MOUNT STERLING, Ky. — Jolene Jouett took a short puff from her cigarette and looked out the window at the neighborhood she has known her entire life. She spoke aloud to herself, repeating the question: How had it changed these past 60 years?
Nestled around the boarded-up DuBois Community Center, this predominantly black neighborhood is just a short distance from the rest of timeworn Mount Sterling, a Kentucky town of several thousand people. Just 3 percent of the town’s population is African American, and many of them live along the hilly streets of this particularly frayed neighborhood, where the houses collapsing on their wood frames betray the rural county’s deep poverty, which is even more pronounced among the minorities here.
The community center — once a segregation-era school for black students — for years had a chronically leaky roof, rotting bleachers and crumbling walls until, in 2010, it, too, succumbed to disrepair and was closed for safety reasons. Its closure jolted the neighborhood, whose history is closely tied to the building.
The federal government provided hope for a path toward recovering the historical landmark and community pillar. With $600,000 in federal funding announced in 2014, the DuBois restoration council brought the building back up to code. The center is scheduled to reopen next month with a new gym on the main level to host children, tutoring events, job retraining programs and special programs for black youths.
But the center remains unfinished. President Trump’s proposed budget cuts would end the grant programs that residents hoped would help fund the rest of the restoration. On the campaign trail, Trump had asked African Americans what they had to lose if they voted for him. Here, that question has tangible answers.
Jonikka Garrett, Jouett’s daughter, said she believes many of Trump’s critics have gloated that rural Americans voted for Trump only to see his administration release a budget that would hurt rural voters particularly hard — and ignoring the reality that one-fifth of rural Americans are minorities who probably did not support the president.
“They’re saying, ‘Those people are getting what they deserve.’ And I don’t think they’re taking into account that a lot of people here didn’t vote for him, and we’re suffering, too,” said Garrett, 37. “Personally, I think it’s about being okay with taking another person’s assistance without realizing they’re going to take away yours as well.”
The same year DuBois closed, downtown Mount Sterling began a years-long revitalization and redevelopment effort, and vibrant new shops are opening where shuttered ones once languished. The result presents a striking contrast between the white and black parts of town, separated by just two roads and a short drive uphill.
Has the neighborhood changed from how it was 60 years ago? Jouett says the area around it always has been blacker and poorer than the rest of town; and African American families such as hers could buy and afford houses in the neighborhood even when segregation was the law of the land.
She remembers attending the DuBois School when it was an all-black Rosenwald school teaching kindergarten through 12th grade — one of the last in Kentucky to integrate. When a fire burned the school down in 1964, she and her friends initially felt unwelcome at their new school, and they yearned for their own community space.
“I can remember when we first went to the white schools. It’s like they were scared of us, and we were scared of them. They kept their little cliques, and we kept ours,” she said. “But you know how kids are. Eventually kids are just kids.”
Valerie Scott, who is on the board overseeing the DuBois revitalization, said she thinks children would benefit from structured programming after school and during the summers, when schools are out of session, to give them the tools they need for success.
“A lot of things come down to networking. A lot of these kids’ parents don’t have a network, they don’t have the right circle to get into these certain programs,” Scott said. “This grant allows us to give that opportunity to these kids in this community. I don’t think it’s discrimination, I really don’t. I think it comes down to networking and access.”
Scott and the rest of the board hope to receive more grant funding to fix up the downstairs, a hollowed-out space full of dirt and debris that they envision transforming into classroom areas where they can teach black history, host arts projects and stock a library. Perhaps they could create a neighborhood clinic, part time, which Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has proposed as part of his “holistic” approach to housing redevelopment. She also said the room could serve as a center for police officers to interact with community members beyond responding to complaints.
For now, the windows remain bricked up to prevent break-ins, and mounds of debris cover the floor. An old scoreboard sits in a corner, and stacks of old school chairs sit in an empty room. “We’re going to keep all that, clean it up,” Scott said.
Carmela Green, 49, grew up in Mount Sterling and attended events and camps at the DuBois Center when she was a child. Those memories were at the top of her mind as she assisted with the grant-writing process that secured the redevelopment funding. A physician assistant by trade, she is also a member of several Mount Sterling community boards and is the vice president of the DuBois revitalization.
Green said she has seen significant improvements in community race relations during her lifetime, and she points to local white business leaders who have taken an interest in DuBois and have volunteered their time to help with the project. But she also acknowledged that young black children see few role models in town, few visages of upward mobility. Those individuals who do get a college education often move away to cities.
“We don’t see African American people in our city council, in leadership in our town,” Green said. “And so when they become educated and get their degree, they’re going to go to where the opportunity is best for them.”
Green hopes that the area will qualify for community development grants in the future, which could help revitalize the blighted parts of the neighborhood.
“It’s about having someone believe in you. Most of the people in this area work, they work hard. But sometimes you’re trying to put your kid through school, and you just don’t have enough money,” she said. “We’re all the same. We all strive to have a successful, prosperous life. I think with time, as long as those grants don’t go away, it’s going to happen.”