Panhandles and bootheels. Florida has a famous one, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Idaho… there are more. Why do some state borders include these seemingly arbitrary swaths of land hooked on to the side, top or bottom?
In most cases, the root cause of these strange bits of territory comes down to who owned the land.
In Missouri’s Bootheel – that stubbed, tail-like region in the southeast — legend points the finger at cattleman John Hardeman Walker, who back in 1818 campaigned in Washington, D.C. for his land to be in Missouri, not Arkansas. Back then, it was cool (for some people, Civil War around the corner, whoa!) to join the Union.
The Bootheel is closer to Memphis (in Tennessee) than St. Louis, and in Pemiscot County, the unspoken cultural mores of the South are king. Certain groups keep to themselves. And this tiny pocket where northern geography meets southern tradition has at times suffered a long, hard, and very public road of discrimination and mistrust.
The southern half of the Bootheel has about five major towns. On a recent reporting trip to Hayti, I drove (along with a photographer) through Caruthersville and Kennett. Each of these towns has one major artery, a highway road, and a small downtown.
In Hayti, tucked on the outside curve of the Mississippi River, I found it easy to quickly get the lay of the land. Hayti’s almost 3,000 residents are split between whites and blacks — and that makes the face of Hayti unusual even within the region. Neighboring Caruthersville and Kennett represent the average small-town makeup… generally more whites than blacks, and little else in between.
I grew up in Chicago, Ill., a diverse place with each of the city’s majority — Hispanics, whites, and blacks sort of jockeying for the top… neighborhoods constantly in a gentrification ebb and flow. Like Chicago, Hayti’s diversity has caused a harsh tradition of segregation. But, unfortunately, unlike the Windy City, I think white people have decided to stay out of black neighborhoods indefinitely. I imagine it has been that way for awhile.
We drove through Hayti in the evening, just as the sun was setting. On this particular August night on the black side of town, I saw people walking the main highway in groups… laughing and sharing what remained of the day. Kids were outside playing in front yards. It is not the most prosperous small-town out there; aside from the I-55 exit on the east side of town, most of the storefronts are a bit rundown, and it was difficult to tell if they were all open for business. We stopped to explore the skeleton of a roadside general store, and inside we found a collection of unrelated odds and ends: overturned chairs, old windows, business cards advertising DJs Bump Bump and Wonky who are available for parties and school events. On one wall, a shelf with the gray shells of hornets nests.
I got the impression that what really matters in Hayti can’t be found off the main highway. Hayti is true blue farmland. It’s all corn, rice and soybeans a few minutes outside of town. Modest, but comfortable homes sit on driveways. Fields go on for miles and miles. Roll up your windows, you’ll get sprayed by irrigation systems.
In the 1950s and 1960s, former sharecroppers rented or owned the land in great number. Some black farm families owned over 500 acres of land each and raised large families from what the Bootheel ground gave them. Now, the black farmer in Hayti is a relic, still here, but mostly retired with the kids moved away.
These farmers, or former farmers to be more precise, are among thousands represented in a class action lawsuit charging the U.S. Department of Agriculture with fostering a nationwide culture of racial discrimination in farm lending. An out-of-court settlement promised payouts. Only a few out of dozens have received what they were promised.
I had the chance to visit with a handful of those who remain in Pemiscot County. I learned they felt they were pushed out of the farming business because of the color of their skin. They are frustrated. Hurt. Bitter. They’re done with farming, and some, out of necessity, stopped counting on the government’s promise. It was the first time many of them have spoken with someone like me, an outsider.
I drove five hours to Hayti from Columbia, Mo., and the time in the car was worth it. I met with over 15 former black farmers. We sat in a modest church and talked for several hours about rampant racism, and by the end, I learned while each story was specific to the individual, the outcome was the same. Farming for a black person in Pemiscot County was a lost cause.