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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“We’re poor,” he said. “I don’t deny it. No one has money. Cotton doesn’t employ many people. The catfish plant was here. It closed. The seed and grain closed. The hospital closed 25 years ago. We got Deltapine—they process seeds. But there’s no work hereabouts.”

A white man approached us and put his arm around Mayor Willis. “Hi. I’m Roy Schilling. This man used to work for my daddy at the grocery.”

The grocery was Sunflower Food Store in the middle of Hollandale, one of the few stores still in business. Roy, like Mayor Willis, was an exuberant booster of Hollandale, and still lived nearby.

“Over there where the music is playing?” Roy said, “That was Simmons Street, known as the Blue Front, every kind of club, all sorts of blues, bootleg liquor and fights. I tell you it was one lively place on a Saturday night.”

“One of the great places,” Mayor Willis said.

But it had ended in the 1970s. “People left. Mechanization. The jobs dried up.”

More people joined us—and it was beautiful in the setting sun, the risen dust, the overhanging trees, the children playing, the music, the thump and moan of the blues.

“My father had a pharmacy over there, City Drug Store,” a man said. This was Kim Grubbs, brother of Delise Grubbs Menotti, who had sung earlier at the festival. “We had a movie theater. We had music. Yes, it was very segregated when I was growing up in the ’60s, but we were still friendly. We knew everyone.”

“It was a kind of paradise,” Kim said.

Mayor Willis was nodding, “Yes, that’s true. And we can do it again.”

“Closed. Went to Mexico.”
“What you see in the Delta isn’t how things are,” a woman in Greenville, Mississippi, told me.

“But they don’t look good,” I said.

“They’re worse than they look,” she said.

We sat in her office on a dark afternoon, under a sky thick with bulgy, drooping cloud. Scattered droplets of cold rain struck the broken sidewalks and potholed street. I had thought of the Delta, for all its misery, as at least a sunny place; but this was chilly, even wintry, though it was only October. For me, the weather, the atmosphere was something new, something unexpected and oppressive, and thus remarkable.

Things are worse than they look, was one of the more shocking statements I heard in the Mississippi Delta, because as in Allendale, South Carolina, and the hamlets on the back roads of Alabama, this part of the Delta seemed to be imploding.

“Housing is the biggest challenge,” said the woman, who did not want her name published, “but we’re in a Catch-22—too big to be small, too small to be big. By that I mean, we’re rural, but we don’t qualify for rural funding because the population is over 25,000.”

“Funding from whom?”

“Federal funding,” she said. “And there’s the mind-set. It’s challenging.”

I said, “Are you talking about the people living in poverty?”

“Yes, some of those people. For example, you see nice vehicles in front of really run-down houses. You see people at Walmart and in the nail shops, getting their nails done.”

“Is that unusual?”

“They’re on government assistance,” she said. “I’m not saying they shouldn’t look nice, but it’s instant gratification instead of sacrifice.”

“What do you think they should do?”

“I grew up in a poverty-stricken town”—and having passed through it the day before I knew she was not exaggerating: Hollandale looked like the plague had struck it. “At any given time there were never less than ten people in the house, plus my parents. One bathroom. This was interesting—we were never on any kind of government assistance, the reason being that my father worked. His job was at Nicholson File. And he fished and hunted and gardened. His vegetables were really good. He shot deer, rabbits, squirrels—my mother fried the squirrels, or made squirrel stew.” She laughed and said, “I never ate that game. I ate chicken.”

“What happened to Nicholson File?” The company made metal files and quality tools, a well-respected brand among builders.

“Closed. Went to Mexico,” she said. This was a reply I often heard when I asked about manufacturing in the Delta. “I could see there wasn’t much for me here. I joined the military—I did ‘three and three’—three active, three reserve. I was based in California, and I can tell you that apart from Salvation it was the best decision I’ve made in my life. The service provided me with a totally different perspective.”

“But Greenville is a big town,” I said. I’d been surprised at the extent of it, the sprawl, the downtown, the neighborhoods of good, even grand houses. And a new bridge had been built—one yet to be named—across the Mississippi, just west of the city.

“This is a declining town. River traffic is way down. We’ve lost population—from about 45,000 in 1990 to less than 35,000 today. This was a thriving place. We had so much manufacturing—Fruit of the Loom men’s underwear, Schwinn Bikes, Axminster Carpets. They’re all gone to Mexico, India, China. Or else they’re bankrupt. There was once an Air Force base here. It closed.”

“What businesses are still here?” I wondered.

“Catfish, but that’s not as big as it was. We’ve got rice—Uncle Ben’s, that’s big. We’ve got a company making ceiling tiles, and Leading Edge—they put the paint on jet planes. But there’s not enough jobs. Unemployment is huge, almost 12 percent, twice the national average.”

“People I’ve talked to say that better housing helps.”

“It’s fine to have a home, but if you don’t have the subsidies to go with the home, you’re just treading water—but that’s how a lot of people live.”

“Do people fix up houses?”

“Very few homes get rehabbed. Most are in such bad shape it’s cheaper to tear them down than fix them. A lot are abandoned. There’s more and more vacant lots.

“If Greenville happened to be a city in a third world country, there would probably be lots of aid money pouring in.

“This was a federal Empowerment Zone—ten years, $10 million pumped into the economy.”

“Ten million isn’t much compared to the hundreds of millions I’ve seen in U.S. aid to Africa,” I said. “I was in Africa last year. Namibia got $305 million—$69 million to the Namibian tourist industry.”

“That’s news to us,” she said. “We do what we can. Things have been improving slowly. There’s Greenville Education Center. They have both day and night classes for people to study.”

Later, I checked the curriculum of the Mississippi Delta Community College, which was part of this program, and found that they offered courses in brick-laying and tile-setting, automotive mechanics, commercial truck driving, heavy equipment operation, electronics, machine tool expertise, welding, heating and air conditioning, office systems and much else. But there are few jobs.

“People get educated and they leave,” she said. “There’s a high rotation in doctors and teachers. We’ve got to come together. It doesn’t matter how. Some healing has to take place.”

Given the seriousness of the situation, and the blight that was general over the Delta, I wondered aloud why she persevered.

“Me? I was meant to be here,” she said.

At Hope Credit Union in Greenville, I met Sue Evans, and asked her about the local economy. She gave me helpful replies but when I changed the subject, talked about the musical history of the Delta, the blues, the clubs that had been numerous up and down the Delta, she became animated.

“My mother had a blues club in Leland,” Sue said.

I had passed through Leland, another farming town on Highway 61, well-known for its blues history. “She was a great gal, my mother—Ruby—everyone knew her.” There were still some clubs, she said. There were blues museums. People came from all over the world to visit these places associated with the blues, and to see the birthplaces and the reference points—the farms, the creeks, the railways, the cotton fields.

“I heard that in Indianola there’s a B.B. King museum,” I said.

This produced a profound silence. Sue and a colleague of hers exchanged a glance, but said nothing. It was the sort of silence provoked by an unwelcome allusion, or sheer confusion, as though I had lapsed into an unfamiliar language.

“He was born there, I understand,” I said, flailing a bit, and wondering perhaps if I had overstayed my visit.
Sue had a mute and somewhat stubborn gaze fixed away from mine.

“Berclair,” Sue’s colleague said. “But he was raised in Kilmichael. Other side of Greenwood.”

It seemed very precise and obscure information. I couldn’t think of anything more to say, and it was apparent that this topic had produced an atmosphere in the room, a vibration that was unreadable, and that made me feel like a clumsy alien.

“Shall we tell him?” Sue’s colleague said.

“I don’t know,” Sue said.

“You tell him.”

“Go ahead,” Sue said.

This exchange, a sort of banter, had the effect of lifting the mood, diffusing the vibe.

“Sue was married to him.”

“Married to B.B. King?”

Sue said, “Yes, I was. I was Sue Hall then. His second wife. It was a while back.”

Now that the subject had been raised, Sue was smiling. “One night my mother booked him,” she said. “He kind of looked at me. I was just a kid. I had an idea of what he was thinking, but my mother wouldn’t stand any nonsense or fooling around. He played at the club a lot—a great musician. He waited until I turned 18—he waited because he didn’t want to deal with my mother. He was afraid of her.”

She laughed at the memory of it. I said, “This would have been when?”

“Long ago,” Sue said. “We were married for ten years.”

“Did you call him B.B?”

“His proper name is Riley. I called him B.”

I was writing down Riley.

“Which was confusing,” Sue was saying. ”Because Ray Charles’ wife was named Beatrice. We called her B too. We often got mixed up with the two B’s.”

“You traveled with him?” I asked.

“All the time. B loved to travel. He loved to play—he could play all night. He loved the audiences, the people, he lived to talk. But I got so tired. He’d say, ‘You don’t like to hear me,’ but it wasn’t that. I just hated staying up all hours. I’d be in the hotel room, waiting for him.”

“Are you still in touch?”

“We talk all the time. He calls. We talk. He still tours—imagine. Last I talked to him he said he had some dates in New York and New Jersey. He loves the life, he’s still going strong.”

And for that 15 or 20 minutes there was no blight on the Delta; it was a cheery reminiscence of her decade with B.B. King, the man who’d brought glory to the Delta and proved that it was possible and could happen again.

A great number of blacks in the Delta who had been farmers and landowners lost their land for various reasons, and so lost their livelihood. Calvin R. King Sr. had spent his life committed to reversing that loss and founded, in 1980, the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, which is in Brinkley, Arkansas. “When you look at the Delta,” he asked me, “do you see businesses owned by blacks, operated by blacks? In manufacturing? In retail?” He smiled, because the obvious answer was: Very few. He went on, “Compare that to the black farmers here, who are part of a multibillion- dollar business.”

Through him I met Delores Walker Robinson, 42, a single mother of three sons, ages 22, 18 and 12, in the small town of Palestine, Arkansas, less than 50 miles west of the Mississippi. After more than 20 years of travel with her serviceman husband, and work, and child-rearing and a sudden divorce, Delores had returned to the place where she’d been born. “I didn’t want my sons to live the harsh life of the city,” she told me as we walked through her cow pasture. “I felt I would lose them to the city—to the crimes and problems that you can’t escape.”

With her savings as a certified nursing assistant, she bought 42 acres of neglected land. With help from friends and her sons, she fenced the land, built a small house and began raising goats. She enrolled in Heifer International, a charity based in Little Rock devoted to ending hunger and alleviating poverty, attended training sessions and got two heifers. She now has ten cows—and, keeping to the organization’s rules, she has passed along some cows to other farmers in need. “I wanted something I could own,” she said. She’d been raised on a farm near here. “I wanted to get my sons involved in the life I knew.”

She also had sheep, geese, ducks and chickens. And she grew feed corn. Because the cash flow from the animals was small, she worked six days a week at the East Arkansas Area Agency on Aging as a caregiver and nursing assistant. Early in the morning and after her day at the agency, she did the farm chores, feeding and watering the animals, repairing fences, collecting eggs. She went to livestock management classes. “I made a lot of friends there. We’re all trying to accomplish the same things.”

Easygoing, uncomplaining, yet tenacious, Delores Walker Robinson had all the qualities that made a successful farmer—a great work ethic, a strong will, a love of the land, a way with animals, a fearlessness at the bank, a vision of the future, a gift for taking the long view, a desire for self-sufficiency. “I’m looking ten years down the road,” she said as we tramped the sloping lane, “I want to build up the herd and do this full time.”

Many Southerners I met asserted—with grim pride, or with sorrow, or misquoting Faulkner—that the South doesn’t change. That’s not true. In many places, the cities most of all, the South has been turned upside-down; in the rural areas the change has come very slowly, in small but definite ways. The poet William Blake wrote, “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars,” and the Delta farmers I visited, and especially Delores Robinson, were the embodiment of that valiant spirit. She had shaken herself loose from another life to come home with her children, and she seemed iconic in her bravery, on her farm, among friends. It goes without saying that the vitality of the South lies in the self-awareness of its deeply rooted people. What makes the South a pleasure for a traveler like me, more interested in conversation than sightseeing, are the heart and soul of its family narratives—its human wealth.

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