History of Turkey Creek, Mississippi
Born of mid-nineteenth century federal legislation, the entire area described as Section 22 of Range 11 West in Township 7 South first entered Harrison County's land records as an uninhabited and undeveloped “Swamp Land.” An Act of Congress enabled the 1858 transfer of Section 22 from the US Department of the Interior to the State of Mississippi.
In 1866, a small group of recently emancipated African-Americans exercised their newly acquired rights of citizenship, property-ownership and self-determination to purchase and settle the 320 acres or “eight forties” that came to be known as the Turkey Creek community. The land they acquired comprised the entire northern half of Section 22. Named for both a brackish stream flowing northeast towards Bayou Bernard and an abundance of wild turkeys in the area, the Turkey Creek community found itself nestled in one of North America's most diversified natural habitats.
Endowed with bottomland and coastal lowland maritime forests, as well as freshwater marsh, scrub shrub and flood plain habitats, the area was populated by a diverse array of wildlife, fish and flora. Many native Mississippi plant and tree species, including sub-tropical and wetland varieties, thrive there. The marine life includes fresh water and estuary species alike. The community has always supplemented their diet with fish, plants and wildlife from the forest, the creek, and nearby Bayou Bernard.
The pioneers who settled the poorly drained “eight forties” were visionary, industrious and innovative. With far less financial, political or social capital than the celebrated founders of Gulfport, Turkey Creek's early settlers created arable land to practice sustainable agriculture and developed a viable, self-sufficient American community bound together by local customs and institutions.
Despite their geographic isolation, the people of Turkey Creek lived with considerable connection to trends and events elsewhere on the coast. By the 1880s, for example, when the beachfront resumed its ante-bellum prominence as a weekend and summer retreat for well-off southern whites, women from Turkey Creek and other black coastal communities worked there as domestics. Their labor maintained such noted residences as Grass Lawn in Gulfport and Beauvoir in Biloxi in the favored grandeur of the era. Kizziah Evans, born into slavery in Virginia, trucked wagon loads of laundry to and from the beachfront weekly, though she was also one of Turkey Creek's principal landowners and matriarchs.
In 1906, Melinda Benton, an early settler, considered the importance of employment stability to Turkey Creek families and sold twelve acres on Bayou Bernard to the Gulf Coast Creosote Company so that a plant could exist near their homes. At the height of south Mississippi's forest industries boom, men from Turkey Creek and nearby districts sorted, shaved, trimmed and treated countless loads of longleaf pine. Enduring tremendous hazards and blistering heat, they fashioned railroad ties and utility poles to be floated, railed and shipped to destinations around the world. The importance of this plant, its workers, and Melinda Benton to the gulf coast's twentieth century industrialization and development cannot be denied. Their contributions to the expansion of railroads, the Depression era electrification of the United States, and the World War II and postwar needs of our nation have rendered them integrally relevant to local, state and American history.
It is notable that some southern black communities thrived in surprising and remarkable ways during the era of Jim Crow. The Turkey Creek community stands out in this regard. Due to its relative isolation and autonomy, the land wealth of its residents, its ample supply of both creek and deep-well water for drinking, cooking and cleaning; its abundance of edible plant, fish and wildlife; and its relatively steady job opportunities on Creosote Road; (among other factors) neither World War II nor postwar growth in the Gulfport area affected Turkey Creek as adversely as they did neighboring black communities. While wartime expansion of Gulfport Field completely erased Corrolton from the postwar map and the re-routing of a new and wider Highway 49 carved North Gulfport in half, the entrepreneurial spirit of Turkey Creek residents and the community's exceptionally close-knit bonds of kinship, faith and neighborly cooperation left them unscathed.
These mid-century public works projects entailed both eminent domain and African-American dislocation, enabling the creation of the affluent Bayou View community and spurring the growth of suburban Orange Grove. Postwar growth in transportation, aviation, and commerce, etc. brought dramatic change to the Gulfport area, but Turkey Creek's cultural heritage and physical appearance proved remarkably resilient. Well after the US Supreme Court's 1954 Brown Decision, neighborhood children attended classes, lunch and recess on the very same school grounds as their forebears.
Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, Turkey Creek's land use, folkways, community institutions, and architecture remained remarkably true to earlier times. Land was security passed from one generation to the next and descendents of the settlers held tight to the long, narrow lots extending south from Rippy Road to the creek and beyond. They raised hogs, chickens, goats, vegetables, fruit and plenty of children for whom the woods were an endless wonder. Important community fixtures like the Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church and the Turkey Creek ball diamond, as well as several “jukes”, stores and other small businesses, further defined and preserved the settlement's distinct, local flavor. Plenty of wood- framed bungalows and “shotgun” houses still spoke, through their materials, style and construction, of the enduring legacy of earlier occupants.
The Turkey Creek community's highly valued independence and cultural continuity remained essentially undisturbed until the mid 1980s. At roughly the same time that federal authorities shut down the creosote plant (1986), an ordinance was passed locally requiring Turkey Creek residents to cap their prized water wells and tie into Harrison County water. These two events were the first major rumblings of a new day to come. Since then, a barrage of threatening developments--including airport expansion, annexation by Gulfport, land speculation, deforestation, wetland destruction, commercial sprawl, spot zoning and political isolation--have severely endangered this priceless gem of Mississippi and American heritage. Unsightly sprawl on Highway 49 and Creosote Road continues to spread to within feet of Turkey Creek homes and yards. The community's historic cemetery, where Melinda Benton and other original settlers are buried, was largely destroyed by redevelopment in 2001. In that year, the Mississippi Heritage Trust listed the entire community as one of the state's Ten Most Endangered Historical Places.
The Turkey Creek story is not over, nor must it end tragically. Intelligent urban planning, incorporating growth as well as conservation of Turkey Creek's natural and cultural assets, can readily pose a win-win situation for all of the area's long-term stakeholders. The creek itself is Harrison County's premier inland urban waterway – great for fishing, birding, hiking and rowing. Gulfport, with 80,000 residents and growing, needs a centrally located urban greenway spanning it and enhancing city life for generations to come. As has been proven in a number of American cities (e.g., Charleston SC, Birmingham AL and Memphis TN), pro-active historic preservation, including historically neglected African-American communities, is integral to smart development and sustainable growth. On the Mississippi coast, the Turkey Creek community and waterway provide an equally rich opportunity.