I think it’s time to explain what I’m doing. The New York Times published an article last summer that ranked all 3,135 counties in the US from the easiest to the hardest place to live. They used six data points: education, unemployment, life expectancy, median income, obesity, and disability. You can view the list here:
My home, Los Alamos County, New Mexico, ranks as the easiest place to live in America. This struck me, and I decided I needed to visit all of the counties on the list, working my way from the bottom up. I needed to understand the spectrum, to see what makes one place easier than another.
I have gone back and forth over whether to write about this project, or to let my pictures speak for themselves. Initially, I thought I would write something about each county I visited. After visiting Clay County, I decided not to write at all. I didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to try to tell other people’s stories. In Bronx, New York, there is a tour bus company that runs through the projects, marketing “ghetto tours.” Above all else, I didn’t want my project to become a “ghetto tour.” I didn’t want to wander around struggling areas and come back and tell my middle-class friends what life was like on the other side.
My fiancee and I have been to six counties now. Clay, Jackson, Leslie, and Lee Counties- all in Kentucky; Humphreys County, Mississippi; and East Carroll Parrish, Louisiana. After our visit to Humphreys County, Mississippi, I changed my mind again. I need to write about this project, about this process. Each of these counties has offered surprise treasures, glimpses of hope and generosity where there is little to give.
In Clay County, there is the Oneida Baptist Institute, founded by James Anderson Burns, when he believed he could end Kentucky’s bloody feuds by bringing education to the people. In Jackson County, there is an effort under way to restore the Annville Institute and turn it into an Appalachian Cultural center. In Leslie County, the Frontier Nursing Service has been training midwives and providing pre- and post-natal care to mothers and children across Eastern Kentucky. In Lee County, the Happy Top Recreation Center provides magnificent 360 degree views of the Kentucky hills. In Humphreys County, Mississippi, Helen Sims runs Mississippi’s first Civil Rights Museum out of an old house on Highway 49.
Ms. Sims runs at least three museums out of that house– The George Lee Museum, The Pinetop Perkins Museum, and the Fanny Lou Hamer Museum. She is there, waiting to tell her stories to anyone who wants to hear them. She acts as a thoughtul, devoted, determined curator of the history of Humphreys County, Mississippi. Her history is a part of our national story.
There may be hundreds of miles between Los Alamos County, New Mexico; Clay County, Kentucky; and Humphreys County, Mississippi, but they are not so far apart. The stories that each of these places have to offer are worthy of our time and our attention. They are valuable. They are the stories that make American the great nation that it is. I can’t tell Ms. Sims’ story for her, but what I can do is make sure you know she’s there, ready to tell it. All you have to do is go ask her.