Tourists flock to Memphis for Beale Street, Graceland, the Stax Museum, the Rock-N-Soul Museum, and many other musical and artistic attractions, but oddly, they rarely venture across the river to the city of West Memphis, Arkansas, unless it is to gamble at Southland Gaming and Racing. But the city on the Arkansas side has a vibrant music history as well, with the Black community centered around South Eighth Street, a wide-open equivalent of Beale Street, where musicians, pool-hustlers and gamblers frequented establishments like Sam Ervin’s Cafe, the Harlem Inn, Jones Hotel and Cafe or Lucille Perry’s Cafe Number 1. Howlin’ Wolf once lived in West Memphis, and occasionally played live on KWEM Radio Station, where a young Jim Dickinson once heard him, fascinated. Some of Memphis’ best Black musicians played nightly at the Plantation Inn, at the far east end of Broadway near the river bridge.
In this vibrant environment, in 1963, William Maxwell decided to open a barbecue joint near the intersection of South 14th Street and Broadway, which in those days was Highway 70. Experts tell us that most new restaurants don’t make it two years, but 55 years later, Williams’ Bar-B-Que is still going strong, even if its hours are a little more erratic. After all, Mr. Maxwell is now 84 years old, and has health issues, so the restaurant is only open when a relative is available to run it day to day. Still, on the day I visited, after several attempts over the last few years when they were closed, Mr. Maxwell was sitting in the restaurant as people came in to buy their pork shoulder or bologna sandwiches. Of course, Williams’ Bar-B-Que is nothing fancy, and I learned the hard way that they don’t take credit or debit cards, but they do make some tasty barbecue in an authentic down-home environment.
106 S 14th St
West Memphis, AR 72301
(Call before visiting, as the hours have become somewhat unpredictable)
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.
I had heard from Larry Chambers over at Ecko Records that there was now a blues club on Broadway in West Memphis, Arkansas that had blues on Sunday nights. So I had gone out there to check it out, and they weren’t doing blues that particular night because the club had been rented by a motorcycle club, but the next Sunday was the day after Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, and despite a rather cold rain, the small club was packed to overflowing, and great music from the Soul Connection Band and some guest vocalists was already under way. Blues singer Ms. Dierdre came up to sing “Boogie Oogie Oogie”, and then the man of the hour, Big John Cummings, came up. Cummings is an excellent singer and songwriter, perhaps best known for the song “Too Many Mechanics” recorded by Donnie Ray, with which Cummings closed out his set. The club, CJ’s Sports Bar & Blues, has the authentic blues atmosphere that visitors to Memphis are looking for, and Sunday night is not to be missed.
CJ’s Sports Bar & Blues
3110 E Broadway
West Memphis, AR 72301