A Look At America's First "Sovereign White Neighborhood"
RACE 10/06/2039 4:51 AM ET
A Look At America's First "Sovereign White Neighborhood"
by Karie Bennington

CC BY-SA 3.0 "Sunset over the Mississippi River at Memphis, Tennessee" by SportsandHistoryReader521 | Writer image: CC0 1.0 Untitled by Greyerbaby | Images were cropped. Images used for illustration purposes only. Image changes released under the same license as the original.
The sun may be setting on Mud Island's diversity.
It's midday in September, and the Mississippi Greenbelt is well-populated today. The temperature (seventy-two degrees) and the beautiful blue sky belie the fact that somehow I'm sitting here on a Fall day. The cottonwood trees which line the park give no hint that the East Coast and Great Lakes have been shivering through their coldest Fall in decades.

The cottonwoods are spaced in a conspicuously random pattern, just so. It's like someone imagined how they might look if they grew there naturally. Here a long vacant stretch of grass, there several trees all bundled together as though huddling for warmth. There one by itself.

It feels artificial.

I'm on Mud Island, just north of downtown Memphis. It may sound like a depressing place to actually live, but for the past fifty years, it has been home to the fabulously tony neighborhood of Harbor Town.

My light jacket flaps about me in the breeze. I nod to the people jogging along the footpath which winds its way fifty feet from the Mississippi River, and sip my coffee.

Harbor Town is a twee little community of about 6,500 people set on 132 acres and seems to be someone's version of paradise. The architecture is mostly of a traditional variety, with smatterings of farmhouse, neo-colonial and Victorian influences to vary the look of the stylistically monochromatic designs.

Many of the streets are far too close together and provoke claustrophobia instead of the communal feeling one imagines the brochure promoted. A primary aim of Harbor Town, according to the official site, is to disengage the importance of the vehicle, which must be why there are cars parked astride cramped neighborhood streets, forcing my Hyundai to peel around them like some lunatic testing the steering on a new vehicle.

The community celebrated its fifty year anniversary two years ago. There were fireworks, a parade. But now a far less festive atmosphere wafts between the cookie cutter homes.

Harbor Town is rapidly becoming the home of America's first Sovereign White Neighborhood.

* * *

I was scheduled to meet my interview here on the riverfront at 11:45, but he's late. Part of me wonders if he'll come and I ruminate upon all the work I could be doing back in the office, when a stubby little man with greying blond hair and a rosy face hustles toward me.

"Sorry I'm late," he offers as we shake hands. Jim De Valt says it's nice to meet me.

I ask if it's okay I record the interview and he nods so I tap my glasses. The first thing Jim is at pains to let me know is that he's not a Nazi. Not a neo-Nazi. Not a fascist. And he doesn't hate black people.

"I do however have a Confederate flag in my home," he confesses, looking away as if embarassed.

We begin walking south down Island Drive.

When I ask Jim about his career he says he's retired, but he used to be in business. When I prod further he's vague about exactly the kind of work he was in. I ask him about his role in Harbor Town and he says he's a "Local Development Person".

"What you have to understand is, I grew up here," he says, opening his arms in a wide gesture to the park. "This is home. I went to school here. My parents still live -- right down there," he explains as he points down Harbor Village Drive.

Jim goes on to detail the molecules which made up his youth in Harbor Town. Over there, he played flag football with his friends. On the north end of the Greenbelt is where he and his family used to picnic. Over there, Mr and Mrs Willason, whose grass he used to mow. Old man Scudowski, who used to yell at him and his friends when they rode past on their bikes.

"It was a perfect place to grow up. Lots of families, wholesome, no crime. People looked out for each other."

I struggle not to roll my eyes.

Jim's expression darkens when I ask him what changed.

"Kerner is what changed," he spits. Tarry Kerner was the Democratic Governor of Tennessee from 2029 - 2033 and was noted, among other achievements, for introducting a voucher program in 2032 which enabled poor African-American Tennesseans to move to majority white neighborhoods. It was a remarkable achievement which flew in the face of a lot of inborn resentment and exclusivity on the part of the natives.

"That's when the problems began." Jim is getting worked up, his face reddening. "Before, there was no crack problem on the streets, nobody hustling after dark, throwing dice on Harbor Town Circle, nobody walking down the streets drinking from a brown bag."

It's interesting he can't bring himself to use the word black. He prefers the implication of words like hustling to do the heavy lifting for him.

I suggest Harbor Town may have had different problems, such as local officials embezzling funds (2019), a spree of break-ins found to have been committed by a gang of Harbor Town residents (2022), an insurance fraud racket among residents (2027) or a narcotics problem among high school football players which forced the cancellation of the 2031 season 2031.

At this, Jim becomes animated, responding as though I have insulted a loved one. Just isolated incidents, he exclaims, his voice rising. He then proceeds in diatribe form to talk about all the problems the African-American community (now we're getting somewhere) can boast; against which the minor infractions of Harbor Town's golden-haired angels is somehow insignificant.

* * *

As we continue to stroll astride the Mississippi, I shift the conversation and ask Jim about race relations after Governor Tarry's voucher program was initiated.

"Everything was fine," he states, suddenly cooling off. "We accepted them here, we didn't like it, but we accepted them. I personally know people who baked cookies and muffins for the voucher people."

The voucher people.

"But they weren't ones to go along to get along," he continues. "No respect for the other people. They would have their loud rap music going all night long, doing crack, and the police would come and the people would talk about their Kaley's Law rights and the police would not know what to do and just have to leave."

(In 2030 CHURC Tennessee launched an investigation into 38 police departments across Tennessee - including Harbor Town's - after complaints of racial profiling and racial abuse were received. Most of the cases were negotiated successfully, concluding with enhanced intersectionality training for officers.)

Jim details the descent into racial animus.

"So, we basically decided we wasn't going to be neighborly to them types who didn't want to fit into the community," he says. "No more cookies. It was like, okay, you keep to yourself, we'll keep to ourselves and leave it at that. But they didn't want to leave well enough alone. They would gather in our cafés in these groups and cuss people out for no reason. They caused fights, and they were drunk, just like, walking down the street in the middle of the day."

Jim pauses to catch his breath then continues.

"Before long you couldn't go to a restaurant without being cussed out by the voucher people. Then, it was the supermarket. And you couldn't take your kids to the park because they'd be hanging out there all day. And after awhile people started to move, which meant more voucher people coming in. And house prices dropped. My house was worth $1.4 million before the vouchers, within six months after the vouchers, it was down to $850k. The word got out. Nobody wanted to move here."

He turns to face the breeze, which ruffles his silver-yellow hair. His face has become a shade of maroon.

"Then, it was fights because people realized their home was being taken over -- colonized," he says, incredulity spearing that last word. "They'd cuss us out and we'd go toe to toe with them and there'd be a fight. It was like the Wild West sometimes. Lots of people went to the hospital."

His maroon-ified face gives way to something more thoughtful. I ask if he ever ended up in a fight with one of the "voucher people".

"Hell, no," he replies. "I'm not the fighting type, but maybe twenty years ago I would've been. We was losing our homes, that's what you got to understand. And things were getting worse and worse, and drugs were getting in our schools and they hadn't been before and it was just awful."

I ask Jim to talk about the event, which consensus seems to agree, was the match that lit the fuse: ten months after the first of Governor Tarry's voucher recipients began moving to Harbor Town, 17-year-old KeeAnn Elias was abducted and later found raped and murdered. Four African-American boys from her high school were later charged and found guilty.

"Well that just lit a fire in all of us. When KeeAnn was murdered, and they showed the faces of those boys on TV, it was on. People who had been just sick of everything going on for almost a year decided enough was enough."

Jim details what for the next year became a living hell for African-American residents of Harbor Town. A campaign of terror not seen since the late 19th century was waged against black people for the crime of living there.

He talks of homes which were set on fire, sometimes when the occupants were away, sometimes when they weren't, by "certain unnamed parties" (masked individuals were seen), and of cars which were booby trapped. Schoolchildren were bullied mercilessly by their white classmates. White people began purposely frequenting the shops and cafés in numbers, abusing any black person who walked in. Dogs and cats belonging to African-Americans were found in the morning with their throats cut.

And the terror was creative: the residence of a local man known to collect exotic tarantulas was "broken into" and the tarantulas were "stolen". The spiders made their way through the open bedroom windows of young African-American girls and into cars owned by innocent black people.

The police response to such incidents was suspiciously slow. It was a community-wide lynching.

"It was intense," Jim continues. "In the end, the voucher people couldn't walk down the street without being spat on. And because we gathered in numbers, they didn't want to fight us no more."

Jim is at pains to point out that he did not participate in the pogrom.

"But I wasn't shedding no tears either," he adds.

I ask whether any of the local residents were concerned that actions by "certain unnamed parties" might lead to gun violence. Jim scoffs.

"Everyone I know has a gun. And there were way more of us than there were of them. And a lot of open carry permits."

* * *

We pass the aforementioned Harbor Town Circle under the Memphis sun. Turns out 72 degrees can feel a lot warmer if you just walk long enough.

The effect of the terror was two-fold: black people left in droves and the authorities got involved.

According to state authorities, 80% of African-Americans had left Harbor Town within two months of charges being laid in Elias' murder. Within another month, that number was above 90%. The remainder (mostly pre-voucher residents) faced continued harassment and exclusion and left over the next year. It was white flight inverted two ways (black people, away from a suburb).

Within a month of the start of reprisals, CHURC Tennessee took another look at Harbor Town, shocked by the level of violence being deployed among the African-American community there. A week long investigation was launched which was hampered by the low level of cooperation from white residents.

Because no suspects in the crimes could be identified and no residents were naming names, CHURC could not take action against any individuals.

However, Harbor Town had sought and gained approval for federal funding toward a planned expansion into the Mississippi, which would enable construction of a marina and a restaurant district. It was to be a major source of revenue for the Island when completed, but CHURC Tennessee recommended that funding be withdrawn for a period of ten years.

Republican Governor Carter Scobie - sworn in just eight months prior - eventually negotiated that period down to five years, a condition of which was sending the National Guard into Harbor Town for the next six months. A dusk curfew was dropped on the island and guardsmen and women were given what some said were legally dubious powers to detain residents, under a "cooperative policing philosophy" with local law enforcement.

"It wasn't nothing," Jim comments. "They would patrol the streets and we would give them lemonade and sandwiches. We had a good relationship with them. Even the black ones. See, we're not racists, we just were glad to have our home back."

Eventually the National Guard left and life in Harbor Town returned to something like normal. White people moved back in and house prices rose again.

"It went back to the way it was before the vouchers," Jim offers, without a smile.

* * *

Jim leads me past a traffic circle which braces Mud Island Dog Park. The circle delivers vehicles to A. W. Willis Ave, which spans Wolf River Harbor and connects Harbor Town to Memphis' Uptown District.

In 2036, Carter Scobie was replaced by James Dagleish, a buffeting force of a Democrat, who instantly juxtaposed his predecessor's lackluster track record with a form of dynamism not really seen before in Tennessee by that party.

Dagleish reaffirmed Kerner's commitment to diversity as a means of attracting investment and talent to the wonders of Tennessee life and storm clouds began brewing over Harbor Town once again.

"We knew -- we just knew when Dagleish was elected, that there was going to be problems again," Jim ruminates, his brow furrowing. "He wasn't talking about schools, or health care, or crime, it was all "investment through diversity" and "the inclusive state building tomorrow". He shoots contempt as he repeats the catchphrases from Dagleish's stump speeches.

As it turned out Mud Island residents were right to be concerned. The five-year moratorium on federal funding for Harbor Town's expansion ended last year, Dagleish's second in office.

According to Jim, it had seemed that CHURC Tennessee had been defeated very easily when their investigation concluded in 2033 and that Harbor Town had gotten off lightly for its transgressions.

But CHURC Tennessee wasn't finished.

"So we applied for the funding again for Marine Square (the expansion district) and it turned out them CHURC people were just waiting. Before it could be approved they jumped in and added a bunch of things," he snorts, remarking on the fact that CHURC sounds like "jerk".

CHURC Tennessee lobbied the Wennstrom government for a series of conditions to be attached to the funding. They requested the voucher program be required to place one hundred African-American families in Harbor Town, the National Guard to be deployed for another six-month tour to help keep the peace, and state funding for a facility in Harbor Town and dedicated staff - including armed CHURC officers - to help ensure a smooth transition for voucher recipients.

Governor Dagleish quickly agreed to cooperate and The Department of Housing and Urban Development signed off on the Mud Island Economic Development Initiative with CHURC's conditions. Residents were shocked.

"It took everyone a few days to even figure out what all had just happened," Jim says, turning to look at a batch of condos across the road. They have a fresh coat of red paint.

Local officials - led by District 10 Chairwoman Seana Murfett - sued the United States Government for a release of the conditions attached to the funding. The case was ultimately decided February this year by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals - in the government's favor. The Supreme Court declined to grant certiorari. Harbor Town decided not to go ahead with its marina expansion.

But CHURC Tennessee had one more play: they again lobbied Governor Dagleish for state funding for its conditions independent of the funding proposal. He agreed and Harbor Town erupted in fury. More than a thousand Mud Island residents drove three hours to Nashville, site of the Tennessee State Capitol (and Governor Dagleish's office), to protest what they saw as the circumvention of their local sovereignty.

Governor Dagleish refused to meet with local officials, including Chairwoman Murfett. Instead, Memphis Mayor Lucius Browne-Findlay was left to meet with residents in a hastily arranged town hall meeting. He was shouted down and pelted with rotten fruit and evacuated after just ten minutes.

"It started out with just locals, but all of a sudden they were just forcing it down our throats and sending in the Marines again," Jim says, shaking his head. "But we all knew it was us versus them and who was going to back down first. And, it's our kids here!" he shouts over the traffic passing us, gesturing widely as if to hug the whole island.

The resentment was left to simmer.

CHURC Tennessee set up in June, moving into a new multi-level building on Harbor Isle Circle South. I saw it during my drive around the island before the interview. It's nice.

Jim says they mostly go door-to-door, surveying locals about their attitudes to minority residents moving to Harbor Town. They've set up some outdoor displays near River Hall advertising their presence and purpose.

"Mostly folks just ignore them. Nobody talks to them. They're hated."

No CHURC weapons have been seen yet, but the National Guard reappeared two months ago. Troops from the 230th Sustainment Brigade began patrolling the streets in anticipation of the first arrivals of the new batch of voucher people.

But finding African-American residents willing to move to a community now known for its animosity to black residents proved to take longer. Jim huffs that in the end they had to coerce poor black families - under threat of losing state benefits - to move to Harbor Town.

I was able to make contact with three families who had accepted the offer, each of whom confirmed there was substantial pressure from the state government to move to Harbor Town. None would go on the record.

The first voucher recipients moved at the beginning of last month - ten families, each of whom have attracted the suspicion, hostility, and isolation that one expects from this community. I wonder how CHURC Tennessee could possibly deal with that. Outdoor displays don't usually change minds this firmly set against something.

Nonetheless, the human rights organization had more to contend with than it expected. Three weeks ago a CHURC Tennessee officer was wounded by a shot from a high-powered rifle. Authorities suspect it came from a distance of roughly eight hundred meters. Homes were searched in the vicinity of where the shot was heard. No weapon was found and no arrests were made.

And last week, security patrolling CHURC Tennessee's Harbor Town headquarters were alarmed to find bundles of C-4 wired to various parts of the building. Without blasting caps it is impossible to tell if they were ever intended to be detonated, but sources say that state officials have become concerned at the escalation of this conflict.

Jim is unsurprised by the addition of military grade firepower to the dispute, but won't comment on how he thinks upper-middle class residents are obtaining such weaponry.

If the militarization of locals' concerns about the authorities weren't enough, a smaller, lower-profile resistance has once again cropped up in direct opposition to the African-American residents. Several houses have been sprayed with graffiti and more pets have been killed. Last week, shots were fired at a house with six occupants (including four children).

More Guardsmen and women have been deployed to patrol the streets after dark, but it is feared that the perpetrators of these acts are being given quarter in houses. If so, authorities face the prospect of a kind of suburban guerilla war which may require even greater resources.

* * *

Everyone remembers the 2034 Sovereign Black Neighborhoods crisis. After neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Detroit declared themselves SBN, authorities massively overreacted by sending in tanks, armored personnel carriers, attack choppers, and heavy machine guns. Thousands of African-American citizens were killed.

But the police departments in those three cities had committed a broad strategic blunder: after footage of the assaults went viral, sustained public outcry led to a humiliating withdrawal.

2034's Congressional investigation led to the toppling of much of the leadership in the police departments concerned - including all three police chiefs.

Congress recommended those cities form taskforces to investigate the possibility of recognizing some form of local sovereignty. The negotiations led to the solution which was finally implemented: Generalized Local Administration. Minorities in charge of their own neighborhoods.

But the blunder turned out to have even more wide-ranging consequences, as pro-SBN communities in other cities were empowered to demand more equitable treatment in negotiations with city officials. Today, some form of African-American run SBN exists in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington DC, Chicago, New York, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Boston, San Francisco, Phoenix, Denver, Milwaukee, St Louis, Atlanta, Miami, and Minneapolis. Other communities are actively negotiating for their sovereignty.

Memphis' SBN was recognized in 2037. It occupies parts of the Downtown District and covers the neigborhoods formerly known as Washington Park and Trigg. It was named Franklin, after its most famous citizen - Aretha.

It is five minutes from the National Civil Rights Museum.

But bringing up Franklin vexes Jim.

"How come they get their own local sovereignty and we can't go near Franklin without being arrested, but they can come here, set up in our neighborhood, get drunk, kill our women..."

The way he says "our women" sits uneasily with me. It recalls a time when black men were lynched to protect "our women". It recalls Emmett Till.

As we stroll up the pedestrian walkway attached to the bridge across Wolf River Harbor, I remind Jim that black people have had to deal with enormous amounts of institutional racism and opposition from a white majority nation. He scoffs.

"What did we have to deal with? What did KeeAnn have to deal with? We have a right to protect our own."

We reach the top of the bridge and a breeze blows my hair about my face.

"Right here, is where we begin. Not where them CHURC folk or the police or the National Guard or the Governor say we do. Right here is where our community begins. Our sovereignty begins here."

I suggest to Jim that getting that codified will not be easy.

"It's never easy. Getting your rights is never easy. This is our neighborhood and we have to try."
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