Helena, Arkansas, is a bleak place in the mist of winter, pandemic and after years of steady decline. Some of the historic buildings’ roofs have caved in, after an April storm of straight-line winds tore through town. As the sun sets early against the Mississippi River a few blocks away, many of the stories that remain, a small boutique, a defy-the-odds ice cream shop and a burger joint, have already closed up for the night.
But there is one surprising sign of renewal: one of the old storefront windows on Cherry Street is washed, with a well-designed sign that wouldn’t be out of place in New York City: Delta Dirt Distillery. For two years, the sign said: Coming Soon.
The week before Christmas, the first bottles of sweet potato vodka finally came. Produced out of tubers grown in the rich Delta farmland, the cases sold out within hours.
Inside the distillery’s tasting room, couches and a broad U-shaped bar invite samplers – though there aren’t any, yet, given the pandemic. Giant steel and copper boilers, as shiny as well-polished jewelry, are visible behind a room-dominating window.
Delta Dirt Distillery represents the life savings, ambitions and idealism of a successful Black family. Harvey and Donna Williams grew up in neighboring Lee County and came back to be close to family. When the idea came along to get in on a new edge of distilling – sweet potatoes — they realized they could both build a profitable business and help the region they love.
“I want the Delta to be more than what the Delta has always been,” Williams said. “I mean that in terms of the economy, and race-relations wise.”
The Delta, which includes parts of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, is one of the poorest regions of America, if not the very poorest. A third of people in the entire state of Mississippi, live in poverty (probably much more than that, given the pandemic). Here in Helena, Phillips County, the poverty rate was more than 45% in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The federal poverty line is $26,200 for a family of four.
Yet, the Delta is also home to some of the richest culture in America. Robert Johnson walked crossroads in this region. One of the bright spots in Helena’s economy is the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival, which draws international crowds every October.
Beautiful cypress swamps mark the landscape. And the Mississippi runs through all of it. The world’s fourth longest river is on its ways to the Gulf of Mexico by the time it gets to this section of Arkansas. It’s a transportation route, a tourism attraction and a shipping lane for the agriculture that still dominates this place.
One of those pieces of history is memorialized in Helena, the county seat. A few blocks away from Delta Dirt, stands a two-year-old memorial to the Elaine Sharecroppers Massacre. A hundred years earlier, when sharecroppers tried to organize in nearby Elaine, the Arkansas governor sent in troops to slaughter Black families. Hundreds of people were killed in one of worst instances, and most forgotten cases, of racial violence in U.S. history.
That the Distillery exists – or that the Williams family have had the prosperous middle class lives they’ve led — is in part due to the brave and canny actions of Harvey’s grandfather, a sharecropper himself. His story has been handed down in the family.
Days of Prosperity
Harvey and Donna Williams, who met in high school, grew up outside Helena, on farms. Coming to town to buy school clothes or visit the pharmacy was an event. “Cherry Street was the place to be,” Donna says. But there weren’t jobs locally; big employers, like Mohawk Rubber, were closing up shop.
They had to leave. Harvey, who has a degree from the University of Arkansas, worked his way up to become plant manager at Hillshire Brands, Tyson Foods, and now, Shearer’s Snacks, Donna followed his career. They have three children.
When, in 2016, they decided to return because Harvey got a job offer nearby, it was because they wanted to come home. “I’ve always had a yearning for community,” Harvey says. The decision turned out to be a blessing, they say, because Donna’s father became ill shortly after.
Harvey’s brother and father still farm the 86 acres they own, plus land that they rent. Fifteen years ago, they had switched from corn, soybeans and wheat to vegetables, which are more profitable and have more predictable markets. Squash, zucchini and … sweet potatoes.
That set Harvey, with his long career in food processing, to thinking. He was aware from industry groups that sweet potato vodka was just starting to boil up. Turning sweet potatoes into alcohol would be a value add for an already valuable crop. He researched, thought about it, and researched some more.
Finally Donna stepped in, which is the role she often plays in their relationship. “Either we do it or we don’t,” she said. And the decision was made: They would do it. And they would do it in Helena.
They had both watched as the town had sunk further. Without a local labor force, landing a big company was unlikely. Small businesses of the kind that draw tourists, like those who stop and wander the streets from the Mississippi river boat tours, or the 30,000 or so people that come once a year for the Blues Festival, had to be the answer.
“We want this to be a catalyst,” Harvey says.
In 2016-17, the family got serious. They approached Southern Bancorp for a loan, but were turned down because, Harvey said, the bank didn’t know enough about the distillery industry. But once they were in – the Williams were all the way in. They invested their life savings, about $900,000, in Delta Dirt, and they asked their youngest son, Thomas, to become a master distiller at a course in Kentucky’s Moonshine University. It’s a sacrifice – but the pandemic and the isolation meant that he had time to perfect a recipe, which is indeed delicious, peppery and high-proof. It’s sipping vodka and has already made its way to a party of liquor connoisseurs, pilots.
The Williams are, statistically speaking, rare. The average White family in America has nearly 10 times the wealth of the average Black or Latino family. The average Black family where the head of household has a college education has less than one-third the wealth of a similarly situated White family. According to data published by the federal government, 15% of White families had a net worth of over $1 million in 2016. Compare that to just under 2% of Black families, according to Federal Reserve data.
As Axios has noted and organizations including the Kauffman Foundation and Living Cities are trying to change with a $100 million fund of funds for Black VCs, the wealth gap is pervasive and systemic.
The reasons for the disparity are deeply woven into U.S. society. Wealth on the order of what it takes to launch a well-capitalized business is almost always built across generations, through the ownership of assets and higher education, which also takes money to access.
But for hundreds of years, Black families (and women and others – but those are different chapters in the same story) were denied the opportunity to legally own assets. In the Delta in the decades around the turn of the 20th century, that denial took the form of sharecropping.
In return for the right to farm the land, the sharecropper sold a portion – sometimes a large portion — of his crop to the landowner. The nominal idea was that the sharecropper would earn enough to eventually to buy the farm – but in reality, abusive practices, like marked down prices for the crops or high rents for equipment, meant that few ever worked their way out of the system.
Williams’ grandfather, the son of a sharecropper himself, did. According to the family legend, he talked to a banker to figure out exactly how much he owed. He harvested his crop and took it some distance away to sell it, achieving a much higher price than his landowner would have paid. The landowner was in a bind: without the crop that he planned to resell at a higher price, he had almost no choice but to accept the cash in exchange for the farm. In truth, given the context of the Elaine Massacre a quarter-century earlier, Williams’ grandfather was likely taking his life into his hands. “He took a huge risk,” Harvey says.
The Future For Delta Dirt
Aside from not being able to get a loan, the Helena community has been warm and supportive, the Williams said. The city’s economic development director helped with permits and water supply. Bubba Sullivan, the founder of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, stopped by with a bottle of Four Roses Bourbon to welcome Delta Dirt to the neighborhood. In fact, gin and, eventually, bourbon are on the agenda.
Of course, the Distillery has a long way to go. It is a complicated business, with a patchwork of local and state regulations. In Arkansas, for instance, a business cannot be both a manufacturer and distributor, or a manufacturer and a retailer. But five years from now, Williams wants to have grown across the country.
For now, they are producing eight cases of vodka a week, at $25 a bottle.
“One of the things we are super proud of is that we chose this location,” Donna says.
Three generations later, Harvey has looked over the old ledgers and receipts to reconstruct what his grandfather did. As he tells the story in the middle of the Delta Dirt Distillery and later, when I take a sip of the vodka, we share a moment of appreciation.