Aside from the main festival stage area, the center of activity during the King Biscuit Blues Festival is Cherry Street in downtown Helena. Usually a ghost town, during the festival the street is as busy as Memphis’ Beale Street, and with good reason, as the street is lined with vendors and performers, as are several of the side streets. Stands, carts and trucks sell everything from CD’s and clothing to food, and a few belong to blues musicians and performers. There are also a couple of outdoor stages, one directly on Cherry Street and the other near the dead-end of Rightor Street in front of Bailee Mae’s Coffee House, which is a popular place indeed during King Biscuit week. This year’s festival was helped by the pleasant, unseasonably warm weather which had crowds outside by the hundreds.
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 Hughes is merely the latest town to be victimized by a vicious state law that ought to be repealed, which requires the dissolving and merging of school districts whenever a school district falls below 350 students.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.
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.