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.
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.
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.
From the end of the 19th Century to the beginning of the 20th, Mississippi began to industrialize, and one of the main industries that emerged was logging. Particularly south of Jackson, the state was covered with virgin forests that were thought to be hundreds of years old, and as the areas was opened up by railroads, cutting that timber became feasible and extremely profitable for the lumber companies that emerged. Most of these firms built company towns, in keeping with the usual practice in the early 20th Century, but by 1929, when the stock market crashed, most of the best timber had already been cut, and since companies in that day did not worry themselves with renewable resources, they had not planted any trees to replace those cut. As a result, most of the sawmills began to shut down, and few of the company towns survived in any great degree. An exception seems to be the sleepy but well-preserved community of Bogue Chitto, Mississippi in Lincoln County, Mississippi (a smaller community with the same name exists in Kemper and Neshoba Counties in North Mississippi). While a community seems to have existed called Bogue Chitto prior to the coming of the railroad and sawmill, the current town with its grid of streets along the railroad likely dates from 1879, the date on the United Methodist Church’s sign. Although nothing of the original business district remains (it was likely along the railroad), the houses and churches, with beautifully ornate architecture and distinctive tin roofs are worth a detour off of I-55. The reason why Bogue Chitto survived the boom-bust cycle of the lumber industry is unclear, as its southern neighbor of Norfield was not nearly so lucky and hardly a trace of the latter town remains. At least part of it may be that Bogue Chitto, unlike must lumber towns, was an incorporated town from 1892 to 1944 and had a municipal government. At any rate, Bogue Chitto is a remarkably well-maintained example of what a Mississippi logging town looked like in the early 20th Century, and should probably be promoted as such to visitors to the state. Of course, perhaps those who live there prefer it to maintain its solitude and quiet.