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.
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.
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 .
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.
Plus, What Billy Joe McAllister Really Did Throw Off the Tallahatchie Bridge
The Mississippi countryside north of Vicksburg looked exactly like it was supposed to—“a sleeping beauty,” I told George.
“I hope she doesn’t wake up,” he said, grumpy and travel weary as we crossed north into the Delta. Considering that George vowed he would “never set foot in Mississippi” before this trip, I was lucky to have him along. George’s father “mysteriously estranged” himself from his early roots in the state, and the way his son had talked, traveling to Mississippi would be as crazy as booking a journey to Hell.
Yet here we were, as deep as we could get into the state famous for its poverty and Jim Crow violence, following the Yazoo River along state route 3. As the late October afternoon grew darker, part of me freaked over what would happen if this sleeping beauty did wake up again, psychotic as she was in the 60s, when white-supremacist terrorism bloomed like cotton fields. But most fields were fallow now as the route went between quiet expanses of still-green pasture and tunnel-like tree groves, branches arching over the highway. Not a soul stirred around the modest farmhouses. Even the few dinky towns hid themselves, miles off the main road, down even quieter roads.
As we hopscotched country routes toward Greenwood, the heart of the old Delta economy (once the World’s Largest Inland Long Staple Cotton Market, don’t ya know?), where the Tallahatchie River emptied into the Yazoo. George, still grumpy, asked, “Why on earth we were going to Greenwood?”
“To discover once and for all why Billy Joe McAlister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge,” I joked feebly, but it worked. George, ever the chorister, started singing the great old Bobby Gentry song about a mysterious motive that drove Billy Joe to suicide. Soon, I would solve the mystery: Billy Joe McAllister jumped off that damn bridge because Greenwood drove him nuts, suspended too long between hope and despair.
I had lots of reasons to visit the town, which was an epicenter of civil rights history. The powerful segregationist White Citizens Council was formed in Greenwood in 1954. As with Selma, when local blacks were attacked for registering to vote in the early 60s, prominent figures such as James Meredith and Stokely Carmichael came to town to highlight the struggle, birthing the Greenwood Movement, and celebrities such as Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte raised funds from afar. The very idea of Black Power was launched in a small Greenwood park.
But as night fell and we entered Greenwood, I wondered how solid my reasons were. Today it was probably another sleepy, dusty Delta town, maybe even a ghost of one. Our first impression was depressing. The main drag led through a block after block of empty, soaped-over storefronts–a dead zone. I had a horrible feeling that after the Movement’s successful store boycotts to gain voting rights, Greenwood had devolved into a place where no one shopped at all.
George was uneasy about hanging out in the town center after dark, so we walked across the Yazoo River and down Grand Boulevard. Though renowned for the grandeur of older and newer homes, some occupying entire blocks, used as a movie set in “The Help,” and now lavishly decorated for Halloween, Grand Boulevard was as lifeless as downtown. Crossing the river again, we did find a BBQ joint open near the courthouse. When we asked what else was available downtown, a bewildered young waitress stared as us blankly.
We got the message, but before we fled the abandoned streets, I wanted to ponder the inevitable Confederate statue at the courthouse. In 1962, when student Sam Block attempted to help register black voters here, the Citizens Council called to kindly inform him to stop or he would “never leave Greenwood alive.” This is before he was “beaten, shot at driven from SNCC headquarters by goons with chains and shotguns, and firebombed.” George told me the hell with the statue, we had to get going.
First morning in Tulsa, we passed officially into the South: at a local diner, we were asked, “you want grits with that?” Yes, we had entered the Grits Zone. (They were, to be sure, gritty).
Three years ago, when my writing partner Kristen and I drove to Oklahoma for the first time, I remember crossing into both the “y’all” zone and the “hon” zone right after we crossed the border into the Panhandle. I liked being “y’all” all by myself, and being “hon” to all the females.
But things got serious. I had joined Kristen to cover the 15 year commemoration of the Oklahoma City terror bombing in 1995, along on my own a simple quest: to find out if Oklahoma was really in the South—as opposed to West or Midwest. I quickly found that most Oklahomans I spoke to jumped to self-identify as Southerners. When I learned about segregation in the 1950’s from Kristen’s aunt, I thought I had made some ah-hah discovery—even though OK was never in the Confederacy, it endured all the same conflicts and changes as the Deep South did during the Civil Rights era.
Now I realize how naïve I was. There was never any mystery or controversy about Oklahoma’s Southern status. When it became a state in 1907, Oklahoma’s first law was to create legal racial segregation—Jim Crow.
Yesterday, looking over the ruins of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, where the empty streets, the steps and driveways to nowhere still evoke the 1921 Greenwood Race War as if it happened yesterday. To my travel partner George, it was like a Civil War battlefield without grave markers or monuments—or explanations, a ghostly blank. In fact, many of the black victims of the white mobs were buried in unmarked graves.
Greenwood cements Oklahoma’s tragic place in the South’s racial nightmare. The Confederate Flag, which had no connection to the state’s true history (having become a state more than forty years after the end of the Civil War) flew over the state capitol until the 1970’s—the same era when the taboo to discuss the Race War on Greenwood by both whites and blacks began to lift.
Prosperous, well-educated, African-American Greenwood neighborhood was destroyed by raging white mobs—thousands of houses burned to the ground or strafed from the air (by Sinclair Oil -provided planes), hundreds killed or injured, and a whole community driven from their homes. Many took refuge in the surrounding woods, only to be confronted by white strangers bearing guns.
Greenwood prospered again after the 1921 attacks, the former residents rebuilding without access to loans or insurance compensation. ( Julius Pegues of the Franklin Hope Center told us many of the residents were skilled builders.) But the neighborhood revived only to be destroyed again by 1960’s “urban renewal” and is now just a small remnant of itself, squeezed under a freeway overhead and a minor league ballpark on its flank.
Even though a brilliant new monument (by Denver sculptor Ed Dwight) and a cultural center stand today to educate and commemorate the vanished community, and many studies and books are devoted to Greenwood’s history, it remains unknown to many Americans, and even most Oklahomans. It’s as if the “largest civil disturbance in our country,” that attack on Americans by Americans in America, is still a secret history for most of us.
The completely emptied Greenwood streets we wandered are explained away by some locals as victims of the freeway construction and decline of black household fortunes in the 1960’s. Footsteps from Greenwood dead zone, though, a whiter neighborhood named Brady Heights is reviving and gentrifying with Tulsa’s official blessing, even though it’s bisected by two freeways.
Brady Heights is named for Tate Brady, a Ku Klux Klan member who participated in the white mob that destroyed Greenwood.
We left Tulsa to search for two of Oklahoma’s once thriving “All-Black Towns,” where Southern blacks fleeing sharecropping penury and prejudice hoped to stake claims in Oklahoma’s 1880s land run. They succeeded until racist officials decided all-Black communities posed a political threat and imposed Jim Crow even before statehood. Today many of the towns are ghosts. (Is this a ghost story?)
We found Red Bird, a dispersed crossroads today, and Tullahassee, the oldest town, where collapsing buildings indicate past grandeur, stone churches and even a college. Seven stray kittens greeted us on an abandoned main street, and cast-off sofas decorated a side street.