10/14/2019

THE CULMINATION OF A LONG JOURNEY

In 1999, Margaret Brown received a phone call from Orrden Williams, longtime CAHFH board member and member of the Homeowner Selection Committee. His message to Ms. Margaret was short and sweet: “You have been selected by our committee to be the newest Habitat partner.” The news was greeted by a joyful shriek on the other end of the phone, and a new chapter was about to begin in the housing saga of Margaret Brown.

Margaret was born on March 24, 1969 (the same year as the moon landing and Woodstock), the first of 8 children in a sharecropping family living on a plantation outside Drew, MS in the heart of the Delta. Her parents worked in the cotton fields and eventually Margaret joined them, chopping weeds in the hot summer sun, but her primary role in the family was taking care of the growing number of children in the family. They lived in a one-bedroom shotgun shack (the kind inexplicably glorified these days by popular tourist accommodations), with water available only at the nearby pump where the tractors were cleaned or at the commissary across the road when the vicious Doberman Pinschers weren’t out in the yard. When Margaret was 10 or 11, the family moved to the outskirts of Drew, where the closest water came from a pump in the nearby graveyard. By the time the younger kids were ready for school, they moved again, to a 2-bedroom shack where all 8 kids slept in one room. There was no bathtub in the house—a utility sink was their only option for bathing. When Margaret was in middle school, the family moved to the Riverton area in Clarksdale and set up on Douglas St., near the present-day Habitat dorm, where they again squeezed into a 2-bedroom shack—this one had a bathtub but no sink.

Due to series of family tragedies and emergencies, Margaret dropped out of school in the 10th grade. In 1988, living in Clarksdale again, she got her GED at Coahoma Community College and 2 years later, her daughter Talisa was born. By this time the family was back in Riverton, finally living in a 2-story structure with multiple bedrooms, but soon the Health Dept. forced them to leave because of ongoing plumbing and sewage problems. The next house was roomy by comparison with all the others—four bedroom and 2 baths, but it was extremely expensive and featured a leaky ceiling which ultimately compromised the electrical system. So, they had to move again, this time to Bruce St., again close to where the Habitat dorm had now been built.

The house on Bruce St was no improvement. It had 2 bedrooms and a walk-in closet that served as a third to accommodate the 8 people and 2 babies that now made up the family (now including Margaret’s longtime partner, Robert Stone), and it was memorable for its rat infestation. When one of Margaret’s sisters left the refrigerator door ajar one night, the family awoke to a frig full of feasting rats the next morning. But, at this point, the story took a significant turn, when Margaret ran across an ad in the local paper, announcing that applications were being taken from families needing an affordable place to live and willing to partner with Habitat for Humanity. The deadline for applying was close, so Margaret spent the next day, flying around town collecting the requisite documents, and turned in her application immediately. Weeks passed while the selection committee did its work, which culminated in the phone conversation described at the beginning of this post. A few months later, the actual construction of the house at 520 Poplar began.

Jen DeVeau and Bridget Westbury, the affiliate coordinators at the time, did an excellent job of coordinating the out-of-town volunteer groups. “They were so nice!” Margaret remembers fondly. The First Presbyterian Church of Clarksdale provided a significant amount of support for the project as well, including supplying a steady stream of good food and drink to bolster the spirits of the volunteers. (interesting sidelight—in 2016 Margaret began working at its elementary school, Presbyterian Day School, where she is still employed, taking care of children as she always has, and where, as one observer, put it, “Everybody—kids and parents—loves her!”) Margaret’s mother, Emma, often worked with the groups during the days and Margaret and Robert would work at nights and on the weekends when they weren’t at their regular jobs. “It was always like a party,” they remembered and Robert went on to describe the volunteers as “genuinely lovable.” Within the year, the house was completed, Margaret was now working as a teaching assistant at Lee Academy, and the Brown family moved in. Margaret Brown would finally have her own house—and one with running water, bathtub, sink, no rats, and space for all the family members to have their own rooms!

That was all 20 years ago. In the intervening decades, the Brown family has discovered the hard work, as well as the deep satisfactions, of home ownership. Though it was sometimes a struggle, they made their monthly payments regularly, so that the house at 520 Poplar is finally theirs, and one would be tempted to think that would be the end of a good story. But the story continues, as in recent months, Margaret and Robert have taken on some added responsibilities for the Habitat affiliate. Besides becoming much-appreciated regulars at the potlucks for volunteers, (and as chronicled in an earlier post), Margaret and Robert began sharing their stories of suffering through decades of living in substandard housing before partnering with Habitat. Back in April, Margaret absolutely mesmerized a group of students from central IL by calmly but powerfully describing her various living situations, by speaking straightforwardly about being treated “like dirt,” as she said, by racists she grew up around and by sharing her years-long yearning for a livable home, which she and Robert now enjoy. This sharing time proved so meaningful to the young volunteers that we have asked them to do the same for subsequent groups, and a group of students from St. Benedict’s Academy in NJ pronounced their time with Margaret and Robert to be one of the best parts of their entire trip to the Delta. Margaret’s unvarnished testimony about the damage inflicted by racialized poverty continues to speak directly to why Habitat exists in the Delta and how it can bring about meaningful change. As a result of her experiences, both negative and positive, Margaret Brown can offer all of us a unique perspective on what Habitat can mean, and, and as a result of that combination, she is now a member of the Board of Directors. CAHFH couldn’t be happier about that, and neither can Margaret!