Given the vast and unpredictable foibles of human nature, the genetic integrity of any bloodline can be compromised in the blink of an eye by an errant member, giving rise to such comments as, “Well, her great uncle’s hair was sort of red,” or “That’s what comes from smoking marijuana.”
Surnames, however, being legal entities, provide us with a generally reliable genealogical signpost. I am a Yancey. For reasons as yet undiscovered, my grandfather Jess, one of ten children, dropped the “e” in the customary spelling of his surname. What’s more perplexing is that his siblings, all nine of them, adopted the spelling, so all my nearest name relatives are Yancy.
When I asked a surviving sister of his why Jess, Sr. changed the spelling, she said, “He just did!” and looked at me daring me to say something so I didn’t because I was raised right.
The Yancey family surname hails by most accounts from Wales and in this country is most often found in the southeast, where many of its most distinguished members have lived. Foremost among these is William Lowndes Yancey, U.S. Senator from Alabama, the most vociferous “fire eater” whom some credit with no less than the instigation and subsequent persistence of the Confederacy itself.
It just so happens that my great-great grandfather Yancey was from Alabama as well, and while my relation to the Great Secessionist is vague, Yanceys in close relation joined many others who fled the despoiled post-bellum soil of the prostrate South for the Amazon.
Termed “confederados”, these refugees from Yankee rule settled in Brazil where they still pay a distracted homage to the Old South more for the tourist trade than any significant degree of conviction in its ideals.
One of these days I’m going to hold a Yanc(e)y reunion, and I’m going to invite every damn one of them here. We’ll have the most bodacious dinner on the grounds you’ve ever seen.
During V.S. Naipaul’s visit to Mississippi in 1988, he grew obsessed with rednecks, coming to see them as the “unlikely descendants” of a mythical construct he called a “frontiersman”.
Naipaul himself considered Mississippi—somewhat paradoxically, from a native’s point of view—as both the heartland of the South and a state at the very periphery of culture and civilization itself, which could be considered a rather brash observation from a native of Trinidad.
It’s tempting to speculate on what Welty herself might have thought of Naipaul questioning her about rednecks, but upon reflection, who better to ask than the woman who wrote “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” in June, 1963.
And it was of the redneck, the unlikely descendant of the frontiersman, that I talked to Eudora Welty when I went to call on her. I had arrived early, and could clearly be seen through her uncurtained front window. But I was nervous of knocking too soon.
So for a while we waited below the big, dripping trees in the gloom after rain, she behind her window at the end of her wet front garden, I in the car. And when I felt the time was suitable I walked up to the wet path to her front door. On the door, in her strong writing, was a note asking people not to bring any more books for her to sign. She wanted to save as much of her energy as possible now for her work. I knocked; and she opened, like someone waiting to do just that. She was extraordinarily familiar from her photographs
The frontier was so much in her stories: a fact I had only just begun to appreciate. And she was willing to talk of the frontiersman character.
“He’s not a villain. But there’s a whole side of him that’s cunning. Sometimes it goes over the line and he becomes an outright scoundrel. The blacks never lived in that part of the state. They came over to work on the plantations. Most of the rednecks grew up without black people, and yet they hate them. That’s where all the bad things originate—that’s the appeal they make. Rednecks worked in sawmills and things like that. And they had small farms. They are all fiercely proud. They dictate the politics of the state. They take their excitement—in those small towns—when the politicians and evangelists come. Scare everybody, outwit everybody, beat everybody, kill everybody—that’s the frontiersman’s mentality.”
I told her the story that (a previous interviewee) had heard as a child about the rednecks to the south of the town where she had spent her summers: the story of traveling salesmen who had been roughed up and hitched to a plow and made to plow a field. She had said that this story had come down from the past; and I had thought of it as a romantic story of the wickedness of times past, an exaggerated story about people living without law. But Eudora Welty took the story seriously. She said, “I can believe the story about the salesmen. I’ve heard about punishing people by making them plow farms.”
We talked about Mississippi and its reputation.
“At the time of the troubles many people passed through and called on me. They wanted me to confirm what they thought. And all of them thought I lived in a state of terror. ‘Aren’t you scared of them all the time?’ A young man came and said that h4 had been told that a Mr. So-and-So, who was a terrible racist, owned all of Jackson, all the banks and hotels, and that he was doing terrible things to black people. It was a fantasy. It wasn’t true. The violence here is not nearly as frightening as the Northern—urban—brand.”
A frontier state, limited culturally—had that been hard for her as a writer, and as a woman writer? The richness of a writer depends to some extent on the society he or she writes about.
She said: “There is a lot behind it, the life of the state. There is the great variety of the peoples who came and settled the different sections. There is a great awareness of that as you get older—you see what things have stemmed from. The great thing taught me here as a writer is a sense of continuity. In a place that hasn’t changed much you get to know the generations. You can see the whole narrative of a town’s history or a family’s history.”
[V.S. Naipaul A Turn in the South (1989), pp. 213-14; images from The Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics: 1875-1925 (1951)
That Faulkner wrote about the Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated should come as no surprise, nor that his essay “Kentucky: May: Saturday” is not only about what happened on May 7, 1955, but a masterly examination of the Derby as a quintessential American event and of the sport of kings itself.
The assignment was his second from the fledgling Sports Illustrated (founded by Henry Luce the previous August), his first being an exercise in dissonant apposition. That January Faulkner attended his first hockey game, one between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, and in “An Innocent at Rinkside” wrote: “It was filled with motion, speed. … discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical, like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools”. The poetry of hockey eluded the Mississippian.
James Street, the Mississippi minister-turned-journalist-turned novelist, was given the original 1955 Derby assignment, but Street died the September before the race. Sports Illustrated offered Faulkner $2000 plus a week’s expenses, including a $100-a-day chauffeured limousine; the kicker was a $500 bonus if the piece turned out to be as exceptional as they hoped from the Southern Nobelist. No fool he, Faulkner accepted immediately and after a trip to New York in April and the first days of May, he left the city for Louisville, where his publisher Don Klopfer sent him a note to the Brown Hotel informing him that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for A Fable.
“It’s an easy 500 bucks for you,” Klopfer write, “and we’re all mighty pleased, although I don’t suppose you give a damn.” On the contrary, Faulkner, who considered A Fable his masterpiece, was quite pleased and those visiting the handsome, nattily-attired writer in his suite found him puffing on a briarwood pipe, smiling.
Far from rinkside in Madison Gardens, at Churchill Downs Faulkner was in his element; his father Murry had been a livery-stable owner in Oxford, he enjoyed riding as well as fox hunting and he had a fine eye for horseflesh. In an interview with The Courier-Journal, Faulkner reflected, “It’s interesting that you have tried to train blood and flesh to the perfection of a machine but that it’s still blood and flesh.”
During his stay in Louisville Faulkner was accompanied by SI’s turf writer Whiney Tower, who was instructed “to try to see that our guest did not become so preoccupied with the available whiskey that he neglected his assignment.” To ensure against that seemingly likely possibility, Faulkner was to turn over 300 words each evening of their weeklong stay in Louisville for Tower to wire via Western Union to New York.
Tower, a legend in his own right and the nephew of Lexington horse-farm owner C.V. Whitney, found Faulkner to be “thoroughly professional”. “His knowledge of horses and their bloodlines went way back,” Tower wrote, “and I think the best part of his week may have been the day we skipped away from Louisville to visit farms in Lexington.
At Claiborne Farm, he was very much taken with Nasrullah, later to become one of the all-time great stallions, and sire of, among others, Bold Ruler, another champion sire. But no horse he saw in Lexington that long day entranced Faulkner nearly so much as a beautiful gray, Mahmoud, an Epsom Derby winner, then 22 years old and galloping effortlessly in his paddock at the C.V. Whitney farm. On the way back to Louisville, Faulkner napped, but near Frankfort, he awoke suddenly, nostrils twitching above his mustache. “He sat straight up, rolled down his window and inhaled deeply,” Tower wrote. “‘I thought so!’ he exclaimed. ‘I don’t mistake that smell. There’s a distillery damn close to here.’”
As race day approached, Faulkner became more fascinated by the activity at Churchill Downs. Before his first trip to the press box, Tower wrote, Faulkner “asked in an excited schoolboyish way” whether he might meet acclaimed sportswriter Red Smith. The two proceeded to handicap the day’s races. Tower noted that Smith “relied mostly on past performance” in determining his bets, while Faulkner favored the conformation of each horse.
“Kentucky: May: Saturday” ran in the May 16, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated. Written in five parts to accentuate the build-up of tension and excitement that exploded in the two-minute race that had drawn over a hundred thousand people from all over the world, the essay was not so much about the race itself as a—somewhat rambling; it is Faulkner, after all—meditation on what the Derby means, a piece so subjective that Faulkner didn’t even mention how “Swaps”, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, had held the lead from the start and won despite a thrilling challenge from “Nashua”.
“THREE DAYS BEFORE”, framed the event in historical perspective: “This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too — the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival — Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod’s and Harbuck’s Stations; Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.” He linked this past history with his own present: “And knew Stephen Foster and the brick mansion of his song; no longer the dark and bloody ground of memory now, but already my old Kentucky: home.”
“TWO DAYS BEFORE”, he turned to the race: “Even from just passing the stables, you carry with you the smell of liniment and ammonia and straw — the strong quiet aroma of horses. And even before we reach the track we can hear horses — the light hard rapid thud of hooves mounting into crescendo and already fading rapidly on. And now in the gray early light we can see them, in couples and groups at canter or hand-gallop under the exercise boys. Then one alone, at once furious and solitary, going full out, breezed, the rider hunched forward, excrescent and precarious, not of the horse but simply (for the instant) with it, in the conventional posture of speed — and who knows, perhaps the two of them, man and horse both: the animal dreaming, hoping that for that moment at least it looked like Whirlaway or Citation, the boy for that moment at least that he was indistinguishable from Arcaro or Earl Sande, perhaps feeling already across his knees the scented sweep of the victorious garland.”
“ONE DAY BEFORE” looked back to former races: “It rained last night; the gray air is still moist and filled with a kind of luminousness, lambence, as if each droplet held in airy suspension still its molecule of light, so that the statue which dominated the scene at all times anyway now seems to hold dominion over the air itself like a dim sun, until, looming and gigantic over us, it looks like gold — the golden effigy of the golden horse, ‘Big Red’ to the Negro groom who loved him and did not outlive him very long, Big Red’s effigy of course, looking out with the calm pride of the old manly warrior kings, over the land where his get still gambol as infants, until the Saturday afternoon moment when they too will wear the mat of roses in the flash and glare of magnesium; not just his own effigy, but symbol too of all the long recorded line from Aristides through the Whirlaways and Count Fleets and Gallant Foxes and Citations: epiphany and apotheosis of the horse.”
“THE DAY” began ruminating about the horse, which once moved man’s body and goods, but now moved only his money. Food-supplying animals would, he prophesied, eventually become obsolete, but not horses, since they provide mankind with “something deep and profound in his emotional nature and need, a sublimation, a transference: man with his admiration for speed and strength, physical power far beyond what he himself is capable of, projects his own desire for physical supremacy, victory, onto the agent—the baseball or football team, the prize fighter. Only the horse race is more universal…”
“4:29 P.M.” is emotionally drained, an analytic response to spent anticipation: “We who watched have seen too much… we must turn away now for a little time, even if only to assimilate, get used to living with, what we have seen and experienced.” He focused on the dispersal of the crowds and the disgruntlement of the losing backers. “And so on. So it is not the Day after all, it is only the eighty-first one.”
A poignant tale of love, loss and thralldom, doubtless embellished with the romance of legend as tales of that time often are, this story was published almost a century ago in The Calhoun County Monitor-Herald.
In the cold, dreary winter of 1852, just after the organization of Calhoun County, quite a number of citizens of Spring and Brushy Creeks were sitting in a rude log cabin by the roadside, where John McCord kept a store, lightly stocked with the necessities of life, discussing the new county and squirting tobacco on the old, rickety stove. Bob Brown, the Postmaster, (for there had recently been established at this place a post office called Banner), came around and stood in the door. Snow and sleet were falling thick and fast and the cold north wind howled through the towering pines and drifted snow against the rude fences. All nature seemed at war–and the howling storm quelled the spirit of those pioneers, who were acquainted with trouble and knew danger and privations.
“The coldest day I ever felt,” said Bob. “Everything outside is freezing.”
While the men were buttoning up their coats, preparatory to breasting the storm en route to their homes, Bob looked eastward along the road and saw a lone woman trudging through the snow storm, coming in the direction of the store. She soon appeared at the door and asked permission to warm at the fire. The gentlemen gallantly gave way and tendered her a seat near the stove.
“Bad weather to be out,” remarked McCord, the merchant. “Quite unpleasant,” replied the woman in soft, sweet voice. She was well and comfortably clad, and had in her hand a well filled grip. She was tall and well formed, with a handsome figure and soft, appealing eyes. Her hair was long, dark and wavy, and her skin was a soft yellow–not quite as dark as the Indian. Her features were animated and her countenance sparkled with every change of expression. Her step, quick and elastic; voice, soft and musical; her language, pure and faultless English and her age about 22 years. The men soon started for home through the drifting storm, and left McCord, Brown and Sid Brantley and the woman still clustered about the stove. The able, big-hearted Brantley asked the woman how it happened that she was caught out in the storm, and where she was going in all this bad weather.
After some hesitation, she answered in a low, musical voice, “I am part Indian and I am making my way to the Indian Nation, where my tribe, the Chickasaws, went in 1836. I was then a small girl living with my grandmother. My mother, a Chickasaw died when I was a baby. My father, a white man, went with the tribe. My grandmother, being very old, was left with me. After grandmother died, I was taken by a nice family of whites, who gave me a home, taught me the art of dressmaking and educated me. But I could not forget my brothers and sisters in the Indian Nation and at last resolved at every hazard, to make my way to them. I have no money or friends that I can call upon for assistance, so I am trying to make my way afoot.”
Her simple story touched Mr. Brantley’s heart, and he cordially invited her to his nearby home. She, with some hesitation, accepted his generous invitation and accompanied him home, where she remained until the storm was over. In conversation, on the way home, Brantley asked her name. She modestly answered, “Bombazelle McAllister”. She was introduced to the family and assured that she could make her home with them until the weather settled. She was assigned a room with Brantley’s oldest daughter. The next day was still cold and blustery and the ladies were confined to their rooms. The stranger soon became familiar with the family. Miss Brantley had a nice new dress pattern she was preparing to make up. Bombazelle examined the goods with great care and suggested how it should be designed. Sissy was delighted. Bombazelle took her measure–a thing heretofore unknown in these wild woods–and she assisted in making the dress. The family was delighted with the attractive design and the gracious fit of the dress. Hence the news spread rapidly throughout the neighborhood that a marvelous designer and dressmaker was stopping at Sid Brantley’s–and the blushing lassies in all the region gathered ’round to have Bombazelle cut and fashion their dresses. She moved from home to home as her services were requested, and at night, occupied rooms and beds with the young ladies of the community.
The snow storm had passed, but Bombazelle remained, kept busy cutting out and making dresses. She was well paid and was kindly received by every family. She was ready and willing to give the young ladies instructions in cutting materials and in dressmaking. She was a fine talker and a lovely girl, her color rather dark, but being part Indian, this was understood. She soon became the Belle of Banner, and the boys called her “The Yellow Rose of Schoona”, and she received the attention of all the nice young men in the neighborhood. John McCord fell desperately in love with Bombazelle, and after a spirited contest with the young swains about Banner, won her heart. McCord was, as the term was known in those far-off days, “well-off”. He had a good house, servants and quite a number of Negro slaves. The couple was married at Brantley’s home, Esquire John Hankins making the happy couple man and wife. There was quite a gathering at the wedding, and, as was the custom, all who wished, were privileged to kiss the bride, as did some of the girls and women present.
The springtime in all its beauty was rapidly approaching. The dogwoods were budding, the birds were all a-twitter and the geese were flying north to their faraway homes. Bombazelle was happy in the home of John McCord. She had a husband who was a leader in the young county and was loved and admired by everyone. She also had Old Sylvia, her trusted servant, and her flock of boys and girls, to attend to her every want. She kept a close eye on the servants, and they had to “toe the mark”. She had her rooms well furnished, wore wonderful clothes, and kept everything about the place in “apple pie” order. Every servant jumped when she spoke, for she was a firm mistress, and ran the house with energy and ability. McCord, too, was happy with his beautiful wife and his elegantly arranged home. The “Yellow Rose” was happy and excited because she was the leader in style and fashion in the whole county. She was constantly sought out and consulted about dresses and was a close friend to the young belles for miles around.
Spring opened in all its glory. The whippoorwills sang at evening, the sun smiled all day on the new fields, just wrested from the primeval forests, and the birds and animals made love in the swamps and endless forests. Late one afternoon, a fine looking gentleman was seen riding a splendid blooded horse into Banner. Mrs. McCord (Bombazelle) observed him–and, in consternation, made it convenient to disappear at once. The traveler alighted and entered the saddle shop owned by J. Brown, and after passing the compliments of the season, inquired if there had been seen in that place a woman who had disappeared. He gave an accurate description of Mrs. McCord. Bob hesitated, looked wise and gave an evasive answer. Night was approaching, so the stranger asked if there was a house of entertainment in town. Brown directed him to Mr. Arnold’s home, just west of town. He made his business known to Mr. Arnold, and said he had traced the woman to Banner–and that she was his Negro house servant and seamstress–and that she had run away from the family home at Aberdeen, Mississippi. Arnold repeated to him the story of Bombazelle’s appearance, her captivation of the community and her marriage to John McCord months before.
“That’s my Negro,” said the stranger, “she is almost white in appearance and is very smart.”
It is hardly necessary to add that the people of Banner were stirred up and greatly excited by his revelation. The belles and beaus were crestfallen. The girls who had entertained and associated with Bombazelle were dumbfounded. The idea of having so cordially entertained this servant in their homes was humiliating. And the young men who had called upon Bombazelle and sought her hand were shocked beyond expression while the older men, who had so fondly kissed the yellow blushing bride, were punched in the ribs by their wives for having embraced the woman in their presence. But the “Yellow Rose”! Where was she? McAllister (the stranger) could not find her anywhere. She had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. McCord was wild and miserable. His happiness was swept away in the wrinkling of an eye. Dispirited and troubled, he stood about, wondering what to do! His wife, with his knowledge, had been secreted in a cabin on Schoona, there to await the issue. McCord was a good man, law-abiding and honest, yet he did not know but that McAllister was a fraud.
McAllister posted off to Hartford (the community now known as Oldtown, which was the county seat at that time), here he learned that the marriage certificate had been issued to John McCord and Bombazelle McAllister, and that it had been returned by Esq. Hankins. He at once instituted suit against John McCord and his securities, for marrying a Negro, contrary to the laws of the State of Mississippi. McCord’s friends were in close consultation all day, devising ways and means to extricate McCord from his dilemma. Brantley, with a keen eye to business, also went to Hartford, and there met McAllister. Brantley, being always a friend for anyone in distress, had a long interview with McAllister, and induced him to suspend legal proceedings until he could see McCord, assuring him that it was a fraud practiced on McCord, and McCord truly believed that she was part Indian, but had never dreamed that she was a runaway slave–and that she would be found and returned to McAllister. Old Sylvia was the happiest Negro in the county. She and her children clapped their hands at being relieved of such a hard head mistress.
Brantley returned to McAllister that afternoon, after having a long talk with McCord and Brown, entertained him that night and promised him that Bombazelle would be forthcoming in the morning. So, in the morning, bright and early, “The Yellow Rose of Schoona” fondly embraced Mr. McCord, bid him an affectionate farewell, and promptly reported to her master, and they departed for Aberdeen.
Editor’s Note:  In the 1940’s, Dr. W. A. Evans of Aberdeen researched The Monitor Herald story of Bombazelle McAllister in the county courthouse records at Aberdeen. He found advertisements by the man McAllister, giving notice that his slave Bombazelle had run away. After McAllister took her back to Aberdeen, he sold her at once, as she had given trouble before. The money paid for Bombazelle went into the building of a new McAllister home, located in the city of Aberdeen. Dr. Evans reported that no further evidence of Bombazelle exists after she was sold.
Jess Jr. was an expressive soul with little reserve, a candor celebrated by many, but trying for my mother.
It was especially difficult when they went to the movies, since my father’s tastes in films resembled those of a little old lady’s rather than a middle-aged war vet and seasoned attorney.
She said he would hear about these movies from a slew of waitresses, secretaries, and beauticians–Daddy never passed a beauty parlor without going in; he said it caught the girls at a disadvantage–who kept him up with the latest Hollywood gossip.
So whenever they went out of town he’d drag her to see Peyton Place–“It’s bad Faulkner!)–Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Daddy had a lot to say about the legal issues in that one) and Madame X, which has his favorite courtroom scene.
“My God, Barbara! Can you imagine what she must be going through!?” he’d say in a clearly audible aside as Lana Turner took the stand. “Why doesn’t she say something? That judge would let her off in a heartbeat if she’d only say who she is!”
Mother never responded, stared with resignation at the screen, studiously avoiding the chilling glances of others. Some scenes reduced Daddy to great heaving sobs, like when they had to pull Susan Kohner off Juanita Moore’s coffin at the end of Imitation of Life.
His only child to inherit this sense of cinematic drama was my sister, Cindy, who bolted out of a Memphis theater during The Snow Queen and was half-way down Union Avenue, screaming, “She’s gonna get me!” before we finally caught up with her.
During the heyday of Prohibition, the speakeasy districts of New York and Chicago became dazzling gathering places, filled with music, dance, and drink (as well as a few bullets, mind you), as did similar areas in the South, notably Beale Street in Memphis and of course the French Quarter in New Orleans.
In Jackson, Mississippi, it was the Gold Coast. Also known as East Jackson or even “’cross the river”, the Gold Coast comprised the area of Rankin County directly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the end of South Jefferson Street. Though barely two square miles, its infamy was nation-wide.
In 1939, H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, published a rollicking account of the Gold Coast, “Hooch and Homicide in Mississippi”, by Craddock Goins. “There is no coast except the hog-wallows of the river banks,” Goins wrote, “but plenty of gold courses those banks to the pockets of the most brazen clique of cutthroats and bootleggers that ever defied the law.”
Goins cites Pat Hudson as the first to see the possibilities of lucrative gambling near the junction of the two federal highways (Hwys. 80 and 49) across the river from Jackson where before then there were only gas stations, hot dog stands and liquor peddlers. Then San Seaney began selling branded liquor at his place, The Jeep, which soon became a headquarters for wholesale illegal booze.
Others sprang up like mushrooms. The sheriff of Rankin County did his best to restore some semblance of law, but as soon as he cleaned out one den of iniquity another opened. Not only that, he was severely beaten and hospitalized for two weeks after one raid, and he simply bided his time until his term ran out. Goins reported that whites and blacks were often together under the same roof then, albeit shooting craps and whiskey on the opposite sides of a thin partition.
This lawlessness did not pass unnoticed in the nearby state capitol. Governor Hugh White, who in December of 1936 ordered National Guard troops into a business on the Pearl owned by one Guysell McPhail. Liquor was seized as evidence that the place should be shut down, but a Rankin County chancellor later dismissed the case, ruling that the evidence had been illegally obtained and at any rate the local authorities, not the governor, should handle law enforcement
The Mississippi Supreme Court later overruled the decision, but by that time liquor was flowing and dice were rolling. The governor bided his time.
In the late 40s, a thriving black nightclub culture was in place. Places like the Blue Peacock, the Stamps Hotel (the only hotel in Mississippi that catered to Negros) with its famous Off-Beat Room, The Blue Flame, the Travelers Home and others, where national jazz and blues acts performed. These establishments ran advertisements in The Jackson Advocate, including one that offered a special bus from Farish and Hamilton.
By 1946, Rankin county was paying the highest black market tax in the state., but these high times came to a crashing end one hot day in August of 1946, when Seaney and Constable Norris Overby met at place called the Shady Rest and gunned each other down. Others had been killed, of course—often that big-ass catfish you hooked turned out to be someone you hadn’t seen in a while—but this double homicide so inflamed public opinion that illegal operations never dared be so blatant.
In the 50s, black businesses withered in the backlash against Brown vs. Board of Education, and the Gold Coast became dominated by a white gangster named “Big Red” Hydrick, who brought area as securely under his suzerainty as a corrupt satrap. Red’s little kingdom withered with urban sprawl.
Beale Street is back–sort of–and the French Quarter will–Dieu merci!–always be the French Quarter, but the Pearl’s Gold Coast is gone, lost in a little enclave under the interstate, a puzzle of gravel, asphalt, and weathered walls.
These selections from Imani Perry’s South to America (Ecco; January 25, 2022) join earlier excerpts from V.S. Naipaul’s A Turn in the South and Joan Didion’s South and West to exhibit how others from outside the American South perceive both the region in general and Mississippi in specifics.
Perry’s work echoes Naipaul’s in scope and form (in fact, she read A Turn in the South to prepare herself for the project), but her work is more perceptive, learned, certain, and above all determined.
Many will find South to America as provocative as it is ambitious. Perry maintains that race is “at the heart of the South, and at the heart of the nation,” and that “the country has leeched off the racialized exploitation of the South while also denying it.” These selections provide the reader with a radical perspective on the South, and most specifically on Jackson, Mississippi, which she says is “publicly, unapologetically Black.” While many will be surprised to hear Jackson’s Mayor Lumumba referred to as a “scion of Black nationalism,” it’s certainly nothing new.
I HEARD HIS VOICE OVER the PA in the airport and I wet my eyes. “I am Chokwe Antar Lumumba,” the mayor of Jackson welcomes you when you arrive.
He is one of a growing number of young Black Southern mayors, Mayor Lumumba, like my uncle Cornelius, went to Tuskegee for college and Texas Southern for law school. He was nurtured in the tradition of HBCUs. And he is a scion. Sons have a certain importance, culturally. Patriarchy, that fundamental structure of the West, was denied to Black people during slavery and has remained fragile ever since.
Money, protection, domestic authority–these are elusive, though cherished things in the face of poverty and prison. As much as I have written about escaping from patriarchy’s hold, I can’t pretend to not understand the deep yearning for a son to take on the leadership role of the father when it comes to Black people.
In Jackson the mayor’s father, the elder Chokwe Lumumba, had spent decades in the service of the freedom movement. The attorney for revolutionary Black activists of the Black Power movement like Assata Shakur and Nehanda Abiodun, he was also a leader of NAPO, the New Afrikan People’s Organization and notably carried a chosen surname that was the same as that of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese anticolonialist movement leader who had been murdered in 1961 by Belgian and US forces.
NAPO was a coming together of different communities in the New Afrikan Independence Movement. The Republic of New Afrika was imagined in 1968 as an independent Black-majority nation in the Southeastern United States. The first vision was articulated at a meeting of the Malcolm X Society in Detroit. The states they imagined as being part of this new nation: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. They shared goals of self-determination, landownership, and an independent nation-state for New Afrikans, who were colonized by US imperialism, in line with the older Black Belt theory. They believed in Democratic centralism, socialism, and reparations, as well as humility and self-defense.
The elder Lumumba was elected to the Jackson city council in 2009, and then to the office of mayor in 2013. He died under mysterious circumstances soon thereafter. The latter two events were national news, but I’d heard about the elder Lumumba repeatedly from my parents and their friends of his brilliance, courage, and commitment to the struggle” to “free the land.” And now here was the voice of his son, bearing a shared name, welcoming us to Jackson.
Jackson is urban, but it is also country. Naipaul referred to it as “the frontier” It was where he was introduced to the classic architecture of the Deep South “There were streets of ‘shotgun’ houses. It was the first time I had ever heard the expressive word: narrow wooden houses (like mobile homes or old-fashioned railway carriages) with the front room opening into the back room and with the front door and back door aligned.
On Sunday afternoon the people were out on the streets, so that the effect of crowd and slum and blackness was immediate: as though outdoor life, life outside the houses, was an aspect of poverty.” I wouldn’t call Jackson the frontier, but it might be something else: a sort of reverse metropole, a substation of the people.
The generations of freedom fighters in the Black Belt continue their work. And in Mississippi, they have made it the state with the most extensive Black political representation in America. It is the closest we have to a realization of full Black political citizenship. And it is the only state with a scion of Black nationalism as the executive of its capital.
Jackson is publicly, unapologetically Black, even for Mississippi. It evidences itself in culture as much as polities. For example, the marching band at Jackson State University is called the Sonic Boom of the South. When the male dancers jump, in navy and white so crisp it could not have possibly touched dirt or concrete for how pristine it is, they are suspended in air, time stands still, and yet the music goes hard and unceasingly.
When the women dancers dash a hip, to left, to right, it is sharp, taking back the lasciviousness teased in an instant, a taste before magisterial precision; as the horns gleam, the musicians are consistent as seasons of crops. They march, left right left right. The band does not make the flesh crawl; it revels in it. Love this flesh, it says. It makes sense that this is where the great chronicler of Black history in poem and fiction and prose Margaret Walker made her home as a professor at Jackson State University. She was one who saw the glory of the eternal coming of Black people. The exultation.
They march through the streets, not just in stadiums, and you can always see the dirt high-stepping underfoot. There is no easy resolution between beauty and terror, between poverty and abundance.
And just outside of the city, you find yourself looking around and saying the South would be worth holding close even if only for the trees. You can see it. How before all the building, the Piney Woods once stretched across five states. And as chopped down as they are now, their sharp warm scent and sight wraps around you even when you’re standing from a distance. They emanate fragrance that you feel in your eye sockets and above your socks. They are a fortification against climate change. The scientists say these trees are in a desperate battle against human green, slowing the pace of destruction by literally killing greenhouse gases with their scent, If only we were willing to reblanket the Southeast in conifers, we might save ourselves.
The interior rotunda in the seat of Mississippi government has a statue of the blind goddess Justice lit by over seven hundred lights. Around her are two Indigenous people, a European explorer, and a Confederate soldier. There is no African. Look up at the top of the gold leaf copper dome and see our national symbols a white-headed bald eagle.
We haven’t outrun or outlived the plantation, although it looks a little bit different. Now the fugitives are from Central America and the unfree laborers are in prison. Some kids are still hungry, even so many years after the breakfast programs and Head Start and all of the gains fought for by Black elected officials, because the gag is in the money and the land, and it still isn’t free.
There’s an honesty to Mississippi about all of this. The triumph is not in ends; it is in the fact that we are still here.
On March 3, 1966, a supercell thunderstorm developed over central Mississippi and produced a large tornado around 4:00 pm CST near the old Adams community in Hinds County, several miles south-southwest of Raymond.
Tracking generally to the northeast, the tornado moved through mostly rural areas, though several barns and a few homes were heavily damaged. Around 4:30 pm CST, the storm struck the southern limits of Jackson as an F4 or F5 tornado and leveled the Candlestick Park shopping center, which gave the tornado its name; cinder-blocks from the structure were scattered for long distances, a number of homes and businesses were destroyed, eyewitnesses reported pavement scouring and a few cars were tossed upwards of 0.5 mi (0.80 km). A brick church was destroyed with such force that it seemingly exploded. Once the storm moved through Jackson, it crossed the Pearl River and entered Rankin County, maintaining a nearly straight northeastward track through the county.
The tornado reached its maximum strength of F5 near the Leesburg community; multiple homes were swept away, large swaths of trees were leveled, pavement was scoured, and chicken houses were obliterated. In Neshoba County the storm began to weaken though not considerably as about a dozen more homes were destroyed before the system crossed into Alabama. The tornado finally dissipated near the city of Tuscaloosa around 7:45 p.m. CST. During the storm’s three-hour-and-forty-five-minute existence, it traveled roughly 202.5 mi (325.9 km), one of the longest paths ever recorded. Overall, the tornado ranks as the second-deadliest in the state’s history, killing 57.
The Candlestick tornado touched down in what was in 1966 rural Rankin County, which like the area around Cooper Road is more heavily populated today. The tornado crossed Highway 25 (Lakeland Drive), and homes and businesses in the area around River Oaks, the north side of Jackson International Airport, Laurel Wood and Castlewoods lie in or very near where the tornado passed. The storm was also going through the Jackson metropolitan area between 430 pm and 5 pm, during the afternoon rush hour. In 1966, the interstate system was in the process of being constructed, but today the tornado would have been moving near the Stack just south of downtown Jackson where Interstates 20 and 55 converge. The tornado would have also been passing near or through the heavily trafficked areas along Highway 80, Flowood Drive and Lakeland Drive in Flowood.
The tornado’s story is told by Lorian Hemingway in her book, A World Turned Over: A Killer Tornado and the Lives It Changed Forever (Simon & Schuster; July, 2003). Hemingway, the granddaughter of novelist Ernest Hemingway (the daughter of Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, who left his wife and eight children when Lorian, the youngest, was 6 years old), moved to Jackson with her mother and stepfather into a house fifty yards north of Candlestick Shopping Center some years before the storm and moved to Nashville a month before the tornado hit, but in an interview after the book’s publication said the tornado, “… wouldn’t let me alone. I was haunted by it. I’ve been haunted by it all my life; I’ve been haunted by it in dreams. Each time I would go back to Mississippi — and I did not go back until I was well into my adult life — just by happenstance, just sitting around and hearing people talk, that tornado would come up. Not through any provocation of mine. I was amazed to see how much it had lived on and how much it had impacted people and become a part of their history.”
Hemingway’s book takes us back to Jackson with interviews of friends and neighbors. Included are the stories of Ronny Hannis, who was severely injured but helped dig survivors from the rubble, and Donna Durr, who was sitting in her Volkswagen with her child and was carried away in the air, only to be gently set down in a field. As you might expect, there are plenty of people who talk of God and their belief that there was a plan to nature’s savagery. Hemingway, who shares her contrary thoughts with the reader, brings a sophisticated yet sympathetic tone to the conversations, never passing judgment. In fact, she seems desperate to reconnect with the people who made Jackson seem like home for her. Her style is radically different from that of her grandfather’s; the story is told in fully-rounded sentences often brimming with emotion, and the descriptions of the area around Caney Creek along Cooper Road seem pastoral.
She tells the story in her own words and those of other survivors. Weaving childhood nostalgia with apocalyptic images of that world “rolled onto a spear, of the sky punctured at its heart,” Hemingway draws the reader into the nightmare, describing the moments preceding the tornado and the instant when everything was turned upside down. Hemingway describes how a familiar setting is suddenly turned into a morass of shattered concrete, twisted metal, splintered glass, mangled cars and broken bodies and how everyone walks and speaks “with reverence because what is heaving and bending at jagged turns all around them is a burial ground they must undo.” Even after Candlestick Shopping Center was rebuilt, local residents stayed away. They couldn’t bear to remember.
With this new edition of The Welcome, University Press of Mississippi casts a light on the undeservedly shadowed Hubert Creekmore, a prolific writer, scholar, critic, and member of Welty’s brilliant Jackson salon whose work fell into obscurity after his death in 1967.
Creekmore’s novel received a cool initial response. A review by Lloyd Wendt in The Chicago Tribune on Oct 31, 1948, “Controversial Novel About Bad Marriage,” begins, “One of the most discerning and honest writers in the business, Hubert Creekmore is quite certain to anger a good many persons with his ‘story of modern marriage’.”
“His taboo treatment of an antisocial relationship providing competition for the institution of marriage, discreetly handled though it is, can readily win Creekmore the wrath of male readers. Perhaps his novel will shock readers into a realization of the menace to marriage when the participants contribute too little or bring warped personalities to a marriage union. More likely, however, it will merely shock them.”
In The New York Times on November 21, Warren E Preece states, “As a novel it is a highly readable production; as an examination of modern marriage, it comes closer to failure than it does to success. . . Ashton and the principal characters of The Welcome are hardly typical enough to provide a view of anything but a small section of society.”
It was Diana Trilling, writing in The Nation, on November 27, who hit the nail on the head: “Of all the novels about homosexuality which have appeared in the last few years it makes the most ingenuous and therefore the most disturbing statement of the damage society does by refusing to recognize the prevalence of the homosexual preference and, instead, forcing people to the conformity of marriage who are emotionally totally unfit for it.”
This did not sit well with Creekmore, who wrote a long, searing rebuttal (“A Muddled Reviewer”) that by way of a red herring concentrated on Trilling’s accusations of misogyny. Her reply (“A Fortunate Error?”) was brief, pointed, and dismissive.
In his introduction, Philip Gordon notes that 1948 “saw a sea change in the acceptance of same-sex desire, particularly in print and particularly in southern settings. Both Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms were published in 1948, both by major publishing houses. Both fixate on the South: Vidal’s novel begins in Virginia; Capote’s is set in his own fictionalized version of Monroeville, Alabama, made more famous by Harper Lee. These novels are often credited as breaking through the proverbial (opaque) glass closet door that had limited previous depictions of same-sex desire in print.”
The Welcome has long been out of print. In his outstanding study, “”Collecting Hubert Creekmore: A Bibliography,” John Soward Bayne writes, “The Welcome is a true rarity. An early novel dealing with same-sex relationships, it evidently has been bought up by collectors of books by gay authors or about gay themes. It is often cited but seldom discussed in books and papers about such works, most likely because who can find a copy?”
According to acquiring editor, Katie Keene, the decision to reissue The Welcome resulted from a group effort. “While I was working with Pip Gordon on Gay Faulkner, we talked a bit about Creekmore’s legacy. I also learned a lot from Mary Knight at the University of Mississippi, who at that time was working on her documentary, Dear Hubert Creekmore.”
Keen said that soon afterwards she received a letter from Dr. Jaime Harker, owner of Violet Valley Bookstore in Water Valley and director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Mississippi, requesting UPM consider reprinting Creekmore’s works. Keene presented The Welcome to UPM’s board of directors for publication approval. An agreement with the Creekmore Estate was signed in June of 2021.
Gordon writes that The Welcome is a fixture in bibliographic studies that attempt to identify all the gay-themed works from the pre-Stonewall era, and the novel, along with Creekmore himself, are the subjects of more recent scholarship.
The Mississippi Philological Society published Bayne’s extensive, detailed bibliography/biography “Collecting Hubert Creekmore” online in their proceedings from the 2013 Meeting. In 2017, Annette Trefzer, professor of English professor at the University of Mississippi, published “Something Inarticulate”: Sexual Desire in the Fiction of Eudora Welty and Hubert Creekmore” in the Eudora Welty Review (Vol. 9, pp. 83-100).
In addition to her documentary, Mary Knight published her thesis, “Dear Hubert Creekmore: An Archival Search into the Life of a Queer Mississippi Writer,” and is working on a book about Creekmore, his life and times.
By all means, let’s celebrate Creekmore’s return to the vaunted stage of Mississippi literature with The Welcome. Yet bear in mind that while Hubert Creekmore was what Allen Tate called “a man of letters in the modern world,” a novelist, critic, editor, and more, but first and foremost, Creekmore was a poet, and a fine poet. What could more fitting than to follow a reissue of The Welcome with his book of poems, The Long Reprieve?