About halfway between Morgan City and Belzoni on Mississippi Highway 7 is a wide spot in the road called Swiftown. It consists of a couple of residential streets, a community center, a church and some abandoned business buildings.
There probably was never a whole lot to Swiftown, but clearly its better days are behind it. Still, the abandoned buildings have a rather historic look about them, and there was a remarkable quietness about the place on an early Saturday morning.
Just outside of a town called Morgan City, Mississippi, I spied what appeared to be a large historic home across the flat fields near the Yazoo River. It looked truly massive in the distance, so I decided to backtrack and take a drive down the side road along the river to get a closer look at it. When I arrived at the home, it seemed somewhat smaller than it had appeared from the highway, and was clearly also not as old as I had imagined, probably dating from the early 20th century. But it was still a beautiful home, facing the Yazoo River, but there was no historic marker, or any indication of its name or significance.
Morgan City itself was a small village, about six blocks by six blocks. The old commercial buildings of its main street were largely abandoned, which is not unusual for Delta towns, but Morgan City’s deterioration seemed a little more severe than some of the other communities in the region. A group of elderly Black men sat in front of the Village Grocery, the first abandoned store front that I came to. They consented to my taking a picture of the building, but were unwilling to be in it, which disappointed me, as it would have been a much more effective picture with the men in it, than just a picture of a building.
As I took pictures of the main street, it began raining lightly, and a woman asked me why I was taking pictures. I explained to her about my blog, and that I was on my way to the World Catfish Festival in Belzoni, and she said she was headed that way when she got off work.
Tunica County, Mississippi once had dreams of greatness. After all, it bordered the most important navigable stream in North America, and had some raised hills along the banks that would provide for a protected townsite, so the early settlers imagined that there would be a bustling metropolis on the Mississippi River in their county. They chose the site for it near an Indian mound, and, appropriately enough, named it Commerce. It was quickly made the county seat of the new county, and for awhile, it lived up to its name as a fairly busy river port. But the river began to eat away at the bluff on which the town was built, and in 1843, part of Commerce sank into the river. The Board of Supervisors chose to move the county seat to Peyton, another river landing to the south, but a few years later, they moved it back to Commerce. With the river continuing to threaten Commerce, a permanent solution was needed, and eventually the decision was made to move the county seat even further south to Austin Landing, which became known as the town of Austin.
I had never heard of Austin Landing or Austin, Mississippi, but one day, while researching the Black fraternal organization known as the Independent Pole Bearers, I came across a Mississippi corporate charter for a Pole-Bearers chapter at “Austin Landing” in Tunica County. That captivated my interest, and a check of my phone showed that the name still appeared at a place near the levee on a road due west of Evansville, another ghost town that I had discovered on a previous journey through the Delta.
So, on a rather grey and overcast winter day, I headed west from Evansville to see what if anything remained at Austin. Online maps showed about two streets, a cluster of houses and supposedly a church. The road from Evansville was beautiful despite the dreary day, running alongside dark swamps on its southern edge, with seemingly historic homes on the northern side. The journey took awhile, but Austin soon appeared dead ahead, a small cluster of houses and trees against the levee.
I soon found that there are no businesses in Austin whatsoever, although I noticed a building that looked as if it might have once been a store. There is also a sort of community building that looks as if it might have once been the post office, and is probably now used as a voting precinct. Although the maps showed a church, I saw no trace of it when I was actually there, and few of the houses seemed old enough to warrant interest, with one exception. That house, an abandoned house on the northern street of Austin looked as if it had been there since the late 1890’s or early 20th century. Other than that, there was no trace of the courthouse, any businesses, the old street grids or, for that matter, the river, which was now safely behind levees and several miles further west.
I later learned that Austin had also been the scene of a massive race riot in August of 1874, caused by a white store owner attempting to shoot a thief. Instead of shooting the thief, he fatally wounded a 5-year-old Black child, and was arrested and charged. But the decision of the sheriff to release him on bond outraged the Black people of Tunica County. Reinforced by Blacks from Friars Point in Coahoma County further down the river, they armed themselves and marched on Austin in an effort to seize the town. In their initial capture of the downtown area, they took over the store whose owner had shot the girl, and seized him and locked him back up in the jail.
Memphis, only 40 miles to the north had been the scene of racial tension all summer, heightened by a racially-charged election between Democrats and so-called Radical Republicans, most of whom were Black, and this election had occasioned the establishment of white militias such as the Chickasaw Guards. At the news of an uprising in Austin, these militias commandeered boats from the Memphis harbor and headed to Austin to put down the Black uprising, which they succeeded in doing after several days. Several Blacks were killed, and many were arrested in both Tunica and Coahoma Counties. Austin would soon lose the county seat to a new town that had formed when the railroad came through the county- Tunica. Today it is a sleepy and forgotten place in the middle of nowhere, and one could not possibly imagine any noise or confusion there. Several of the homes are for sale, for the person that really wants to get away from it all.
In December of 1979 or so, my parents had taken me to Jackson, Tennessee for my birthday. We had eaten at the Old English Steak House, and had visited the small towns of Beech Bluff and Mercer. What I recall about Mercer was that it had a rather large and historic downtown area along the railroad track and the Main Street which ran perpendicular to it. I recall that one of the large buildings was called the Mercer Opry, and was a place where country music shows were held on the weekends. I hadn’t thought much about Mercer in years, but our recent trips to Brownsville for fife-and-drum workshops reminded me of it as we often pass the exit for Mercer Road as we head to Jackson, so I looked the town up recently in Google Earth, and was distressed to see how few buildings appeared in the downtown area. That fact convinced me that I needed to revisit the little town and photograph what was left before anything else disappears. Of course, the culprit has been rain. Most of our Saturday trips to Brownsville have been in the rain, and this weekend was part of a four-day sequence of storms and flooding, so today was the first day pretty enough for me to take the Nikon out after work and think about heading that way.
Although much is gone, there are still some historic buildings along Main Street, including one that has been turned into a small antique store and ice cream parlor called Mayberry’s. A large two story building across the street was once a general store, and there is an historic church in the next block. Along McGlathery Avenue were a number of historic homes, some of them well-kept, others decrepit and abandoned. There was also a former service station that apparently has become a car customizing service, but it seemed to have an old Mercer fire truck beside it that has been restored.
The former railroad right-of-way has become a road called Sturdivant Crossing Road, which I headed down, as it leads to a place on the Hatchie River where all roads end, a place called Hatchie Station. But because of four days of heavy rain, the road was closed due to high water, and I had to detour around and onto Hatchie Station Road instead. Although there is nothing at Hatchie Station except residences, it was a worthwhile trip, as both Sturdivant Crossing Road and Hatchie Station Road end in old and odd bridges across the Hatchie River, and the setting is lovely, with plenty of water, woods on the other side of the river, and the sun setting in the west.
The bridge from Hatchie Station Road was nothing but steel beams, with no deck, leading across the river to nothing. The one from Sturdivant Crossing Road (which at Hatchie Station was renamed Stafford Lane) hadbeen gated off, but was once a railroad bridge for the old Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, which headed from Mercer and Hatchie Station to Vildo in Hardeman County, and from there to Somerville in Fayette County before heading to Eads, Lenow, Cordova, Shelby Farms and Memphis. There had also been a highway that ran from Somerville to Jackson, appearing on maps as late as 1959, but that too was long gone. As I photographed both bridges, I met a man named Stafford, who explained to me that the first bridge at the end of Hatchie Station Road was a bridge that had been started but never finished, and over which no traffic ever passed. He said that while there were several theories about why the bridge was never completed, the most frequently-heard story was that the bridge had been a joint venture between Madison and Haywood Counties, but that the two counties had a falling-out over it, and so Haywood withdrew its support and the bridge was never completed. As for the old railroad bridge, Mr. Stafford said that it had become unstable, so he gated it off, but he didn’t know why the road that led to Somerville had been abandoned. I thanked him for his time, and headed off toward Bemis (a former company town which might be worth photographing in the future), and Jackson, where I sat down to dinner at The Blacksmith Bar and Grill
Originally, I was to have headed out to New Orleans on Saturday, which would have enabled me to go to Houma for a parade with my homeboys in the To Be Continued Brass Band, but I was still under the weather on Saturday, and so I decided not to head out until the next day which was Sunday. And although I felt better Sunday morning, I was still not exactly well yet. But I decided to leave out early in the morning, and to head across the Delta, down Highway 61 and Highway 1, in the hopes of finding some pictures worth taking, and although it was a grey and dismal day, I did have some success in that regard. Taking Highway 1 from Lula brought me through some communities that really were headquarters for some of the large plantations, which almost always nowadays are called “farms.” The first one I came to was a community called Stovall, where there was an abandoned store. The Stovalls were a prominent family in Coahoma County, and Muddy Waters had once lived on their land. As I photographed the old brick store, I wondered how many times Muddy Waters had been inside it. The old Stovall home was to the right, near the river, but I didn’t recognize it as such because it had been renamed Seven Chimney Farms. The house actually does have seven chimneys, and seems to be in the process of being restored. Further down was a community called Sherard, which, if the store is to be believed, dates from 1874. The place consisted of the abandoned store, several elegant houses in a grove of trees, a church, and some smaller houses along the highway. At Rena Lara, I stopped for a soft drink at the Great River Road Store, which I was surprised to see serves also as a bar, pool hall and on weekends, upscale restaurant with steaks. I made a mental note to come back some Friday or Saturday to try the steaks. Perthshire was the next community I came to, and like some of the others, it appeared to be the headquarters for a farm, which I learned had been the Knowlton Plantation. What was once a company store was clearly evident on the little street that paralleled the highway. I could make out a rather elaborate house at the end of the east-west street off the highway, but it seemed to be at the end of a long private drive, so I photographed only a glimpse of it from the public street. Gunnison was the first town of any size that I came to along Highway 1, and I was eager to photograph there, as I had once seen some interesting-looking jukes there, and had failed to photograph them because of the groups of young men standing around outside them that I feared would object. Unfortunately, there was not nearly as much to be seen in Gunnison nowadays. One of the jukes from my visit years ago had turned into a motorcycle club, and there was no trace of the other. A club I didn’t recall from the past was operating on a side street, with a fair number of cars in front of it, but it had no signage whatsoever, and was operating more or less I suppose under the table. A well-preserved and still open vintage service station on Highway 1 was perhaps the best find in the little town. Beulah was even more desolate than Gunnison had been, although I found a few old downtown structures to photograph. Benoit had the Last Call Bar and Grill, with the words “Mississippi” and “Blues” on its side for good measure, and just to the south was the Monsanto-owned company town of Scott, Mississippi, with its beautiful setting between Lake Bolivar and Deer Creek. Scott had been the headquarters town for the Delta Pine and Land Company, which was once the largest cotton plantation in the world. D P & L was later acquired by Royal Dutch Shell for a period of time, before it was sold to Monsanto in St. Louis. Scott is laid out around a peaceful square across from the large building that houses the post office and which must have once been the company store. There is now an upscale restaurant called Five O’Clock On Deer Creek which is located on the main road, adjacent to the creek. Down from there, I passed through decrepit communities called Lamont and Winterville and into the city of Greenville, where I decided to stop for a lunch. Greenville has a Frostop location, and there I had quite a delicious bacon cheeseburger. From there I made my way to Highway 61 at Arcola, and took pictures there, in Estill, where there was an old collapsing wooden church which looked historic, in Hollandale, at Panther Burn, and in the old ghost town of Nitta Yuma, which is being carefully preserved by the descendants of the family that founded it. Past there, I basically ran out of light, and headed on into Jackson, and down to McComb, where I stopped for dinner at a Santa Fe Steak House, before continuing my journey down to New Orleans.
Segregation of the races was the law in most of the Southern United States from around 1890 on, but as the Progressive era dawned in the early 20th Century, attitudes hardened even further. As developers planned new townsites in the South, they began to conceive of the concept of building entirely separate towns for Blacks, rather than having them live in a particular neighborhood of the same town that white people lived in. So Harlem, Florida was built for the Black community outside of Clewiston, Florida, and West Amory, Mississippi was built for the Black community of Amory, and North Gulfport and North Tunica were built for Blacks who lived near Gulfport and Tunica respectively. Likewise, when developers started platting the Sunset Addition to the town of Marion, Arkansas, as a place for Blacks to buy land and build homes, the city officials in Marion decided to exclude the new subdivision from the city limits. Although the developers showed their intentions to build a community destined to be part of Marion when they chose the name “Sunset Addition”, the city excluded the community, and that decision had long-term impacts on the availability of electricity, water and city services in the Sunset area. Sunset was never a big place, and in fact was only three streets wide, but it had a number of churches, a gin, a few stores, and perhaps its most important institution, the James Sebastian Phelix High School, founded in 1946 and named for a local undertaker. The Phelix School provided education for a Black community desperate for learning, but while white students in Marion were provided a free public education, parents of Phelix students in the high school grades had to pay tuition when the school first opened. In 1970, Phelix High School was closed under court order, and its students transferred to Marion High School. Despite the importance of Phelix High School in the history of Marion and Sunset, the buildings have been abandoned, and the oldest building is deteriorating rapidly and being reclaimed by the wilderness.
After many years of Marion refusing to annex Sunset Addition, and fed up with the lack of public services, the people of the community voted in 1971 to incorporate Sunset as a town. Although they were hopeful about the opportunity for Black self-government, the new town faced many hurdles. Its small size, the relative lack of retail business, the lack of any employers or jobs, and the low property values within the city limits all reflected the fact that Sunset was intended to be a subdivision within Marion, not a separate town. The years since 1971 have seen scandals, financial problems, and a rapidly dwindling population. It seems likely that Sunset will eventually become part of Marion.
For reasons lost to history, at some point, there was a little wide place in the road north of Marion, Arkansas called Harvard. It wasn’t exactly a town, but the Frisco railroad had a large switching yard there, which they predictably named Harvard Yard. In the late 1970’s, a local developer decided to build a community there, which he also named Harvard Yard. He envisioned his subdivision as meeting a need for poor, working families, and built homes and apartments in angular, modern designs with a weathered wood finish. The subdivision was interspersed with parklands and pavilions, and the streetnames reflected something of a British flair. Home prices were low, and houses were small, but the community really didn’t look all that different from similar subdivisions elsewhere in Crittenden County.
The seeds of a problem occurred, however, in the fact that Harvard Yard was not part of any incorporated town. Located just to the north of the tiny, cash-strapped town of Sunset, Harvard Yard received no city services from Sunset, nor from the larger city of Marion. Sunset had always been an all-Black community, and over time, Harvard Yard also became all-Black. Many of the houses had become owned by corporations or absentee landowners. When people moved out, houses were often abandoned. Fires were common, and the burned-out ruins were left standing, until the trees and undergrowth simply grew up around them. There was no trash pickup in unincorporated Crittenden County, and some people began throwing their trash into the abandoned houses dotted throughout the community. With so much abandonment, drug dealing and violent crime became a problem in the community as well.
Nowadays, Harvard Yard is a bizarre landscape, a former suburban community that has become a disaster area, not through any weather event, but through the toll of poverty, absentee ownership, lack of services and crime. The streets show a handful of inhabited dwellings surrounded by wrecks and ruins, but children play exuberantly in the streets. In the dead center of the community is a small foreign-owned grocery store that seems popular with the local residents and children. It is the only business in the community.
What to do about Harvard Yard is a subject that has bedeviled the leadership of Crittenden County for many years. Many of the houses need demolition, but the county’s annual fund for demolitions is easily depleted each year, as one house costs $3000 to demolish. The county managed to arrange for garbage pickup in 2016, and residents have praised that step, but a July tour of the community showed that a lot more needs to be done. Perhaps Harvard Yard and Sunset would be better off as part of the nearby city of Marion.
South of Turrell, Arkansas along Highway 77 are a string of small rural towns and communities before the county seat town of Marion. The largest of these is Jericho, Arkansas, although “large” is a relative term, as Jericho only has about 116 residents, according to the Census Bureau. It has a former school that looks as if it was most recently a restaurant, a former juke joint that is for sale, a small grocery store that evidently isn’t open on Sundays, and an old city hall and the new and current city hall. Like so many other places in Eastern Arkansas, Jericho has been decimated by the death of American agriculture, the Black migration to the big cities, and the toll of rural poverty. Despite its proximity to West Memphis and Memphis, Jericho seems to be fading away.
The small town of Turrell, Arkansas in northern Crittenden County is yet another victim of Arkansas’ vicious school-closing law. Because Turrell’s school enrollment fell below 350 students, its district was shuttered by the state and ordered merged with Marion, despite the objections of citizens of both towns to the merger. Although Turrell is located a reasonable distance from downtown Memphis, and in theory could become a suburb of Memphis with proper planning and a forward-thinking town government, nobody will move to a community that has no schools. Since the school closure, Turrell has gone steadily downhill. No businesses on its broad main street downtown seem to be open at all, and one building has completely collapsed, possibly threatening the integrity of others. Particularly poignant are the abandoned high school on Highway 77, and the abandoned elementary school on School Street in a residential area north of the downtown district. Closing public schools seems a perverse thing to do to towns that are already struggling. Surely Arkansas’ state officials could come up with a better solution.
It’s not all that common to see a boarded-up police station, but that is exactly what greets the eye at the town of Joiner, Arkansas, south of Wilson along Highway 61. Like so many Delta towns, the death of agriculture and the lure of the big city has decimated Joiner, leaving almost the whole town a crumbling ruin. Of particular interest is a former store that apparently last housed a church or perhaps even a cult. Although the painted facade references “One God” and “Unity” it also contains some odd, vaguely Egyptian-looking symbols, and the rather-menacing slogan “Judgment According To Your Works.” One wonders what judgment befell the town of Joiner. There is not much left at all.