Returning to LAUREL: A feel-good HGTV show sweeps a Southern town's racist past, and gentrified present, under the rug.

AuthorOdell, Jonathan
PositionLaurel, Mississippi

When I tell people where I grew up, they say, "Oh, is that the Laurel, Mississippi, on HGTV?" Then they gush, "It sounds just like Mayberry!" parroting one of the perky hosts on the blockbuster home improvement show Home Town.

I suspected the show was repackaging my memories for popular consumption, because my Laurel was no Mayberry. As far as I know, the fictional TV Utopia wasn't 69 percent people of color with some of the highest rates of poverty and crime in the nation, not to mention being home to some of the most horrific acts of racism in the South.

Jonathan Odell is the author of three novels, and his essays and short stories have appeared in The New York Times, Commonweal, Publishers Weekly, the Baltimore Review, the Utne Reader, and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis with his husband.

Here's a snapshot of the Laurel I knew: On May 8, 1951, while my mother was waiting to give birth to me at the towns Masonite Clinic, only six blocks away at the courthouse, Willie McGee, a Black man, was being legally McGee, a Black man, was being legally lynched to the cheers of more than a thousand white citizens.

A few blocks east lived a business owner and Sunday school teacher named Sam Bowers, soon to become the Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard of Mississippi Burning fame. The FBI later investigated Bowers, and he was charged alongside several other pillars of our community--including the Jay-cees' 1968 Man of the Year--with carrying out another infamous atrocity of the civil rights era: firebombing the home of voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer, killing him. We were told by our community leaders to put these incidents behind us and never speak of them again, and we white residents did. Most still do.

In the 1970s, the city fell victim to the trends besetting most small Southern towns after integration. Private segregation academies arose so that white students could avoid going to school with Black students. White residents fled the city limits into the county, and housing values plummeted. No longer confined to the other side of the tracks, the newly emerging majority could move into neighborhoods where they were once welcomed only as domestic or yard workers.

The mass exodus of white people left Laurel with a diminished tax base and decaying infrastructure. The downtown district suffered, and houses and entire neighborhoods fell into disrepair. Eventually, the downtown area and the seven-block historic district dominated by magnificent mansions built by lumber barons became a shrinking white sliver in a predominantly African American pie.

When I visited in 2015 to bury my mother, what wasn't already dead in the city seemed to be on life support.

That's what an HGTV crew saw when they arrived in Laurel that same year: A down-and-out city in dire need of saving--with plenty of cheap housing stock--and not least, an unsavory history of racism, violence, and economic oppression that badly needed a makeover.

After binge-watching several seasons of Home Town, I have to admit, I saw the draw. By restoring Laurel one house at a time, the hosts claim to be building a close-knit, values-driven community that hearkens back to the idealized past that white people like to picture. After watching, even I was longing for this Laurel that never existed.

The hosts, husband-and-wife team Ben and Erin Napier, certainly seem...

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