9:03 PM / Tuesday May 21, 2024

9 May 2015

Mississippi Delta, the Crossroads

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May 9, 2015 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  Bluefront Cafe

By Renée S. Gordon

“The region is often shrouded in romance and myth but its realities are as intriguing, as intricate, as its legends.”  –William Ferris

The Mississippi Delta is one of the most recognized regions in the world. International sojourners travel from around the globe to visit the sites deemed “holy” by lovers of the Delta Blues because of the close encounters still possible with those who create it and sustain the legacy. The blues are an outgrowth of the unique culture shaped by the geography, history and ethnicities of the region. To travel through the Delta is to benefit from the experiences of those who shaped it and yes, the blues are found there, but there is also much, much more.

The Mississippi River Delta Basin is recognized as all of the land and shallow estuarine area between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. It was formed more than 6,500-years ago and is currently 6,250-square miles, 101,100-acres, of alluvial soil, some of the richest in the world, located in the northwestern portion of Mississippi.

Alonzo Alvarez de Pineda, a Spanish explorer, was the first documented European to sight the Mississippi and map the coast. Hernando de Soto led the first large exploration, with 600 soldiers, priests and civilians, of the Mississippi region in 1540 and de La Salle claimed all the land drained by the Mississippi River for France in 1682. Possession of the region went back and forth until the 1783 Treaty of Paris granted America North Mississippi and the Mississippi Territory was created in 1798. On December 10, 1817, the western Mississippi Territory was admitted to the Union as the 20th state.

European explorers and settlers were greeted by a number of Indian tribes, most notably the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Natchez. Because of warfare with the Indians and the lack of easy transportation into the Delta region, it had a limited population until the latter part of the 1700s. When Whitney’s cotton gin was introduced into the region in 1795, the demand for slaves exploded as settlers migrated from Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia to profit from affordable land on which to establish cotton plantations.

Blacks accompanied the Spanish explorers and were brought to the region with the first settlers. In 1719, the French brought African slaves into the area and in 1724, the region’s first Black Code was put in place to govern the lives of the enslaved. The 1860 census revealed that 791,305 people resided in the state, 436,631 of which were slaves, making Mississippi one of two states with a black population that exceeded that of whites.

After the devastation of the Civil War and the demise of physical slavery the share cropping/tenant farmer system was instituted as an economic replacement. On its surface the system appears equitable, landowners needed labor and former slaves needed work. The tenant worked a plot of land with housing, seed and plantation store credit for all other needs supplied by the owner and to be subtracted at the year’s end. But usually, the tenant ended up tied to the land because he was perpetually in debt to the owner. The insular nature of the plantation and the deprivation and unrelenting labor were entwined in the creation of the Mississippi Delta Blues. The Great Migration of African Americans and whites, 1900-1960, led to the disbursement of the culture and ultimately the international recognition of the music.

The Mississippi Delta encompasses all or a portion of 19 counties and, as defined by author David Cohn, “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” The Blues Highway, a 250-mile stretch of Highway 61, cuts a swath from north to south and intersects Highway 49 at a place that represents the iconic “Crossroads” where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil for an otherworldly ability to play the guitar. Crossroads historically have been representative of a place between the known world and that of the unknown. It is a place with a mystical ability to allow a seeker to be granted a desire, often with spiritual assistance and intercession. The Mississippi Delta in its entirety is a cultural crossroads where you too can experience a unique legacy and cultural transmission.

In 1682, de La Salle named a river he discovered the “Rivière des Yazous” after the Yazoo tribe he found residing there. The river forms the eastern border of the Delta and both the city and county are namesakes of the Yazoo River. The city was established as Hannan’s Bluff in 1824, renamed Manchester and finally Yazoo City in 1841. In 1863, the Union destroyed a Confederate shipyard that was created after New Orleans fell. After the Confederates recaptured the city, the Union destroyed the majority of the town while recapturing it. A State Historical Marker commemorates the Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War in the Yazoo Expedition. This skirmish included troops of Africa descent.

Yazoo City was again destroyed in 1904. A fire burned down more than 75 percent, 300 structures, of the town but recovery began immediately and took only a year to complete.

Yazoo Town Center Historic District is referred to as the largest single area on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and was selected one of the “Best Old House Neighborhoods” in 2012. Twenty site walking tour brochures are available that include maps and information on the historic structures.

Greenwood Cemetery, the second “Spookiest Cemetery” in the nation by the Huffington Post, offers special tours that interpret the lives and events that shaped the city. Established in 1856 on 9.5-acres, it was the second burial ground in the city. Highlights of the tour include several gravesites with unique stories and monuments. One of the most touching is that of Amy Saunders, a 3-year old who died after being ill for only two days. Her grieving parents commissioned a statue replicating a photograph so finely detailed that you can see the links in her necklace and the fingernails on her hands.

Greenwood, like other cemeteries of the era, was segregated. Robert T. Lambeth served with the Confederate 18th Mississippi. Upon his return he lived with, fathered three children by and left his estate to an African American woman. He was interred in a crypt in the colored section of the cemetery.

The most famous burial is that of the Witch of Yazoo City. The woman lived alone and was believed to be a witch. A child passing her house one night claimed to have seen her torturing a man and the sheriff in attempting to arrest her chased her into quicksand. Before she died she cursed the town and said she would return in 20 years to burn it. The next day she was pulled out and buried in the cemetery surrounded by a thick heavy chain. On May 24, 1904, the town burned down and on the 26th the townspeople visited the grave and found the chains broken. Thirteen steps left of her grave is that of the author Willie Morris whose writing made her famous.

Yazoo City is ideal as a hub from which to tour other Delta towns and cities. The buildings along Main Street are painted in colorful pastels that highlight the architectural design and music provides a soundtrack throughout the day. The real jewel in the city’s crown is the Main Street Hotel. Arrayed throughout 16 historic structures the hotel offers 14 accommodations and three apartments all with free parking, WIFI, modern amenities and antique furnishings. A night here is a real treat.

One of the most famous restaurants in the area was The Steak House. When the proprietor passed away, the cooks opened Café 7, open 7 days a week with seven tables. The café serves huge portions of regional cuisine and is fast becoming a local legend.

Bentonia is a small place that looms large in Delta history as the home of the Bentonia Blues style. The style is said to have originated with Henry Stuckey whose pupil, Nehemiah “Skip” James, grew up on the nearby Woodbine Plantation. He perfected the technique that is centered on the tuning of the guitar and sung in his haunting voice. His songs, “Hard Time Killin’ Floor” and “I’m So Glad” were recorded in 1931 in a Paramount session. Jack Owens, another Stuckey student, farmer and jook joint owner was recorded by Alan Lomax and became a widely regarded musician. He appeared in several documentaries and is buried in a cemetery three miles beyond the Old Liberty M. B. Church where his funeral was held. 

No area venue is more of a pilgrimage site than the Blue Front Café. Carey and Mary Holmes opened the cinderblock Blue Front in 1948 and in 1970 ownership was taken over by their son Jimmy Holmes.  The Holmes, as African Americans, operated under constraints including a 10 PM curfew and the fact that they could not sell blacks products reserved for whites such as Coca-Cola. The café was famous for its food, moonshine (sold out the back) and music. Mary’s most popular dish was buffalo fish but her reputation as a good cook did not rest on that alone. The Food network taped a segment on May 3rd in which Jimmy recreated his mother’s recipes for collard greens, cornbread and gravy.

It gained international fame in the 20th-century as a place where you can still hear authentic blues and France and Norway have clubs that are replicas of the Blue Front. It is the oldest jook joint in the state still in operation, is open daily and has never closed. The annual Bentonia Blues Festival is held in June and features Jimmy “Duck” Holmes the last artist to perform Bentonia Blues and having a direct link to the originators. Now in its 43rd year it is the state’s longest running Blues festival.

The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center is located in Indianola, the city that King claims as his home. The $16-million museum is dedicated to the preservation and presentation of King’s life and legacy. Tours begin with a 10-minute orientation film and proceed chronologically through King’s life and career. Highlights of the self-guided tour are the interactive exhibits, stage outfits, his awards and honors, his home office and always, the music.

Jim Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi but grew up 12-miles west in Leland. However, Leland’s most famous resident is not Henson, but one of his creations. The Kermit the Frog Museum is situated on Deer Creek where Henson first came up with the idea and the two room exhibit is located at a spot where he and his best friend Kermit Scott played as children. Tours are self-guided and provide “selfie” opportunities with a larger than life Kermit, an orientation video where you can be seated next to Bert and Ernie and a model of the first Kermit created from his mother’s old coat. The souvenir shop sells everything Muppet. Children and adults will love it here.

Leland, at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 10, is also home to the Highway 61 Blues Museum established to honor the more than 150 Delta Blues musicians who resided within a 100-mile radius of the town. Leland once boasted the largest entertainment district in the Delta and it gained a reputation as the “Hell Hole of the Delta.” The museum focuses on the numerous musicians who performed there including Edgar and Johnny Winter, Charley Patton, Little Milton, BB King, and Son Thomas. Displays include instruments, costumes, documents, memorabilia and artworks.

The Leland Blues Project Murals, a series of five murals augmented with Blues Trail Markers, interprets the Mid-Delta Blues experience. Johnny Winter personally autographed the “Hwy 61 Bluesmen” mural. The project dates from 2000 and depicts musicians from within a 25-mile radius.

The Winterville Indian Mounds complex is one of the most expansive and best preserved in the southeastern US. Originally, the site consisted of 23 mounds. But currently this National Historic Landmark consists of 11 mounds and two plazas. One plaza features a centrally located 55-foot high mound. Archeological expeditions in 1967-68 revealed that the mounds, identified by letters, were built between 1200-1250 AD. The Winterville Mounds Museum exhibits artifacts uncovered during excavations, photographs and interpretive information. Every 18.6-years the mounds line up with the moon leading to the belief that the site had astrological importance.

The James Beard Foundation honored Doe’s Eat Place with the America’s Classic Award in 2007. The restaurant is most famous for its hot tamales and freshly cut steaks. “Doe” and Mamie Signa opened Doe’s as a grocery store in Greenville in 1903. In 1941, the family began selling hot tamales and other classic Delta foods in the front of the store to African Americans in a honky-tonk setting. Eventually, whites began coming to the back door and a restaurant was established to accommodate them. Today all customers enter through the kitchen, catching glimpses of the huge steaks on the grill. Doe’s is iconic and an absolute must dine when in the area.

There are still more crossroads in the Mississippi Delta to explore. We have a large amount of ground left to cover before we reach Catfish Row. Information on planning your own Delta pilgrimage can be found online.

“Well, you hear me singin’ this old lonesome song People, you know these hard times Can’t last us so long”

–Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues

I wish you smooth travels!

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