The following is an essay by the Rev. Dr. James D. McLeod, Jr. His article presents a multi-layered analysis of the conditions of small towns throughout the south and midwest, illustrating how natural disasters like Hurricane Florence reveal crumbling infrastructures and gutted local economies. You can also enjoy his weekly published sermons on his website. Full bio is below.
After the Goldrush:
A Much Needed Conversation
My hometown is underwater. This is the second time that this has happened in the past two years. The interstate that runs through the heart of it is under 3 feet of water from the Lumber River, which crested its boundaries sometime on Saturday and has continued to do so since that time. Because of the way the river snakes its way from one end of town to the other, both after Hurricane Matthew and, now, Hurricane Florence, it was and will be the poorer side of town that gets washed out. The folks who can least afford to rebuild will now have to begin the laborious process a second time, though there seem few who believe that anyone will take the time and effort to do so.
This is not to say that it is poor folks who are bearing the sole brunt of this catastrophe, because they are not. Other areas of town have been flooded out, had trees fall on houses that have been family homes for a generation or more. The central school office was forced to move after Matthew because it was deemed so damaged that it wasn’t worth trying to renovate. Now, two years later, the exact same thing has happened. Moreover, it’s not clear to me if, after the camera crews and drone shots, the volunteers from outside the region who will no doubt come to help clear away the debris of families’ lost hopes and dreams or the water eventually recedes back into the river and the ocean to start the same cycle over again next year, anyone will actually care.
My town is a poor, rural, dying southern town not wildly different from the ones in each of the compass directions directly next to it. In different times, the river provided economic security for an entire ecosystem of industry. Loggers chopped down the eastern pine trees and other hardwoods that line the river and make up most of the county and move them down the Lumber and into the Little Pee Dee River then the Pee Dee River and into the bay at Georgetown, SC, just to the northeast of Charleston.
A brief drive down Elm or Chestnut St would bear witness to the wealth and opulence that used to be found in the county seat of Robeson County. 19th and early 20th century mansions line the streets—beautiful southern-style houses with large porches and Corinthian columns. There was, for Lumberton, as with most rural towns in the south, a period of history where Tobacco was king and the sales of it to Marlboro, Phillip-Morris, and Salem made a number of farmers incredibly wealthy and provided local school-age boys like my father an opportunity to work in the warehouses that cured and bailed the tobacco for auction in the late summer and early fall. Even in my youth, the smell of cured tobacco on an early Autumnal evening was as present as the sounds coming from the Pirate football team and marching band on a Friday night. In the 1980s, a string of factories that had sustained the local economy began to close off and with it, the jobs that they provided dried up. The town, like most rural towns in the South, the Midwest, and Appalachia, was entering a period of decline that has shown few signs of abating in the 35 plus years that it has been in motion.
The town has Interstate-95 bisecting it. It has the civilly engineered stroke of luck to be almost exactly halfway in between Miami and New York City. This made it a meeting place for drug mules running narcotics that had come through the port of Miami and were being shipped to NYC and dealers who would move them out into the streets. For a time, some of the largest drug busts in the history of the country were made on the highway just a mile or so from my house by Lumberton’s finest. In the last 20 years or so, the interstate has also provided some degree of growth in infrastructure.
At the exit 22 miles from the South Carolina border a number of restaurant chains, big box stores, and car dealerships have arisen to inject a slumping economy with much needed jobs. This is, of course, a double-edged sword. It is always good for people to have jobs instead of not having jobs. That being said, ask anyone who works for $2.13 plus tips at the Ruby Tuesdays if you can live a productive and fulfilling life off of that and I don’t imagine that you are going to like the answer. So it is that my hometown largely subsists on the economic structure created by the service industry and the local Walmart.
I, for my part, was sheltered for much of this. Lumberton, in addition to being a lumber, factory, and tobacco town, was the home of the regional bank, Southern National (it would merge with BB&T in 1995, the year I graduated high school) and my father spent much of the 1980s and 90s moving through the ranks of the company and achieving great success along the way.
My social circle was largely made up of the kids of more middle class and affluent households. I played tennis at the local racquet club everyday. I always had nice shoes, a nice bike, the newest video game console (though that was more for my younger brother than me), and, looking back, we never really wanted for anything. If my parents were ever struggling to pay a bill or keep us clothed they did a great job of keeping us blissfully unaware of that knowledge. Similarly, my church, like most Presbyterian churches in the south had a host of the more prominent members of Lumberton society. We had doctors, lawyers, the aforementioned bankers, even a congressman! It was not until I moved away for a few years and my parents moved back that I had any sort of appreciation for the struggles felt by most of the folks in my community.
This is also not to say that there is not a spirit and a zest for life in my hometown (as, I imagine there is in every other small town in the country to some extent) and this recent natural disaster, like the one before it, has put that spirit on full-display for the nation to see. Images of neighbor helping neighbor, regardless of socio-economic status or race, have been captured for the 6:00 news each night.
But spirit alone can neither rebuild a town that has been decimated now twice in two years nor can it continue to put healthy meals on tables of folks who dream of making more than $7.25, having health insurance for all the members of their families, and dependable housing and transportation. And this is the conversation that needs to begin to be had today in preparation for a time when real questions about the social safety net are going to be less a political hacky sack and more a real and urgent need, even more so than today.
There are a great many things wrong with the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I find the places that he ends up, following an extensive and necessary conversation about all that is plaguing his own beloved hometown, in particular, and rural midwest, in general, to be bordering on farcical. His life’s story of going from being passed around by family members amidst unemployment, addiction, and turmoil and ending up in the Marines, followed by Ohio State University and Yale Law School, to be a fairy tale for most folks in rural America little different from anything by Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm.
That being said, he does the critical work of shining a spotlight on the plight of those in the factory towns in the midwest where the manufacturer has, at some point in the last two decades, uprooted and moved to China or some other nation where the cost of labor is obscenely low and the working conditions criminal, and left shells of buildings and downtown shopping districts to be haunted by ghosts and the memories of brighter times. This story can be told in thousands of little communities that dot the rural midwest and the rural south. Those jobs, industries, and resources have been sucked out of these towns and they are never coming back to any extent that one can build an economic system on top of.
The platitudes that have emerged from our body politic over the past two years about the return of manufacturing to this country serve only as an opiate for the masses that will, sooner or later, leave folks dopesick and fiending for another hit of something that will dull the pain if only for a little while. Is it any wonder that in the same time period that factories, plants, mills, and mines have closed that there is also an opioid epidemic that threatens to kill or disable millions of folks? The striated economic levels of our country have largely been collapsed into two categories—the haves and the have-nots and this line of demarcation is only growing stronger with each year.
The economy at a national level has been on a tear over the past decade. From the moment that the New York Stock Exchange bottomed out in 2009 at 6626.94 to the close of business on Tuesday, September 18, 2018 the market has risen almost an amazing 20,000 points. That represents trillions of dollars in wealth created for holders around the world. At the same time, the unemployment rate which topped out at 10% has fallen to what’s considered full-employment at 3.9%. Millions of jobs have been created by both the current and former administration.
From 20,000 feet one might assume that there is a chicken in every pot and that happy days are here again but, such a view, when seen through the lens of most in rural America seems ludicrous. Those with holdings and 401k accounts have certainly done well in this time period. Those without these luxuries have continued to struggle to make ends meet. It is time for us, as a country, to have a serious conversation about how to address this growing and profound economic gap.
The next twenty years will bring profound changes to the way in which we interact with commerce and infrastructure. I have no idea how many folks will buy a Tesla with an automatic driver (the thought of that seems completely insane to me, but what do I know?) but I am sure that most major metropolitan areas will have fleets of these driverless vehicles to replace the current mass transit systems that are in place. In the food service industry, much of fast food will surely become automated as well. For most of us, it matter little who makes our Whoppers and Big Macs, but it matters a great deal for the person whose job it used to be at Burger King or McDonalds.
It matters even less if we go through the automatic scanner at Target or Walmart when we check out, but the job of working a checkout register remains an entry-level position that many folks depend on for putting food on the table and clothes on their children’s backs. When those go the way of carhops and gas station attendants, where will those looking for jobs go? In many ways, we sit on the precipice of technology altering our lives in ways we can scarcely imagine and yet neither our current economic market nor our social safety net seem to be remotely prepared for that day. And if past is prologue, it will be the rural poor, whose jobs it is to work in these service industries that will soon be replaced that will bear the brunt of this.
Towns in the rural south have been dealing with crumbling edifices of buildings, infrastructure, and economies for the better part of 50 years. They have also had to deal with the brain drain that comes when the youth of today go off to the big cities to follow their dreams and leave only those who can’t get out to hold the pieces together. It is truly a testament to their spirits that towns remain at all. These villages, hamlets, and cities don’t need the small change of non-profits who themselves don’t have enough money to do what the work that is required of them nor the missional work of religious institutions, though, both of them are critical.
They need massive infusions of money and resources to put back together that which has fallen apart. That neither fits on a bumper sticker nor aligns itself with the individualistic spirit that has permeated the Dream that is America since the first settlers arrived, but it is the reality of the situation on the ground.
I don’t possess all the answers nor do I pretend to. In the post-Cold War time in which we live, we, as a nation, have been conditioned to reject any of the tenets that make up the democratic-socialist principles that have created the robust social safety nets in Western Europe. Christianity, writ large, has also abandoned the communal practices of the early church in which these small religious communities pooled their resources in order to make sure that everyone was fed and could worship and break bread together.
Much of that fell away as the church garnered great power and wealth within the Imperial Roman world in which it grew. But absent a philosophical shift by either the body politic or the religious institutions of this country (or better yet, both) little will change for the fortunes of the rural south, just as little will change for the rural midwest, just as little will change for children of former coalminers in Appalachia.
My hometown is underwater. In more ways than one. What are we going to do about it?
The Rev. Dr. James D. McLeod, Jr., grew up in the town of Lumberton, NC. After attending Clemson University, he studied Divinity and Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and received a PhD from Garrett-Northwestern in 2015. His area of research is the intersection of race, religion, and culture. He has served churches in Missouri, North Carolina, New York, and Alabama. He lives in Trussville, AL, with his wife, Lesley, and three sons.