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It can be difficult to find a place in the Delta where you can go sit, down by the riverside…

What is: Mississippi River at Friars Point

What was: Founded in 1836 along the Mississippi River, Friars Point was once the largest cotton shipping center south of Memphis.  The historic port town remains the only place in Coahoma County with public access to the banks of the Mississippi River and is one of a few public access points to the river in the entire Mississippi Delta region.

Blues legend Robert Johnson is said to have played in front of Hirsberg’s Drugstore, as did Muddy Waters.  Johnson referred to Friars Point in the song “Traveling Riverside Blues.” The town has been written about by famous Mississippi writers Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. It also is the birthplace of country music legend Conway Twitty.

Friars Point was the rendezvous point for General William T. Sherman and Admiral David Porter who under orders from U.S. Grant came to Friars Point in December of 1862 to plan the naval attack on Vicksburg during Grant’s first Vicksburg campaign. The town served as a major staging point for Union troops. It was a rendezvous point for 45 transport ships and gunboats of Gen. Sherman on his way to Vicksburg.

During the 1875 elections, white supremacists intensified efforts to undermine and harass the Reconstruction government in Mississippi.  Friars Point was among the places that riots were instigated to intimidate black voters.

It has a population of about 839 as of July 1, 2022.

Sometimes there is no story…a sign on Highway 278, Clarksdale towards Oxford. Alone and on the road

What is: Cotton Gins at Mound Bayou, Mississippi

What was: Mound Bayou, in the Mississippi Delta was founded in 1887 by former slaves, with a vision to be a self-reliant, autonomous, all-black community.  For decades, it thrived and prospered, becoming famous for empowering its black citizens. The town also became known as a haven from the virulent racism of the Jim Crow South.

Annyce Campbell was born in Mound Bayou in 1924, the town was thriving. “You name it, we had it!” she told NPR  “We had everything but a jail, to tell you the truth!”  She told NPR about the town’s heydays, when Mound Bayou was home to dozens of businesses, three cotton gins, a sawmill, a cottonseed oil mill, a bank — all of them black-owned.

Mound Bayou was initially prosperous and known worldwide for its quality of cotton.  Mount Bayou became the place Delta farmers, including white farmers, brought their cotton to get ginned and for shipment. There was the Montgomery Gin, Farmer’s Gin, McCarty Gin, Mound Bayou Gin Company, Planters Gin, Presley Gin and Thompson Gin.

For farmers, receiving the Mound Bayou stamp on their cotton allowed them to increase the prices of their cotton bales. As the town continued to grow, residents annually produced 3,000 bales of cotton (5000 bales in 1908)and 2,000 bushels of corn on 6,000 acres of farmland. For a time, Mound Bayou was the third-largest cotton-producing town in the South. (source: Jackson Free Press and https://ourmissmag.com/uncategorized/remembering-mound-bayou-mississippis-black-wall-street/).

In 1912, at the only black owned cotton seed oil mill opening, attended by 15000 people, one attendee is reported to have stated that cotton was king, and blacks were one step closer to the throne now. (Source: New York Tribune, https://digitalcommons.csumb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1257&context=caps_thes

A beauty…a classic old main street theatre.
What is: The front entrance and the parking lot entrance stairs to the balcony entrance of the Paramount Movie Theatre, Clarksdale, Mississippi
What was: White people entered the theatre on the main level and at the front entrance on Yazoo Street, under neon lights. The 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.
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.
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What is: a vacant lot, where Dr. TRM Howard lived, Mound Bayou, Mississippi.  His place burned down several years ago.

What was: Mound Bayou is 42 miles away from Sumner, MS where the Emmett Till trial occurred. However, it is an essential place in civil rights history for numerous reasons, but among them was that Mound Bayou and Dr. Howard’s house in particular, provided protection for witnesses, a home base for the black press, and a refuge for Till’s mother Mamie Till-Bradley. Without Mound Bayou and Dr Howard we would likely still not know what happened to Emmett Till.

Dr. Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard was a legendary Mississippi activist and his charismatic style meant that threats on his life were common. In the years before Till was murdered, Howard already had a $1,000 price tag on his life. He traveled with armed bodyguards, and his home featured twenty-four-hour-a-day armed protection.  You get a sense of his home in #Tillthemovie

The sheer security of the Howard home explains why so many African Americans stayed with him when they came to Mississippi for the Till trial. It is why Till’s mother Mamie Till-Bradley, Michigan Congressman Charles C. Diggs, and other African Americans used the Howard home as their base camp.  Howard provided the motorcade that protected Mamie Till when she attended the trial.  Local stories tell of Mamie being wrapped up in a carpet on the floor of a car, as the body guards drove the 40 miles to court.

It was Howard’s home where on Sunday, September 18, 1955, around midnight when a young black plantation worker named Frank Young arrived claiming he had direct evidence linking J. W. Milam, Roy Bryant, and four others to the murder. He also broke the then-shocking news that Till had been killed in Sunflower County. He told Howard that, at approximately 6 am on August 28, Till had been conveyed via a pickup truck with four white people in the front and three African Americans in the back (including Till) to the seed barn on the Milam Plantation operated by J. W. Milam’s brother Leslie.

Young also told Howard that witnesses heard desperate screams emanating from that seed barn; that they saw J. W. Milam emerge from the barn for a drink of water; that the screams gradually faded; and that a body was taken from the barn, covered with a tarpaulin, and placed in the back of a truck. He further assured Howard that this entire story could be verified by five Black witnesses: himself, Willie Reed, Add Reed, Walter Billingsley, and Amanda Bradley.

The next evening (after the first day of the trial was complete), Howard called a strategy meeting at his home in Mound Bayou. Present at the meeting were NAACP officers Medgar Evers and Ruby Hurley and three influential members of the Black press: James Hicks, L. Alex Wilson (Tri-State Defender), and Simeon Booker (Jet). Although Hurley, Booker, and Hicks wanted to go public with the story immediately, Howard prevailed upon them to hold the story until the safety of the five witnesses could be found and their safety assured. They agreed to contact the state’s lawyers through a trusted member of the white press, the Memphis Press-Scimitar’s Clark Porteous.

Although T.R.M. Howard is generally remembered for his 1951 founding of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, Howard’s civil rights credentials were vast. He organized a non-violent movement in the Mississippi Delta four years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott (and three years before Emmett Till’s murder), he organized annual civil rights rallies, and he stoked Medgar Evers’ nascent activism by hiring him.

Several years after the Till trial, Dr. Howard himself would be smuggled out of Mississippi as a KKK hit was planned on him.

Source: https://tillapp.emmett-till.org/items/show/10

 

 

 

 

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.

Source: https://mshistorynow.mdah.ms.gov/issue/aaron-henry-a-civil-rights-leader-of-the-20th-century

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: This is just around the corner from where Muddy Waters lived on the Stoval Plantation, Abandoned Sharecropping Home at the edge of the fields, Stovall Plantation, MS

What was: Typical sharecropper shack was usually located with the crop entirely surrounding the house. After the Civil War, former slaves sought jobs, and planters sought laborers. The absence of cash or an independent credit system led to the creation of sharecropping.

Sharecropping is a system where the landlord/planter allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop. This encouraged tenants to work to produce the biggest harvest that they could, and ensured they would remain tied to the land and unlikely to leave for other opportunities.

In the South, after the Civil War, many black families rented land from white owners and raised cash crops such as cotton, tobacco, and rice. In many cases, the landlords or nearby merchants would lease equipment to the renters, and offer seed, fertilizer, food, and other items on credit until the harvest season. At that time, the tenant and landlord or merchant would settle up, figuring out who owed whom and how much.

High interest rates, unpredictable harvests, and unscrupulous landlords and merchants often kept tenant farm families severely indebted. Approximately two-thirds of all sharecroppers were white, and one third were black. Source: PBS’s Slavery By Another Name, https://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/sharecropping/

 

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.