In my childhood, Interstate 20 east ended at Waverly, Louisiana, which I remember as a railroad crossing with a store (where we would stop for refreshments) and a post office. From there we would have to take old Highway 80 into the town of Tallulah, Louisiana, as we journeyed toward my mother’s parents house in Gulfport, Mississippi, or sometimes to our family reunion in Jackson. I always liked Tallulah. It probably would have been around 1973, and I was six years old. Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” would have been on the radio, or maybe Bread’s “Make It With You”, and I recall the brightly-lit multicolored Christmas trees in the bayou that bisected the little town. Everything seemed quiet and peaceful. Little did I know of another side to Tallulah, more wild and exuberant on the west side of the tracks. There along West Green Street, blues came from jukeboxes or on the bandstands at the Sportsman’s Club, the Fun House, the Green Lantern. Musicians were grabbing dinner at the Hotel Watson before heading to the gig. A few blocks to the north of Highway 80, perhaps the thunderous funk of drum cadences rocked Reuben McCall stadium, or the melodious sound of trumpets and trombones, as the neighborhood turned out for a football game. At the massive Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, a whistle sounded to mark the hustle and bustle of shift change. The West End of Tallulah was a world that six-year-old me knew nothing about.
The first thing that I saw approaching Tallulah from the west along Highway 80 was the large, barb-wire-enclosed hulk of a prison looming to the right of the road. The Chicago Mill and Lumber Company had closed for good in 1983, but it had been laying off employees since the 1970’s. By 1994, with the town of Tallulah really desperate, town and state leaders announced the opening of a private juvenile prison which would provide badly needed jobs. But the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth proved to be a disaster. Many of the jobs paid only $6 an hour. Two massive inmate riots occurred within the first two months the facility was open. And disturbing allegations of beatings, rapes and solitary confinement started to filter out from the institution. The state took control of the facility in 1999, but things improved little. The youth facility was closed in 2004, and then, against the wishes of Tallulah residents, it was converted into a prison for adults. It sits directly on the site of the lumber mill that was for so many years Tallulah’s largest employer.
In the neighborhood to the north of Highway 80 are many small, mostly well-kept homes, but interspersed with them are boarded-up school buildings. One of them, the Madison Alternative School is the former Madison Middle School, which before that was Reuben McCall Junior High School. It was abandoned when Madison Middle School was built next to the new Madison Parish High School far to the south along I-20. Further up, on Wyche Street (named for the first Black police chief of Tallulah, Zelma Wyche) are the sprawling ruins of Reuben McCall High School, which was the Black high school in Tallulah prior to integration. But integration never really happened in Tallulah. Although the town had barely 10,000 people, the decision was made to keep both Tallulah High School (the former white high school) and McCall High School open, with students having the right to choose either. Of course no white children chose to go to McCall, and only a handful of Blacks chose to go to Tallulah High at first. But any integration was too much for a number of whites in Tallulah, and the majority of white students soon left the public schools for Tallulah Academy. Eventually both public high schools were majority-Black. By 2005, the Madison Parish School Board could no longer keep them both open. For one thing, both campuses needed replacing, and for another, enrollment was continuing to decline. They had already closed all-Black Thomastown High School in 2001, merging it with McCall, and decided in 2005 to close Tallulah High School and merge it with McCall to form a new school called Madison Parish High School. For one year the new school used the buildings and ground of McCall High School before moving to a new facility built along I-20 south of town. The McCall campus was abandoned, vandalized and ultimately boarded up.
Abandoned schools are not unusual in Louisiana sadly, but abandoned football stadiums are much rarer. That being said, the abandoned stadium across the street from Reuben McCall High School is a sad and haunting place indeed, with the grass and brambles growing up through the bleachers. Walking past the brick wall where McCall championships were commemorated in paint just made the whole thing that much sadder. The old scoreboard still sits at the end of one endzone, while a strangely twisted goalpost marks the other. The pressbox is open and at the mercy of the weather, and one can only imagine what the place must have been like in its heyday, with the drums booming, horns blowing and the crack of helmets hitting on the field below. Neighborhood kids could have walked to the games back then. Now the whole place lies silent and forgotten.
Highway 80 on the West End of Tallulah is known as West Green Street, and the latter was once an entertainment destination, but little remains today. The Fun House and Sportsman’s Lounge are both abandoned and long-closed, victims of a great migration of Tallulah’s Black community that has been going on since the 1950’s, seeing vast numbers leave Louisiana for the West Coast. Nearly 2,000 moved out just in the years between 2000 and 2010. Down the street closer to downtown, the Hotel Watson remains intact and in good shape, although no longer open for business as a hotel. Built in 1957, the hotel was Black-owned, a reliable place for good food or a comfortable room, and well-known entertainers often stayed there when performing or traveling in the area. Today it seems to function more as an apartment building. In other parts of the West End, a few juke joints and bars still remain. Wilmore’s Lounge and Game Room draws a crowd on weekends, and the Hole In The Wall might just be the smallest night club in the world. One wonders if it was the club Mel Waiters wrote the song about, or if the Tallulah club was named for the song.
Downtown Tallulah hasn’t fared much better than the West End. The city was once home to America’s first enclosed shopping mall, Bloom’s Arcade, but shopping and retail fled the town during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Today nearly every storefront on Snyder Street is vacant. A few have only empty facades, with the rest of the building crumbled behind the front wall. Even the venerable Tallulah Club is empty and for sale across from the Madison Parish Courthouse. One thing that hasn’t changed from my youth: the metal Christmas trees decorated with lights are still sticking up out of Brushy Bayou as if it were 1973 all over again.
Looking at so many ruins and so much abandonment left me frankly depressed. The only relief I found was in the colorfully-dressed, boisterous groups of young people that wandered most streets or rode on bikes through the otherwise drab neighborhoods. Their exuberant voices carried on the warm, Sunday afternoon breezes as they headed to parks and basketball courts. Tallulah’s greatest resource at this point might be its youth- the community turns out excellent athletes and musicians. Not only does Madison High School have one of the region’s best marching bands, the Soul Rockers of the South, but Tallulah has a number of talented rappers, rap groups and singers. But, unfortunately, the young people from Tallulah are generally already planning to leave- the Delta town with such a storied past has little future, at least not for them.
Although the Mississippi Delta is better known, there is also an Arkansas Delta, wide and wild and if anything, more mysterious than the other. More remote and with fewer large towns, the Arkansas Delta is less visited and less familiar to tourists than its Mississippi sibling, but is certainly worth a visit for anyone interested in the blues and its history. Towns here, like those in the Mississippi Delta, have clearly seen better days. Buildings on the main streets are often abandoned, and many are dilapidated. Whites and Blacks alike have fled these Delta communities for better opportunities in America’s big cities, and the situation in some of these towns is desperate indeed. Almost no business was left functioning on Marvell’s wide Main Street on the Friday afternoon I visited. At least one of the storefronts had collapsed altogether, a prominent “Keep Out” sign warning people not to venture into the ruins. Dewitt, a county seat town with a courthouse looked somewhat better, but nearby Gillett seemed almost as abandoned as Marvell. But the most interesting discovery was in McGehee, a town whose downtown still looked rather decent by Delta standards. South of the downtown were the abandoned remains of several night clubs and juke joints, discoveries which suggested that McGehee had once been an entertainment destination for Black residents of the southern Arkansas Delta. The sign in front of the former Town & Country Restaurant proclaimed “Disco Nights, Thursday, Friday”, and the building was truly gigantic. One can only imagine what a night was like in there in the late 1970’s which was likely its heyday. Did bluesmen hold forth at Mary’s Colonial Club? One wonders. Saddened by the extent of abandonment and loss, I drove off toward Monroe in the darkness.
Helena, Arkansas is a town that the years have been cruel to. As Arkansas’ only Mississippi River port in the modern era, it should have been a successful city, and was once home to large industries such as Chicago Mill and Lumber and Mohawk Tire. But industries began to leave in the 1970’s, and the population of Helena and its neighbor to the west, West Helena both declined precipitously. By the time the two cities merged, they barely had 10,000 people together, and the community largely looked desolate. Crime and blight were the rule rather than the exception, and Helena’s large downtown was mostly vacant. A casino across the river in Mississippi did not halt the slide, nor did Clarksdale’s tourist renaissance that followed the opening of Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett’s Ground Zero Blues Club. But for one week each October, Helena becomes the most important city in the world for blues, as the King Biscuit Blues Festival takes over the downtown area near the river. The crowds that pour into the city come from all over the world, and the festival tends to bring attention to neighborhoods that are usually forgotten. As official parking fills up, blues fans head further south, into a old and struggling neighborhood called Beautiful Zion. Like so many African-American neighborhoods in the Delta regions along the Mississippi River, this community takes its name from a church in the area, and the church has been actively involved in efforts to rehabilitate the community, which sits in the shadow of an old cotton compress. On the Friday night of King Biscuit week, the community was in a festive mood, with a lot of people outdoors in the warm weather, and members of the church out selling food plates to festival goers. A woman called my attention to the church’s After School Program in a neighborhood building, and asked me to take a picture of it, which I did. But a block to the north, along Missouri Street, was a string of abandoned buildings that seemed to have once contained night clubs and/or restaurants. Some of the buildings had roofs that were caving in, and I was amazed at the extent of the devastation and lack of preservation effort. Despite a long history of blues music in Helena, the city has just not seen the kind of renewal that is occurring in Clarksdale, Mississippi, some 30 miles to the southeast.
Hughes, Arkansas, the second-largest town in St. Francis County, has by all accounts been a resilient town. It was the home or birthplace of many great blues musicians, including Johnny Shines. It survived the Flood of 1937, an event so severe that it sticks in the memory of the area, and it has survived fires and the decline of agriculture. But it could not survive the decision of the Arkansas State Department of Education last summer to dissolve its school district and forcibly consolidate it with West Memphis, over 26 miles away on poor, two-lane highways. Hughes is merely the latest town to be victimized by a vicious state law that ought to be repealed, which requires the dissolving and merging of school districts whenever a school district falls below 350 students. The law makes no provisions for the wishes of the town’s residents or the students, either with regard to keeping the local school district open, nor with what district they would prefer to attend if their district must be closed. Nor does the law require the receiving district to keep local schools open, even when students would otherwise have to travel long distances, such as the 50-mile roundtrip per day that Hughes students now face, unless their parents decide to relocate to West Memphis, which is why this law is a town-killer. Hughes has lost an estimated 400 residents since 2010, and doubtless are losing many more by the day, largely because of the school situation. The local shopping center, which contained the town’s only food store, is now completely abandoned. Downtown looks even worse, with many old, decrepit and abandoned buildings. Hughes High School is abandoned, including the football field that was renamed for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn with such fanfare just two years ago. And even more shocking is the ruins of Mildred Jackson Elementary School, the campus of what was once the Black high school in Hughes. Not only is it abandoned, but in ruins, as part of the building has collapsed, likely from fire after it was abandoned. It is clear that the building has been vandalized and broken into. Not that the school situation is the cause of everything that has happened in Hughes. There is little industry there, and St. Francis County is not a rich county. Agriculture is not what is was, opportunity is limited, and close proximity to West Memphis and Memphis has encouraged many young people to move away. But the close proximity to Memphis could have been an asset rather than a curse. With proper planning, a better road link to Memphis, and a local school system, Hughes could conceivably have become a bedroom community for those who work in Memphis. It has many historic buildings and homes. But first, the draconian law that caused this kind of destruction needs to be repealed. Local communities that want to retain their own school districts should be allowed to do so. And in areas like many counties in Eastern Arkansas, where declining populations are wreaking havoc on local school districts, the state ought to consider the formation of county-based school systems, such as those in Tennessee and Mississippi, which would allow local high school like the one in Hughes to remain open. Without schools, no town can ever be renewed.
We speak often of the Mississippi Delta, and to some extent of the Arkansas Delta and the Louisiana Delta. But we don’t usually speak of a Tennessee delta. Yet if we were to use the term, it would largely be the counties of Fayette, Haywood and Tipton, with perhaps some portions of Lauderdale, Shelby and Hardeman Counties as well. The towns of Gallaway, Braden, Mason and Stanton lie right in the center of this region, and given the importance of juke-joint-like cafes in Mason, and the proximity of Fayette County to Marshall County, Mississippi, which produced a lot of famous blues musicians, I set about to see if there was any sort of blues culture in the region, and to document what remains before creeping progress destroys it.
I started in the Fayette County town of Gallaway, a railroad town that incorporated and industrialized during the 1960’s. Time has not been kind to Gallaway, but some historic buildings still remain along Main Street and the railroad tracks. From Gallaway, Feathers Chapel Road runs toward Somerville, but in the rural outside Oakland, I came upon the ruins of a cafe called Murrell’s Cafe, although I was unable to determine whether it had been a restaurant, or, like the cafes in Mason, was a juke joint. At a nearby crossroads was a general merchandise store, still open and operating. Nearby Braden is also an incorporated town, but it never developed as much as Gallaway. Its one two-story building was always the C. T. McGraw General Store, which has in recent years become a seafood restaurant that I have been meaning to try called Braden Station. Passing through Mason, which I had photographed extensively in the past, I headed on to Stanton, which in my youth had had a historic downtown that resembled Mason’s. Unfortunately, fires have devastated most of downtown Stanton, and not much remains. So I headed further out into the rural Douglass Community to the northeast, and took some pictures there, then headed on to Dancyville.
Dancyville is in Haywood County, and has a handful of historic houses and churches, as well as a few small businesses. From there, I headed southeast along the Fayette Corners Road, stopping to photograph some abandoned rural stores, and ending up at another former railroad town called Laconia, where a single light burned on the porch of the local general store and post office. The railroad that ran through Laconia toward Jackson, Tennessee is long abandoned, but there is a small pavilion or bandbox, an antique store, a former gas station in the back of the post office building, and a large colony of cats that walk to and fro around the village. While I didn’t discover any unexpected blues venues or learn of any special events, it was a good first day of photography on the backroads of the Tennessee Delta.
In the early days, when Tennessee was just becoming a state, Memphis had two rivals for dominance of the trade on the Mississippi River. Randolph, on a bluff some 30 miles north of Memphis, was the county seat of Tipton County, and about 30 miles north of Randolph was Fulton, in Lauderdale County. Since I had never been to Fulton, nor to Fort Pillow State Park, I decided to head out there one afternoon after a day of substitute teaching at Arlington Elementary. So I grabbed a late lunch at Bozo’s Bar-B-Q in Mason and then headed out through Covington to Henning, and from there out to where Google Maps told me Fulton should be. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed, as there is really no trace of the town of Fulton. There is a Baptist church, although the building looks fairly recent, and a few houses, all of which also look fairly recent. If there was a business district once, there is no trace of it now. But I did enter Fort Pillow State Park, and got a beautiful view of the Mississippi River from a bluff inside the park. From there, I headed north through the Wildlife Management Area until I got to the beginning of Highway 19, and a community called Ashport. While Ashport is never mentioned as a rival river port to Memphis, it must have had some significance, as it was on the river, and there was an Old Ashport Road that clearly ran from Jackson, Tennessee to the area. But there was little trace of Ashport, just as there was little trace of Fulton, with one exception- an amazing, monstrous ruin of a building on Highway 19. Covered with soft drink and beer signs, it appears that the building was most recently called Pop’s Place, and must have been either a beer joint or a grocery store, or perhaps some sort of combination of both. But the old brick two-story building with a wide set of steps in the center was clearly built to be something else, perhaps a school, although a check of the internet yielded little information, and it is hard to imagine the need for a school that big in the sparsely-populated flatlands near the river. Just beyond the ruin, the road climbed a fairly steep cliff on its way toward Ripley, and the view back toward the river in the sunset was beautiful. Unfortunately, there was no good place to pull over and try to grab a photograph of what I was seeing, and no guarantee that my camera could capture it either. So I headed on into Ripley, grabbed a blizzard from the Dairy Queen, and hit the road back to Memphis.
Ripley, Tennessee is the county seat of Lauderdale County, Tennessee, and has a traditional courthouse square, such as is common in many areas of the south, but due to building restorations, it has a somewhat sterile and uptown atmosphere, completely different from Covington or Somerville, two other West Tennessee county seat towns. Although the weather was blue and pretty, rain was predicted and the courthouse square was absolutely deserted. Across the tracks in Ripley’s East End, I came upon the ruins of Lauderdale County Training High School, which prior to 1970 had been the community’s high school for Black students. The sign above the door of the old school reading “Ripley _____ High School” is probably not the racial slur that I initially suspected. Rather, that sign probably dates from the days when the school building was used as the junior high school for all of Ripley. However, today it and its gymnasium are both abandoned buildings, and their abandonment at a time when young people need knowledge and recreation facilities is sad indeed.
Back in the 1980’s, Henning, Tennessee became famous as the hometown of writer Alex Haley, whose genealogical novel Roots was a best-seller in the late 1970’s and which was later made into a television mini-series. A museum was opened on the Main Street of the little town just across the Forked Deer River from Tipton County, and residents of Henning waited for the tourists they hoped would be coming. They even renamed State Highway 211 “Chicken George Trail” after one of the characters in Haley’s novel.
But the tourists never arrived, and Henning seems to be in the grip of a depression, for some reason. Abandoned houses and ruins are everywhere in the little town, and many of the downtown storefronts along Main Street are vacant, or seem to be so. A block west of Main is a street lined with abandoned juke joints that were undoubtedly once full of large crowds, as Henning was a party destination for Covington, Ripley, and even Dyersburg and Brownsville. A couple of the bars seem to still be open, such as Sonny’s Smooth Jazz and Old School, or Uncle Charles’ Place, which has an elaborate painted mural that mentions Prince’s old movie Under The Cherry Moon, but the town has clearly seen better days.
On my way to Holly Springs, Mississippi for a blues event, I decided to travel a slightly different way in order to check out the town of Hudsonville on Highway 7, intriguing to me as it was the place where the legendary Hill Country bluesman Junior Kimbrough was from. Unfortunately, not much of Hudsonville is left. There’s one small store at a crossroads on Highway 7 outside the town, but if one follows the road to the railroad tracks, there are only ruins of a couple of buildings beside the railroad track, which is itself abandoned as well. Because the buildings are in such poor shape, it is impossible to tell what they were. One appears to have perhaps been a store, and the other, maybe a railroad building of some sort. A short distance away is one other building, in relatively good shape, which a sign says is a polling place for local elections. Other than that, there is nothing left of Hudsonville at all.
Just across the Hardeman County line from LaGrange, Grand Junction should have fared better than it did. Its name referred to the fact that it was located at a place where the Memphis & Charleston railroad line heading toward Chattanooga met what was then the Mississippi Central Railroad heading from Jackson, Tennessee to Water Valley, Mississippi by way of Bolivar and Holly Springs. Both railroads were important, and while Bolivar was the county seat, one could have expected that a town of some significance would have grown up there, and indeed, some of the buildings suggest that Grand Junction was once a little bigger than it is today. But like all the towns I had seen on this particular Saturday, Grand Junction’s downtown was largely dead, if not quite as abandoned as some of the other towns. Again, there was a certain amount of commerce along Highway 57, which probably contributed to the problems in the old business district, and there was the National Bird Dog Museum, which is probably what the town is most famous for, as the national field trials are held annually nearby on the Ames Plantation. But downtown Grand Junction is largely empty, with a number of buildings that look as if they haven’t changed in 60 years. Unlike many of the other towns, there is also a train depot that still exists, although it seems to be undergoing renovations, and is far smaller than I would have expected in a town where two important railroads met. Here’s hoping that someone begins to think about restoring the historic downtown buildings. They would work well as restaurants or cute boutiques and antique shops.