The modern concept of life insurance did not come to the South until after the Civil War, and when it did come, the early Southern life insurance companies did not write policies for African-Americans, the majority of which had only recently been freed from slavery. Instead, African-American men found their needs met by the establishment of many Black fraternal associations and lodges, many of which provided a burial service, perhaps with a brass band or fife and drum band for their dues-paying members. One such organization appeared in Memphis during the 1870’s, an organization known as the Independent Order of Pole Bearers, the name presumably resulting from a misspelling of “pall bearers.” This organization, which featured drummers and occasionally martial parades through the streets of Memphis, spread rapidly, with chapters appearing in rural communities of Shelby County such as Capleville, Bridgewater and Brunswick, then into Fayette County, a number of counties in Mississippi, and even one in Oklahoma. In 1875, the Pole Bearers were so important that white Democratic officials chose to speak at their annual picnic, with Nathan Bedford Forrest choosing to do so, a gracious speech that was published in full in the Memphis newspapers of the day. Unfortunately, the incident has been widely distorted by Forrest defenders in the modern era. The Pole Bearers were not by any stretch a “civil rights organization” as many have claimed. Rather they were a fraternal organization with secret rituals, particularly surrounding the funerals of their members. Nor is it often mentioned that Forrest was probably speaking on behalf of white Democrats who were running for office in Shelby County, and thus was hoping to encourage the Pole Bearers to consider a move to the Democratic Party at a time when almost all Blacks were Republicans.
As time went on, some chapters of the Pole Bearers faded, but the Brunswick, Tennessee chapter remained extremely active, sponsoring an annual picnic during the month of August that was widely attended and which featured fife-and-drum bands, not only from their own organization, but also from similar organizations such as the United Sons and Daughters of Zion, which had chapters throughout Shelby County as well. Drums played a considerable role in the Pole Bearers, being used to summon people to funerals, to announce the death or illness of a member, or as part of the rituals and ceremonies surrounding a funeral. When Ellen Davies-Rogers wrote her excellent history of Arlington, Tennessee The Holy Innocents, she included some diary entries from the diary of Captain Kenneth Garrett, some of which mention the Brunswick Picnic. On Friday, July 28, 1905, he wrote, “Charlie had a holiday-went to a picnic at Brunswick” and on Friday August 2, 1907, Garrett wrote “Roland went to ‘Pole’ Bearers picnic at Brunswick.” The picnic was still going on each summer by 1952, when the Brunswick chapter of the Independent Pole Bearers decided to plat land in their community as a subdivision for Black families to build houses. The resulting community had roads named Independent, Society and Pole, and still exists near the Pole Bearers lodge. At some point between 1967 and 1974, Swedish musicologist Bengt Olsson had traveled across West Tennessee making field recordings, recording Lum Guffin’s United Sons and Daughters of Zion fife and drum band, possibly at the Brunswick Picnic. About this picnic, Olsson described it as “where the members and bands of all the different organizations got together for a feast- barbecued hogs, lamb, chicken, watermelon, drinks….” He further wrote, “Everyone stated that the Brunswick chapter (of the United Sons and Daughters of Zion), No. 6, had the best band, led by Karo and Will Baxter. Though they did not belong to the organization, the (Othar) Broadnax Band played at the Brunswick Picnic every year. They arrived in a wagon pulled by mules, and, as they traveled, played from the wagon, attracting crowds along the way, and by the time they arrived at the picnic site, they had a long line of people following them.”
But the fife-and-drum bands were largely dependent on the social organizations that started them, and those organizations were placed in a precarious situation by the ready availability of life insurance. By 1974, the fife and drum bands no longer appeared at the Brunswick Picnic, and by the 1980’s, there was no longer a picnic at all.
Yet the organization apparently still exists, now known as the Independent Pallbearers Association. A lodge still exists on Brunswick Road in the Brunswick community, near a spot where there was in my youth a baseball field at the intersection with Highway 70. Could this have been the location of the annual picnics?
In Southeastern Shelby County, there is another Pole Bearers’ lodge at 4819 Tchulahoma Road in front of a cemetery that belongs to the organization. Although neither lodge seems to be used any longer, and the charters for the organization’s chapters seem to have all expired, someone is continuing to care for and maintain the cemetery. One wonders if there are any living members of the Independent Order of Pole Bearers- an historic organization which played a significant role in the fife and drum tradition in Shelby and Fayette Counties.
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.
When the United States Department of Education complained about the location of Memphis’ all-Black Kortrecht High School in the middle of a noisy, smokey rail yard in South Memphis, the city finally decided to build the new comprehensive Black high school that the Black community had been asking for. The community considered it a victory, until they learned it was to be called the Memphis Negro Industrial High School. Outrage over the name led to one of the first sustained Black protests in Memphis, and though the community did not get their wish of a school named for its principal, Green Polonius Hamilton, they did get the name changed to Booker T. Washington, and the new school opened in 1927. Memphis folklore has it that the school board gave it green and gold colors and the mascot “Warriors” so that worn and used jerseys and jackets from the white Memphis High School (now Central) could be used at BTW. Over the years, Booker T. Washington furthered the hopes and dreams of generations of Black Memphians. It has produced great musicians like the Bar-Kays, and great athletes. A few years ago, it was visited by President Barack Obama himself. Unfortunately, schools’ fates are largely determined by the neighborhood around them, and BTW’s future seems threatened, to say the least. Enrollment took a plunge when open enrollment and transfer allowed people in the district to attend high school elsewhere, and then the city began its program of demolition of the projects including Cleaborn Homes, where many BTW students resided. Now Memphis has received a 30 million dollar grant to demolish and replace Foote Homes, the last public housing project in Memphis, where a lot of current BTW students live. With it being replaced by upscale housing for the wealthy, it is unclear whether BTW will retain enough enrollment to avoid state takeover or closure. But for now, fans and alumni still take pride in their team and band, turning out on Friday nights for the weekly games at historic Washington Stadium.
West Point, Mississippi is the northern point of what is commonly called the Golden Triangle (the other two points are Starkville and Columbus), and not a place that people would usually associate with the blues. Nor would the average music fan associate bluesman Howlin’ Wolf with West Point, since he first came to prominence in and around the Memphis area while living in West Memphis, Arkansas. But it just so happens that Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett was born in West Point, and the city has decided to make the most of it, with a cool mural in the downtown area, and an annual festival named for him held out at the abandoned college campus. As for the rest of the town, it is sleepy and historic, although it wasn’t always so. West Point was extremely turbulent in the 1960’s, and had a considerable amount of racial conflict, including the murder of a civil rights leader in cold blood, and the firebombing of the Clay County Courthouse in 1970, but somehow everything has calmed down nowadays.
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This beautiful riverfront walkery in New Orleans is called the Moon Walk, not because of lovely lunar vistas over the river at night as one might think, but rather in honor of “Moon” Landrieu, New Orleans’ beloved mayor of the early 1970’s, who was in many ways the first mayor to envision a New Orleans free from racism and segregation. If Landrieu’s first great passion was ending New Orleans’ shameful legacy of racism, his second was redevelopment of the city’s waterfront, and it is for this reason that the name Moon Walk is very appropriate indeed.