Mary Spinks Thigpen: Passionate activist works for rebirth of rehab neighborhood -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Mary Spinks Thigpen: Passionate activist works for rebirth of rehab neighborhood

Thirty homes will be rehabilitated in Mary Spinks Thigpen’s Forest Heights neighborhood during this year’s Carter Work Project. “I’m not only hopeful that the neighborhood will be better than ever, I’m looking forward to it with great anticipation,” Thigpen said.

In Gulfport, Mississippi, Mary Spinks Thigpen’s reputation precedes her.

“She is fiery and fired up,” said Erica Higgs, family services manager at Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Maria Morris, who works with Lutheran Social Services in Gulfport, agrees: “She is very passionate about her community, and she has a very strong work ethic. You couldn’t ask for a better supporter.”

Mrs. Thigpen is the longtime president of the homeowners’ association in the Forest Heights neighborhood in north Gulfport. During this year’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, volunteers for Habitat for Humanity partnering with Lutheran Social Services will rehab 30 homes in Forest Heights.

You can’t give up

At 65, Mrs. Thigpen is a diminutive, impeccably dressed force of nature.

Another force of nature--the deadly Hurricane Katrina--submerged Mrs. Thigpen’s beloved neighborhood nearly three years ago. Since then, she has been an ardent and articulate advocate for rebuilding.

“I’m not only hopeful that the neighborhood will be better than ever, I’m looking forward to it with great anticipation,” Mrs. Thigpen said. “The God I serve makes it happen. You have to put forth the energy, and just not give up.”

The neighborhood has a proud place in the nation’s history, as one of the first homeownership developments for low-income families. The cul-de-sac community of 200 homes was established in 1967 by the National Council of Negro Women, in cooperation with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and with support from the Ford Foundation. (The name Forest Heights was a tribute to activist Dorothy Height, who was president of Negro Women from 1947 until 1997.)

The requirements for living in Forest Heights were simple and straightforward: Only legally married couples with children were eligible to apply, and the husband had to have a job.

“That’s a little different these days,” Mrs. Thigpen said, acknowledging that “family” can be much loosely defined now than it was in the 1960s. But “home” means as much as it ever did.

Generations live together

Many residents of Forest Heights have lived here for decades. It’s not unusual for multiple generations to share a house, and ownership often transfers to sons and daughters on the death of a parent.

Before Katrina, this area was not considered a flood risk, and so few of the homeowners had any flood insurance. Some of the charitable organizations that showed up to help rebuild Forest Heights immediately after the storm failed to adequately repair damaged roofs or replace wiring. As a result, many homeowners who had returned to their houses in the past year or so have been forced to move back out while work is ripped out and redone. (Wiring damaged by flood waters but not replaced has caused shorts and fires in many houses flooded during Katrina.)

Now, FEMA trailers and storage pods dot the 107-acre community of two- to five-bedroom brick homes. Children play basketball on the streets, unbothered by the slow-moving cars and pick-up trucks, many of which are hauling construction materials to and from work sites.

In its early glory days the first flush of homeownership inspired meticulously manicured lawns and pristine houses, Mrs. Thigpen remembers. Three decades later, the newness has faded--as it always does--but there is still a palpable, collective sense of pride in the place and the people.

All the children

Mrs. Thigpen and her husband, now deceased, moved to Forest Heights in 1972 and raised their two children here: Now their son works for the U.S. government, and their daughter travels around the world for a communications company.

“I am proud not only of my children but of all our children in the community,” Mrs. Thigpen said. “They make me very proud.”

For years Mrs. Thigpen has worked at the Gulfport Boys and Girls Club, teaching children arts and crafts, along with civic duty and everyday etiquette. Every year for the past 16 years, she also has conducted free ACT workshops for high school students who want to get into good colleges or apply for scholarships.

She lives and breathes the lessons that she teaches.

“You don’t get a free ride,” she said. “You are supposed to vote. You are supposed to help your community. … And I teach all my children that it is extremely important to respect every single person. The people who make the eyelet at the end of the shoelace are just as important as the people who make the shoe.”

A proud history

Mrs. Thigpen, an accomplished artist and wedding designer, has been a crusader her whole life, she said, giving full credit to her ancestors for the instinct.

“We’re givers,” Mrs. Thigpen said simply.

Her paternal grandfather was a slave. When he was finally released from bondage, he bought 98 acres in Jasper County, Mississippi. “That was his first free thing to do,” Mrs. Thigpen said. Though he died when her father was only 5, that symbolic piece of property remains in the family.

Like many of her neighbors, Mrs. Thigpen is still coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A blue tarpaulin covers the roof of her empty home on Holly Circle, while she rents a house around the corner until she can rebuild.

“I’m helping everybody else now,” she said.

Mrs. Thigpen vows to step down from the homeowners’ association once all the scars from Katrina aren’t so obvious in her neighborhood.

“As soon as all the houses and the landscaping and the entrance to Forest Heights look wonderful--honoring those people who started this beautiful community--and as soon as our young people have rededicated themselves to keeping it that way, I’m stepping completely down,” she said.

“I will advise,” she added, smiling.

The role seems to fit her perfectly, as the professed godmother of 39, many of whom are preachers or teachers.

“They are somebody,” Mrs. Thigpen said, casually evoking her Missionary Baptist upbringing.

“You know, the world is in the shape it’s in because of us. It’s not the children. We’re the ones who bring them into the world, and we’re the ones who are supposed to teach them.

“Somewhere, we let our duty down.”