Advised and supported by the Delta Ministry, ninety-four African Americans moved to four hundred acres of land in Wayside, Mississippi, to begin Freedom City in July 1966. Influenced by Israeli kibbutzim, the ministry’s plan called for residents to build their own houses and establish an industrial and agricultural cooperative. The ministry hoped that the community would become a model to be emulated by other blacks who had lost their plantation jobs to mechanization and chemicals as well as provide African American Mississippians with an alternative to migrating to urban northern ghettoes that were bedeviled by increasing unemployment and other social problems.
Difficulties beset Freedom City from the beginning. Unskilled, ill educated, and unaccustomed to acting without the direction of plantation owners, many residents could not adopt disciplined work patterns, and their growing sense of freedom made them balk at direction from others and undermined the cooperative ideal. The residents were largely uninterested in farming, which they associated with deprivation, and the money earned from the harvests did not cover the mortgage on the land. The federal government at first rejected and then stalled grant applications from the Delta Opportunities Corporation (DOC), which the Delta Ministry had created with sympathetic Mississippians to provide adult basic education and vocational training for Freedom City residents and other unemployed agricultural workers. A storm destroyed most of the temporary plastic huts in which the families at Freedom City had been living. Concerned by the Delta Ministry’s financial problems, the National Council of Churches, the ministry’s sponsor, refused to allow Freedom City to be included in the ministry’s budget, forcing money for the project to be raised separately and consequently depriving Freedom City of adequate funding. The site’s poor conditions, the extensive training required by its workforce, and the fear of a hostile business environment deterred potential industrial employers despite the ministry’s extensive efforts to attract them.
Freedom City children integrated the local school, and with assistance from the ministry’s tutoring project, half of them completed the school year with passing grades. Some of the children made rapid progress despite their previous poor schooling. After considerable discussion, the residents agreed to allow two white families to join them in the summer of 1967.
The following November, the DOC began its federally funded training program. The Ford Foundation agreed to pay for building materials for fifty homes at Freedom City, and ground was broken for houses in May 1968. Families moved into ten new homes in August 1969, but eight of their ceilings collapsed; another eight houses remained under construction. In 1970 Freedom City’s residents decided to lease 320 acres of the site to a white farmer; the remaining 80 acres became Freedom Village, and the focus turned to building houses and amenities. Internal disagreements and staff turnover plagued the DOC, and in 1971 the Nixon administration ended funding for the self-help housing training program. The ministry was unable to find alternative backers for the program. Only twenty of the planned fifty houses ultimately were built. With support from the United Methodist Church and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States, the ministry sponsored a small ceramics cooperative at Freedom Village, but the project was not economically viable and closed in February 1973. Plagued by budget and staff cuts, the ministry scaled down and then ended its involvement in Freedom Village. The site remains in existence and began hosting the annual Delta Blues Festival in 1977.
- Bruce Hilton, The Delta Ministry (1969)
- Leon Howell, Freedom City: The Substance of Things Hoped For (1969)
- Mark Newman, Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi (2004)