Although miles and time now separate him from it, for Kenneth Weeden, Tunica will always be home.
Weeden was born in Tunica at Dr. Noble’s Clinic in November 1952, on the day before Eisenhower was elected. His parents were Rogers S. Weeden and Nellie Williams Bland Weeden.
They lived in the North Subdivision, which had recently been built to provide a place to live for blacks that didn’t work on a plantation. In fact, Weeden’s grandfather, who was a carpenter from a long line of highly skilled craftsmen, built several houses in the Old Sub, some of which still stand today.
Weeden began his education at a Rosenwald school. Rosenwald schools, founded by Julius Rosenwald, co-owner of Sears Roebuck Co., provided blacks the opportunity to receive an education. Weeden says the school was a small, four room building with no air conditioning or indoor plumbing. But nevertheless, he learned a great deal there. He credits this to excellent teachers, who went beyond the basic curriculum. In spite of limited resources, students were instructed in science, history and the arts. When he finished fourth grade, he continued his education at Rosa Fort.
But a typical school did not look the same as it does today. The schools were segregated by race and the yearly schedule for the blacks’ school revolved around cotton farming. These were the days before widespread use of industrial farm equipment, herbicides and insecticides. Human hands were the primary source of productivity. Students attended school from June until late August, and when the first cotton bowl opened, school was dismissed so cotton picking could begin. Classes resumed in November, after the crop was harvested, and continued until May, when it was time to pull weeds.
Kenneth says that as a small child, he was unaware of the inequities that existed between blacks and whites. But as he grew up, he began to notice differences that went beyond separate waiting rooms and different water fountains. One memory that has remained particularly vivid for him came after a long day of picking cotton.
He was headed home, dirty and sweaty, in the back of a pick up truck. It was a Friday evening, and as they drove closer to town he noticed bright lights, heard music and a crowd cheering. It was a football game. The obvious question was, “Why aren’t my friends and I playing in a football game?”
It was the early 1960’s, and by then the winds of change were blowing steadily and the civil rights movement was in full swing. Stories on the nightly national news and in the papers told of demonstrations across the South and the country. Many non-violent protests were held in Tunica county, several of which Weeden participated in.
He remembers the marches consisted mainly of students and young people, with the initial organizers coming in from other parts of the country. He recalls one such demonstration in Tunica in front of the movie theater where the fire trucks were brought out and another where police dogs were brought to the scene. No water was ever turned on, and the dogs were never released into the crowd. He believes they were there mostly for intimidation purposes.
In 1970, Weeden continued his education at the University of Mississippi. And even though James Meredith paved the way for African Americans to attend Ole Miss in 1962, eight years later, Weeden was still one of a select few blacks at the university. He remembers getting his room assignment, going up to his dorm room and seeing his white roommate sitting on the bed listening to an eight-track tape. Weeden introduced himself, put his things down and left for a tour of campus. When he returned, his roommate had completely moved out. Although instances like this were difficult, Weeden was not discouraged. He resolved to study hard and graduated in three years.
He began his college career as a sociology and journalism major, inspired by the events of the times and the power the media to facilitate change. But during a summer job working for the Tunica Valley Authority writing developmental analyses he became interested in urban and rural planning. This path led him to apply to graduate school at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill where there was an excellent program in this area of study.
Although it was always his intention to make his way back home, Weeden remained in North Carolina after graduating from UNC Chapel Hill. He married his wife of 39 years, Shirley, whom he met while at Ole Miss and together they raised four children. He founded a successful national consulting firm and has worked all over the eastern and southern United States. But he has heartfelt roots that are and always be in Tunica, Mississippi.
He credits his experiences growing up and the hardships he faced with building a personal character that has allowed him to succeed. His outlook on life is positive and says he always remembers to appreciate the sacrifices of those who came before him. When reflecting on his accomplishments, he quotes Isaac Newton, saying, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Those giants he is referring to are his grandfathers, who set an example through their hardworking mentality and instilling in him the desire to learn even under difficult circumstances.