I was fortunate to grow up in two worlds, one rural and one urban: summers and occasional weekends on a farm in the southeast corner of Alabama and the rest of the year in a middle-class, white suburb of Birmingham.
We moved to Bush Hills when I was 10, and from our modest but new home, I walked one block to church and six blocks to elementary school.
Older, I walked three blocks down 17th Street to Third Avenue and caught the bus downtown, there to explore the mysteries of the cool, sweet-smelling department stores and the candy counters of the dime stores.
On Route 2, Columbia, Alabama, my grandparents lived in a large white Victorian home surrounded by great water oaks.
In its heyday it was a plantation worked by 17 black tenant families who ran a dairy and produced peanuts and cotton.
But by the mid-1950s when I was old enough to stay with them in the summers, the farming had been turned over to my uncle, but thankfully traces of it remained--a few milk cows and laying hens; three barns, lots of land to explore and lots of chores.
Over the years I got to know several of granddaddy’s former tenants and, with him, sometimes visited the pine plank structures they or their children lived in.
I saw there was no insulation in the walls and only one water faucet, usually on the back porch. I saw the clean swept, red clay yards. I saw their plain clothes. I saw rural poverty, though I had no name for it then.
Meanwhile Bush Hills flourished. Every family had a car; some had two. On our street were a hardware store owner, a furniture store owner (both family businesses), a police detective, and a dentist.
My mother taught third grade, and my dad was a company purchasing agent.
No shortage of running water here; or insulation; or central heat; or washing machines or lawn mowers. I bounced between those two worlds and learned to love the good things about both.
The bad things, I either did not see or could not see at the time. But now I do.
These days, when I go to the Mississippi Delta or the Wiregrass Region of Southeast Alabama, I see more than a two-dimensional picture leaning against the landscape.
I see three, maybe four dimensions. I remember the gray, weathered pine planks of those porches where Granddaddy would conduct his business with the occupants.
I remember the men’s worn out brogans and the plain gingham dresses of the women. I remember their faces: Glad to get the work, but wishing they weren’t beholden.
These days, in this crisis, schools are going online for an uncertain duration and telemedicine is here to stay.
In Mississippi, many of the children who rely most heavily on public schools for their education do not have laptops, and if they do, many also lack access to broadband.
In Mississippi, many of their families avoid doctors for fear of the cost or difficulty of access.
Bad as it is, this crisis is an opportunity. Is it not time to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to put those learning and health care tools into the hands of those families?
The State of Mississippi should mobilize the resources necessary to make that happen. Now. Rural poor, both black and white, have been left to fend for themselves since 1865.
Now is the time to set some extra places at the table and share the meal with our brothers and sisters.
Conville is a retired college professor and long-time Hattiesburg resident.