Miss. bus driver creates a new stop Rage: A school bus driver's anger eventually leads to new housing for shanty dwellers in the second poorest congressional district in the United States.

Sun Journal

February 13, 1997|By Sheryl Stolberg | Sheryl Stolberg,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CRENSHAW, Miss. -- The house is crumbling. To call it a house, though, would be to stretch the definition. The place where Monroe and Katherine Presley raised their 10 children is a rickety patchwork of wood planks and chicken wire along a dirt road.

There is a porch -- a few rotted boards jutting out at odd angles -- and an awning propped up by crooked 2-by-4s. Water gushes through the roof when it rains. Inside, there are two tiny rooms and a kitchen. There is no indoor plumbing.

Mrs. Presley always prayed that God would find a way to deliver her family from this place. Now deliverance, for the Presleys and 19 other poor black families in this town, has finally arrived in the unlikely form of a school bus driver cum politician named Robert Avant.

Today, thanks to Avant, seven brick houses -- the beginnings of a 20-home subdivision -- rise from a cotton field in Crenshaw. Pipes are being laid, wires for electricity installed. At 55, Mr. Presley, a son of sharecroppers who has toiled in fields and factories his whole life, will own a home.

"The Lord said he wouldn't put no more on us than we could bear," Mrs. Presley says, "and he kept his word."

The story of how a school bus driver stitched together a $1.2 million subdivision for the poor is at once heartbreaking and remarkable -- a triumph over both racism and poverty.

But Avant, who holds down a second job as county supervisor, couldn't have done it without low-interest loans from the federal government. And now the loan money for rural homebuilding is dwindling, slashed by Congress last year as it tried desperately to balance the federal budget.

So it is with other government programs that have quietly touched the lives of ordinary Americans.

In the peculiar lingo of Washington, these programs constitute "nondefense discretionary spending."

"Nobody would dare raise their head against affordable housing," says Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat whose Mississippi Delta district -- the second poorest in the nation -- encompasses Crenshaw. "But you will raise your head by saying, 'We need to balance the budget, and this is what it takes.' "

The Presleys and their children, ages 8 to 22, have called this place home for 21 years. They did not move because there was nowhere to go; Mrs. Presley says all the available rental properties in Crenshaw were in similar shape, or worse.

It was not the lack of water but rather the abundance of it that brought Avant into the lives of Monroe and Katherine Presley.

"It was raining in the kitchen so bad," she recalled, "over the stove and the table. I said, 'Lord, show me somebody I can go to and talk to about helping me.' I kept on praying, and a voice came to me and said, 'Go to Avant.' "

The Presleys had known Avant for years -- since he drove their children to school long before he was elected to public office. In 1978, a bridge collapsed underneath Avant's bus on a remote road.

The children were not hurt, but the rear wheels got stuck in a creek, and the vehicle had to be hauled out of the muck. Avant complained to the Panola County Board of Supervisors about the condition of the roads. Nothing was done.

It made him so mad, he decided to run for supervisor himself.

There had been no black supervisors in Panola County since Reconstruction. Avant ran as a Democrat; the five board members were Republicans. It took three tries, but in 1988 Avant finally won.

His goal, at first, was to fix the bridge. Within a year that was done. Then he began hammering his fellow board members on two broader themes: water and housing. There was no infrastructure, he told them, to entice developers to build better housing -- no sewer systems, no running water.

In 1992, Panola County applied to the federal government to become a Rural Empowerment Zone, a designation that would help the county boost its ailing economy. Avant, sensing an opening, asked the county administrator, David Chandler, to ride with him to Crenshaw to take a firsthand look at poverty.

About 900 people live there, 80 percent of them black. There is not much to the town: a dilapidated main street with a couple of liquor stores, two gas stations, a restaurant and a bank. The only industry is a rubber-hose factory, where Mr. Presley works.

Although Avant did not know it at the time, he and Chandler, who is white, had much in common. The county administrator grew up poor, the son of sharecroppers, in a house with no indoor plumbing.

Avant took Chandler through the white side of Crenshaw, with its neat clapboard homes and tidy front porches. Then they drove through "the colored side" across the railroad tracks, with its rundown trailers and "shotgun shacks."

By this time, Avant had given himself a crash course in the intricacies of the Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service, known until last year as the Farmers Home Administration. Of particular interest was the self-help housing program -- a sort of modern barn-raising effort in which low-income people build their own neighborhoods.

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