Exploring the American Experience Exploring the American Experience

The Soul of the South

Fifty years after the civil rights summer of 1964, renowned travel writer Paul Theroux chronicles the living memory of an overlooked America

Natchez, a historic cotton and sugar port on the Mississippi River, has seen its population fall by a third since 1960. (Steve McCurry)
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“Is Ozella with her?” Randall said, trying to see. He explained that Ozella was the daughter of a previous housekeeper. Ozella was standing closely next to Mary T, who was tiny, watchful, like a bird on a branch, and smiling in anticipation. Very old and upright people have a dusty glow that makes them seem immortal.

“My father built this house in 1927,” Mary T said, when I praised the house. It was a modest two-story bungalow, but squat and solid, fronted by the bulging porch, a dormer above it, so unlike the shotgun shacks and rectangular houses we’d passed at the edge of Marion. Inside, the walls were paneled in dark wood, a planked ceiling, an oak floor. Like Randall’s house it was filled with books, in the bookcases that were fitted in all the inner rooms and upstairs.

Mary T opened a bottle of blueberry wine from a winery in Harpersville, and though it was a warm noontime, a fly buzzing behind the hot white curtains in the small back dining room, we stood and clinked schooners of the wine and toasted our meeting—the ancient Mary T, the nearly blind Randall and myself, the traveler, passing through. Something about the wood paneling, the quality of the curtains, the closeness of the room, the sense of being in the deep countryside holding a glass of wine on a hot day—it was like being in old Russia. I said so.

“That’s why I love Chekhov,” Mary T said. “He writes about places like this, people like the ones who live here—the same situations.”

The sunny day, the bleakness of the countryside, the old bungalow on the narrow road, no other house nearby; the smell of the muddy fields penetrating the room—and that other thing, a great and overwhelming sadness that I felt but couldn’t fathom.

“Have a slice of poundcake,” Randall said, opening the foil on a heavy yellow loaf. “My mother made it yesterday.”

Mary T cut a crumbly slab and divided it among us, and I kept thinking: This could only be the South, but a peculiar and special niche of it, a house full of books, the dark paintings, the ticking clock, the old furniture, the heavy oak table, something melancholy and indestructible but looking a bit besieged; and that unusual, almost unnatural, tidiness imposed by a housekeeper—pencils lined up, magazines and pamphlets in squared-up piles—Ozella’s hand, obvious and unlikely, a servant’s sense of order.

In Fanning the Spark (2009), a selective, impressionistic memoir, Mary T had told her story: her upbringing as a rural shopkeeper’s daughter; her becoming a writer late in life—she was 61 when she published her first short story. It is a little history of surprises—surprise that she became a writer after so long, a period she called “the 25-year silence”; surprise that her stories found favor; surprise that her stories won awards.

Setting her glass of wine down on the thick disk of coaster, she said, “I’m hungry for catfish”—the expression of appetite a delight to hear from someone 95 years old.

She put on a wide-brimmed black hat the size, it seemed, of a bicycle wheel, and a red capelike coat. Helping her down the stairs, I realized she was tiny and frail; but her mind was active, she spoke clearly, her memory was good, her bird-claw of a hand was in my grip.

And all the way to Lottie’s diner in Marion, on the country road, she talked about how she’d become a writer.

“It wasn’t easy for me to write,” she said. “I had a family to raise, and after my husband died, it became even harder, because my son Kirtley was still young. I thought about writing, I read books, but I didn’t write. I think I had an advantage. I could tell literature from junk. I knew what was good. I knew what I wanted to write. And when I came to it—I was more than 60—I rewrote hard. I tried to make it right.”

At last we were rolling down Marion’s main street, Washington Street, then past the military academy and the courthouse, and over to Pickens Street, the site of Mack’s Café—the places associated with the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson. We came to Lottie’s. I parked in front and eased Mary T out of the passenger seat and into the diner.

“I’ve been reading a book about interviews with people who are over 100 years old,” Mary T said, perhaps reminded of her frailty. “It was called something like Lessons From the Centenarians. The lesson to me was, I don’t think I want to live that long.”

People seated at their meals looked up from their food as Mary T entered, and many of them recognized her and greeted her. Though Mary T was moving slowly, she lifted her hand to greet them.

“See, the Yankee’s having the grilled catfish,” Randall said, after we seated ourselves and ordered. “We stick with the fried.”

“My mother worked in the store—she was too busy to raise me,” Mary T said over lunch, pausing after each sentence, a bit short of breath. “I was raised by our black housekeeper. She was also the cook. I called her Mammy. I know it’s not good to call someone Mammy these days, but I meant it—she was like a mother to me. I leaned on her.”

“If my mother ever sat and held me as a child I don’t remember, but I do remember the solace of Mammy’s lap,” she had written in Fanning the Spark. “Though she was small, light-skinned and far from the stereotype, her lap could spread and deepen to accommodate any wound. It smelled of gingham and a smoky cabin, and it rocked gently during tears. It didn’t spill me out with token consolation but was there as long as it was needed. It was pure heartsease.”

Randall began to talk about the changes in the South that he knew.

What will happen here? I asked.

“Time will help,” Mary T said. “But I think the divisions will always be there—the racial divisions.”

And I reminded myself that she’d been born in 1917. She had been in her teens during the Depression. She was only seven years younger than James Agee, and so she had known the poverty and the sharecroppers and the lynchings in the Black Belt.

“I did my best,” she said. “I told the truth.”

After, I dropped her at her remote house, the sun lowering into the fields, she waved from the porch. I dropped Randall in Greensboro. I hit the road again. The following week Mary T sent me an email, remarking on something I’d written. I wrote again in the following days. I received a brief reply, and then after a week or so, silence. Randall wrote to say that Mary T was ill and in the hospital; and then, about a month after we met, she died.

Traveling in America
Most travel narratives—perhaps all of them, the classics anyway—describe the miseries and splendors of going from one remote place to another. The quest, the getting there, the difficulty of the road is the story; the journey, not the arrival, matters, and most of the time the traveler—the traveler’s mood, especially—is the subject of the whole business. I have made a career out of this sort of slogging and self-portraiture, travel writing as diffused autobiography; and so have many others in the old, laborious look-at-me way that informs travel writing.

But traveling in America is unlike traveling anywhere else on earth. It is filled with road candy, and seems so simple, sliding all over in your car on wonderful roads.

Driving south, I became a traveler again in ways I’d forgotten. Because of the effortless release from my home to the road, the sense of being sprung, I rediscovered the joy in travel that I knew in the days before the halts, the checks, the affronts at airports—the invasions and violations of privacy that beset every air traveler. All air travel today involves interrogation.

Around the corner from Main Street in Greensboro, Alabama, tucked into a brick building he’d financed himself, was the barbershop of the Rev. Eugene Lyles, who was 79. He was seated at a small table peering at the Acts of the Apostles, while awaiting his next customer. In addition to his barbershop, Rev. Lyles was a pastor at the Mars Hill Missionary Baptist Church just south of town, and next door to the barbershop, Rev. Lyles’ soul food diner, nameless except for the sign “Diner” out front.

Marking the page in his Bible, and shutting it, then climbing onto one of his barber chairs and stretching his long legs, he said, “When I was a boy I bought a pair of clippers. I cut my brothers’ hair. Well, I got ten boy siblings and three girl siblings—fourteen of us. I kept cutting hair. I started this business 60 years ago, cutting hair all that time. And I got the restaurant, and I got the church. Yes, I am busy.

“There are good people in Greensboro. But the white core is rooted in the status quo. The school is separate yet. When it was integrated the whites started a private school, Southern Academy. There’s somewhere above 200 there now.” Rev. Lyles laughed and spun his glasses off to polish them with a tissue. “History is alive and well here.”

And slavery is still a visitable memory because of the persistence of its effects.

“I went to segregated schools. I grew up in the countryside, outside Greensboro, ten miles out, Cedarville. Very few whites lived in the area. I didn’t know any whites. I didn’t know any whites until the ’60s, when I was in my 30s.

“Most of the land in Cedarville was owned by blacks. There was a man, Tommy Ruffin, he owned 10,000 acres. He farmed, he had hands, just like white folks did, growing cotton and corn. He was advised by a white man named Paul Cameron not to sell any of that land to a white person. Sell to blacks, he said, because that’s the only way a black man can get a foothold in a rural area.

“My father was a World War I vet. He ran away from here in 1916—he was about 20. He went to Virginia. He enlisted there, in 1917. After the war, he worked in a coal mine in West Virginia. He came back and married in 1930, but kept working in the mine, going back and forth. He gave us money. I always had money in my pockets. Finally, he migrated into Hale County for good and bought some land.”

We went next door to Rev. Lyles’ diner. I ordered baked chicken, collard greens, rice and gravy. Rev. Lyles had the same. His younger brother Benny joined us.

“Lord,” Rev. Lyles began, his hands clasped, his eyes shut, beginning grace.

The Gift
At the edge of County Road 16, ten miles south of Greensboro, an old white wooden building stood back from the road but commanded attention. It had recently been prettified and restored and was used as a community center.

“That’s the Rosenwald School. We called it the Emory School,” Rev. Lyles told me. “I was enrolled in that school in 1940. Half the money for the school came from Sears, Roebuck—folks here put up the difference. My mother also went to a Rosenwald School, the same as me. The students were black, the teachers were black. If you go down Highway 69, down to the Gallion area, there is another Rosenwald School, name of Oak Grove.”

Julius Rosenwald, the son of German-Jewish immigrants, made a success of his clothing business by selling to Richard Sears, and in 1908 became president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co. In midlife his wish was to make a difference with his money, and he hatched a plan to give his wealth to charitable causes but on a condition that has become common today: His contribution had to be met by an equal amount from the other party, the matching grant. Convinced that Booker T. Washington’s notion to create rural schools was a way forward, Rosenwald met the great educator and later began the Rosenwald Fund to build schools in backlands of the South.

Five thousand schools were built in 15 states beginning in 1917, and they continued to be built into the 1930s. Rosenwald himself died in 1932, around the time the last schools were built; but before the money he had put aside ran its course, in 1948, a scheme had been adopted through which money was given to black scholars and writers of exceptional promise. One of the young writers, Ralph Ellison, from Oklahoma, was granted a Rosenwald Fellowship, and this gave him the time and incentive to complete his novel Invisible Man (1952), one of the defining dramas of racial violence and despair in America. Rosenwald fellowships also went to the photographer Gordon Parks, the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (who later created Ellison’s memorial in New York City), W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and many other black artists and thinkers.

The schools built with Rosenwald money (and local effort) were modest structures in the beginning, two-room schools like the one in Greensboro, with two or at the most three teachers. They were known as Rosenwald Schools but Rosenwald himself discouraged naming any of them after himself. As the project developed into the 1920s the schools became more ambitious, brick-built, with more rooms.

One of the characteristics of the schools was an emphasis on natural light through the use of large windows. The assumption was that the rural areas where they’d be built would probably not have electricity; paint colors, placement of blackboards and desks, even the southerly orientation of the school to maximize the light were specified in blueprints.

The simple white building outside Greensboro was a relic from an earlier time, and had the Rev. Lyles not explained its history, and his personal connection, I would have had no idea that almost 100 years ago a philanthropic-minded stranger from Chicago had tried to make a difference here.

“The financing was partly the responsibility of the parents,” Rev. Lyles told me. “They had to give certain stipends. Wasn’t always money. You’ve heard of people giving a doctor chickens for their payment? That’s the truth—that happened in America. Some were given corn, peanuts and other stuff, instead of cash money. They didn’t have money back in that day.” Rev. Lyles, who came from a farming family, brought produce his father had grown, and chickens and eggs.

“My grandfather and the others who were born around his time, they helped put up that school building. And just recently Pam Dorr and HERO”—the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization—“made a plan to fix up the school. It made me proud that I was able to speak when it was reopened as a community center. My grandfather would have been proud too.”

He spoke some more about his family and their ties to the school, and added, “My grandfather was born in 1850.”

I thought I had misheard the date. Surely this was impossible. I queried the date.


So Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was younger than Rev. Lyles’ grandfather. “My grandfather wasn’t born here but he came here. He remembered slavery—he told us all about it. I was 13 years old when he passed. I was born in 1934. He would have been in his 90s. Work it out—he was 10 years old in 1860. Education wasn’t for blacks then. He lived slavery. Therefore his name was that of his owner, Lyles, and he was Andrew Lyles. Later on, he heard stories about the Civil War, and he told them to me.”

Fruit Pies and Bamboo Bikes
A corner shop on Main Street in Greensboro was now called PieLab, a café associated with HERO and well known locally for its homemade fruit pies, salads and sandwiches.

“The idea was that people would drop in at PieLab and get to know someone new,” Randall Curb had said. “A good concept, but it hasn’t worked out—at least I don’t think so.” Shaking his head, he had somewhat disparaged it as “a liberal drawing card.”

The next day, quite by chance, having lunch at PieLab, I met the executive director of HERO (and the founder of its Housing Resource Center), Pam Dorr.

The more appealing of the skeletal, fading towns in the South attracted outsiders, in the way third world countries attracted idealistic volunteers, and for many of the same reasons. With a look of innocence and promise, the places were poor, pretty and in need of revival. They posed the possibility of rescue, an irresistible challenge to a young college graduate or someone who wanted to take a semester off to perform community service in another world. These were also pleasant places to live in—or at least seemed so.

The desperate housing situation in Greensboro, and Hale County generally, had inspired student architects of the Rural Studio (a program of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture at Auburn University) to create low-cost housing for needy people. The Auburn houses are small, but simple, and some of them brilliantly innovative, looking folded out and logical, like oversize elaborations of origami in tin and plywood. The studio determined that in Greensboro the right price for a small, newly built house would be no more than $20,000, “the highest realistic mortgage a person receiving median Social Security checks can maintain.”

Hearing about the Auburn Rural Studio, Pam Dorr had traveled from San Francisco to Greensboro ten years before to become an Auburn Outreach fellow. It was a break from her successful career as a designer for popular clothing companies, including Esprit and the Gap and Victoria’s Secret (“I made cozy pajamas”). She had come to Greensboro in a spirit of volunteerism, but when her fellowship ended, she was reluctant to leave. “I realized there was so much more I could do,” she told me at the PieLab, which grew out of an entrepreneurial group she was in. Another idea, to make bicycle frames out of bamboo, resulted in Hero Bikes, one of the businesses Pam has overseen since starting the Housing Resource Center in 2004.

“We build houses, we educate people on home ownership, and working with nontraditional bankers we help people establish credit.” Local banks had a history of lending mainly to whites. Blacks could get loans but only at extortionate rates—27 percent interest was not uncommon.

“It seemed to me a prime opportunity to start a community again,” Pam said. “We have 33 people on the payroll and lots of volunteers. HERO is in the pie business, the pecan business—we sell locally grown pecans to retail stores—the bamboo bike business, the construction business. We have a day care center and after-school program. A thrift store.”

Some of these businesses were now housed in what had been a hardware store and an insurance agency. They had redeveloped or improved 11 of the defunct stores on Main Street.

“I worked free for two years,” Pam said. “We got a HUD grant, we got some other help and now, because of the various businesses, we’re self-sustaining.”

She was like the most inspired and energetic Peace Corps volunteer imaginable. Upbeat, full of recipes, solutions and ideas for repurposing, still young—hardly 50—with wide experience and a California smile and informality. The way she dressed—in a purple fleece and green clogs—made her conspicuous. Her determination to effect change made her suspect.

“You find out a lot, living here,” she told me. “Drugs are a problem—drive along a side road at night and you’ll see girls prostituting themselves to get money to support their habit. Thirteen-year-olds getting pregnant—I know two personally.”

“What does the town think of your work?” I asked.

“A lot of people are on our side,” she said. “But they know that change has to come from within.”

“Reverend Lyles told me you had something to do with fixing up the Rosenwald School here.”

“The Emory School, yeah,” she said. “But we had help from the University of Alabama, and volunteers from AmeriCorps—lots of people contributed. Reverend Lyles was one of our speakers at the reopening dedication ceremony. That was a great day.” She took a deep calming breath. “But not everyone is on our side.”


This surprised me, because what she had described, the renovation of an old schoolhouse in a hard-up rural area, was like a small-scale development project in a third world country. I had witnessed such efforts many times: the energizing of a sleepy community, the fund-raising, the soliciting of well-wishers and sponsors, engaging volunteers, asking for donations of building material, applying for grants and permits, fighting inertia and the naysayers’ laughter, making a plan, getting the word out, supervising the business, paying the skilled workers, bringing meals to the volunteers and seeing the project through to completion. Years of effort, years of budgeting. At last, the dedication, everyone turned out, the cookies, the lemonade, the grateful speeches, the hugs. That was another side to the South, people seeing it as a development opportunity, and in workshops talking about “challenges” and “potential.”

“So who’s against you?” I said.

“Plenty of people seem to dislike what we’re doing,” Pam said. She rocked in her clogs and zipped her fleece against the chilly air. “Lots of opposition.” She laughed, saying this. “Lots of abuse. They call me names.” Once, she said, someone spit on her.

Hardly a town or a village, Money, Mississippi (pop. 94), was no more than a road junction near the banks of the Tallahatchie River. There, without any trouble, I found what I was looking for, a 100-year-old grocery store, the roof caved in, the brick walls broken, the facade boarded up, the wooden porch roughly patched, and the whole wreck of it overgrown with dying plants and tangled vines. For its haunted appearance and its bloody history it was the ghostliest structure I was to see in the whole of my travels in the South. This ruin, formerly Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, has topped the list of Mississippi Heritage Trust’s “Ten Most Endangered Historic Places,” though many people would like to tear it down as an abomination.

What happened there in the store and subsequently, in that tiny community, was one of the most powerful stories I’d heard as a youth. As was so often the case, driving up a country road in the South was driving into the shadowy past. A “Mississippi Freedom Trail” sign in front of it gave the details of its place in history. It was part of my history, too.

I was just 14 in 1955 when the murder of the boy occurred. He was exactly my age. But I have no memory of any news report in a Boston newspaper at the time of the outrage. We got the Boston Globe, but we were subscribers to and diligent readers of family magazines, Life for its photographs, Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post for profiles and short stories, Look for its racier features, Reader’s Digest for its roundups. This Victorian habit in America of magazines as family entertainment and enlightenment persisted until television overwhelmed it in the later 1960s.

In January 1956, Look carried an article by William Bradford Huie, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” and it appeared in a shorter form in the Reader’s Digest that spring. I remember this distinctly, because my two older brothers had read the stories first, and I was much influenced by their tastes and enthusiasms. After hearing them excitedly talking about the story, I read it and was appalled and fascinated.

Emmett Till, a black boy from Chicago, visiting his great-uncle in Mississippi, stopped at a grocery store to buy some candy. He supposedly whistled at the white woman behind the counter. A few nights later he was abducted, tortured, killed and thrown into a river. Two men, Roy Bryant and John William “J.W.” Milam, were caught and tried for the crime. They were acquitted. “Practically all the evidence against the defendants was circumstantial evidence,” was the opinion in an editorial in the Jackson Daily News.

After the trial, Bryant and Milam gloated, telling Huie that they had indeed committed the crime, and they brazenly volunteered the gory particularities of the killing. Milam, the more talkative, was unrepentant in describing how he’d kidnapped Emmett Till with Bryant’s help, pistol-whipped him in a shed behind his home in Glendora, shot him and disposed of the body.

“Let’s write them a letter,” my brother Alexander said, and did so. His letter was two lines of threat—We’re coming to get you. You’ll be sorry—and it was signed, The Gang from Boston. We mailed it to the named killers, in care of the post office in Money, Mississippi.

The killing prompted a general outcry in the North, and my brothers and I talked of little else for months. Yet there was limited response from the authorities. The response from the black community in the South was momentous—“Till’s death received international attention and is widely credited with sparking the American Civil Rights Movement,” the commemorative sign in front of the Bryant store said—and the response was unusual because it was nonviolent. On December 1 of that same year of the Till trial, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a city bus. She was arrested for her act of disobedience, and she became a symbol of defiance. Her stubbornness and sense of justice made her a rallying point and an example.

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