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Turkey Creek: Preview and Q & A with Filmmaker Leah Mahan
November 16, 2007

While investigating the state of Katrina recovery along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, JOURNAL producer William Brangham met a local community activist named Derrick Evans. For several years, Evans has been trying to protect his hometown community -- the historic black settlement of Turkey Creek, Mississippi. Filmmaker Leah Mahan has been following Derrick Evans and the story of the fight to save Turkey Creek for several years.

Founded by freed slaves in 1866, Turkey Creek thrived for generations but was facing environmental and preservation challenges even before Hurricane Katrina struck. While Turkey Creek is on the National Register of Historic Places, Mississippi Heritage has put the community and environs on its list of most endangered sites for 2007.Leah Mahan

The video clip here is an excerpt from Mahan's documentary, which is still in production. The clip begins in 2001 and is an introduction to the story of how this citizens' movement began when Turkey Creek's historic cemetery was bulldozed to build a commercial development. Now, in the aftermath of Katrina, Turkey Creek has joined dozens of other communities along the Gulf Coast to push for an equitable recovery. To find out more about Leah Mahan's film, please visit www.turkeycreekproject.org.

Watch a special preview of the documentary and read a Q & A with Leah Mahan and learn more about Turkey Creek.

- What is the subject of your documentary?

"Turkey Creek" tells the story of a handful of determined Mississippians who've struggled to save their endangered community in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. They're descendants of emancipated slaves who settled on the Gulf Coast in the 1860s. They've been stewards of Turkey Creek's rich wetland habitat for generations, where they farmed, fished, hunted and were baptized.

- How did you first find out about Turkey Creek?

I heard stories about Turkey Creek from Derrick Evans, whose ancestors settled there after the Civil War. We met in the late 1980s when we were both working in Boston for filmmaker Henry Hampton, who was creating the "Eyes on the Prize" series about the civil rights movement. I had just graduated from college and Derrick was still in school. We remained friends over the years and I heard fascinating stories about his childhood in Turkey Creek and his relatives there. In the '90s he became concerned about the rapid growth of the city of Gulfport and the impact it was having on Turkey Creek. Gambling had been legalized on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the city had annexed a huge area, including Turkey Creek, which was now at the center of a sprawling city.

- Do you remember your first impressions of the place?

I went there for the first time in December of 2001. Derrick asked if I'd come with him on a trip to try to collect some oral history and to learn more about what was happening to Turkey Creek as Gulfport grew. I remember how striking it was to turn off a road that could be anywhere in America - with the Walmart, the car dealerships, the fast food restaurants - and round the bend to find this place with towering oak trees and tiny homes that seemed frozen in time. As we met Derrick's relatives and neighbors I was moved by how deeply people were connected to this place and to the land. The creek and the woods surrounding it were like an oasis in the middle of an industrial and commercial area.

- You first went to Turkey Creek well before Katrina hit, and there was quite a fight brewing. What was going on?

A few years before I arrived, the Turkey Creek cemetery had been bulldozed for new commercial development. I remember visiting the site for the first time with Dozier Hines, who took care of the cemetery. He'd been ill and hadn't been able to make the trek through the woods to check on the cemetery for a while. When he did, the whole area had been flattened. All of the traditional wooden markers were gone and just a few headstones were left. It's a long, sad story, but this was a wake up call and from that point forward local residents began making themselves heard, at city council meetings, speaking to the press. It seemed there was a steady stream of new development proposals that would impact the community and watershed. They were coming from all directions. I remember when we learned that a new airport access road had been proposed that would go through Dozier Hines' house.

The biggest development was proposed by a Louisiana man who'd bought 1,300 acres in the Turkey Creek watershed. The local Sierra Club joined with the African American communities along the creek to stop his proposal. They argued that the project would destroy wetlands and cause more flooding in neighborhoods that were already suffering from poor infrastructure and increased runoff from all the new development. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and others got involved. At one point the mayor got upset that opponents of the project were getting too much attention in the local paper. He called a meeting with the editorial board and made the mistake of telling a reporter that the problem was that the people fighting this development were "dumb bastards." The outrage over this only strengthened the effort to stop the development. The developer eventually withdrew his permit request to the Army Corps of Engineers, saying he'd be back with a new proposal.

- What struck you about all this that felt like it would make for a good documentary?

I felt this story was an extreme example of something happening everywhere. So much history is being erased by homogenization in our modern world. I think a sense of place and belonging is something many of us crave. I wanted to understand what it means to be so deeply tied to a place. Most of the people living there descended from emancipated slaves who bought 40-acre parcels of land there just after the Civil War. Generations were baptized in the creek. They fed their families by fishing there. They turned the land from swamp into farmland. To survive in the segregated South, they built their own church, school and businesses. Now everything about the modern world seems to be working against them. It forces us to ask questions about the meaning of home and community. How much do we value our past? How much do we value the natural world around us?

- There's such a strong sense of solidarity and community in Turkey Creek. Was that at all a problem for you as an 'outsider' wielding a video camera?

The fact that Derrick had known me such a long time and that I came at his invitation meant a lot. I also came with a track record, having worked for years with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston and produced "Holding Ground," a well-respected documentary that was embraced by the people who lived there. But of course it has been a contentious situation in Gulfport and gaining the trust of some in the community necessarily means that others may view you with suspicion. It's very hard to walk a line between building genuine relationships with people and also maintaining a sense of objectivity that allows you to see all sides of a story. I've learned a lot by making mistakes. It's hard sometimes to fight the urge to win the approval of everyone and to instead realize that doing justice to the story may mean that some are unhappy with you. I do my best to understand the full picture and to portray it as fairly and honestly as I can.

- And then in the middle of your project, Katrina happens. How did that change things for you?

In the summer of 2005 I thought I was finding a conclusion to the story I was telling. There had been a mayoral election and all nine candidates running had pledged to support a greenway that would preserve the Turkey Creek watershed. This felt like such a shift from the political dynamics when I first arrived. The future of Turkey Creek was still very uncertain, but so much momentum had been built and they had strong support from national environmental and civil rights groups.

When Katrina arrived I knew I had to keep going. I was there shooting the week after the storm, but it took a few months to begin to wrap my mind around what had happened. Turkey Creek is connected to the Gulf by a bayou and the creek flooded part of the community. Derrick's mother and stepfather were rescued from their home by neighbors when the water had risen up to their necks.

After Katrina, many low income communities on the Gulf Coast were facing issues that Turkey Creek had been struggling with for years. The STEPS Coalition formed to help these communities work together to push for sustainable development and an equitable recovery. While I always felt that Turkey Creek was a very potent example of something affecting all of us, the importance of the Turkey Creek story on a regional and national level became more obvious after Katrina.

Published on November 16, 2007

Related Media:
Melissa Harris-Lacewell, photo by Robin Holland Katrina Revisited
Professor Melissa Harris Lacewell and environmental activist Mike Tidwell discuss what we've learned and what we still haven't learned from the Katrina disaster.


Photo from IN KATRINA'S WAKE, by Chris Jordan In Katrina's Wake
In 2005, 10 weeks after Hurricane Katrina, photographic artist Chris Jordan documented the devastation in a series entitled, "IN KATRINA'S WAKE: PORTRAITS OF LOSS FROM AN UNNATURAL DISASTER," published by Princeton Architectural Press, NY.

References and Reading:
Turkey Creek Community Initiatives
Turkey Creek Community Initiatives is an innovative community development corporation engaged in the comprehensive revitalization of coastal Mississippi's low-income, historic, and environmentally challenged Turkey Creek community and watershed. Log on to the site for history, and an active news blog.

Turkey Creek Project
Find out more about Leah Mahan's Turkey Creek film and her other documentaries, including SWEET OLD SONG, shown on PBS's POV.

Mississippi Heritage Hurricane Katrina
Check in on the state of recovery of Mississippi's historic structures damaged by Katrina and other preservation programs. The site includes photos of destruction in Turkey Creek.

Showdown at Turkey Creek
An article in the Sierra Club News by Jenny Coyle about the wetlands of Turkey Creek endangered by dredging.

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