It started with a van, then a U-Haul full of school supplies — and then a bus full of high school students and a school willing to donate books, electronics and do anything they could to make a difference for the small, low-income elementary school in Mound Bayou, Miss.
There’s no doubt that the project Mike and Terri Emery started three years ago, when they made the first trek to the Miss. Delta, has grown.
It began in the summer of 2015, just before the couple was going to retire. Mike, a music lover and the former Athletics Director of Gwinnett County Public School System, suggested to his wife they hit the road and follow the Blues Trail down the Miss. Delta.
Terri agreed to go strictly for educational purposes. As an Elementary school teacher for 30 years, she saw it as more as a field trip than a vacation. Terri took an interest in the schools they passed along the way, so when they made a stop in Mound Bayou Miss. to visit the spot where an old Blues establishment once stood, her attention was immediately averted to the elementary school across the road.
Approaching the school, the couple found the doors unlocked, so they made their way through the hallways and entered classrooms without interference.
“We noticed things were packed up for the summer but didn’t see many books,” Terri said. “I didn’t see computers. I didn’t see much of anything packed away.”
As soon as she got home, Terri emailed the school’s Principal and asked if she could donate some supplies.
“It all started with me just thinking, in a year, I’m going to retire, and I have an enormous personal library of children’s books,” Terri said. “What am I going to do with them when I retire? I’d like just to donate them. “
At the end of 2015, the Emerys made their first trip to deliver school supplies to I.T. Montgomery Elementary School located on W M.L.K. Jr. Dr. in Mound Bayou, Miss.
And by then, others had taken interest and donated book, supplies, and money to pay for a U-Haul to carry it all.
The next year, Mike started teaching at Paideia, a private school in Atlanta. There he met Carl Rosenbaum, and when the two bonded over a common interest in the Miss. Delta, they saw an opportunity to get the school involved.
“The Mississippi Delta: A music and Culinary Journey” was introduced as an elective course and part of the short-term curriculum at Paideia. The class is unlike anything kids would experience at a public school — for two hours a day for three weeks, kids are immersed in the music, history, and culture of the Miss. Delta.
They spend most of the class preparing for the trip to the Miss. Delta when they visit major Blues sites in Clarksdale and Cleveland. And along the way, they make a special stop in Mound Bayou to deliver supplies to Montgomery Elementary.
“We try to give kids the opportunity to be exposed to what life is like outside this beautiful Druid Hills area, “Mike said. “Our kids come from a lot of privilege. They come from very well to do families for the most part. So for them to spend four days in the Miss. Delta and see poverty at its height is a valuable experience.”
As part of the curriculum, the kids learn about the unique history of the Miss. Delta and of Mound Bayou.
Founded in 1887 by former slaves, Mound Bayou became one of the first autonomous, all-black communities. At one time, the town bustled with activity and included facilities such as post offices, schools, and hospitals.
But as the Great Migration occurred, people moved North, and Mound Bayou was left behind. Today the population is below 1,500, and according to Carl, who also teaches the class, there are hardly any businesses in the town.
Of course, there is the old Mississippi Blues Trail marker that led Mike and Terri to Mound Bayou in the first place. The marker tells of the town’s former renown as a major Blues spot where artists like Charlie Patton and Son House lived and performed.
Although the stop in Mound Bayou is brief, Mike and Carl believe it leaves a big impression on the kids.
“To be quite frank, I hadn’t thought about it for a long time, “said Drew Nickels, a senior at Paideia who went on the first trip. “I wouldn’t say it changed me, but it definitely opened my eyes to more than other things have.”
Drew vividly remembers other parts of the trip, like the time they stopped in Clarksdale to see a performance at Red’s juke joint.
“I’m not very in tune with the Miss. Delta culture, [but] what I learned is that Red’s has big cultural significance in the greater Miss. area, and it’s just this shack that probably sits about 30 people,” Drew said.
Another part of the trip that stood out to Drew was the time they met a traveling musical act called Southern Halo, and the kids were invited to the group’s house for a free performance.
Drew also remembers eating catfish for the first time at a Blues club called Ground Zero and considers this one of the most memorable parts of the trip.
By exposing them to music and food, Mike and Karl Try to teach students what makes the Delta’s culture rich and unique.
And they are careful when teaching about the economic plight of the area, especially as it concerns Montgomery Elementary.
“I haven’t really been exposed to that much low-income areas in my life,” Drew continued,” and I have a ton of respect for the Principal because we got to meet her and hear her speak. She’s very dedicated to the community, and that was very interesting for me. “
Terri found it took a while to gain the Principal’s trust, but over time, they have formed a friendly relationship. The Principal, Montresia Cain, is now more open about the school’s needs.
“I had to present the whole thing very carefully in that I didn’t want to insult them or be seen as the hero on the white horse coming in to save the day, “Terri said recalling her first attempts to help the school. “It wasn’t anything like that. It was just I had these resources. They were in need. It was just what can I do, what can I do to make a difference?”
“And you know,” Terri continued, “so many people go on mission trips and out of the country, and it’s just amazing what’s there in the U.S. And the Delta of Miss. is one of these places — we have now found out that some don’t have electricity, [and] almost 100% of them are on free and reduced lunch.”
Drew admits the prospect of missing regular class time to travel and eat was why he took Mike & Carl’s class, but he ended up getting a lot more out of it than he expected.
“It was a very humbling experience,” Drew said of the visit to Montgomery Elementary. “It’s one of those places where the cafeteria stays open year-round to feed students and the community — it was humbling.
“That’s our goal — to expose the kids to much more than they would be exposed to otherwise,” Mike said. “Gives them the chance to see that five hours away or two hours away in South Ga. — in the U.S., the plight is there.”
On the last trip, Paideia donated enough iPads so that every classroom in Montgomery Elementary now has some form of technology. On another trip, they have brought P.E. equipment to replace the school’s worn out supplies.
Carl and the Emerys have planned another trip for this January, and they hope to take a supply of shoes and clothes to the school.
Currently, the couple is accepting donations from Paideia and from anyone in the community who wants to help. Some buy new books, and others donate items they don’t use anymore.
“We have taken board games. More books,” Terri said. “Just — I want to make a difference for that school.“
“And this [article] was very uncomfortable for me, “Terri admitted. “I do think people need to know there are places like Mound Bayou, Miss. that don’t have the resources that we do.”
The trip is planned for Jan. 24, 2019. Those who would like to donate books, school supplies, or make a contribution to the trip can contact Terri by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.