Profile 2020: Hollands Making a Difference in MoorheadBy BY RECARDO THOMAS STAFF REPORTER,
Sometimes the calling that God places on your life takes you to places that you never thought you would go, and Mayor George Holland and his wife Johnna are now fully aware of that.
Although they were born in and around Moorhead and raised up in the small Delta town, Mayor Holland and Johnna, moved away in the 60s, while still in their youth, with no intent of returning for anything more than a visit.
But God had other plans for them.
The couple have been back in their hometown since 2007, working to make a difference. It all began in 2006 when the Hollands were making plans to retire.
After a brief initial stay in Chicago, the couple had spent 40 years living and working in St. Louis and had their hearts set on retiring there.
They had no idea that God had different plans. Mayor Holland said he never thought they would be back in Mississippi.
“When I mentioned it to Johnna, she thought I was crazy,” he said.
Johnna said, “I was looking at a new home, because they were building a new subdivision, so I had just fallen in love with this model home. I thought we would move there. I had no idea we were coming all of the way back down here.”
Leaving St. Louis, all of their children and grandchildren behind. Johnna said, “George thought he was going to come and be a minister at one of these churches here in the community and I just thought I was going to come sit on the patio and read a book and go fishing.”
However, when they arrived George was asked to run for mayor, which took them by surprise. Nonetheless, the Hollands accepted that their mission was to come back and help so they came in working, getting involved with the chamber of commerce and forming the group, Friends of Moorhead Children.
They recall that they had plenty of resources, but after a while the children simply stopped coming, which was surprising considering they had a thriving youth ministry in Missouri that continually serviced hundreds of children weekly.
Johnna said in St. Louis they were always busy working and doing church work, but never really getting involved in the community. “So when we came here and got involved with the community, this is something new for us altogether,” she said.
Johnna said, “We use to walk around this whole town almost everyday.” So, one of their first community projects was to beautify the downtown eyesores. They got permission from the buildings’ owners to board up the structures and paint murals and some of the owners even bought the plywood.
Johnna and now Mayor Holland would bring the plywood back to their garage and use an overhead projector to draw and paint pictures of different kinds of retail shops, pet stores, flower shops, etc., that she found on the Internet and then place the finished artwork on the buildings.
Paint stores donated paint or provided it at a reduced cost and citizens volunteered to help
paint. She fondly recalls how one of her neighbors came into her garage and helped her paint some of the murals and how it created a bond between them. “Some people would say, ‘when is the pet store coming?” She laughed, “There was no pet store coming, but it gave you the illusion,” she said.
Mayor Holland said that really got a lot started. Next they applied for a grant to revive the old train depot and started the Moorhead Planning Commission. “Through that organization and other fundraisers and getting the community involved we raised enough money to start working on the inside ourselves,” he said.
They raised money selling personalized bricks that are now placed near the spot where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog. The Depot is now a visitors center for the town and people come from all over the world. “We gave them a reason to stop in Moorhead,” Holland said.
The Hollands assert that the town is not yet where they would like for it to be, but it’s far from where it use to be.
Some of the other projects they’ve assisted or headed include acquiring the money to rehab the Welcome to Moorhead sign, the street lighting project and the current walking trail, which they plan to extend down to Cherry Street.
The town has also obtained a grant to run a sewer system out to the Dollar General store that was annexed into the town. And they also witnessed the opening of the Phillips’ Medical Center last year and are making plans to repave the street where it’s located.
Mayor Holland said, “I believe that these types of projects not only change the vision or change the view of the town, but it changes the mentality.” He talked about how even a little progress can cause people to think differently and see the dissimilarity in looking at a town that was stagnant or digressing versus one that is growing, has a future and has something to offer.
The Hollands have a vision for Moorhead to be a community where people will want to live, raise a family and retire.
“I don’t see these small towns being what they used to be with all of the little mom and pop stores with every door open, I don’t see that with the super Walmarts and the Dollar Generals, but I do see communities like ours can be a great place to live, a great place to raise your family, a great place to retire,” Mayor Holland said.
He said, “Things have changed and we have to change with the times.”
Mayor Holland was called to pastor a small church in Duncan, just off U.S. 61, between Cleveland and Clarksdale, from 2008 to 2016 where he ministered and cultivated a strong youth following. “We left there because we had served our time there,” he said.
He has no regrets about leaving that position. “The ministry that God showed me when I was in St. Louis was here in Moorhead, not so much as the pastor,” he said.
Holland said his vision was to work in the area where he and his wife now attend church. “The vision was there, but the revitalization was for the whole community, the black community, the white community, changing not just the grounds or the community, but the mindset of the people, to build the community,” he added.
Johnna said, “Now, when I walk down the street, I feel like it’s home. I feel like it’s a place where we want to live.” She said they are always trying to find ways to draw people into their ministry because it makes them a part of it and the person’s interest leads to pride and possibly future leadership.
“That’s what our whole life is about, getting somebody to follow you, somebody’s got to carry on,” she said.
Johnna recalled how one of the children, who grew up around them and spent countless hours at their home in their St. Louis neighborhood later became a school principal and shared the impact that she unknowingly had on his life. “You never know how you touch somebody,” she said.
As a 1967 graduate of Gentry High school, Johnna said finding work in the Delta was difficult after she graduated and it was hard to find a way to support herself, so she moved to Chicago and George followed her three months later. “The idea of college at that time didn’t come up in my family,” she said.
They got married in 1968; on the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was shot. George said they were “18 and green as all outdoors.” Johnna added, “Nobody told us we were too young to get married, nobody told us that we were too poor to get married, nobody told us anything, but it worked out.” George chimed in, “It’ll be 52 years in April.”
After only nine months in the windy city, the small town couple gave up life in the big city and moved to St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to the Chicago climate not being suitable for George’s asthma, they were not comfortable there. “It was just too fast for us, being country people,” he said.
They spent the remainder of their time away from Moorhead in St. Louis working, raising their family and revitalizing their community. Initially, they worked together at an electric motor manufacturer before George joined the Teamsters and started working as a truck driver, something he continued for 30 years.
Johnna went back to school and became a teacher, and her first assignment was in a predominantly all white neighborhood, a job that she never expected to get when she interviewed for it. “The culture was really different, I use to cry all of the way to work and cry all of the way back home,” she said.
Reflecting back on her earlier times at that school, Johnna said there was one thing that made her feel ill-at-ease. Apparently, she was regarded as the spokesperson for the black community; and that was a position that she was not comfortable with.
She said the whites at her school seem to be under the impression that whatever she said was the way all black people felt.
She stated how her personal opinions were passed around as if they were the standard for all blacks. “My self-esteem wasn’t so high that I felt like I was an authority over what black people thought or felt,” she added.
Eventually, she began to see a plus side to her position. “I learned a lot by just listening,” she said.
Johnna mentioned how she had always heard that black people could not get loans, but she saw that others were getting them and she would overhear the whites telling each other that all they had to do was apply and that some times they would get a loan and sometimes they wouldn’t.
Adapting that way of thinking, she said. “If they can do it, why can’t we?” so she and George started buying up old dilapidated properties that were eyesores and in danger of being condemned in their neighborhood and renovating them. “We actually brought life to a dying neighborhood,” said George.
“That really helped us to get on our feet and to get established so that we can be where we are today,” he said. Johnna asserted that at the time they were just barely making it and she felt like everyone else was doing better than they were.
Their first home cost just over $8,000 with an $80 monthly note, but she said they struggled to pay it. “That $80 was more like $800 today,” she said.
George said Johnna had lots of ideas. “She would go in and tear down a wall, so I had to put it back,” he said.
The Hollands said at first people couldn’t see the positiveness in what they were doing and reacted jealously towards them, but later after seeing the outcome, acknowledged that they understood what they were trying to do. “I learned so much by being in that environment,” Johnna said. Many of their tenants either bought the homes they were renting or were able to buy other homes.
They agree that they have learned a lot over the years. “We grew up together, we raised each other because we got married so young and so green,” George said. Johnna added, “The beauty of it is that we were able to do things together, learn together. Where I had a weakness, he had a strength, so we used that.”
The couple said despite where they are in life now; they haven’t always lived a quiet non-partying lifestyle. George said he experienced a “life transformation” and was called into ministry at the age of 39. “There were a lot of struggles and a lot of ups and downs,” he said.
He got involved with the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis where Johnna was already a member. And after attending biblical seminary, he became an associate minister there.
He praised the church and its leader as a driving force in their life and in the community in which the church is located. He credits that pastor’s vision as the inspiration that propelled them to where they are spiritually.
Ruminating the course their life has taken, the couple is in agreement that the Lord has blessed and brought them a long way. George grew up on a plantation where his family were sharecroppers with 13 people in the home including his mother and father.
Johnna got her start on Inwood Street where her mother was a beautician and one of the town’s first entrepreneurs while her father worked at the oil mill and traveled a lot looking for work until one day, he left and didn’t come back. She said her mother raised six children predominantly alone.
As for the work they are now doing in Moorhead, Holland said they would continue until God gives them something else. He alluded to their community service being only for a time and a purpose. “We didn’t come into this, didn’t get into this to stay in this,” he said.
Recalling how their prior assignments have been only temporary, Johnna said, “Isn’t it funny how that works, when your time is up, for whatever reason, He moves you.” She said they think of themselves as “starters” because that has seemingly been the pattern for their lives.
She added, “But God blesses it, you don’t think about how God has a plan for your life until you look up and you say, oh, there IS a pattern.”
The Hollands are hopeful that someone will take over their ministry in the community even after they are gone. George said, “I believe God will raise up.”