swooped him up into her arms and uttered, “Give me a hug, Bubba,” and he hugged with a huge grip.
Inside the ten-by-fifteen-foot two-room house stood a barefoot woman in a red print dress. Two girls slightly smaller than Bubba held to her sides. She had sharp Indian cheeks, raven hair, soft brown eyes, and skin the color of the deep red clay. She invited the group into her neat well-scrubbed home.
Standing on the back stoop, she pointed out where she, her husband, and their three children had lived before the old house had burned to the ground. There had been no insurance. There was no way to rebuild.
“We tote water from up there on the hill. And up yonder
we go to the bathroom. We catch water off the roof. We bathe in washtubs. And I wash the clothes in that there pan.”
“There ain’t no electricity. It got cut off. The power company got my bill mixed up with a fellow up the road. By the time we got it straightened out they said we owed $124 and I’d have to pay it to have the electricity turned back on. But we don’t have that kind of money.”
“It gets kind of cool in the winter. We have that canned gas. It’s a little and have to have it filled every week, and I cook with that.”
Holding her head high and defiant, she said, “When you are poor, you do what you have to do.”
On the way to yet another place Bill Edwards reiterated his old fight against an apathetic public. An angry young man, Edwards has been shaking his finger in the face of the rich and the fat for at least a decade.
A Californian, Edwards grew up in Orange County “which I guarantee you is just as backward in its way as much of Alabama,” he says. Studying history and political science at California State College in Fullerton, he came to the University of Alabama’s graduate school in 1969 and took a masters degree in social work.
Working with the National Democratic Party of Alabama, a predominantly Black splinter group in the early 1970s, Edwards developed a quick and deep insight into the state’s political world. He also worked with VISTA through Miles College in Birmingham. Again with Miles College, he moved to Greene County where for four and one-half years he had “quite an experience, saw poverty at its worst, watching the splitting-up factions of the Black people’s political life.” Then, for two years, he directed the Alabama Migrant and Seasonal Farm Workers. He and his wife, a teacher from Birmingham, moved to Loachopoka between Auburn and Opelika in central Alabama and he began work with the Coalition Against Hunger.
Totally committed and estimated, Edwards slips into a passionate speech punctuated with cold hard facts. He looks back on President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty as the beginning of the dream to rid the country of hunger. “At that time the nation began its dream about actually doing something about poverty, actually getting the people out of poverty ” he says.
“All you have to do is look and see, and the myths about poverty die hard and fast. Some people believe all poor people are lazy, drive Cadillacs, eat gourmet meals from food stamps. These people work hard, keep their homes clean, and barely have enough to eat,” he states.
With Edwards on the day in the south Alabama country was Hollis Geer, staff attorney of Legal Services Corporation of Alabama, the co-sponsor of the hunger tour. Geer, who represents many of the Mo-Wa (short for Mobile-Washington counties) Indians, rides the country circuit at least once a week to check with her outlying clients.
A native of Boston, Geer moved with her family to Huntsville, Alabama, when she was 12, and after graduating from Duke in anthropology spent two years in Liberia and Ghana. Back in Boston, she worked with prison reform groups and attended Boston University Law School.
While still in school, she worked with Legal Services Corporation offices in Knoxville one summer, “and I knew I wanted to come back South and do this kind of work.”
In the push and shove world, she makes room in local churches for intake sites to meet with her clients. And soon she hopes to share an office in Chatom, seat of Washington County, with the Coalition Against Hunger people.
As the dust-coated school bus rocked back toward the tour’s starting point, Bill Edwards creased his forehead and spoke about the people. Leaning forward, he hit his fist into his palm “There is so much that we have to do. It’s an up-hill battle, but we think we can do it.” And to his side Hollis Geer nodded her head in agreement as the bus passed several tar-papered shacks with a scrawny collard patch and a rustied-out car in the front yard.
Wayne Greenhaw is a freelance journalist in Montgomery, Al. and is author of several books about Southern events and people.