Tensions are mounting between the majority-Black city of Memphis and a swelling white-flight community further south. Mississippi’s northernmost border county with Tennessee—Desoto County—logged a 1.27% growth rate in the past year, an explosion compared to the low growth or collapse of Mississippi’s other regions.
With a statewide population drop of about 21,000, Mississippi ranks 9th in population decline in the U.S. There’s no doubt Desoto County’s 31,000 new residents cushioned the fall, but only at the expense of neighboring Memphis. Desoto County is currently 63% white, and white residents are the fastest-growing local population, according to USAfacts.org. White enclaves blossomed from 44,412 people in 1980 to 119,836 in 2021, an unprecedented jump of 75,424 souls in a shrinking place like Mississippi.
But these new faces come with baggage. Delivering water and electrical service to a community that’s now bigger than Mississippi’s capital city is no easy feat for what was once a handful of farms and cow fields. All those flushing toilets have to go somewhere. Years ago, Desoto County developers chose the cheapest path and aimed sewer pipes back to Memphis.
“Most citizens, I imagine, have no idea that Memphis has been treating the sewage of our neighboring counties at Memphians’ expense,” said Memphis District 8 Councilman Martavius Jones. “Before I got on the council, I had no idea myself.”
This is an agreement that goes back to 1975, and it is now about to end.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark S. Norris ruled in a summary judgment last month that Memphis can end a decades-old agreement to process wastewater for sections of DeSoto County, Horn Lake and Southaven. After more than 40 years, Memphis will cut service September 22, 2023.
This is a problem for the burgeoning white flight bedroom communities that have been paying Memphis less than $1 per 1,000 gallons of wastewater treatment. The cost was a bargain considering other communities outside Memphis have been paying more than $3 per 1,000 gallons for the same treatment.
Memphis leaders filed a complaint as far back as 2019, arguing the city had given the Horn Lake Creek Basin Interceptor Sewer District—which serves Desoto’s bedroom communities—plenty of time to find a wastewater treatment alternative by 2023.
“We’ve given you five years, if you need more time, you know, we can discuss that, share with me why you need more time, from an engineering perspective, what it would take to design, construct, and build the system you need to provide that service for yourself. That was something I requested years ago. I’ve yet to see that,” stated Memphis Public Works Director Robert Knecht in 2019.
Leaders with the sewer district in DeSoto County responded with their own federal lawsuit, demanding a jury trial over Memphis’ alleged breach of contract, claiming both parties must agree to end the contract, not one. The district complains all sewer lines lead to Memphis, and that rerouting new lines is prohibitively expensive. It also warns that a straight disconnect could overflow sewage near the state line, posing a health hazard of contaminated soil and groundwater.
Mediation between the two parties in 2022 ended in a standoff. Twice. In a proposed pre-trial order, Memphis officials offered to continue service to the area at the $3.32 rate for other Memphis customers like Collierville. District leaders say the city should continue to charge the same $0.97 cents it’s been charging since 1975, however. A rate increase, they say, will complicate the district’s effort to build its own wastewater plant.
Attorneys for DeSoto County said in a 2022 progress report about $40 million is available to move DeSoto to its own wastewater treatment system. The federal government dedicated $10 million for the venture, courtesy of President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion 2021 infrastructure package. The Mississippi legislature also passed House Bill 1353, which provides an additional $10 million for infrastructure to the Horn Lake Creek Sewer Interceptor District. But Desoto County Councilman Mark Gardener says that’s not nearly enough.
Memphis leaders say an impoverished Black city should not be in the business of subsidizing growth in wealthy white suburbs, especially those in other states.
“Not really. We don’t have the funding,” Gardner told Black Girl Times. “The solution costs north of $200 million, so we’ve not started anything yet.”
Gardner said the cost of the entire project could be about $230 million, but Memphis leaders say an impoverished Black city should not be in the business of subsidizing growth in wealthy white suburbs, especially those in other states. The median household income of the majority-white population of Desoto County is $73,460, and only 7.3% of county families live in poverty. The poverty rate for Memphis, meanwhile, was 27.8% in 2018. That figure is three percentage points higher than the number for the previous year, so the rate is rising.
Memphis has subsidized the growth of this entire region,” said Councilman Jones. “A 1970 Census of Collierville said it contained about 2,000 people, while Memphis had 600,000 people then. There is no way these tiny municipalities with 2,500, or 1,000 or 4,000 people financed their own schools without Memphis’ help. There is no way people in Bartlett built a school—even a little $3 million school—with their own tax revenue. Memphis has been the largest contributor, but we haven’t had the investment in the core of the city to replace a lot of our own aging infrastructure.”
“Today is a beautiful day,” Jones added. “There’s not a cloud in the sky. The high might be 83 degrees today, but someplace in Memphis, somewhere in the core of the city, somebody’s power is likely to be out.”
The Race Convo There is more to this problem than bad numbers. There is also a racial component to Memphis residents’ resentment about suburban demands.
John Branston is author of the book “Rowdy Memphis, the South Unscripted.” Branston has been reporting on the Memphis territory for decades and remains a city resident. He said developers, from the very beginning, had planned Southaven to be a landing point for disgruntled white Memphis residents fleeing an encroaching Black population.
“This information came to me from Carey Whitehead Sr. If he’s still around, he’s probably 90 now. But he and Kevin Wilson and Wallace Johnson were developers of Southaven, and Carey told me in a face-to-face interview that he would name it ‘South Whitehaven,’ but he lopped off a syllable.”
According to Branston, developers sought to model “South Whitehaven” as a continuation of the majority-white Memphis community of “Whitehaven.” Whitehaven, now a community of middle-class Black families and the site of Elvis’ Graceland, was semi-rural in the 1950s, before the city of Memphis later encroached and swallowed it. Redlining and other racist housing practices had kept Whitehaven and other Memphis communities reliably segregated, at least until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 ended overt practices. After 1968, segregationists generally fled to more expensive homes in the nation’s suburbs, where the mechanics of economic prison and Black Americans’ comparatively higher poverty rate could preserve de facto segregation.
Some Desoto County residents don’t try to hide their contempt for their big northern neighbor. Just this month, state Sen. David Parker issued a warning to would-be criminals “coming down” to his town, looking for trouble.
“If crime comes down to DeSoto County, we're going to have the strong leadership here … that is going to create a prosecution that is going to make you think twice about coming down here and committing crime," Parker told media.
Memphis is not the only majority Black city hollowed out by parasite suburbs. Three hours to the south sits Mississippi’s capital city of Jackson, which is more than 80 percent Black. Jackson’s white suburbs have been draining the city’s middle class since the 1980s, to the point where it is now one of the most impoverished cities in the U.S. Like Memphis, Jackson’s wastewater system can process high volumes of wastewater for multiple communities. City leaders spent decades growing and cultivating its municipal water infrastructure, only for the system to collapse under its own weight as neighboring suburbs in Madison and Rankin counties leeched away white residents, and eventually middle-class Black residents as well.
Until recently, the suburbs continued to flush their wastewater back to the city of Jackson, but they have since built their own treatment plants and stopped payments to the city. The West Rankin Utility Authority, serving the suburban communities of Flowood, Pearl, and Richland, dropped a long-term agreement with the city of Jackson for waste processing and left the central city on the hook for more than $1 billion in necessary repairs and upgrades to bring its aging sewer system into EPA compliance.
Unlike the city of Jackson and other abandoned Black cities, Memphis has a rare upper hand, and affluent suburbanites are finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of being at a disadvantage. Memphis leaders are unlikely to rescind their offer for a $3 sewerage processing rate. Money is money, after all, and nobody wants an ecological disaster. But the city’s white neighbors further south—the ones who send both their waste and their disdain back to the central city—will have to curb their contempt long enough to take a deal.