What is: The lot where Aaron Henry’s 4th St. Drug Store was located, Clarksdale, MS
What was: Aaron Henry was born in 1922, the son of sharecroppers. He joined other members of his family and worked the cotton fields on the Flowers Plantation outside of Clarksdale. He was drafted into the United States Army in 1943 and served in segregated units in the Pacific theatre. He decided then that when he returned home to Mississippi, he would work to gain equality and justice for Black Americans.
He used the G. I. Bill, a law that provided educational benefits for World War II veterans, to attend Xavier College (now Xavier University) in New Orleans. Graduating in 1950 with a pharmaceutical degree, he returned to Clarksdale and opened the Fourth Street Drug Store along with K. W. Walker, a White Mississippian. It was the only Black-owned drugstore in the area. As Henry recalled, “Our drugstore was to become the gathering place and the hub for political and civil rights planning for three decades.” including voter registration and boycotts of downtown merchants. But being in the movement had its costs. During his fight for civil rights, Henry was arrested more than thirty times, his wife was fired from her job as a teacher, and both their home and his store were firebombed.
Dr. Aaron E. Henry was a prominent NAACP leader, state and national political figure. He served as a mentor to many of the young kids involved in the 1960s civil rights efforts. Henry once said that his grandmother had inspired him to become involved in the struggle for civil rights. She told him he was just as worthy of justice as any White man and that “they put on their pants the same way you do, one leg at a time.”
Historian John Dittmer noted, ““That he [Henry] stayed in Mississippi, and for the next three decades fought for human rights in a different political environment is a tribute both to his commitment and to his under-appreciated role as Mississippi’s most important black politician since Reconstruction.” He was one of the most important of mentors for SNCC activists when they came to Mississippi.
What is: The parking lot and stairs to the balcony entrance of the Paramount Movie Theatre, Clarksdale, Mississippi
What was: This old, covered stairway in a parking lot behind the Paramount Movie Theatre in downtown Clarksdale is the entrance for blacks to the segregated balcony in the movie theatre. White people entered the theatre on the main level and at the front entrance on Yazoo Street, under neon lights.
Opened as the Marion Theatre in 1918, it became the Paramount in 1931 and closed in 1976. Civil right activists picketed the theater in the 1960’s, and it was desegregated in 1965.
What is: The Riverside Hotel, Clarksdale, MS
What was: Previously the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital where Bessie Smith died in 1937, it was transformed into a hotel by Mrs. Z. L. Ratliff in 1944. The Riverside Hotel opened for business in 1944. Mrs. Hill purchased the building in 1957 and it has remained in the hands of the Ratliff family to this day.
As one of the only African American hotels in Jim Crow Mississippi, it was listed in the Greenbook and played host to a Who’s Who of blues and R&B legends including Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Sam Cooke whose legendary song, “A Change is Gonna Come” is believed to reference the nearby Sunflower River.” Others, including Ike Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Robert Nighthawk, liked the place so much they moved in.
Ike Turner was living here in 1951 when he and fellow Clarksdalian Jackie Brenston wrote, rehearsed here (and then recorded at Sun Studio’s) what many consider the first rock ‘n roll song, “Rocket 88.”
It was a safe space for traveling musicians and became a community hub and the most blues-historic hotel in the world.
The Riverside Hotel is the only blues hotel that is still Black-owned in Clarksdale. But the building, which has not been operational since storm damage in April 2020, needs significant rehabilitation. The family is determined to continue to honor the legacy of their family and restore and reopen its doors. In 2021 it was recognized as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America.
The Ratliff family is looking for donors and partnerships to ensure that this invaluable history is here for generations to come! Please donate to support its’ preservation. Source: http://www.riversideclarksdale.com/
What is: Abandoned Buildings, MLK and Yazoo Avenue area, Clarksdale, MS
What was: The neighborhood was known as the New World from the beginning of the twentieth Century. A breeding ground for ragtime, blues and jazz.
Clarksdale was a prosperous Cotton town. African American slaves cultivated and processed cotton, worked as artisans, and cultivated and processed produce and livestock on the plantations. They built the wealth of “King Cotton” in the state. The 1860 U.S. Census data shows Coahoma County, where Clarksdale is located, had a population of 1,521 whites and 5,085 slaves.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, Clarksdale was known as the “Golden Buckle in the Cotton Belt” — a home to a multi-cultural mixture of Lebanese, Italian, Chinese and Jewish immigrant merchants along with African-Americans farm laborers and white plantation owners. Brothels attracted black and white clientele. On Saturday’s the sharecroppers filled the streets shopping, socializing, drinking in the jukes and listening to blues. On Sunday’s a sabbath calm prevailed with everyone filling local churches.
In 1944, the first commercial, machinery produced, cotton crop was produced near here on 28 acres owned by the Hopson Planting Company of Clarksdale. The machinery took over everything from planting to baling, changing the demand for labor and more.
What is: Sharecroppers home, hot tin roof at the edge of the Stovall Plantation
What was: The Stovall Plantation is about 6 miles northwest of Clarksdale. It’s 4000 acres of cotton and soybeans and been in the family since 1836. Clarksdale made the blues and sent the music north; it was the starting point of the Great Migration during which 5 million blacks left the South from 1940 to the mid-’60s, each heading for a new life in the North.
McKinley Morganfield moved there when his mother died in 1915. He was just 3 years old, and he came to be raised by his grandmother in her sharecropper’s shack on the plantation. He picked up a nickname, Muddy Waters, and started fooling around with music in his early teens, first the harmonica, then guitar. He played all around town, at suppers and get-togethers; he played on the front porch of the shack, on Saturday nights turning the place into his own juke joint, complete with homemade whiskey.
It took years, but he built a reputation, and it brought him recognition before he was 30. In 1940, Alan Lomax, the folklore collector at the Library of Congress, traveled to the Delta to record the music of Robert Johnson, the undisputed wild man of blues music. Trouble was, Johnson had been dead for nearly three years, poisoned by strychnine-laced whiskey one hot Saturday night at a roadhouse in Three Forks. Legend has it he had been fooling around with the roadhouse owner’s wife, and that was that. Or maybe he was stabbed; after more than 50 years, details remain sketchy.
So Lomax discovered he’d missed Johnson, but he heard about this guy named Muddy Waters at the Stovall Plantation. Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/travel/1993/07/04/where-the-blues-were-born/8efc1c14-e178-45df-b79b-3e15ba8ea3f6/).
What is: Cotton Gin near Friars Point, Mississippi. Abandoned cotton gin between Clarksdale and Friars Point, MS.
What was: Founded in the 1830s and continuing to operate into the 20th century, the King and Anderson Plantation was an enormous spread of seventeen thousand acres just northwest of Clarksdale and reputed to be the largest family plantation in Mississippi. It was located near this Cotton Gin.
Originally, large plantations had their own private cotton gins. Over time, the increasing number of smaller farms, the emergence of sharecropping after the civil war and new technologies led to the rise of public gins. By the early twentieth century, large, public facilities that not only ginned cotton but also sold seeds to cottonseed oil firms, populated nearly every town and county in the state’s cotton belt.
In addition to the economic function, public gins served a social function. “Trips to the gin provided farmers living in the far reaches of Mississippi’s counties with breaks in the tedium and solitude of toiling on small, isolated farms. The same gins served black and white farmers, and gin operators made no efforts to serve whites before blacks. While waiting in line to gin their cotton, farmers of both races came together to discuss pests, weather patterns, and prices. As shared public spaces, therefore, gins offered brief respites from the stifling confines of Mississippi’s racial caste system.” Source: https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/cotton-gins/.
What is: The abandoned Alcazar Hotel, Clarksdale, Mississippi
What was: The building is the second of the original hotel and was the center of social culture during the booming business days of the Delta. Advertised as the “most modern hotel in Mississippi” it was considered one of the premier hotels of the South.
Built with four stories and a glass dome on the second floor “which allowed natural light to filter through to the lobby on the first floor, where a restaurant and several other businesses were housed. The building’s eleven storefront bays were where prominent Clarksdale businesses operated.
The Alcazar Hotel and Coffee Shop were all white restaurant and hotel (which is ironic as you will see later in the story). After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the employees of the Alcazar Hotel and the Alcazar Coffee Shop were instructed to “refuse service to Negroes.” According to the US District Court ruling filed in November 1965, Reverend George W. Trotter III of Memphis, a black man, attempted to obtain a room at the hotel on July 6, 1964, and Mrs. Vera Mae Pigee of Clarksdale, a black woman, attempted to obtain service at the coffee shop; both were refused because of their race.
The next day, the owners closed the hotel and coffee shop to avoid serving black customers. A few weeks later on July 27, the Regency Club was founded as a whites only private club, working in conjunction with Clarksdale King Anderson for use of the hotel, coffee shop, and staff. In December 1965, the court ruled against the discriminatory practices, barring the hotel from operating in cahoots with the club.
WROX was Clarksdale’s first radio station going on the air in June 1944. WROX broadcast from the Alcazar Hotel for nearly 40 years. Ike Turner operated the elevator in the hotel as a pre-teen and would go on to be a DJ at the radio station.
Early Wright, an auto mechanic by trade, came to the station in 1945 as the manager of the Four Star Quartet, a gospel group that had a 15-minute Sunday morning program. Management was so impressed by Early that he was hired and became the first black disc jockey in the state of Mississippi, breaking the color line in radio in Mississippi. Early Wright developed a dual on-air persona as “The Soul Man” when he played blues and R&B records and “Brother Early Wright” when he switched back to gospel. Early was known to have one of the longest running radio shows in America from 1947-1998. Musicians like Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Ike & Tina Turner, and B.B. King performed live at WROX and were interviewed by Early Wright
Early Wright holding the WROX sign in the Alcazar Hotel. Photo by Panny Flautt Mayfield.
What is: 407 Ashton Street, Clarksdale, Mississippi
What was: Vera Mae Pigee’s Beauty Salon was opened in 1955 and became more than a successful business. Because it was a successful business that didn’t depend on the white community, she was able to be an activist and keep her job. Her Salon was a safe space for civil rights organizing activities; it was a shelter; it was a classroom where literacy was taught to local residents, as part of an effort to increase African American voter registration; and it was a place for local food and clothing drives.
Vera Mae Pigee was a significant civil rights organizer and activist. In 1959, she helped lead a demonstration at the Illinois Central train terminal where 3 students tried to purchase train tickets from the “white” side of the counter. They were all arrested when the police arrived. In December 1961, when Pigee and her daughter entered the whites-only bus terminal waiting area, they were harassed by the Clarksdale police. They filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The incident sparked additional protests against the bus terminal and the police department. Those protests forced the Greyhound terminal to end its segregation policy on December 27, 1961. Ben C. Collins, the Clarksdale chief of police, called her “the most aggressive leader of the NAACP in Clarksdale.
In the 1970s, Vera Mae Pigee moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she studied sociology and journalism at Wayne State University. On December 14, 1985, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities from Urban Bible College of Detroit, in recognition of her work in the field of civil rights. She later became an ordained Baptist minister and continued working with the NAACP. Dr. Vera Mae Pigee passed away in Detroit on September 18, 2007, at the age of 83. Source: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/people-african-american-history/vera-pigee-1924-2007/