By JONATHAN TILOVE
February 16, 2006
c. Newhouse News Service
GULFPORT, Miss. _ For 13 years, Derrick Evans, a sixth-generation descendant of the freed slaves who in 1866 founded the little Gulf Coast community of Turkey Creek, taught “Eyes on the Prize,” a survey course in civil rights history, at his alma mater, Boston College.
Then came Hurricane Katrina. His mother nearly drowned. His stepfather subsequently died. And Turkey Creek lay battered.
For Evans, it was time to stop teaching black history and devote himself to saving it.
“The place that I was raised and taught me my love of history was in danger of disappearing off the map altogether,” he says. “I knew I had to get out of Boston and come home to live.”
And so he is back in the weathered home his great-grandfather built, without heat or hot water (but with wireless Internet), dipping snuff, and plotting the salvation of Turkey Creek. In the aftermath of disaster, he sees an opportunity to undo generations of neglect and abuse.
For a region awash in post-Katrina stories of loss, there is in Turkey Creek the glint of promise on a very human scale: A beleaguered black community, barely 60 miles from the quagmire of New Orleans, is finding ways to hold its hallowed ground.
And Evans, who just turned 39, may be a glimpse of what’s next in the nation’s black leadership: someone steeped in the spirit and meaning of the civil rights movement, but also cannily beyond it.
He is more Coltrane than King, more suited to improvisation than invocations of divine providence as he makes his way through the maze of prickly small-town sensibilities, multilevel politics, grant applications and urban planning charettes. His eyes are on the prize of saving Turkey Creek _ a neighborhood of scarcely 60 homes and 200 inhabitants _ not by honing in on race, but by drawing ever larger circles of common interest.
Evans and the nonprofit organization he founded _ Turkey Creek Community Initiatives (www.turkey-creek.org) _ champion the fate of the far-larger Turkey Creek Watershed, encompassing other poor, black neighborhoods but more affluent, white communities as well.
Instead of a rat-a-tat on environmental racism, he riffs on clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation, about replanting with the deep-rooted longleaf pine that once prevailed instead of the less sturdy slash pine like the one Katrina uprooted beside his house. A civil rights demonstration is neighborhood children building birdhouses, whimsically outfitted with blue tarp roofs and “FEMA” scrawled across their fronts.
“Instead of waving the bloody shirt, we are trying to show folks that what you’re doing to Turkey Creek is symptomatic of what you’re doing to yourselves all over the Gulf Coast _ losing trees, losing wetlands, losing history and cultural continuity, you’re losing the stuff that makes you who you are,” Evans says.
“We’re in Mississippi with to some extent the eyes of the nation and world open, so it’s kind of like the summer of ’64, or that period between the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction potentially. But we got to make it happen, and we got to make it happen with what blows in.”
And what has blown in?
An endless parade of Methodist volunteers from all over, drawn to Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church, the cornerstone of Turkey Creek. Members of Congress. Lawyers. Activists. Bureaucrats. Journalists. Planners.
“We were really thrilled to find this ground zero, so to speak, with Turkey Creek and North Gulfport. And we like the small scale,” says Daniel Iacofano, a principal of MIG Inc., a Berkeley, Calif., urban planning firm that is donating its services to the rebuilding effort.
Turkey Creek is little more than a stretch of Rippy Road, a high ridge amid the wetlands, and some offshoots. A motley assortment of homes, it looks like it sounds _ old-timey, forgotten and remote. Except that it’s smack dab in the middle of Gulfport, Mississippi’s second-largest city.
This place does not know from NIMBY, pinioned as it is between the toxic waste site at the closed creosote plant, the airport built in part atop a displaced black community, and the spillover from the Wal-Mart/Hooters commercial corridor along Highway 49, the spine of Gulfport.
In 2001, Evans visited with his friend, Leah Mahan, a filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary about Turkey Creek through Evans’ eyes. But Evans worried that Turkey Creek might not make it to the last reel.
In 2003 he and his mother, Lettie Evans-Caldwell, created TCCI. He divided his time between Massachusetts and Mississippi.
“The beautiful thing is Derrick came home,” says his mother, now living in a FEMA trailer behind the house.
Not everyone agrees.
“Turkey Creek was not lost, and he didn’t save it,” says the Rev. Calvin Jackson, head of the Turkey Creek Homeowners Association, sitting in his darkened living room on Rippy Road.
Besides, Jackson adds, “He was not born on Turkey Creek. Where did he say he was born? Boston?”
“That’s always been the way it’s been here, ask an outsider,” says Netterine Theodore, who avers that even though she moved here 56 years ago on marrying her husband, Albert (an original member of the TCCI board), she is still viewed with suspicion because she came from another part of Gulfport.
But she fondly recalls having young Evans in her Sunday school class at Mount Pleasant: “I remember coming home one day and telling my husband, `The student is smarter than the teacher.”’
In fact, Evans was born in Oklahoma, living in Turkey Creek off and on between stints in the Bronx, Syracuse, N.Y, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. He won a scholarship to spend his last two years of high school at Georgetown Prep, a Jesuit boarding school in Bethesda, Md. There he became friends with Douglas Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s youngest son, spending many weekends at their home, Hickory Hill, and becoming Ethel Kennedy’s prized polymath partner in games of Trivial Pursuit.
A Mississippi/Massachusetts mix, he traverses Rippy Road with his erratic Afro pinned beneath a backwards Red Sox cap. When he testified on Capitol Hill about historic preservation last fall, he had to remove his cowboy boots at security, revealing bare feet.
When the Capitol policeman asked where he was from, “I wound up like I was going to deliver a 98 mile per hour fastball.”
“Mississippi,” he drawled, to everyone’s amusement.
At Mount Pleasant, the Rev. Edward Moses knows that some deeply into the oral history tradition, or elective politics, resent Evans. But, he says, the eagle has a broader vision than the mouse, and he believes it is Evans’ written record _ whether his accounting of history or his grant applications _ that will ultimately stand Turkey Creek in best stead.
In the meantime, Evans says he’s just trying to tap into the “chi” (life energy) of it all.
“I don’t know exactly what’s bubbling up from the ground or what’s going to shake here, but everything I ever learned or thought I knew I’m trying to bring to bear,” he says. “I must have learned it for something.”