By Natalie Bell
Special to The Mississippi Link
Currently serving his fourth term as mayor of Mississippi’s fourth largest city, Johnny L. DuPree, Ph.D. walks into a room with a sense of urgency, visibly and audibly excited about the possibilities for success for Hattiesburg and all of Mississippi.
He is Hattiesburg’s first black mayor, first elected in 2001, and still going strong, focusing on what he sees as his purpose – building healthy families and putting them in stable homes, where the door to prosperity is open.
He sat down with The Mississippi Link to talk about what drives him as a political leader in the face of obvious challenges in Mississippi – a state with 37-percent African-American population and the highest number of black elected officials, but still has not elected a black politician to statewide office since Reconstruction. Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation and one of the most conservative.
DuPree said one of the hallmarks of his success has been building bridges.
“There’s no one place that has all the resources that you need. One thing that stifles many African Americans is our inability to reach out to other places and connect,” he said.
When solutions to problems have not been in sight, he has searched to find them. He’s become so well known in circles such as the Mississippi and National Leagues of Cities, and the Mississippi and U.S. Conferences of Mayors, they’re now looking to him for guidance.
In June of 2015, the U.S. Conference of Mayors named Hattiesburg one of America’s Most Livable Cities, in its population category of under 100,000. Just this month, DuPree has been appointed to the National League of Cities’ Youth, Education and Families Board.
DuPree is a 62-year-old real estate broker-turned-politician, who started his public service on the Hattiesburg School Board, then the Forrest County Board of Supervisors. He has now stood 15 years as mayor of Hattiesburg, and shows no sign of slowing down. Too much work yet to get done, he said.
“When you build on relationships, people learn who you are. Then, you’re also learning who other people are and learning that – people are just people. The core of most people is to help because there’s a feeling you get from helping people that you don’t get when you hurt people,” he said.
He continued praising the value of building relationships. “It’s a whole different kind of feeling, reaching out to people to give them an opportunity to feel good.”
The most recent census from 2013 places Hattiesburg’s population at 47,556, and demographically at 53-percent black, 41.9-percent white. Nicknamed the “Hub City,” it anchors a tri-county area that includes Forrest, Lamar and Perry Counties, which has a combined population of 146, 996.
The Hattiesburg Convention Commission, created by the state Legislature at the request of the Hattiesburg City Council,in 1990, oversees tourism related operations in the tri-county area. The commission partners with Hattiesburg in numerous ways and has used its revenues from tourism to renovate and reopen historic properties in Hattiesburg’s African-American community, such as its former black U.S. Officers Club, now a unique African-American Military Museum. DuPree is not a member of the Convention Commission. Moreover, he is recognized, as are other mayors in the tri-county, as an ex-officio member of the private, non-profit Greater Hattiesburg Area Development Partnership.
Over the course of his tenure as mayor, DuPree has put forth key initiatives designed to improve the quality of life for his residents. These include special health and financial education services, and a Hattiesburg-area Youth Master Plan. A clinic for city employees, which opened in 2014, gives taxpayers a return on their investment, said DuPree, in the form of a more productive city staff. When people who work for the city are healthy, everyone else benefits, he said.
“When you talk about education. It has no color. Financial stability has no color. Health care has no color. I ache for a white child who has cancer, just like I ache for a black child with cancer.”
As he champions diversity, DuPree preferred not to discuss the state of race relations in the state for this interview.
He ran a race neutral campaign for governor and made history when he was elected state Democratic nominee. He believes that it’s only a matter of time before an African American will win election to statewide office.
Every time he has stood for political office, he said people kept telling him, he couldn’t win.
What’s needed in Mississippi, he said, is for more African Americans to go out and try to become part of the “the establishment.”
“We tell each other we can’t do it, but what we’re actually saying is I can’t do it. We have to get out there and try.”
DuPree said he draws inspiration from those early black Southerners who were elected to state and federal offices during Reconstruction.
“They laid the groundwork for my success and the successes of other African Americans. Their picture is a symbol of hope because it is a constant reminder that anything is possible.”