Volunteers hand out items collected by Gathering of Hearts to impoverished residents of Lambert, Miss., in this February 2009 photo. The organization, co-founded by Mattapan resident Ines Soto-Palmarin and genealogist Antoinette Harrell, will join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in leading the Poor People’s Campaign March this June. (Walter C. Black Sr. photo)
|Residents of Lambert, Miss., receive donations collected by Gathering of Hearts during the group’s trip to the Delta this past February. Co-founders Ines Soto-Palmarin and Antoinette Harrell are already collecting donations for the nonprofit’s next trip, and they hope to launch a new learning center in Lambert this summer. (Walter C. Black Sr. photo)
In February, Ines Soto-Palmarin left Boston driving a truck loaded with donations and headed for the Mississippi Delta. She wanted to honor the memory of her deceased husband, Jorge Palmarin Jr., by helping some of the neediest families in the country.
Soto-Palmarin, co-founder of Gathering of Hearts, a nonprofit that aims to help people in need, accomplished her goal. With genealogist and researcher Antoinette Harrell, her partner in starting the organization, Soto-Palmarin gave away clothes and furniture to families, and distributed toys and shoes to children. Together, they led a convoy of politicians, students, social workers and scholars to the Delta, raising awareness about the excruciating poverty that has persisted for decades in rural areas of the South.
“[The trip in February] was an intergenerational experience,” said Soto-Palmarin, who was accompanied by volunteers ranging in age from 15 to 90. “And one thing leads to another, because [people from the Mississippi Delta have] such a pressing need that people just join and want to be part of it.”
Because the job of fighting poverty in the rural Delta is far from complete, Soto-Palmarin and Harrell have started to plot their organization’s next moves. In June, the two women and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) will lead the Poor People’s Campaign March. The SCLC joined Gathering of Hearts’ cause last month, after a delegation led by its president, Dr. Byron Clay, toured the Mississippi Delta, guided by Harrell.
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC organized the Poor People’s Campaign to address issues of economic justice. Starting in the small city of Marks, Miss., King traveled throughout the country, gathering a group to protest peacefully in Washington for a new bill of rights for the poor.
“Dr. King’s economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America’s cities,” said Harrell. “Forty-one years later, some of the same issues that Dr. King wanted to address are still alive … because some of these areas have not changed.”
Harrell said she thinks that with the economic crisis continuing to impact Americans, the timing for another march couldn’t be better.
“We must do more to help those in need,” said Harrell. “While many people live in the comfort of their own homes and lives, millions of people right here in the United States do not have enough food to eat — not to mention living in homes with holes in the floors and walls big enough for any small animal to crawl in.”
Soto-Palmarin and Harrell are now collecting the first donations for the next trip. Through the Hyde Park branch of the Boston Public Library, a private donor is in the process of donating 1,000 books to jumpstart a learning center that Gathering of Hearts wants to launch in Lambert, Miss., in June. The nonprofit is negotiating with the mayor of Lambert, the town that inspired the creation of Gathering of Hearts last October, for the town’s city hall to host the books, at least temporarily.
“There’s no library in Lambert,” said Soto-Palmarin.
Gathering of Hearts got its start last October. Soto-Palmarin had decided to go on a trip to the Delta with a friend to take a break from the pain of losing her husband. Jorge Palmarin Jr. died of cancer a year ago at the age of 37.
When she got there, she saw families living in decrepit wooden homes with trash bags for windows. Children played on the dirt roads with cans, the only “toys” available.
Lambert’s Main Street was a handful of beaten-up vacant stores. Soto-Palmarin recalls that the few markets around sold only cigarettes, liquor and potato chips. To her surprise, the old railroad stop tower where African Americans used to be lynched and hanged was still standing.
After seeing the conditions there, Soto-Palmarin started organizing the February trip to the Delta with Harrell. Accompanied by family and friends, Soto-Palmarin drove to New Jersey to get more donations into the half-full truck. In Louisiana, Harrell filled it up with more offerings.
“You couldn’t have fit one more thing in that truck. It was packed,” said Soto-Palmarin.
When they got to the Delta, more than 60 people were waiting outside their homes.
“It was very emotional,” said Soto-Palmarin. “People were just asking for blankets.”
On June 19, Gathering of Hearts and SCLC will hold a public hearing in Lambert to address human rights issues like affordable housing, health care, education and jobs. The two organizations are inviting elected officials, representatives of housing programs and other organizations that could contribute to improving the quality of life of impoverished people living in rural areas of the Mississippi Delta.
“We want to do this … so the community has an opportunity to talk about their needs,” said Soto-Palmarin.
The following day, June 20, the Poor People’s Campaign March will gather a crowd to walk to the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. The starting point is still being discussed.
According to Harrell, the march will be an opportunity to protest the hardships that families in America have experienced for decades, and to question Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s decision to refuse unemployment funds for his state through the $787 billion federal stimulus package. Barbour and several other Republican governors, including Sarah Palin of Alaska and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, have rejected the money, saying it would force their states to pay more for their unemployment systems in the future.
Gathering of Hearts and SCLC are inviting nonprofit organizations, scholars, community leaders, church leaders and many other prominent citizens to attend the public hearing and the march.
Soto-Palmarin and Harrell said they feel optimistic about the upcoming event, since they have been successful in every plan they made thus far.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, Ines and I,” said Harrell. “We gave people an opportunity to have their voices heard.”
But the two women also said they feel this is only the beginning of a long journey. Solving poverty issues in the rural Delta “is not something we can do overnight,” said Harrell.
“But I feel we gave it a great start,” she added.
For more information on the Poor People’s Campaign March, contact Gathering of Hearts at 985-229-8001.
See first-hand what Soto-Palmarin, Harrell and Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Dr. Byron Clay saw during one recent trip to survey the living conditions in Fluker, La., one of many impoverished places in the Delta region. More »
“Life [with my husband] was being out there helping people and our
family,” said Ines Soto-Palmarin, her eyes welling with tears as she sat in
her Mattapan home. “So I thought helping those people would be a good way to heal and
honor my husband ... I had to come back and do something.” More »
“Life [with my husband] was being out there helping people and our family,” said Ines Soto-Palmarin, her eyes welling with tears as she sat in her Mattapan home. “So I thought helping those people would be a good way to heal and honor my husband ... I had to come back and do something.” More »
Genealogist Antoinette Harrell's Web site features information on her research into post-abolition 20th century slavery and the system of peonage, which she argues has had a significant impact on the socioeconomic conditions for many people, especially African Americans, in the rural South. More »