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
The South is easy to find but hard to sort out, and it is full of paradoxes. Once, I was talking Southern fiction with William Styron and he said, “I come from the High South”—he was from Virginia, and he was mildly boasting. Like many writers who had left the South to find a life in the North, he often talked fondly about the region that had formed him.
There is plenty to boast of in the Deep South, with its cultural pleasures, where the cities in particular are vibrant, the art galleries of Atlanta, the gourmet restaurants of Charleston, the cities with pro sports or great college teams. The Alabama Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham is scheduled to perform César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, as I write, and the Mississippi Symphony is scheduling six concerts for its Bravo Series (Mozart, Beethoven) in Jackson. There are presidential libraries, playhouses and botanical gardens. Civil War battlefields abound—these solemn places are well kept and enlightening: You could spend months profitably touring them. The golf courses of Georgia and Alabama are famous, there is motor racing, and every large city has a grand hotel or two, and a great restaurant.
Parts of the Deep South are commercially prosperous, too, with booming industries—medical research and technology, aerospace and aviation, car manufacturing. The Mercedes you bought could have been made in Alabama, BMW’s plant in South Carolina will soon be its largest in the world, Nissan makes cars in Mississippi, and so does Toyota. There are many associated businesses, suppliers of car-related components. This is a testament to the enduring pride and work ethic of the South, not to mention labor laws.
I think most people know this. They may also be aware that the Deep South has some of the highest rates of unemployment, some of the worst schools, the poorest housing and medical care, a vast number of dying and depopulated towns. As for being hard-up, the states I visited in the Deep South have nearly 20 percent of their people living below the poverty line, more than the national average of 16 percent.
This other Deep South, with the same pride and with deep roots—rural, struggling, idyllic in places and mostly ignored—was like a foreign country to me. I decided to travel the back roads for the pleasure of discovery—doing in my own country what I had spent most of my life doing in Africa and India and China—ignoring the museums and stadiums, the antebellum mansions and automobile plants, and, with the 50th anniversary of the civil rights struggle in mind, concentrating on the human architecture, in particular the overlooked: the submerged fifth.
PART ONE: SOUTH CAROLINA
The South began for me in Allendale, in the rural Lowcountry of South Carolina, set among twiggy fields of tufted white, the blown-open cotton bolls brightening the spindly bushes. In a lifetime of travel, I had seen very few places to compare with Allendale in its oddity; and approaching the town was just as bizarre. The road, much of it, was a divided highway, wider than many sections of the great north-south Interstate, Route 95, which is more like a tunnel than a road for the way it sluices cars south at great speed.
Approaching the outskirts of Allendale I had a sight of doomsday, one of those visions that make the effort of travel worthwhile. It was a vision of ruin, of decay and utter emptiness; and it was obvious in the simplest, most recognizable structures—motels, gas stations, restaurants, stores—all of them abandoned to rot, some of them so thoroughly decayed that all that was left was the great concrete slab of the foundation, stained with oil or paint, littered with the splinters of the collapsed building, a rusted sign leaning. Some were brick-faced, others made of cinder blocks, but none was well made and so the impression I had was of astonishing decrepitude, as though a war had ravaged the place and killed all the people.
Here was the corpse of a motel, the Elite—the sign still legible—broken buildings in a wilderness of weeds; and farther down the road, the Sands, the Presidential Inn, collapsed, empty; and another fractured place with a cracked swimming pool and broken windows, its rusted sign, “Cresent Motel,” the more pathetic for being misspelled.
Most of the shops were closed, the wide main road was littered. The side streets, lined by shacks and abandoned houses, looked haunted. I had never seen anything quite like it, the ghost town on the ghost highway. I was glad I had come.
Just as decrepit, but busy, was a filling station and convenience store, where I stopped to buy gas. When I went inside for a drink I met Suresh Patel. “I came here two years ago from Broach,” Mr. Patel told me, from behind the counter of his cluttered shop. Broach is an industrial river district of 1.5 million in the state of Gujarat. Mr. Patel had been a chemist in India. “My cousin call me. He say, ‘Come. Good business.’”
Many Indian shopkeepers, duka-wallahs, whom I knew in East and Central Africa, claimed Broach as their ancestral home, where the Patel surname identifies them as members of a Gujarati, primarily Hindu subcaste. And Mr. Patel’s convenience store in Allendale was identical to the dukas in East Africa, the shelves of food and beer and cheap clothes and candy and household goods, the stern hand-lettered sign, No Credit, the same whiff of incense and curry. A 1999 story in the New York Times magazine by Tunku Varadarajan declared that more than 50 percent of all motels in the United States are owned by people of Indian origin, a statistic supplied by the Asian American Hotel Owners Association—and the figure is even greater now.
All the convenience stores, the three gas stations and the one motel in small, unpromising Allendale were each owned by Indians from India. The presence of Indian shopkeepers, the heat, the tall dusty trees, the sight of plowed fields, the ruined motels and abandoned restaurants, the somnolence hanging over the town like a blight—and even the intense sunshine was like a sinister aspect of that same blight—all these features made it seem like a town in Zimbabwe.
Later I saw just outside Allendale proper the campus of the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie, with 800 students, and the old main street, and the handsome courthouse, and a small subdivision of well-kept bungalows. But mostly, and importantly, Allendale, judging from Route 301, was a ruin—poor, neglected, hopeless-looking, a vivid failure.
“We have to change the worst.”
In an office tucked inside a mobile unit, sign-posted “Allendale County Alive,” I found Wilbur Cave. After we shook hands, I mentioned the extraordinary weirdness of Route 301.
“This was a famous road once—the halfway point from up north to Florida or back,” Wilbur said. “Everyone stopped here. And this was one of the busiest towns ever. When I was growing up we could hardly cross the road.”
But there were no cars today, or just a handful. “What happened?”
“Route 95 happened.”
And Wilbur explained that in the late 1960s, when the Interstate route was plotted, it bypassed Allendale 40 miles to the east, and like many other towns on Route 301, Allendale fell into ruin. But just as the great new city rising in the wilderness is an image of American prosperity, a ghost town like Allendale is also a feature of our landscape. Perhaps the most American urban transformation is that very sight; all ghost towns were once boomtowns.
And this was why Wilbur Cave, seeing the area where he grew up falling to ruins—its very foundations conducing to dust—decided to do something to improve it. Wilbur had been a record-breaking runner in his high school, and after graduation from the University of South Carolina in Columbia, worked locally and then ran for the state representative’s seat in this district. He was elected and served for more than four years. He became a strategic planner, and with this experience he joined and re-energized the nonprofit Allendale County Alive, which helps provide decent housing to people. The town itself had a population of 4,500, three-quarters of them black, like the county.
“It’s not just this town that needs help,” Wilbur said. “The whole county is in bad shape. In the 2010 census we are the tenth-poorest county in the United States. And, you know, a lot of the others are Indian reservations.”
Wilbur Cave was 61 but looked ten years younger, compact, muscular, still with an athlete’s build, and energetic, full of plans. His family had lived in the area for many generations. His mother had been a teacher at Allendale County Training School. “The black school,” Wilbur explained. “The white one was Allendale Elementary.”
I remarked on how recently social change had come to the South.
“You have to know where we come from,” Wilbur said. “It’s hard for anyone to understand the South unless they understand history—and by history I mean slavery. History has had more impact here.”
Without realizing it, only smiling and tapping a ballpoint on the desktop blotter, he sounded like one of the wise, admonitory Southern voices in a Faulkner novel, reminding the Northerner of the complex past.
“Take my mother’s family. Some were farmers, for generations, right here in Allendale County. They had a hundred acres or so. It was a family activity to pick cotton. The children did it, the grandchildren. It was a normal after-school job. I did it, I sure did—we all did it.”
The small cotton farms were sold eventually to bigger growers, who introduced mechanical harvesters. That was another reason for the unemployment and the decline in population. But farming was still the mainstay of Allendale County, home to 10,000 people, 36 percent of whom lived below the poverty line.
Once, there had been textile factories, making cloth and carpets. They’d closed, the manufacturing outsourced to China, though a new textile plant is scheduled to open. The lumber mills—there were two in Allendale, turning out planks and utility poles—did not employ many people.
Wilbur drove me through the back streets of Allendale, and as we passed along the side roads, the lanes, the dirt paths on which there were two-room houses, some of them fixed up and painted, others no more than wooden shanties of the sort you might see in any third world country, and some shotgun shacks that are the emblematic architecture of Southern poverty.
“That’s one of ours,” Wilbur said of a tidy, white wood-framed bungalow on a corner, one of 150 houses his organization had fixed up or rebuilt. “It was a derelict property that we rehabbed and now it’s part of our inventory of rentals.”
“My feeling is—if South Carolina is to change, we have to change the worst,” Wilbur said as we passed a small, weathered house of sun-blackened planks and curling shingles, an antique that was beyond repair. But a man had lived in it until just recently, without electricity or heat or piped water.
“You hungry?” Wilbur asked.
I said I was and he took me on a short drive to the edge of town, to a diner, O’ Taste & See, sought out for its soul food, fried chicken and catfish, biscuits, rice and gravy, fruit pies and friendliness.
“Money is not the whole picture, but it’s the straw that stirs the drink,” Wilbur said over lunch, when I mentioned the hundreds of millions in U.S. aid that was given to foreign countries. “I don’t want hundreds of millions. Give me one-thousandth of it and I could dramatically change things like public education in Allendale County.”
Wilbur said that he didn’t begrudge aid to Africa, but he added, “If my organization had access to that kind of money we could really make a difference.”
“What would you do?”
“We could focus our energy and get things done.” He smiled. He said, “We wouldn’t have to worry about the light bill.”
With accommodations scarce in sunny, desolate Allendale—most of the motels abandoned or destroyed—I drove up Route 301, the empty, glorious thoroughfare, 45 miles to Orangeburg. It was a small town, kept buoyant by revenue from its schools and colleges.
Walking along the main street, I fell into step with a man and said hello. And I received the glowing Southern welcome. He wore a dark suit and carried a briefcase. He said he was a lawyer and gave me his card, Virgin Johnson Jr., Attorney at Law. I asked about the history of the town, just a general inquiry, and received a surprising answer.
“Well,” Mr. Johnson said, “there was the massacre.”
Massacre is a word that commands attention. This bloody event was news to me, so I asked for details. And he told me that Orangeburg was still segregated in 1968 in spite of the fact that the Civil Rights Act had been in force for four years. A bowling alley, the only one in town, refused to allow black students inside.
One day in February ’68, objecting to being discriminated against, in the bowling alley and elsewhere, several hundred students held a demonstration at the campus of South Carolina State College across town. The event was noisy but the students were unarmed, facing officers from the South Carolina Highway Patrol, who carried pistols and carbines and shotguns. Alarmed by the jostling students, one police officer fired his gun into the air—warning shots, he later said. Hearing those gunshots, the other police officers began firing directly at the protesters, who turned and ran. Because the students were fleeing they were shot in the back. Three young men were killed, Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith; 27 were injured, some of them seriously, all of them students, riddled with buckshot.
When I mentioned Kent State to Mr. Johnson, how everyone knew the name, he smiled and said, “But you know those kids that died were white.”
Before I went on my way I remarked on how odd it was to me to be holding this conversation with someone I’d met by chance, simply asking directions on a public street. I was grateful for his taking the time with a stranger who had so many questions.
“People here understand how it is to need help,” he said. “To be neglected.” He tapped the business card I’d been holding. “You let me know if you want to meet some people who know more than I do. Why not stop in to my church this Sunday? I’ll be preaching.”
“Your card says you’re an attorney.”
"I’m a preacher, too. Revelation Ministries over in Fairfax. Well, Sycamore, actually.”
“God has a plan for you.”
The back roads from Orangeburg to Sycamore were empty on this Sunday morning—empty and beautiful, passing along the margins of more twiggy cotton fields, many of them puddled and muddy, the ripe tufts (the linty so-called “locks”) in open bolls sodden and the bushes beaten down by yesterday’s rain.
Rev. Johnson’s church was the large industrial-looking structure near Barker’s Mill and the flag-draped meetinghouse of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. At the church a group of older men, formally dressed in suits, welcomed me and introduced themselves as deacons and ushers.
On the back wall, a scroll-shaped sign in gold, “Revelation Ministries—Revealing God’s Word to the World—We Love You—Ain’t Nothing You Can Do About It!”
After the preliminaries—music, singing—when the church was full, the familiar dark-suited figure of Virgin Johnson Jr. rose from his high-backed, thronelike chair. He began to preach, a well-thumbed Bible in his right hand, and his left hand raised in admonition.
“Hear me today, brothers and sisters,” he began, and lifted his Bible to read from it. He read from Luke, he read from Mark, he read from Jeremiah, and then he said, “Tell your neighbor, ‘God has a plan for you!’”
The woman in front of me and the man beside me took turns saying to me in a grand tone of delivering good news, “God has a plan for you!”
Rev. Johnson described the children of Israel taken into captivity in Babylon, and paraphrased Jeremiah’s epistle, “‘Even though it look like stuff mess up in your life, it gon’ to be all right, after a while! Stop distressing, stop worrying. Even though your circumstances don’t look prosperous you gon’ be all right!”
Thirty minutes of his warm encouragement, and then the music began again in earnest and the whole church was rocked in song.
“I’m just a country boy, from bottom-line caste, born and raised in Estill, Hampton County,” Virgin Johnson told me that night over a meal up the road in Orangeburg, where he lived. Estill was the sticks, he said, deep country, cotton fields. Then with a mock-resigned sigh, he said, “Po’ black.”
Still in his dark suit, he sipped his iced tea. This was another man speaking, not the excited Sycamore preacher, not the shrewd Orangeburg trial lawyer, but a quiet, reflective private citizen in a back booth at Ruby Tuesday, reminiscing about his life as a loner.
“I was born in 1954, in Estill. In 1966, as a result of what they called ‘voluntary integration,’ I was the only black student at Estill Elementary School. Happened this way. There were two buses went by our place every morning. I had said to my daddy, ‘I want to get the first bus.’ That was the white bus. He said, ‘You sure, boy?’ I said, ‘I’m sure.’
“The day I hit that bus everything changed. Sixth grade—it changed my life. I lost all my friends, black and white. No one talked to me, no one at all. Even my white friends from home. I knew they wanted to talk to me, but they were under pressure, and so was I. I sat at the back of the bus. When I went to the long table for lunch, 30 boys would get up and leave.
“The funny thing is, we were all friendly, black and white. We picked cotton together. My daddy and uncle had a hundred acres of cotton. But when I got on the bus, it was over. I was alone, on my own.
“When I got to school I knew there was a difference. There was not another African-American there—no black teachers, no black students, none at all. Except the janitors. The janitors were something, like guardian angels to me. They were black, and they didn’t say anything to me—didn’t need to. They nodded at me as if to say, ‘Hold on, boy. Hold on.’
“I learned at an early age you have to stand by yourself. That gave me a fighting spirit. I’ve had it since I was a child. It’s destiny. What happens when you let other people make your decisions? You become incapable of making your own decisions.
“I was the first African-American to go to law school from my side of the county. University of South Carolina at Columbia. I was in a class of 100—this was in the ’80s, I was the only black person. Passed the bar in 1988. Got a license to preach.
“There’s no contradiction for me. I’m happy doing both. I just wish the economy was better. This area is so poor. They got nothin’—they need hope. If I can give it to them, that’s a good thing. Jesus said, ‘We have to go back and care about the other person.’
“This is a friendly place—nice people. Good values. Decent folks. We have issues—kids having kids, for one, sometimes four generations of kids having kids. But there’s so little advance. That does perplex me—the condition of this place. Something’s missing. What is it?”
And then he made a passionate gesture, flinging up his hand, and he raised his voice in a tone that recalled his preaching voice. “Take the kids away from this area and they shine!”
PART TWO: ALABAMA
Greensboro, Alabama, less than 40 miles south of Tuscaloosa, lies under the horizon in a green sea of meadows and fields, a small, pretty, somewhat collapsed and haunted town. Up the road from Greensboro, around Moundville, lies the farmland and still-substandard houses where James Agee and Walker Evans spent a summer collecting material for the book that would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Published in 1941, it sold a mere 600 copies. Its commercial failure contributed to Agee’s heavy drinking and early death at the age of 45. Twenty years later, it was republished, and in the early 1960s, it found many more readers and admirers.
Cherokee City in the book is Tuscaloosa, Centerboro is Greensboro, the subject of some of Evans’ photographs, and where I was eventually headed.
Greensboro was beautiful—hardly changed architecturally since Agee’s visit in 1936—but it was struggling.
“Our main problems?” Greensboro’s mayor, Johnnie B. Washington, said with a smile. “How much time do you have? A day or two, to listen? It’s lack of revenue, it’s resistance to change, it’s so many things. But I tell you, this is a fine town.”
One of the largest personal libraries I have ever seen belonged to Randall Curb, who lived in a white frame house on a corner, near the end of Main Street, in Greensboro. He was legally blind, but as it had been a progressive decline in his vision, he had continued to buy books—real tomes—while adjusting to audio books. He was 60, kindly, generous, eager to share his knowledge of Greensboro, of which he was the unofficial historian. He was also steeped in the lore of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He impressed me by calling its prose “incantatory.”
Randall knew all the readers roundabout. He gave talks—on Agee, on Eudora Welty, on the English writers he loved (he spent a few months in London almost every year), on historical figures such as Ben Franklin. He knew the writers, too.
“You should meet Mary T,” he said to me, his way of referring to Mary Ward Brown, who lived in the town of Marion, in the next county. “She writes short stories—very good ones. She’s 95,” he added. “Ninety-six in a few months.”
“Perhaps you could introduce me,” I said.
Days passed. I read a dozen of her stories and her memoir. I called Randall and said, “I’d like to see her soon.”
When I came to Marion, I realized how moribund Greensboro was. The shops in Marion were still in business, Marion had a courthouse, and a military institute, and Judson College, which Mary T (she insisted on the name) had attended. There were bookstores in Marion and a well-known soul food restaurant, Lottie’s. Coretta Scott King had been raised in Marion, and voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson had been shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in the town in 1965 during a peaceful protest, a catalyzing event in the civil rights movement that provoked the protest marches from Selma to Montgomery.
“Notice how it’s desolate here,” Randall said as I drove outside town. Though he was unable to see, he had a clear memory of the flat land, the fields of stubble, the wet clay roads, the thin patches of woods, the absence of houses, now and then a crossroads. “You’ll know it when you see it. It’s the only house here.”
After five miles of fields, he said, “This must be Hamburg,” and a white bungalow appeared, and on the porch—we had called ahead—Mary T and a much younger woman, wearing an apron.
“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.
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.
PART THREE: MISSISSIPPI
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.
Though the Jackson Daily News editorialized that it was “best for all concerned that the Bryant-Milam case be forgotten as quickly as possible,” the paper also had published a robust piece by William Faulkner. It was one of the most damning and gloomiest accusations Faulkner ever wrote (and he normally resisted the simplifications of newspaper essays), and his anguish shows. He must have recognized the event as something he might have imagined in fiction. He wrote his rebuttal hurriedly in Rome while he was on an official junket, and it was released through the U.S. Information Service.
He first spoke about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the hypocrisy of boasting of our values to our enemies “after we have taught them (as we are doing) that when we talk of freedom and liberty, we not only mean neither, we don’t even mean security and justice and even the preservation of life for people whose pigmentation is not the same as ours.”
He went on to say that if Americans are to survive we will have to show the world that we are not racists, “to present to the world one homogeneous and unbroken front.” Yet this might be a test we will fail: “Perhaps we will find out now whether we are to survive or not. Perhaps the purpose of this sorry and tragic error committed in my native Mississippi by two white adults on an afflicted Negro child is to prove to us whether or not we deserve to survive.”
And his conclusion: “Because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.”
Nowhere in the piece did Faulkner use Emmett Till’s name, yet anyone who read it knew whom he was speaking about.
Forget him, the Jackson paper had said, but on the contrary the case became a remembered infamy and a celebrated injustice; and Emmett Till was eulogized as a hero and a martyr. Suppression of the truth is not merely futile but almost a guarantee of something wonderful and revelatory emerging from it: creating an opposing and more powerful and ultimately overwhelming force, sunlight breaking in, as the Till case proved.
Near the ghostly ruin of Bryant’s store, I walked around in the chill air—no one outside on this winter day. I drove east down Whaley Road, past Money Bayou and some narrow ponds, hoping to find Dark Ferry Road and the farm of Grover C. Frederick, where the little house of Emmett’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, had stood, where he’d worked as a sharecropper and where the boy stayed during his visit. But my map didn’t help, and there was no one to ask, and some parts of the past had been erased, but negligible parts. Night was falling when I drove back to Money, the same sort of darkness into which Emmett Till had been dragged. The next day I visited the Emmett Till museum in nearby Glendora, in a forbidding former cotton gin.
Oxford, where Faulkner had lived and died, was the university town of Ole Miss. Off well-traveled Route 278, the town vibrated with the rush of distant traffic. There is hardly a corner of this otherwise pleasant place where the whine of cars is absent, and it is a low hum at Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s house, which lies at the end of a suburban street, at the periphery of the campus and its academic splendors.
The road noise struck an odd and intrusive note because, though Oxford resembles “Jefferson” in Faulkner’s work, the town and its surroundings are in all respects as remote from Faulkner’s folksy, bosky, strife-ridden, plot-saturated and fictional Yoknapatawpha County as it is possible to be. The town is lovely. The university is classically beautiful in the Greek Revival Southern style, of columns and bricks and domes, suggesting a mood both genteel and scholarly, and backward-looking.
And for a century this esteemed and vividly pompous place of learning clung to the old ways—segregation and bigotry among them, overwhelming any liberal tendencies. So, here is an irony, one of the many in the Faulkner biography, odder than this self-described farmer living on a side street in a fraternity-mad, football-crazed college town.
Faulkner—a shy man but a bold, opinionated literary genius with an encyclopedic grasp of Southern history, one of our greatest writers and subtlest thinkers—lived most of his life at the center of this racially divided community without once suggesting aloud, in his wise voice, in a town he was proud to call his own, that a black student had a right to study at the university. The Nobel Prize winner stood by as blacks were shooed off the campus, admitted as menials only through the back door and when their work was done told to go away. Faulkner died in July 1962. Three months later, after a protracted legal fuss (and deadly riots afterward), and no thanks to Faulkner, James Meredith, from the small central Mississippi town of Kosciusko, was admitted, as its first black student.
Fair-minded, Faulkner had written in Harper’s magazine: “To live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or color is like living in Alaska and being against snow.” But he asked for a gradual approach to integration, and, as he wrote in Life magazine, he was against the interference of the federal government—“forces outside the south that would use legal or police compulsion to eradicate that evil overnight.” We’ll do it ourselves, in our own time, was his approach; but, in fact, nothing happened until the federal government—the South’s historical villain—intervened.
Restless when he was not writing, always in need of money, Faulkner traveled throughout his life; but Oxford remained his home, and Rowan Oak his house, even when (it seems) a neighborhood grew up around the big, ill-proportioned farmhouse previously known as “the Bailey Place.” He renamed it Rowan Oak for the mythical powers of the wood of the rowan tree, as the docents at the house helpfully explained to me.
This street—orderly, bourgeois, well-tended, tidy, conventional—is everything Faulkner’s fiction is not and is at odds with Faulkner’s posturing as a country squire. On this road of smug homes, Rowan Oak rises lopsidedly like a relic, if not a white elephant, with porches and white columns, windows framed by dark shutters, and stands of old, lovely juniper trees. The remnants of a formal garden are visible under the trees at the front—but just the symmetrical brickwork of flowerbed borders and walkways showing in the surface of the ground like the remains of a neglected Neolithic site.
He was anchored by Oxford but lived a chaotic life; and the surprising thing is that from this messy, lurching existence that combined the asceticism of concentrated writing with the eruptions of binge drinking and passionate infidelities, he produced an enormous body of work, a number of literary masterpieces, some near misses and a great deal of garble. He is the writer all aspiring American writers are encouraged to read, yet with his complex and speechifying prose he is the worst possible model for a young writer. He is someone you have to learn how to read, not someone anyone should dare imitate, though unfortunately many do.
Some of Faulkner’s South still exists, not on the land but as a racial memory. Early in his writing life he set himself a mammoth task, to create the fictional world of an archetypical Mississippi county where everything happened—to explain to Southerners who they were and where they’d come from. Where they were going didn’t matter much to Faulkner. Go slowly, urged Faulkner, the gradualist.
Ralph Ellison once said, “If you want to know something about the dynamics of the South, of interpersonal relationships in the South from, roughly, 1874 until today, you don’t go to historians; not even to Negro historians. You go to William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren.”
I walked through the rooms at Rowan Oak, which were austerely furnished, with a number of ordinary paintings and simple knickknacks, a dusty piano, the typewriter and the weird novelty of notes puzzling out the plot of A Fable written by him on the wall of an upstairs room. Notes clarifying the multilayered, if not muddled, plot were, for Faulkner, a good idea, and would serve a reader, too. Nothing to me would be more useful than such handwriting on a wall. Baffled by seven pages of eloquent gabble, you glance at the wall and see: “Charles is the son of Eulalia Bon and Thomas Sutpen, born in the West Indies, but Sutpen hadn’t realized Eulalia was of mixed race, until too late...”
“We’ll be closing soon,” the docent warned me.
I went outside, looked at the brick outbuildings and sheds, a stable and meandered past the plainness of the yard, among the long shadows of the junipers in the slant of the winter sun. From where I stood, the house was obscured by the trees at the front, but still it had the look of a mausoleum; and I was moved to think of Faulkner in it, exhausting himself with work, poisoning himself with drink, driven mad in the contradictions of the South, obstinate in his refusal to simplify or romanticize its history, resolute in mirroring its complexity with such depth and so many human faces—all this before his early death, at the age of 64. No other region in America had a writer who was blessed with such a vision. Sinclair Lewis defined the Upper Midwest, and showed us who we were in Main Street and Elmer Gantry; but he moved on to other places and other subjects. Faulkner stayed put, he achieved greatness; but as a writer, as a man, as a husband, as a delineator of the South’s arcane formalities and its lawlessness, his was a life of suffering.
Pearl handle pistols
Natchez is dramatically sited on the bluffs above the wide brown Mississippi facing the cotton fields in flatter Louisiana and the town of Vidalia. A small, well-kept city, rich in history and river lore, architectural marvels—old ornate mansions, historic houses, churches and quaint arcades; its downtown lined with restaurants. But none of its metropolitan attributes held much interest for me.
The cultural event that got my attention was the Natchez Gun Show at the Natchez Convention Center. It was the main event in town that weekend, and the size of the arena seemed half as big as a football field, with a long line of people waiting to go in.
Entering was a process of paying an admission of $7 (“Children 6 to 11, $1”), and, if you had a firearm, showing it, unloading it and securing it with a plastic zip tab.
After that lobby business, the arena, filled with tables and booths and stalls, most selling guns, some selling knives, others stacked with piles of ammo. I had never seen so many guns, big and small, heaped in one place—and I suppose the notion that they were all for sale, just lying there waiting to be picked up and handled, sniffed and aimed, provided a thrill.
“Pardon me, sir.”
“No problem, scoot on bah.”
“Thank you much.”
No one on earth—none I had ever seen—is more polite, more eager to smile, more accommodating and less likely to step on your toe, than a person at a gun show.
“Mississippi is the best state for gun laws,” one man said to me. We were at the coffee and doughnut stall. “You can leave your house with a loaded gun. You can keep a loaded gun in your car in this state—isn’t that great?”
Most of the gun-show goers were just looking, hands in pockets, sauntering, nudging each other, admiring, and this greatly resembled a flea market, but one smelling of gun oil and scorched metal. Yet there was something else in the atmosphere, a mood I could not define.
Civil War paraphernalia, powder flasks, Harpers Ferry rifles, spurs, canes, swords, peaked caps, insignia, printed money and pistols—a number of tables were piled with these battered pieces of history. And nearly all of them were from the Confederate side. Bumper stickers, too, one reading, “The Civil War—America’s Holocaust,” and many denouncing President Obama.
“My uncle has one of them powder flasks.”
“If it’s got the apportioning spigot spout in working order your uncle’s a lucky guy.”
Some were re-enactors, a man in a Confederate uniform, another dressed in period cowboy costume, looking like a vindictive sheriff, black hat and tall boots and pearl handle pistols.
It was not the first gun show I’d been to, and I would go to others, in Southhaven, Laurel and Jackson, Mississippi. In Charleston, South Carolina, I’d seen a table set up like a museum display of World War I weapons and uniforms, as well as maps, books, postcards and framed black-and-white photos of muddy battlefields. This was a commemorative exhibit put on by Dane Coffman, as a memorial to his soldier-grandfather, Ralph Coffman, who had served in the Great War. Dane, who was about 60, wore an old infantryman’s uniform, a wide-brimmed hat and leather puttees, the get-up of a doughboy. Nothing was for sale; Dane was a collector, a military historian and a re-enactor; his aim was to show his collection of belts and holsters, mess kits, canteens, wire cutters, trenching tools and what he called his pride and joy, a machine gun propped on a tripod.
“I’m here for my grandfather,” he said, “I’m here to give a history lesson.”
Back in Natchez, a stall-holder leaning on a fat black assault rifle was expostulating. “If that damn vote goes through we’re finished.” He raised the gun. “But would like to see someone try and take this away from me. I surely would.”
Some men were wandering the floor, conspicuously carrying a gun, looking like hunters, and in a way they were, hunting for a buyer, hoping to sell it. One private seller had a 30-year-old weapon—wood and stainless steel—a Ruger .223-caliber Mini-14 assault rifle with a folding stock, the sort you see being carried by sharpshooters and conspirators in plots to overthrow wicked dictatorships. He handed it to me.
“By the way, I’m from Massachusetts.”
His face fell, he sighed and took the gun from me with big hands, and folded the stock flat, saying. “I wish you hadn’t told me that.”
As I walked away, I heard him mutter, “Goddamn,” not at me but at regulation generally—authority, the background checkers and inspectors and paper chewers, the government, Yankees.
And that was when I began to understand the mood of the gun show. It was not about guns. Not about ammo, not about knives. It was not about shooting lead into perceived enemies. The mood was apparent in the way these men walked and spoke: They felt beleaguered—weakened, their backs to the wall. How old was this feeling? It was as old as the South perhaps.
The Civil War battles might have happened yesterday for these particular Southerners, who were so sensitized to intruders and gloaters and carpetbaggers, and even more so to outsiders who did not remember the humiliations of the Civil War. The passing of the family plantation was another failure, the rise of opportunistic politicians, the outsourcing of local industries, the disappearance of catfish farms, the plunge in manufacturing, and now this miserable economy in which there was no work and so little spare money that people went to gun shows just to look and yearn for a decent weapon that they’d never be able to buy.
Over this history of defeat was the scowling, punitive shadow of the federal government. The gun show was the one place where they could regroup and be themselves, like a clubhouse with strict admission and no windows. The gun show wasn’t about guns and gun totin’. It was about the self-respect of men—white men, mainly, making a symbolic last stand.
“Where I could save my kids”
You hear talk of people fleeing the South, and some do. But I found many instances of the South as a refuge. I met a number of people who had fled the North to the South for safety, for peace, for the old ways, returning to family, or in retirement.
At a laundromat in Natchez, the friendly woman in charge changed some bills into quarters for the machines, and sold me some soap powder, and with a little encouragement from me, told me her story.
Her name was Robin Scott, in her mid 40s. She said, “I came here from Chicago to save my children from being killed by gangs. So many street gangs there—the Gangster Disciples, the Vice Lords. At first where I lived was OK, the Garfield section. Then around late ’80s and early ’90s the Four Corners Hustlers gang and the BGs—Black Gangsters—discovered crack cocaine and heroin. Using it, selling it, fighting about it. There was always shooting. I didn’t want to stay there and bury my children.
“I said, ‘Gotta get out of here’—so I quit my job and rented a U-Haul and eventually came down here where I had some family. I always had family in the South. Growing up in Chicago and in North Carolina, we used to visit my family in North Carolina, a place called Enfield, in Halifax County near Rocky Mount.”
I knew Rocky Mount from my drives as a pleasant place, east of Raleigh, off I-95 where I sometimes stopped for a meal.
“I had good memories of Enfield. It was country—so different from the Chicago streets. And my mother had a lot of family here in Natchez. So I knew the South was where I could save my kids. I worked at the casino dealing blackjack, but after a time I got rheumatoid arthritis. It affected my hands, my joints and my walking. It affected my marriage. My husband left me.
“I kept working, though, and I recovered from the rheumatoid arthritis and I raised my kids. I got two girls, Melody and Courtney—Melody’s a nurse and Courtney’s a bank manager. My boys are Anthony—the oldest, he’s an electrician—and the twins, Robert and Joseph. They’re 21, at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“Natchez is a friendly place. I’m real glad I came. It wasn’t easy. It’s not easy now—the work situation is hard, but I manage. The man who owns this laundromat is a good man.
“I got so much family here. My grandmother was a Christmas—Mary Christmas. Her brother was Joseph. We called my grandmother Big Momma and my grandfather Big Daddy. I laughed when I saw that movie Big Momma’s House.
“Mary Christmas was born on a plantation near Sibley. They were from families of sharecroppers. My grandfather was Jesse James Christmas.”
I mentioned Faulkner’s Light in August and Joe Christmas, and how I’d always found the name faintly preposterous, heavy with symbolism. I told her the plot of the novel, and how the mysterious Joe Christmas, orphan and bootlegger, passes for white but has a black ancestry. Before I could continue with the tale of Lena Grove and her child and the Christian theme, Robin broke in.
“Joe Christmas was my uncle,” she said, later explaining that he lived in a nursing home in Natchez until he died recently, in his 90s. “It’s a common name in these parts.”
Another beautiful back road in the Deep South—a narrow road past pinewoods and swamps, the hanks of long grass in the sloping meadows yellowy-green in winter. Some orderly farms—a few—were set back from the road, but most of the dwellings were small houses or bungalows surrounded by a perimeter fence, a sleepy dog inside it, and scattered house trailers detached and becalmed under the gum trees; and shacks, too, the collapsing kind that I only saw on roads like these. I had crossed into Jefferson County, one of the poorest counties in the nation and well known to public health experts for having the nation’s highest rate of adult obesity. Every few miles there was a church—no bigger than a one-room schoolhouse and with a similar look, a cross on the roof peak and sometimes a stump of a steeple, and a signboard on the lawn, promoting the text for the week’s sermon: “Lord Jesus Has the Roadmap for Your Journey.”
I was as happy as I had ever been driving in the South. There is a sense of purification that seems to take place in sunshine on a country road, the winking glare in the boughs passing overhead, the glimpses of sky and the stands of trees, wall-like pines in some hollows, enormous oaks and columns of junipers in others, and a fragrance in the air of heated and slightly decayed leaf litter that has the aroma of buttered toast. Oaks and pine trees lined the road for some miles and narrowed it and helped give the impression of this as an enchanted road in a children’s story, one that tempted the traveler onward into greater joy.
And it was about that point that the ominous signs began to appear, real signs nailed to trees. For some miles, large, lettered signs were fastened to the thick trunks of roadside trees, their messages in black and red letters on a bright white background.
“Prepare to Meet Thy God”
“He Who Endures to the End Shall Be Saved”
“The Eyes of the Lord Are in Every Place Beholding the Evil and the Good”
“Faith Without Works Is Dead”
“Strive to Enter at the Strait Gate”
In a church of believers, these sentiments, spoken by a pastor in a tone of understanding, could be a consolation, but painted on a tree in the backwoods of Mississippi they seemed like death threats.
“One of the great places”
In my ignorance, I had believed the Delta to be solely the low-lying estuary of the Mississippi River, roundabout and south of New Orleans, the river delta of the maps. But it isn’t so simple. The Delta is the entire alluvial sprawl that stretches northward of that mud in Louisiana, the flood plain beyond Natchez, emphatically flat above Vicksburg, almost the whole of a bulge west of Mississippi, enclosed in the east by the Yazoo River, all the way to Memphis. It is a definite route, as well; it is Highway 61.
I swung through Hollandale, which was just as boarded-up as other places on and off the highway I’d been through, but I heard music, louder as I entered the town. It was a hot late-afternoon, dust rising in the slanting sunlight, the street full of people, a man wailing and a guitar twanging: the blues.
When I hesitated, a police officer in pressed khakis waved me off the road, where cars were parked. I got out and walked toward a stage that had been set up against a stand of trees—this was the limit of the town, and a powerful, growly man was singing, backed by a good-sized band.
“That’s Bobby Rush,” the police officer said to me as I passed him.
A banner over the stage was lettered “Hollandale Blues Festival in Honor of Sam Chatmon.” Stalls nearby were selling fried chicken and corn, ice cream and soft drinks and T-shirts. Bobby Rush was screaming now, finishing his last set, and as he left the stage to great applause from the people—about 200 of them—standing in the dust, another group took the stage and began stomping and wailing.
A black biker gang in leather stood in a group and clapped, old women in folding chairs applauded and sang, children ran through the crowd of spectators, youths dressed as rappers, with low-slung trousers and hats turned back to front—they clapped too, and so did 17-year-old Shu’Quita Drake (purple braids, a sweet face) holding her little boy, a swaddled 1-month-old infant named D’Vontae Knight, and Robyn Phillips, a willowy dancer from Atlanta, who had family in Hollandale and said, “This is just amazing.”
But the music was so loud, so powerful, splitting the air, making the ground tremble, conversation was impossible, and so I stepped to the back of the crowd. As I was walking, I felt a hand on my arm.
It was a man in an old faded shirt and baseball cap.
“Welcome to Hollandale,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’m the mayor,” he said. “Melvin L. Willis. How can I help you?”
Melvin Willis was born in Hollandale in 1948, and had grown up in segregated Delta schools. (And, alas, in November 2013, some months after I met him, he died of cancer.) He went to college and got a job teaching in York, Alabama, a small town near the Mississippi state line. He had become a high-school principal in York.
“I worked there 40 years, then retired and came back home to Hollandale in 2005. I ran for mayor in 2009 and won. I just got my second term. This festival is an example of the spirit of this town.”
The music, the crowds, the many cars parked under the trees, the food stalls and the festive air—none of it could mask the fact that, like Rolling Fork and Anguilla and Arcola and other places I’d visited, the town looked bankrupt.
“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.