Mileston Located south of Tchula in the western third of Holmes County on flat, prime Delta agricultural land, Mileston was one of the resettlement communities created through an experimental poverty eradication program of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) of the US Department of Agriculture and the earlier Resettlement Administration. The projects coupled landownership with training, cooperative management, and economic assistance to facilitate upward mobility for a chronically poor stratum of sharecroppers and tenants. Of nearly one hundred such communities nationwide, Mileston was one of approximately thirteen that were entirely African American.
Mileston was part of the W. E. Jones estate until around 1940, when the FSA purchased roughly ten thousand acres of land pieced together from several plantations and converted the land into seventy individual farm units by building houses, barns, chicken coops, outhouses, wells, and smoke shacks. Mileston also contained one larger cooperative farm operated collectively by about thirty households. The parcels, each of which contained between forty and sixty acres, were originally rented to the settlers but were ultimately sold outright for around five thousand dollars each. Eighty-three of the roughly one hundred farm families involved in the project had previously sharecropped on the Jones estate. To coordinate the settlers’ efforts, the FSA used cooperatives to manage the farming operations, purchase home-related materials, and deliver health care. By 1943 the community boasted a farming cooperative, a new and fully appointed public high school, and a health clinic staffed by a community nurse. The farm families received training from the FSA on matters of nutrition, planning, and home management. Today, roughly six thousand acres of the original land is still owned by families of the early project participants.
At the core of the Mileston community lay the FSA-established Mileston Cooperative Association, one of the oldest black farmers’ cooperatives in the state. While individual families operated seventy of the Mileston Farms, thirty-six worked the cooperative or collective farm, Marcella Farms. The collective owned the mules, tractors, and other equipment, while each family owned its own subsistence livestock—a milk cow, hogs, and chickens. From the outset the cooperative farm idea was a difficult sell both nationwide and in Mileston, as the similarities between working the cooperative farm owned by the government and working as a sharecropper on a plantation were all too apparent. Further, given that nearly seventy of the project families were operating individual farms, cooperative participants must have felt at least somewhat envious. Beginning in 1944 the FSA sold the land to the individual families.
By 1945 the cooperative had most of the ingredients for success, with 120 members, a cotton gin, a store, a blacksmith shop, and land. The Mileston Cooperative was the center of activity, especially on Friday nights, when people gathered to play music and visit. Mileston farmers ginned their own cotton and loaded their produce directly onto train cars for sale at regional markets. The cooperative served the community for two decades.
A key community institution coordinated by the cooperative was the Mileston Medical Association. Beginning on 1 April 1940 Mileston families received home and office visits, weekly clinics, and ordinary drugs for fifteen dollars per year. By January 1942 community members finished constructing a four-room Community Health Center and dedicated it in a celebratory program that included FSA state and national leaders. Under the guidance of nurse Earless Hope, the Health Center delivered an impressive array of services. She held numerous special conferences for midwives in the area, acquired cribs for newborns, enrolled expectant mothers in education programs, and conducted home visits.
By 1946 the FSA had been dismantled and replaced by the more conservative Farmers Home Administration. Full-scale support for the resettlement communities became a thing of the past. Applying what they had learned, community members continued administering their cooperative, participated in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, served in the military, and worked to raise and educate their children.
The landownership base and cooperative management experience became a powerful combination for action during the civil rights movement. Mileston farmers were crucial to the success of both the Holmes County and Mississippi movements. The connection between land, the democratic process, and citizenship was so powerful in Milestone that Hartman Turnbow, Ozell Mitchell, Ralthus Hayes, Rev. Jesse James Russell, and Alma Carnegie—individuals who had little more than land—aggressively demanded their rights. Organizers and activists recognized the power as well. Inspired by Mileston, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and other leaders dreamed of larger visions of land reform. Mileston farmers built one of the first community centers used for citizenship classes in Mississippi, formed one of the strongest chapters of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and ultimately led the way in the election of Robert Clark to the Mississippi legislature in 1967.
- Kenneth T. Andrews, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy (2004)
- Paul K. Conkin, Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Program (1959)
- Ray Marshall and Lamond Godwin, Cooperatives and Rural Poverty in the South (1971)
- Spencer D. Wood, “The Roots of Black Power: Land, Civil Society, and the State in the Mississippi Delta, 1935–1968” (PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 2006)
- Youth of the Rural Organizing and Cultural Center, Minds Stayed on Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Rural South, an Oral History (1991)