In the Poorest Neighborhood in the Poorest City in the Poorest County in the Poorest State (or, Bless Your Heart, Mississippi)

Greenwood Pt. 2: Choking on History, Fake and True

The next morning, George confronted me about my (supposed) reluctance to exit possibly dangerous situations. I didn’t put up much of a fight, but felt bad that he thought I didn’t respect his position in strange Southern situations. It was true that I was easily distracted, like a cat with any shiny thing, and sometimes failed to consider where I was—where we were.

Already in the clueless-white-guy doghouse, still coffee-less, I was bummed and went to the motel’s breakfast room alone, ripe for one of the many mini-meltdowns inevitable on road trips. The coffee was nasty and weak, and no better with a heap of hydrologized “cream” and a “nutrition” bar drizzled with confection sugar. Eating healthy on the road wasn’t easy, any more than getting the truth from the overhead TV. A news review about the Supreme Court’s stripping of some voting rights protections was followed by an interview with TV contest dancers complaining “not enough people were voting”—for them. It was all brought to us by BP, a shiny happy commercial about saving the very Gulf they almost destroyed in 2010—along with miles of oil-slicked Mississippi shoreline.  I wolfed down the tasteless energy bar, choking the fakery of it all. Why did we live like this, as if real information and real food were somehow so difficult to ingest and swallowing phony bullshit was so easy?

I ended up swallowing even more in the motel directory’s “history” pages—detailed accounts of the town and surroundings. Lauding the “high level of citizenship” among those who settled this swampy wilderness, the history pages told lie after lie, mostly lies by omission. The mythical Cavaliers, those refined English gents who supposedly settled the Southeast, got credit for spawning the area’s pioneers and making Greenwood safe from bears and panthers. The very name of the town, not a romantic evocation of woodlands, was glossed over; Leflore Greenwood was the last of the Choctaw chiefs, cheated out of agreements (surprise!) by white settlers eager to seize the native lands and exile Greenwood and his people to the Trail of Tears. Instead, the motel “history” informed me only that the Chief was unhappy because his cotton was exposed to the weather. The so-called War Between the States somehow “came to town,” unconnected to the previous mention of slave labor building lavish plantations or the later reference to Carpetbaggers who “molested or killed” families. Paragraphs upon paragraphs told Greenwood’s distant connection to the Battle of Vicksburg, but said not a word about Greenwood’s most famous event, the civil-rights Greenwood Movement and its role in enfranchising 40% of Mississippi’s citizens.

I needed a copy of the “Area History” pages for reference and asked the two young clerks at the motel desk for a Xerox. They giggled and told me I could keep the whole directory, that “nobody was interested in that stuff.”

“So what do your guests ask about Greenwood?” I asked.

“Not much.” The sprightly African-American clerk, still in her teens, shrugged. “Most people are just passing through. Some ask where the old time blues guy Robert Johnson is buried around here, and whether he really sold his soul to the Devil. Like I would know! But some people want to know about The Help and where scenes were shot.”

The other clerk was slightly older, sullen, and probably of South Asian descent. I’d been thinking about another Greenwood movie, 1991’s Mississippi Masala, Mira Nair’s interracial love story. I asked the sullen clerk if she’d ever seen it, since it portrayed an Indian-American family taking refuge in Greenwood, running (this very?) motel.

She showed a flicker of interest when I mentioned that it starred Denzel Washington, but then she collapsed back into closed-up sullenness. “I don’t know anything about old movies.”

So the motel girls let the curious aging nerd keep the Guest Services Directory. Now I could actually possess Fake History as George and I visited Greenwood by the light of day.

Despite a few larger homes and tidy blocks, the east side neighborhood near our motel was mostly a sad place pocked with emptied lots but busy with unoccupied men milling around shotgun shacks, many boarded-over. Not far was a school completely enclosed in barbed-wire fencing. We found the small neighborhood park where Stokely Carmichael gave a brief speech in 1966 that changed the tenor, and the course, of the racial equality movement. Carmichael became convicted that although admirable, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolent struggle might not be enough to bring real change. After being jailed prior to a Greenwood rally, Carmichael gave a talk in Broad Street Park, saying, “The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nuthin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!” According to his autobiography, the crowd agreed, chanting “Black Power!” Unusual for Greenwood’s civil rights locations, the Black Power site is commemorated with a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker, unveiled in Feburary, 2013. Shacks, abandoned lots, and the husks of once-intact homes ringed the park.

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The contrast between east Greenwood and the slightly more prosperous black neighborhoods just west, not to mention the massively affluent white northern district, made me think of South African townships. Like them, the geographical separation between blacks in poverty and whites in prosperity was stark—demarcated by the fixed boundaries of railroad tracks and the river. But in another way, the situation was quintessentially American and easily seen in capitalist terms. There was simply no surplus wealth in east Greenwood except for the undervalued, undernourished human capital. Now we were in the poorest neighborhood in the poorest city in the poorest county in the poorest state—double the poverty rate of Mississippi as a whole. A public elementary school in north Greenwood had a state rating of 10 out of 10; the public schools south of the river were rated 1 or 3 out of 10. Pillow Academy, a “segregation school” founded by the White Citizens Council after court ordered integration in the 50s,
still flourished on the north side, siphoning off the white students when they leave that one good elementary school. All are welcome now, of course, provided they could afford the tuition, close to $6,000 a year–segregation 21st Century style, not measured so much by the color of skin as the thickness of bank accounts, which keeps Pillow’s black enrollment at 2% in a 70% black city.

We crossed the tracks back into downtown to explore Greenwood’s center in daylight, and, after passing through desolate blocks of once-grand, now abandoned stores, we did grow more encouraged about the town’s prospects. Near the courthouse, we found the only known coffeehouse in the Delta on a restoring corner of downtown, cater-corner from the old cotton exchange, and discussed the improving business climate with two blonde businesswomen. Businesses that had fled the south side of the river were moving back from the strip malls on Park Avenue. A jeweler with a newly relocated shop said that far from going downhill, Greenwood’s long decline was reversing thanks to reinvestment in the infrastructure.

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Shazam. She was right. George and I looked around the immediate area,where improvements were obvious. We chatted with a contractor helping to restore the town’s old social center. Wrought-iron balconies graced Howard Street, now dolled up for a few blocks, complete with old-brick sidewalks and street pavings, before it declined to more empty storefronts, a wig shop, and of course, more empty lots.

It’s tempting to try out a metaphor of Greenwood as a microcosm of the South, but it’s probably more like America itself writ small, especially now, as we trick-out our Red and Blue versions of the same facts, contest the most basic truths of our history, and let the boundaries between haves and have-nots become as wide and inexorable as the Yazoo River. The jeweler’s perky optimism, though, rang in our ears as we left the town, passing the mini-and-mega mansions of Grand Boulevard. She told us the A-list Hollywood cast of The Help thought Greenwood was the “greatest place on earth, and now tourists are coming here from everywhere, imagine!” Crossing the Tallahatchie River, finally escaping town, I sighed a favorite Southernism, well, bless their hearts.

After the Tallahatchie Bridge, we entered a completely rural expanse of Delta farmland. Grand plantation houses dotted huge tracts of dark soil, bringing to mind that old Mississippi Delta play, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, set on a 50s plantation with the “richest soil this side of the river Nile.” Crossing the lands white interlopers stole from Choctaw, lands worked for untold decades by stolen people’s unpaid labor—through his harvest of America’s original sins, we were on our way to the town of Money. There we found the ruin of Bryant’s Grocery where Emett Till, a black schoolboy aged 14 in 1955, made his infamous “saucy” comment to the owner’s white wife and ended up mutilated and drowned in the Tallahatchie River .

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We could see daylight through the remaining planks of the storefront, held up  by vines. But a solid 2011 bronze Freedom Trail sign commemorating the event and its significance—it ignited Northern awareness of Southern white race violence—told the story true and forthright (bless your heart, Mississippi). Even after all this time and consideration of the event, standing there and reflecting on the last moments of that poor kid’s life was unspeakably sad.

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About Lee Patton

I'm creating three sites: Comic Relief in Trump Time; Stripper at the Funeral: The First Fifty Plus Poems, and The South Within Us. In The South Within Us, with my Denver writing partners Kristen Hannum and George Ware, I'm closing in on the last phase of our journey for our narrative non-fiction project THE SOUTH WITHIN US: WESTERNERS EXPLORE SOUTHERN IDENTITY. Kristen and I are alternating chapters, she with her strong Southern family connections, I with few personal links to the South, as we uncover what the American South means to us and its place in our national heritage. As an African-American community activist searching for his long-lost Southern roots, George provides perspective and balance.

One response to “In the Poorest Neighborhood in the Poorest City in the Poorest County in the Poorest State (or, Bless Your Heart, Mississippi)”

  1. GWare says :

    I don’t doubt that my insistence that we leave downtown Greenwood after dark might seem to some an overreaction to imagined threats to my safety – most likely fed by stereotypes, old movies, and dimly remembered news broadcasts of 60s civil rights events. But, in any case, I began feeling increasingly ill at ease after Lee and I walked across the bridge separating downtown Greenwood from the affluent neighborhood with its oversized houses lining Grand Boulevard to the north. I noted that I was only the African American walking in that neighborhood, and, as it grew darker, I suspected that my presence might be cause for alarm to anyone not used to seeing a black face after dusk. I recall getting a number of stares from white residents out running or walking their dogs that seemed to confirm my suspicions. My sense of discomfort (internal alarms blaring) grew even more when we entered the downtown barbeque restaurant filled with customers, all of whom were white and all of whom seemed to watch carefully as we tried to decide if we’d eat there.

    By then, I had decided that I didn’t know the “rules” –both spoken and unspoken – that guide everyday interactions between African Americans and whites in Greenwood. I concluded that the fact that African Americans live just minutes from both downtown Greenwood and Grand Boulevard yet are not seen in these areas suggests some pretty rigid social codes of which I wasn’t unaware. Maybe those codes could help explain why whites lived in relative comfort and downtown Greenwood was being revitalized while the black neighborhood was remarkable for its crumbling infrastructure and an apparent lack of investment. Given that Greenwood was the focus of many efforts to improve the lot of African Americans during the sixties, what could explain these current inequities? And, what happens to people when they ask too many questions like that one?

    My thinking and reaction to Greenwood might be unfair. I sometimes take for granted that I can walk through any Denver neighborhood without being stared at or harassed by the police. But, maybe, I’m subconsciously choosing to enter neighborhoods in which I feel relatively safe and free from hassles. What might happen if I was seen strolling down some tony street in Cherry Hills? (James Loewen’s book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, documents that there are many towns in the North and West that specifically kept African Americans from buying a home within the towns’ limits or discouraged their presence after sunset). Maybe I shouldn’t let my guard down so easily when I’m in other parts of the U.S.

    In any case, I noted that Lee didn’t immediately understand my concerns, my insistence that we agree on a code word or signal to indicate that we needed to “get the hell out, no questions asked.” We discussed how Lee had the luxury of not worrying about such things. I couldn’t help being a little envious of what I consider white privilege. Research has suggested that chronic stress can shorten a person’s life. I wonder if anyone has quantified the years-of-life-lost that on average African Americans experience as a result of their feeling the need to always watch their backs.

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