A Void in Vaiden

Vaiden, Mississippi is a town on Highway 51 in Carroll County, and since 1873, the county seat of the second judicial district of that county. Carroll is one of a handful of Mississippi counties that have two county seats, generally due to historic difficulties of travel. Several years ago, I had explored the other county seat, Carrollton, with my friend Travis McFetridge, but when Sherena Boyce and I passed through Vaiden a week or so ago on our way to the Neshoba County Fair, I noticed an old juke joint on Highway 35, and decided that the town was worth a visit to see what was worth photographing.

The juke joint was the best find. Called the 21 Up Club, it was located right on the highway in town, with a sign decorated with music notes, and I took quite a few photographs of it. East of Highway 51, on Court Street, I found the ruins of a Greer’s Bar-B-Que restaurant, along what was otherwise a residential street, although many of the residences seemed abandoned.

But the downtown area was largely a loss, with the business district largely gone altogether, and no trace of the stores on Front Street, or the crowds of Black men I recall from a bus journey to Gulfport in the 1980’s. Vaiden suffered a tornado in 1990, and apparently it pretty well destroyed the downtown area. Of course the town had been suffering a degree of decline ever since Interstate 55 was completed to the west in 1973, but the tornado finished what had been started. Even the historic courthouse I could remember is gone, made into a Vaiden Community Park instead, with a Confederate monument in one corner the only trace that a courthouse had been there at all. The new courthouse is an ugly, garish 1990’s monstrosity with pointed roof, located on Front Street where the business district had been years ago. It is an incongruous modernism in the old town.

Also depressing is the fact that both of Vaiden’s schools appear to have been abandoned. The former Black high school, North Vaiden High School (later Percy Hathorn High School and then a Headstart center) seems to have been made into an antique mall or thrift store called The Prissy Hen. All the same, it was not open, and the entire building was gated off and closed. The former white high school, Vaiden High, appeared to have been turned into a community center. A few trucks and trailers were pulled up to it, and I could hear music coming from it, although whether a DJ or a live band I could never determine.

The only thing really left of value in Vaiden are some historic churches and homes, some of which seem to date from the 1870’s, judging from their architecture. A couple of these were located on hills, and might have survived the tornado as a result.

Briefly, I rode out to the southeast along Highway 35, taking some pictures at Carmack, the next town along the road. Like Vaiden, Carmack too has seen better days. Its school has been turned into a community center, and other than that, there is a Carmack Fish House that seems to do a brisk business.

Back in Vaiden, there was one club along Highway 35 that was beginning to get a crowd. A group of men were barbecuing under a tent, and cars were pulling up. I was not sure whether it was a special party or a usual Saturday afternoon at the club, but it looked as if it was going to be fun. But even with the windows down, I didn’t hear any music playing, and didn’t see a stage of any kind or any instruments. So I resisted the temptation to pull in there and see what was going on, and decided to head on west toward Greenwood.

6/12/09: Urban Network Music Summit, and a Tornado

I got up early and ate breakfast downtown at the Marriott because the panel I was to speak on at the Urban Music Summit was supposed to begin at 10: 30 AM. Things were actually running a bit behind schedule, and I ran into Janie Jennings as well as Carlos Broady, the super-producer from Memphis. I grabbed a lunch out at Harbor Town at the Movie and Pizza Company, and then made my way back to the convention for a listening panel that was to take place in the afternoon. During our critiques of artists, the sky turned black in the west and warning sirens started going off downtown. Later, after the panel was over, I drove down to Hernando to Windy City Grill for dinner, discovering that large areas of Hernando were without power and that there was a considerable amount of damage. To my dismay, I found that there was absolutely no power at all in Bartlett or Raleigh. Worse, in front of the movie theatre on Stage Road, trees had been uprooted and strewn across the parking lot. The nearby Starbucks was one of the few places with power and open for business, so I sat in there awhile, drinking coffee, and listening to people talk about the storm, which some were calling a tornado. When I got back to my house, the power was still off, but it was clear that we had suffered major damage. The tree in our front yard had broken apart, and parts of it had struck the corner of our house, and two large trees in the back yard had fallen and demolished our neighbors’ fence to the back of our house. I lay in the dark, trying to call the insurance company on my cellphone, but I couldn’t get through.