Black Women in Noxubee County, Miss. Fight Historical Inequities Exposed by COVIDBreaking News
tags: racism, Southern history, public health, Mississippi, Health Inequality
After COVID-19 showed up in rural Noxubee County, Miss., in mid-March 2020, Shawanda Readus’ living room became a classroom. Noxubee County Schools closed the same month, so she brought desks in to accommodate her three children, but the single mom quickly realized that they cluttered her small Cedar Creek home in Macon, the county seat, so she removed them.
Readus was a server in the Noxubee County High School cafeteria when COVID-19 reached Mississippi. After the pandemic hit, she helped prepare and pack the meals that students could pick up to take the place of in-school lunches.
It was tough on Readus, as she was trying to earn a living at the school, even as it was closed for classes. The single mother spent hours on the phone with her children trying to ensure they were logged on at home. “It was hard because you are at work, and you have to call all day and check on them. They are calling you all day saying, ‘Mama, I don’t understand.’”
Eventually, Readus’ mother had to step in and sit with the children, a 12-year-old daughter and 14-year-old twin sons, during the day. “It kinda took a toll on her because she is retired, but she had to sit here everyday to make sure that they did their work, like she was the teacher,” Readus said about her mother, Sadie King-Allen.
Readus only owned one laptop, and her mother brought over her tablet. That still left one child using a phone to log in to complete assignments. They used cell phones as hotspots.
“We tried to get internet, but where I live they kept saying I wasn’t eligible to get it,” Readus said later. Mostly rural Noxubee County is all the way over bordering Alabama in east central Mississippi. “They didn’t have the fast speed like I needed. They had something that would last like two or three days, and then it’s gone, which wouldn’t have done us any good.”
By July 2020, with her kids officially out of school for the summer, Readus contracted COVID-19 herself, but was not sure where she got it. She lost her appetite and was nauseous, fatigued and lethargic. She arrived at her doctor’s office to be tested and gave a blood sample to the nurse hidden behind PPE.
The Chosen to Care Medical Center in Columbus, Miss., didn’t have the nasal swabs then needed to test her for COVID-19, and the blood-test results would take more than a week to be processed. The recommended quarantine was difficult for the mother of three, but she returned home. Her symptoms were mild, so Readus simply ignored the recommendations and continued about her daily tasks.
Luckily, her children did not get sick.
Local educators and administrators, many of them resilient Black women, are determined to make it work and find solutions that their students and families deserve. But that is a challenge now, just as it was before the pandemic hit, due to long-term disparities and historic and intentional inequities that made the effects of the pandemic especially acute for the Black women of Noxubee County and their families.
Noxubee County is littered with the remains of what once was. A Saturday evening summer ride through downtown Shuqualak, this journalist’s hometown, reveals a proverbial ghost town. A concrete slab is all that is left of the Shuqualak Glove Factory, which at one time was one of the town’s most prolific employers. Crumbled brick lies beside an open space that once housed the Shuqualak Medical Clinic. Boarded businesses line one side of the main street. Abandoned train tracks frame the other. The 85% Black town no longer has a grocery story; the last one sits boarded up. The poverty rate was 37.5% as of 2020, and the population has steadily declined with an individual median income of $13,656 in 2019, before the pandemic hit.
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