Turkey Creek Community Historic District
The Turkey Creek Community Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
The Turkey Creek Community Historic District, located in the north part of Gulfport, Harrison County, Mississippi represents a surviving example of a local community established by newly emancipated African Americans during the Reconstruction Era. Unlike many other such communities, the Turkey Creek Community largely retains its historic geographic boundaries, residential nature, architectural heritage and sense of community. The Turkey Creek Community Historic District is significant in the areas of Ethnic Heritage/Black and Social History. The period of significance is from 1870, the date of construction of the Benton House, the oldest known building in the district, to 1956. The buildings in the district are predominately vernacular, and many have been modified over the years. This is a feature that contributes to the unique culture and is a characteristic-defining element in the significance of the district.
The African American community in Turkey Creek developed on formerly uninhabited and undeveloped swamplands surrounding Turkey Creek. The area consists of wetlands (bottomland, coastal lowland maritime forests, freshwater marsh, scrub shrub and flood plains) featuring a diverse array of trees and plants and wild and marine life.
An 1850 Act of Congress enabled the 1858 transfer of Section 22 (Range 11 West in Township 7 South) from the United States Department of the Interior to the State of Mississippi. In 1866, a group of newly emancipated African Americans settled 320 acres of land purchased from parcels owned by the Arkansas Lumber Company, and constructed homes near Turkey Creek, so named because of the wild turkeys which lived in the vicinity.
The establishment of the Turkey Creek Community in 1866 coincided with the Reconstruction Era in Mississippi (1865-77). During this time, the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment (1866) granted former slaves US citizenship and equal protection under the Law; and the Fifteenth Amendment (1868) granted voting rights to blacks.
Early settlers and residents in Turkey Creek, such as Joshua and Jefferson White (b. 1846), may have lived in temporary brush tents which were gradually replaced by log cabins. Mr. White courted and later married Black-foot Indian and Slidell, LA, resident Fannie. Other White family settlers in Turkey Creek included David White, Marshall White (husband of Black-foot Indian/Cajun Lillian White; grandfather of Reverend Jackson), Marshall White (husband of Lilly Gifford White), Louis (d. 1935) and Edgar White (d. 1888), and Mary White. Thomas and Melinda Benton were also among the earliest settlers. Freed slaves from "up North," the Bentons came to Harrison County in search of a place to set up a home for their family. Though records do not indicate where the funds came from, Mrs. Benton was able to purchase enough land that her holdings comprised 50% of the Turkey Creek Community. Many later settlers purchased their property from Mrs. Benton. She also donated property for a church and school. Other early settlers and residents included the Adams (Clyde), Flowers (Bertha), Griswold (Emma), Harrison, Hines (Dozier Sr.), Jackson (David), Roach and Simms families. A number of the current inhabitants of Turkey Creek are descendants of earlier residents many of whom passed land holdings on from one generation to the next, contributing to the distinct identity the Turkey Creek Community retains.
The Turkey Creek Community was only one of many settlements founded by former slaves as they created a new life for themselves. These communities offered an opportunity for self-government that was denied to them in the wider political arena. The Turkey Creek Community was able to thrive during the fun Crow era due to a number of factors including its relative isolation and autonomy, the land wealth of its residents and the relatively steady employment offered by the plants on Creosote Road. Although annexed by the City of Gulfport in 1994, the Turkey Creek Community was established before the founding of Gulport.
Regularly-spaced, one-story cottages located close to the road originally sat on narrow, long lots that extended from Rippy Road to Turkey Creek and typify the community's vernacular architecture. A number of these lots have subsequently been developed to include additional free-standing residences and outbuildings. Residents used to tend private gardens and raise livestock, including cattle, pigs, and chickens, on the long narrow lots extending back to the creek.
Like much of the Turkey Creek Community's history, the construction history is based on oral tradition. However, some facts may be verified from examinations of local Tax Assessor and Plat maps. According to local tradition, residents trained in construction played a large part in the building the homes in the community. Reverend Calvin Jackson states that his uncle, Tom White, served for three years with the Civilian Conservation Corps at a camp in Mt. Olive, Mississippi, and was later employed locally as a residential carpenter and home builder. Mr. White was responsible for a number of homes, both in Turkey Creek, North Gulfport, Magnolia Grove, and Handsboro, dating from the 1920s through the 1940s. According to architectural historian Ruth Little, defining features of homes built by Tom White include front gables and front gable porches, decorative rafter tails "Oriental" style front gable knee braces triangular lattice vents, Craftsman-style brick porch piers with battered posts, and front gable raking cornices that extend out at a rakish angle at the ends. Siding is universally a German-style (dropped). Reverend Jackson speculates that Tom White may have drawn the plans for the buildings he constructed. Following his WW II military service, Reverend Jackson studied carpentry at Tuskegee University in order to educate himself in a practical trade, after which he assisted his uncle Tom White in building homes in Turkey Creek.
In addition to the Craftsman Bungalows, several shotgun style homes exist which may date from the 1920s to the 1940s. These are typically located on the lanes which branch off Rippy Road.
In 1906, former resident and land owner Melinda Benton sold 12 acres of land on Bayou Bernard to the Gulf Coast Creosote Company for the establishment of a creosote plant which was in operation between 1906 and 1987. According to the recollections of Dozier Hines Jr., Melinda Benton stipulated that the plant hire local men from the Turkey Creek Community, one of whom was Dozier Hines Sr., who arrived in Turkey Creek from Alabama in 1904.
Creosote is used to create a variety of products: wood creosote, coal tar creosote, coal tar, coal tar pitch, and coal tar pitch volatiles. These products are mixtures of many chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons phenol, and creosols created by high temperature treatment of beech and other woods coal, and from the resin of the creosote bush. The plant became the locus of sorting, shaving, trimming and treating long-leaf pine which was subsequently used for the construction of railroad ties and utility poles that would in turn be distributed locally, regionally, and nationally. Creosote, which is carcinogenic to humans, was used as a preservative treatment to retard rotting.
According to Reverend Jackson, wages for plant workers in the early 20th century ranged between 25 and 45 cents a week. Laborers in the plant were subject to a variety of health problems due to creosote exposure. Turkey Creek residents, living in close proximity to the creosote plant, may also have suffered adverse health effects due to possible contamination of the local drinking water. Local resident and historian Derrick Evans argues that the contributions of the plant's output towards railroad expansion, Depression-era electrification of communities throughout the United States, World War II supplies, and post-war construction efforts, have rendered the plant integrally relevant to local, state, and national history.
While some men within the community worked at the local creosote plant, others sought work in plants in Hattiesburg. Other men worked at the Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi and a naval support center in Gulfport. Some women from the Turkey Creek Community were engaged as domestics at such noted residences as Grass Lawn in Gulfport and Beauvoir in Biloxi. Other women, such as Kizziah Evans, took in laundry brought on horse-drawn wagons, from the hotels and homes in Gulfport. The laundering and pressing of the clothing was performed in wash-houses built to the rear of individual homes. Other Turkey Creek residents supplemented their regular incomes with additional jobs, such as Mr. Hines Sr.' s burning of coal to heat the irons used in pressing clothes.
Local resident Peggy White operated a cane mill at her home, where the sorghum syrup or syrup was produced from sugar cane. Without electric power, such a cane mill may have been powered by horses or mules on a 'sweep.' The cane mill may have also produced sugar candy.
The local school has long been a defining feature of the Turkey Creek Community. In the early years, no public education was available to residents. Education was provided at the Mt. Pleasant church. A two room public school was built c.1928, and served as the only African American school in Harrison County. The current Turkey Creek School, built in 1948 is at least the third school on the site, replacing a Depression-era building.
As the community continued to grow, the community recognized a need to expand the school's educational curriculum as well as its physical plant. Reverend Jackson recalls speaking with Esco Smith, the local School Superintendent, about his concerns that the Turkey Creek School curriculum did not provide high-school level mathematics instruction, which hindered children in the community when they attended college.
Requests for additional classes and a new school were directed to the Superintendent of Schools, who instructed the community to provide the necessary funding. Fundraising efforts began during the Depression era, when local resident Artemise Tuggle, the daughter of Jefferson White, began to host fish fries and ice-cream picnics on the grounds of the Methodist Church. Eventually, $4,000 was raised, and these funds were delivered to the School Superintendent's office and a new school was constructed soon thereafter.
Recreational activities included baseball games at the ball diamond behind the school. Baseball legends from both the National Baseball League and the Negro National League visited Turkey Creek and played on this baseball diamond. Legendary Cleveland Indians catcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige and Hall of Fame member Josh Gibson (1911-1947; Homestead Grays; Pittsburgh Crawfords) came to Turkey Creek to play baseball as part of the fish fry/barbecue fundraisers organized by Artemise Tuggle. In 1937, Grays' manager and co-owner Cum Posey wrote that Gibson was "the best ballplayer, white or colored, that we have seen in all our years of following baseball." Joe DiMaggio described Satchel Paige as "The best and fastest pitcher I've ever faced."
Prior to the end of racial segregation, when Turkey Creek residents were banned from the beaches of the Gulf Coast, locals contented themselves with bathing and swimming in the refreshing waters of the creek. According to the Reverend Calvin Johnson, Turkey Creek would also attract nearby residents of Soria City and North Gulfport.
Despite repeated threats from outside development, highway construction and airport expansion, the residents of the Turkey Creek Community Historic District have persevered in maintaining the distinct cultural nature of the community. The cohesiveness of the community rests on the pillars of family, religion, education and a common heritage dating back to the earliest settlers who came to the Turkey Creek area seeking land ownership and the possibility of creating a community for themselves and their descendants. The extent to which that has been accomplished was recognized by the Mississippi Heritage Trust in 2001 when Turkey Creek was named one of Mississippi's Ten Most Endangered Historic Places.
† William M. Gatlin, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Turkey Creek Community Historic District, Harrison County, Mississippi, nomination document, 2007, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.