Celebrating Mason, Tennessee’s Important Legacy

Mason, Tennessee, located in Tipton County by geography, but more socially and culturally linked to adjacent Fayette County, is the dead center of what might be considered West Tennessee’s Delta region. As a market town for both whites and Blacks in the surrounding cotton country, Mason became a place of recreation for Blacks on weekends, as most of the other towns were far more restrictive with regards to nightlife. In Mason, town officials turned a blind eye to the numerous juke joints that were euphemistically called “cafes.” With no closing ordinances, Mason cafes could literally run all night long, and attracted Blacks from a hundred-mile radius. People came from as far away as Cairo, Illinois and Blytheville, Arkansas, because in Mason, usually nobody cared what you did as long as you didn’t kill anybody. In the mid-sixties, things became even more energized, because a man named William Taylor shuttered his Chicago nightclub called Club Tay-May and then opened two Club Tay-Mays in West Tennessee, one south of the railroad tracks on Main Street in Mason, and the other one on Keeling Road near the antebellum Oak Hill mansion. These clubs attracted legendary performers like Little Milton, Little Johnnie Taylor and Rufus Thomas. 

Unfortunately, as agriculture declined, and as people (particularly Blacks) moved to the cities, Mason fell on hard times. The cafes, largely adapting to a rap music and a younger clientele, became a focal point for violence. Club Tay-May burned and was never rebuilt, and the city passed closing ordinances to require clubs to shut down at 2 AM. Since this made Mason no different than Covington, Dyersburg or any other town in West Tennessee, those who had formerly come to Mason to party stayed at home instead. The downtown buildings where the cafes had been began to collapse and were condemned by the city. 

Although Mason has fallen on hard times, there is still something of a unique culture in the community. Two of America’s best restaurants, Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken are located in this little town of only about 500 people, and a few juke joints still remain on Front Street near the railroad track. Each fall, the town sponsors a Mason Unity Fall Festival, which sponsors activities for the young people, an opportunity for vendors and food trucks, and live music performances. At the initial festival in 2011, there had been no stage, only a DJ, and a few gospel choirs performed out in the street a cappella. This year, the city had brought out a full stage, and a good blues/soul band was on it when I arrived. The vocalist performing was named Charles King, but the band proved to be from West Memphis, Arkansas and was known as the Infinity Band. Unfortunately, compared to previous years, the crowd was fairly small due to the extremely cold, grey weather we were having. Even so, Saul Whitley was firing up the barbecue grill in front of his cafe The Blue Room, and the young men from the Whip Game Car Club were setting up a tent and cooking food as well. Several people knew me from social media, and thanked me for the historic photos of Mason I had put up online that I had taken back in 1991. 

One of the sadder things was that so many of the cafes are gone, most recently The Black Hut having been torn down. A pile of cinderblocks remains where it was. Behind The Green Apple, which seems to be out of business, is an old abandoned hotel. Even the former Mason City Hall and Police Department have been abandoned and condemned. But I got an opportunity to talk to a woman who said that Ocie Broadnax of the Broadnax Brothers Fife and Drum Band was her great grandfather, and that he used to play for horse races at a place called Booster Peete’s on the Tabernacle Road north of Mason. Another older man told me that the Broadnax Brothers would beat the drums on the back of a wagon, and ride all around Fayette County to advertise that they would be having a picnic on the Saturday. He said the picnics used to be held at a place called Buford Evans’. So despite the chilly weather, I enjoyed myself immensely. 

I came away from the event with the belief that Mason has an important legacy, and possibly a future. Clarksdale, Mississippi is living proof that blues tourism is a real phenomenon and very lucrative. It simply took leadership there with a vision to make it a reality. Mason has historic landmarks like Old-Trinity-In-The-Fields, historic houses like Point-No-Point and Oak Hill, and world-famous restaurants like Bozo’s and Gus’s. What if the old hotel behind The Green Apple was remodeled, modernized and reopened for business? What if a blues and heritage museum were opened on Front Street? What if the Lower End was declared an entertainment district and allowed to stay open later as Beale Street is in Memphis? What if the historic houses were occasionally open for tours? All it will really take is for someone with the vision to make Mason a destination for tourists looking for authentic culture in an authentic setting. It really doesn’t get any more authentic than Mason. 

Celebrating Unity And An Effort To Save A Dying Town

002 Gus's Fried Chicken003 Gus's Fried Chicken004 Unity Festival005 The Lo End006 Family Ties Arcade007 Unity Festival008 Unity Festival009 The Lower End010 Unity Festival011 Unity Festival012 Unity Festival013 Unity Festival014 Hittin The Quan015 Unity Festival016 Unity Festival017 Unity Festival018 Unity Festival019 Unity Festival020 Unity Festival021 Unity Festival022 No Dope Smoking023 Unity Festival024 The Log Cabin025 Unity Festival026 The Old Black Hut027 Unity Festival028 Unity Festival029 Unity Festival030 Unity Festival031 Unity Festival032 Unity Festival033 Unity Festival034 Unity Festival035 The Log Cabin036 Unity Festival037 The Green Apple038 Unity Festival039 Unity Festival040 Unity Festival042 Unity Festival043 Unity Festival044 Unity Festival045 Unity Festival046 Unity Festival047 Unity Festival048 The Mayor of Mason049 The Mayor's Speech050 Unity Festival051 Unity Festival052 Unity Festival053 The Lower End054 A Gospel Group055 Unity Festival056 Hoopin'057 Festivalgoers058 The Lower End059 Hoopin'060 The Lower End061 The Lower End062 The Lower End063 Unity Festival064 The Log Cabin065 Hoopin'066 Unity Festival067 The Green Apple068 The Log Cabin069 Unity Festival070 Unity Festival071 Unity Festival072 Unity Festival073 Unity Festival074 A Church Choir075 Another Church Choir076 Unity Festival077 Where Sportsman's Lounge Was078 The Lower End079 The Lower End080 Unity Festival081 The Lo End082 The Lower End083 The Green Apple084 The Log Cabin085 The Lower End086 Unity Festival087 Unity Festival088 Unity Festival089 Festivalgoers090 Unity Festival091 Bozo's Hot Pit Bar-B-Q1852 Unity Festival1854 Unity Festival1856 The Lower End1859 The Wobble1861 The Lower End
On a weekday afternoon, I had driven up to Mason, Tennessee after work to eat at Bozo’s Bar-B-Que, and had noticed signs around the little town announcing a “Unity Fall Fest” on September 19.
I remembered years ago in the early 1990’s driving out to Mason with a couple of friends and having a lot of fun at a large festival in the town’s square along the railroad tracks and Front Street, a neighborhood of cafes traditionally called “The Lower End.” That day, there were several hundred people out, live bands, singers and rap artists, and we had had a ball. But the times had not been kind to Mason. Although Mason was somewhat famous for Bozo’s Bar-B-Que and Gus’s World-Famous Fried Chicken, it was more famous for its rural version of Beale Street along Front Street. Tipton County was technically a dry county, so the clubs along the street were euphemistically called “cafes”, but they ran wide open day and night. Although the town was still in those days controlled by whites, they allowed the Black night life to operate without limits. Prior to the 1970’s, it was probably seen as a social safety valve, preventing the kind of racial schism that had wracked Fayette County, only a few miles to the south. And it was also lucrative. Most towns either didn’t allow such clubs at all, or had closing hours, so Black people came to Mason from Covington, Jackson, Memphis, Brownsville, Somerville, Dyersburg, sometimes even as far away as Cairo, Illinois. One true “club” (as opposed to a cafe) was across the tracks on Main Street, named for a famous Chicago blues club, the Tay-May. It booked acts of national importance, such as Al Green, Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor, and local folklore had it that Rufus Thomas first demonstrated the funky chicken there. But by the 1990’s, the music in the cafes had switched from soul and blues to rap and hip-hop, and the level of crime and discomfort to local residents from the Lower End had grown significantly. The city decided to change their ordinances to require the cafes to close at 2 AM, as clubs did in almost every other city and town in America. The results were immediate, and devastating to Mason. Tay-May burned in a spectacular fire and was never rebuilt. One by one, as cafes closed, the city condemned the buildings and had them demolished. Soon only three or so remained. A hoped-for Federal prison provided some jobs, but was not the salvation that Mason residents had hoped for. Soon, many of their retail stores were closing as well. Mason was dying.
The decision to call the new festival a “Unity” festival was also interesting to me. Despite its unusual culture and folklore for such a small town, Mason hadn’t been all that unified through my teenage years. Spiritually more attuned to adjacent Fayette County than Tipton, where it was located, Mason was an overwhelmingly Black community ruled by whites, and while it had not had the protracted discord that Fayette County had, things were still not great. Mason had never had a high school for white children, but it had had a Black high school, Gailor, which closed in 1965. In 1970 or so, the Black Fields Elementary School and white Mason Elementary School had been merged at the Mason campus. Fields was abandoned. In 1979, the principal of the school, Nevill Seay, allegedly kicked a Black parent. When WHBQ’s news crew came out from Memphis to the campus, he kicked a reporter with the cameras rolling. Dr. Isaac Richmond of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) appeared in Mason, and soon the elementary school was being boycotted. A few weeks later, so were many businesses in Mason, including the mayor’s grocery store, although strangely, many of the targeted businesses soon bought ads in Richmond’s newspaper, the Clarksville Voice. Dr. Richmond considered himself an educator, and soon announced the formation of a Black private school, the Mason Community School. Meeting in a former funeral home near Club Tay-May, it attempted to educate the students who were boycotting the elementary school, and it did so while flying the red, black and green flag of Black liberation. The school lasted a couple of years, and then it closed, as did Mason Elementary School, and the Tipton County Schools started busing everyone to Covington schools instead. In addition, old-time residents could speak of other divisive legacies. Although laws said differently, most Black people would not go into Bozo’s to order food or sit down, as they remembered when they were required to order food to go and not permitted to eat inside. And the old-timers shuddered as they crossed a bridge on the Gainesville Road west of town, where they knew a mob had lynched a man back in 1937. By some accounts, the members of the mob had been the leading men of the town of Mason. Perhaps the lack of unity was part of the reason Mason was dying.
September 19 proved to be a bright, blue, sunny and warm day, perfect for an outdoor festival, and so I drove up to Mason and started my day with lunch at the original Gus’s Fried Chicken. Then heading down Front Street, I saw where the downtown area had been roped off, and some tents, tables and children’s bounce houses had been set up. But sadly, the attendance was rather sparse, compared to what I recalled of the festival in the 90’s, and a check of the tents and vendors revealed that the majority of them were sponsored by churches, and only a handful by businesses, and of the ones that were sponsored by businesses, most were from towns other than Mason, where there were now few businesses. One tent, for example, was run by Suga’s Diner, a restaurant about eight miles or so up Highway 70 in the Haywood County town of Stanton. Although music was supposed to be part of the Mason festival, there was mainly just a DJ,and a few local church choirs. No bands or musicians appeared at all. The newly-elected Mayor of Mason was a woman, and she spoke briefly, speaking of the town’s challenges, and reminding her hearers that “with God nothing is impossible.” Kids were doing dances called the “whip and Nae-Nae” and “hitting the quad” out in the square, while the younger kids were bouncing in the bounce house, and their elders were going in and out of the two remaining cafes, the Log Cabin and the Green Apple. I had thought that the festival might provide me with an opportunity to finally see the inside of the cafes, but this proved to be disappointing. I did briefly walk into the Log Cabin, but it was easy to see that I had interrupted the everyday routine of the place. The privacy felt palpable there, and I certainly would not violate it by taking pictures. After that, I chose not to enter the Green Apple. Yet outside, a few people asked me to take their picture. Some of them seemed to think I was working for the Covington Leader and thought my pictures would be in the paper. I had to explain to them that I was a blogger, not a reporter, but they wanted their picture taken anyway. Toward the early evening, kids began competing in a basketball shooting contest, and gospel choirs began singing a cappella on the one microphone near the DJ’s tent. The blues musician Big Don Valentine had posted on Facebook that he would be performing in Mason on Saturday and I had naively assumed that he meant at the Fall Festival. But people were now taking down the tents and the festival was winding down. Wherever Valentine was going on stage at 7 PM, it wasn’t at the Festival. So I left and headed over to Bozo’s Bar-B-Que for a dinner. While the Festival was rather sparsely attended, it had brought a lot of people together, both white and Black. And there had been no fighting or arguing to mar the day. Even the police were cordial. So in that sense, the Fall Unity Fest in Mason had been a success.

Club Tay-May, Mason TN, Summer 1991

014 Club Tay May015 Club Tay May

Back in the summer of 1991, when I was hanging out with a lot of fellow UT-Martin students who lived at Gainsville just outside of Mason, a local festival gave me the excuse to be down on the Lower End taking pictures. I had almost forgotten that I had them. I even got a picture of the legendary Club Tay-May, which burned to the ground not long after. 

UPDATED: Tay-May was the big club in Mason, and had existed in several different locations, the last one being the one pictured here. Since it could hold hundreds, it routinely featured artists like Johnnie Taylor and Little Milton, and was rumored to be the place where Rufus Thomas invented the Funky Chicken! I will always be sad that I never went inside it.

The Lower End, Front Street, Mason TN, Summer 1991

001 The Lower End002 The Lower End003 Chilling In Front of the Green Hut004 The Lower End005 Purple Rain Lounge006 The Black Hut007 The Black Hut008 Still The Real Deal009 Godfather Lounge, Brown Hut & Real Deal010 The Lower End

Mason, Tennessee, Front Street, The Lower End, Summer 1991. 

This was the summer that I was spending a lot of time in and around Mason and Gainesville, Tennessee. I had gotten some black and white film, and was having fun with my camera, and I was always fascinated by the “cafes” in Mason, as juke joints were called in those days. Of course, I had no idea back then that most of these buildings would be torn down and destroyed, so the pictures are maybe a little more important now than I had imagined.

Disillusionment on the Lower End

Every time I visit Front Street in Mason, Tennessee, it seems that another building has been torn down, burned down, or has just fallen down from age and neglect. The once proud row of jukes, known locally as “cafes”, has been reduced to three or so which clearly have seen better days. Called the “Lower End” or the “row”, the clubs made Mason a sort of rural African-American Las Vegas, a milieu of “players” that a local resident once described in a feature article for the Commercial Appeal.

But the glory days are long gone, as are Club Tay-May, the Purple Rain, the Black Hut, the Red Hut, most of them reduced to vacant lots. As a photographer, musicologist and blogger, part of me wants to photograph what remains…after all, it may soon be gone. But there are a number of older African-American men and women hanging out on the porches, and I suddenly feel that taking their picture would be disrespectful, almost an intrusion. 

I face this dilemma all too often as I drive through Delta areas, looking for old architecture, juke joints and holy sites of the blues. Often I will see a perfect photo opportunity, and yet I will know that my taking it would either anger local residents or at least raise suspicions about who I am and what I am doing, and I hate the tortured past of race relations that makes this the reality in towns like Mason. 

So I don’t take the photo, riding past instead, feeling disillusioned and hopelessly cut off from that world that I find so attractive. Up on Highway 70, a group of young men are shooting basketball, and outside the old Fields School, another small group of young people is standing around in the gathering dusk. A sign says that the old school is now Club Maserati. Bozo’s Bar-B-Que, the other reason that I have come tells me that they are closing for the night and cannot serve me, and down the road Gus’ World-Famous Fried Chicken is also closed for the night. Suddenly I realize that I came out to Mason for nothing at all.