‘We sold it for nothing’: The impact of broken government promises on Mississippi family
Published 8:45 am Sunday, December 11, 2022
Faces of the Floods is a series by The Vicksburg Post that tells the stories of people impacted by catastrophic floods in the Yazoo Backwater area.
Thomas Jones Jr. sold more than half of his family’s farmland in Holly Bluff to the United States government in the 1950s, on the promise that digging a canal through it would help mitigate flooding in the South Delta as part of what is now known as the Yazoo Backwater Pumps Project.
Now, almost 70 years later, his son, Thomas Jones III, is 68 years old and is still waiting for the sale of that land to mean something. Jones has lived through three floods himself, and his late father, born in 1901, lived through the 1927 flood.
“After the 1927 flood, (the government) wanted to cut a canal through our land, and it joins into the Sunflower River,” Jones said. “They wanted to try to release some of the backwater (into canals), and so the government asked people to sell their land to help with the floods.
“We had 40 acres, and it just went right down the middle of our land and destroyed it.”
The government purchased the Jones’ land, and many of their neighbors’ land as well, for what’s known as “fair market value.” However, Jones said, that price didn’t take into account the value of the crops once produced on the land and the loss of income the family would see as a result of the sale.
Still, he said, his father believed he was doing the right thing to help others.
“My father didn’t want to sell, and he did because it was going to benefit more than just us,” Jones said. “It was going to benefit us and all the folks in this area.”
Jones still lives on what’s left of his family’s land, approximately 12-14 acres. The family moved from Pike County, Miss., to Holly Bluff in the late 1800s.
What’s more, Jones lives in the house he grew up in — the same house he and his family would travel to by boat during flood years.
When farming the small plot of land he had left proved insufficient to support their family, Jones’ father learned carpentry. It’s a trade he passed down to his son and one that’s kept the home in top condition in spite of the threatening waters.
Because the family has been on one property for more than 100 years, Jones has a collection of family portraits — photos of his grandfather, aunts, uncles and parents — all people who lived through one flood or another on the same plot of land he still owns.
“In 1973, I was going to school in Clarksdale at Coahoma Junior College,” Jones said. “I came home and I didn’t believe it. People from the Corps of Engineers were down here marking on buildings, saying ‘The water is going to get this high.’ And I didn’t believe it. Three weeks later, I came home and had to get into this house here in a boat.”
Backwater near the house has been a problem for most of his life, Jones said, but it wasn’t until 2011 and 2019 that he really feared the water overflowing from the canal would overtake his home.
Thanks to his neighbor, farmer Clay Adcock, Jones said an earthen levee was constructed that ultimately saved his home from the worst of the floods. Still, due to water permeating his property, he was left with foundation issues beneath his home.
However, what struck Jones most about the lingering effects of floods in the area was not the personal impact they’ve had on his life. It was the impact floods have had on his community — and his family’s role in it.
“Until 2019, I’d never even heard of a pump. My neighbors around here said, ‘Man, we’ve been fighting to get these pumps for years,’” he said. “I’m upset about it because they told my daddy (the canal) was guaranteed to work and we wouldn’t flood anymore.
“He sold that land on a promise that this would work and they cut the canal through here and it still floods,” Jones added. “Now they’re saying the pumps would work, but they won’t give us the pumps.
“It seems like we sold it for nothing.”
If you or someone you know is a South Delta resident impacted by the Yazoo Backwater Floods, email The Vicksburg Post’s Managing Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story.