Helping hands: A look back at community service during the water crisis

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LaWanda Grishby-Thompson, granddaughter of Argustus Harper, owner of Harper’s Coin Laundry. (Photos by Andre’ Johnson, II)

By DeAnna Tisdale Johnson

Jackson Advocate Publisher

In 1888, citizens of Jackson, Mississippi would obtain water – through a private company – from the Pearl River, purifying the water through a process of carbon filtering. They would take a charcoal can and empty the water in it, letting the impurities catch hold to the microscopic pores of the carbon to clarify it. When the city began expanding its population around the turn of the century, the city of Jackson purchased the private company (1908) and built what we now know as JH Fewell Water Treatment Plant (1914) to more ef-ficiently filter the water from the Pearl River.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that OB Curtis Water Treat-ment Plant was constructed. This plant has three basins and a raw water screen that filters water from the Ross Barnett Reservoir. Later, a sludge handling system was added (1997) and a membrane system (2005).

The stages of water filtration are: (1) Through the intake structure at the Reservoir, the water is first checked through the bar screening process which removes large items, like debris or fish, so that it doesn’t damage any equipment in later stages. (2) The next layer of screening removes grit through a cham-ber. (3) The primary clarifying process separates any other organic matter from the water. (4) Air is pumped into the ba-sin to facilitate the conversion of Ammonia (NH3) to Nitrate(NO3) which allows bacteria to grow and form, confirming its existence in the water. (5) There is then another clarifying process to remove more substances. 

(6) Chlorine is in-troduced to kill any remaining bacteria. (7) The water is then tested and analyzed for pH and chemical concentration levels. When all systems are at its peak performance, the city disseminates over 50 million gallons of water per day from this plant.

During the winter storm, “Water that came from the res-ervoir was about 48 degrees. And that is very cold. It is very difficult to treat water at that particular temperature,” says COJ Public Works Director, Dr. Charles Williams. He explains that the chemicals introduced during the various stages of the process at the time of the winter storm basi-cally coagulated, or thickened into a jelly-like consistency, so that it was difficult to treat the water. Also, the raw water screens began to freeze as the cold water came through, and the system’s pressure dropped dramatically. This is the basis for the catastrophe that happened in mid-February through March.

Jackson citizens and those who obtain water through the well system, including the town of Byram, went weeks with little to no water pres-sure. Non-potable or flushing water, along with pallets upon pallets of bottled water, were disseminated to citizens by the City of Jackson; Jackson councilpersons, including Ward 6 Councilman Aaron Banks, Ward 2 Councilwoman Angelique Lee, and Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes; legislators like Rep. Ronnie Crudup Jr. and Rep. Zakiya Summers; and many more.

Rev. CJ Rhodes of Mt. Helm Baptist Church, Thea Faulkner, and other commu-nity members sponsored hot lunches and dinners for the Jackson community, team-ing up with local restaurants through the organization World Central Kitchen. Other grassroots organizations con-verged to create the MS Rapid Response & Relief Coalition to quickly meet the needs of the people by paying for hotel rooms so families could take showers and providing grocer-ies for the elderly. And there were an abundance of others from inside the city and across the nation who banded to-gether to help Jackson through this water crisis.

One initiative that warrants mentioning is the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable’s Quarters Because We Care laundry services. “We started hearing from families even more about what their needs were during this water crisis. We continued to hear about the lack of water, the lack of access, and how it was just so overwhelming just to make life work for them,” notes Cas-sandra Welchlin, co-founder and director of the organiza-tion. She continues, “There was a lady that I ran into and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I got so many clothes to wash. And I just don’t know what we’re going to do.’” At the time, many laundry facilities were closed due to the water crisis, forcing some citizens to drive to the outskirts of the city to wash clothes.  

So, on top of providing food, water, gift cards, hotel rooms, and other necessities to Jackson residents during the water crisis, the MS Black Women’s Roundtable supplied families with the neces-

sary funds to wash weeks of clothing at Harper’s Beauty Salon and Coin Laundry in Clinton, MS. Harper’s is one of the only Black-owned laundromats in Hinds County. It is also family-owned and operated. 

In 1962, Dave Smith laid the foundation and the bricks for what would become his daughter, Edna Earl Harper’s, beauty salon. “She did hair and then they thought about how there were so many people that did not have wash-ers and dryers in their homes,” explains Margaret Perry, Harper’s daughter. The family built an addition onto the side of the beauty salon and named it Harper’s Beauty Salon and Coin Laundry. It’s sign also reads, “By faith, through grace.”

Perry, whose family lives two roads over from their business, explains that the women of the community would wash loads of clothes while also getting their hair done, killing two birds with one stone. Perry’s father 

and local minister, Argustus Harper, now runs the fam-ily business with the help of Perry. Other family members, including Perry’s daughter, LaWanda Grishby-Thompson, actively participate in the vitality of the enterprise, mak-ing it a community institution that’s touched four generations of their family.

“When we were approached by the MS Black Women’s Roundtable, it was an opportu-nity for us to give back to the community because we knew that people were hurting in Jackson,” says Perry. She, and her daughter LaWanda, helped out friends and family from the city and took what seemed like a destined opportunity to expand their assistance. “We were able to not only just do it on a personal level but reach out to other people that did not know of us,” Perry adds.

What started out as a weekend service on March 13th and 14th turned into an almost three-week affair that extended to March 28 due to the demand.

Welchlin observed how much this initiative reminded her of when she grew up and how much of a sense of com-munity she saw. “Intergenera-tional organizing is how I do my work. And so there was an intergenerational community inside of the laundry facilities where conversations and learning was happening. This brought back a time when families come together to talk and to be together. Parents are teaching their children how to fold and how to wash. And it brought back those memories for me as a little girl because that’s how I learned to wash clothes.

“My mother would actual have a grocery cart that she would load all of our clothes in. We lived on Monument and Church Street, and we would push our laundry early Saturday mornings down to the laundromat to wash our clothes.”

Though the water crisis further shed light on the crum-bling infrastructure in the city of Jackson, it also let the inner lights of the everyday people of Jackson shine through as they lent helping hands to their neighbors. To find out more about Harper’s Coin Laundry, call (601) 866-2633. For more info about the MS Black Women’s Roundtable, visit https://msbwr.org/.

DeAnna enjoys reading and writing and experiencing city life with all its amenities with her fellow citizens. When she’s not uncovering the truth as it needs to be told, she visits museums and spends time with friends and family.