The death of Pinhook: Community will never return after flooding, residents say

Friday, June 17, 2011
Receding floodwater has left behind a field of mud Thursday in front of flood ravaged homes in Pinhook, Mo. (Laura Simon)

When Anita Nance dreams, it's almost always of Pinhook.

Her house, surrounded by what seemed like a thousand trees. Sunday mornings at Union Baptist Church. Countless friends swarming to Mr. George's huge yard or biking up the meandering county road to the playground and its dizzying merry-go-round.

"It will always be home to me," said Nance, who left in 1983 and now lives in New York City. "It was the most amazing childhood I can ever imagine. I can't imagine a world where Pinhook doesn't exist."

This is where the dream dies.

Pinhook, a largely African-American village once home to more than 250 people, appears set to fade from history. After its heyday in the 1960s, its population dwindled to less than 30. That was two months ago. Today, it's zero. Its people have taken flight, reluctantly, leaving their cherished Mississippi County community less than 10 miles from East Prairie, Mo., for higher ground.

The village sits in the heart of the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway. Six weeks ago, the waters came, unleashed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its plan to reduce flooding elsewhere. When the word came to blow the levee, the residents -- a collection of friends, family and relatives -- packed up and left.

The people of Pinhook had seen flooding before, but never like this. The water wreaked havoc on their homes, wiping out wooden floors and hand-built porches, busting out windows and -- to their way of thinking -- rendering everything useless and impossible to repair.

"It's never going to recover," said George Williams, 76, who lived there for nearly six decades. "It won't. It's over with. We ain't ever going back. All that's left is the remembering."

Residents of Pinhook have scattered. They've rented apartments in Sikeston, Mo., moved in with friends in East Prairie, Mo., or sought refuge in places even farther away.

They thought they might be able to return after the waters receded, but after dreary inspections they decided otherwise. According to the town mayor, Debra Tarver, they've asked the government to relocate them, as a unit, to another area in Mississippi County.

These are people who want to stay together. They feel like since the government destroyed their homes, they should have to pay to relocate them away from an area that could be flooded again at the whim of the corps. She said they're tired of living in constant fear of water disrupting their otherwise peaceful lives.

State Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, counts the people of Pinhook among some of his dearest friends. He played high-school football with them in the 1960s, even recalling a time that the team refused to eat at a restaurant that wouldn't allow their black players inside.

He worked alongside them at his father's East Prairie grocery store. Later, when Hodges took over, he hired people from Pinhook to work in his store. And he hates to see what's happened to "good people" who are just trying to live their lives in a section of the world they've carved out for themselves.

While he said the government does need to do something, he doesn't think Pinhook residents will be able to start over together on different property that is bought by the government. It's not that he's against it. He just doesn't see the government going for it.

"In my opinion, I don't think that will happen," he said. "I don't know where the money would come from. I think it would be a very nice gesture, but I think it would set some kind of really rare precedent. It is probably the government's responsibility to some extent. But that? I don't see it."

Hodges expects the Pinhook residents will never return to their homes. They'll get some sort of reimbursement from the government, either FEMA or the corps, and begin their lives elsewhere.

"It's sad," he said. "That was such a great community. But this is a thing that's happened and it's probably going to be lost in time. It's a shame."

Pinhook's history

The history of Pinhook is also largely a mystery. Some say that it was settled after the Civil War after land was given to newly freed slaves. That's possible, said Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University. All he can say with some degree of certainty is that it more likely formed after the sharecropper's strike in Southeast Missouri in the late 1930s.

That's when there was an exodus of black and white sharecroppers in nearby communities like Wyatt, Charleston, Hayti, Morley and Lilbourn. They set up camps south of Sikeston, taking a stand that preceded the civil rights movement by nearly three decades.

Farmers told the so-called "croppers" that, because of New Deal programs in which farmers were paid not to produce, that there was little or no work. Soon after, a Baptist organization bought some acres in the Pinhook area and let African American families buy into that, Nickell said.

"That's really the beginning of the modern aspect of that community," Nickell said. "It's obviously a really difficult time for them now. People who lived there so long have this fierce sense of independence and a fierce sense of belonging. That's what so sad about this flood."

Whatever happens, there seems to be little question that Pinhook, as it was, is gone. Most of the residents said in meetings with officials that they have no intention on going back. But those who lived there say they will always have memories of the place they called home.

And if any one man represents the spirit of Pinhook, it is George Williams, or "Mr. George," as he is known. He moved to Pinhook in 1952 from Morgan City, Miss. Mississippi was rough for a black man in the 1950s, and Mississippi County wasn't much better in those days -- he remembers being called the N-word to his face many times.

"A black person had a hard way to go down there," Williams said. "He got the leftovers that the white man didn't want."

When Williams was 18, he married the love of his life, Mary Louise. His mother-in-law had a sister who lived in Pinhook, so they moved there. He and his wife built a family of nine children there, five boys and four girls. They adopted another, a 5-year-old girl, when her grandmother died.

He remembers the Pinhook of old. It was never a city, not even as big as East Prairie. But it had a church, a grocery store, three schools and friendly neighbors. Every Memorial Day, the folks who moved away would all come home for Pinhook Day, he said, to catch up over home-cooked meals and socializing.

"It was a real community," he said. "Everybody watched everybody's kids. It was a great big family. It really makes me sad. Me and my wife worked hard to build a house for our kids and it's where they all grew up. Even if they move everybody together, it still won't be no Pinhook. It's just a ghost town down there."

For those who have moved away, the loss has already begun to sting. For example, Nance, who dreams of her hometown, watched in anger as the flooding made national news. From one of the biggest cities in the world, she shed tears and offered up prayers that the town would survive.

"I know it sounds silly, but to me, I just feel lost knowing that Pinhook won't be there," Nance said. "It seems unreal. That there's something missing in my life. There just will never be another Pinhook."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

Pinhook, MO

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