Any number of variations on a basic mixture of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup have passed for a sauce in restaurants across the nation for well over fifty years, but in Jackson, Mississippi this concoction is called comeback (in some various spelling). Its commercial popularity in Jackson harkens back to the Rotisserie, a restaurant the Dennery family ran at Five Points way back when that part the city was cool, probably around the time poodle skirts were all the rage.
I suspect that because the main ingredients are available to most people, and since the resulting mixture looks and tastes a lot like that quasi-exotic Tiki favorite Thousand Island (usually without pickle relish), this Ur-comeback soon became a popular substitute for bought dressing at home, and the basic combination was often taught in home economics courses during the 60s and 70s.
Nowadays people use comeback for almost everything. I’ve even seen recommendations for it with meats such as chicken and (Lord deliver us) beef. Me, I’ve always liked it on seafood; I do a version of it with a little horseradish, chopped parsley and lemon juice that’s just fine with shrimp or fish. You’re also likely to find another version of it in stores that’s marketed specifically for those deep-fried onion “blossoms” that have become so popular lately. Dare I add that while nobody’s stopping you from dipping a whole Vidalia in some sugar-saturated batter and deep-frying it, by doing so you’re pretty much denying its essential nature as an onion, an vegetable you should have an intimate relationship with already.
Now of course all sorts of exotics have found their way into this combination, it has come to be a workhorse instead of a novelty, and the recipe is well past its salad days. To put it mildly, the ingredients of comeback are a bone of contention. Most recipes for it involve an emulsion combined with something red, which in our locale usually involves a processed tomato. Now, you could probably very well take a little tomato paste and add a bit of vinegar to it, but be nice to yourself and just use chili sauce. Some prefer salad dressing instead of mayonnaise, and others consider cocktail sauce superior to the more pedestrian chili sauce.
As to other additions, I’d stop well short of ground rosemary, but you’re the cook. My version of comeback, like my mother’s, is quite simple, involving not much more than mayonnaise, chili sauce, Worcestershire and black pepper. Any recipe for comeback dressing is always improved by the addition of onion powder and a smidgen of garlic. If you’re serving it with seafood, a little lemon juice is needed along with the aforementioned horseradish and parsley.
I’ve seen comeback referred to as “Mississippi Comeback”. I like that; if Mississippi were to have a signature dish, it should be one that beckons her weary children home. As a Mississippian of any degree, knowing how to make a good comeback dressing should be as much a part of your repertoire as knowing how to pass a tractor towing a bat wing bush hog on a two-lane highway.
In 1981, Forrest L. Cooper and Donald F. Garrett published a selection of old postcards of Jackson from about 1902 until the mid-1950s, with more than 90% prior to 1920. The text was written by Carl McIntire, a self-professed “reporter, not a historian,” who nonetheless spent an enormous amount of time on the project, doing extensive research and interviewing more than 300 people. McIntire admitted to a margin of error, but states that “for the most part, all the dates and places are correct.” The book had a very limited printing and has hitherto never been republished. The link below will take you to a digital version of this exquisitely nuanced, intricately informative, and infinitely beautiful labor of love.
On July 15, 1975, Jackson was stunned by the brutal murder of a man whose cultural contributions to the community still reverberate in the city.
Frank Woodruff Hains, Jr. was born July 7, 1926 in Wood County, West Virginia. After graduating from Marietta College in Ohio and serving two years in the military, Hains began a radio career that took him to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he became active in both the Vicksburg Little Theater and the Jackson Little Theater. A few years later he moved to Jackson, beginning his twenty-year career with the Jackson Daily News as literary critic and champion of the arts. He remained active in the Jackson Little Theater and was one of the founders of New Stage Theater in 1966.
In addition to his position at the Jackson Daily News, through his work as actor, director, and set designer for the local theaters as well as his contributions to the New York Times, Hains helped high schools and colleges in the area with their productions. In 1958 he received the National Pop Wagner Award for work with young people, and in 1970 the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television presented him with its Distinguished Public Service Award.
Hains was murdered in his home in Jackson. Two weeks later, this memorial written by his close friend Eudora Welty appeared in the combined Sunday Clarion-Ledger and Jackson Daily News (27 July 1975):
By Eudora Welty
For all his years with us, Frank Hains wrote on the arts with perception and clarity, with wit and force of mind. And that mind was first-rate — informed, uncommonly quick and sensitive, keenly responsive. But Frank did more than write well on the arts. He cared. And he worked, worked, worked for their furtherance in this city and state. He was a doer and a maker and a giver. Talented and versatile to a rare degree, he lived with the arts, in their thick.
So it was by his own nature as a man as well as in the whole intent of his work that he was a positive critic, and never a defeating one. The professional standards he set for art, and kept, himself, as a critic, were impeccable and even austere. At the same time he was the kindest, most chivalrous defender of the amateur. And it was not only the amateurs — it was not artists at all — who knew this well: his busy life, as he went about his work and its throng of attendant interests, was made up of thousands of unrecorded kindnesses.
I speak as one working in the arts — and only one, of a very great number indeed — who came to know at first hand, and well, what ever-present perception and insight, warmth of sympathy, and care for the true meaning, Frank in his own work brought to a work of theirs. The many things he has done in behalf of my own books I wouldn’t be able to even count; his dramatic productions of my stories are among the proudest and happiest events of my working life. He was a dear and admired friend for twenty years.
Frank gave many young talents their first hope, sometimes their first chance, and I am sure he never could have let any talent down. He didn’t let any of us down, but was our constant and benevolent and thoroughgoing supporter, a refresher of our spirits, a celebrator along with us of what we all alike, in the best ways we were able, were devoting our lives to.
What his work contributed — the great sum — had an authority of a kind all its own. I wonder if it might not have had a double source: his lifelong enchantment with the world of art, and an unusual gift for communicating his pleasure in it to the rest of us. Plus the blessed wish to do it.
Now that I’m safely in Virginia, I’ll give you the impressions of Jackson you wanted. I should say first that when I moved to the city eight months ago my life and experiences provided my only perspective, but nothing prepared me for Jackson, Mississippi. I’m still not sure if it’s because that is as far South as I’ve ever been (or want to be again, to be honest) or because Jackson itself is so sullen and isolated.
The city is frozen; those capable of formulating effective fixes for the neighborhoods of row upon row of abandoned/half-demolished houses simply ignore the problem. The economic riptide washing away businesses from the city are bound and gagged by their racial, familial, and petty political connections. Even compared to the rest of Mississippi, Jackson seems narrow-minded, racially divided, and culturally backwards. Jackson reminds me a once-thriving outpost of a decaying empire that has eroded, leaving an indifferent government, an inefficient bureaucracy, and castellated churches blind to suffering and deaf to prayers.
I found that there is literally a black side of the street and a white side of the street, and folks of both complexions will gawp at you if you are on the wrong sidewalk. A city councilman who patronizes three-star eateries demands that his constituency throw bricks at police cars from neighboring towns and counties when they pursue thieves and drug dealers into his ward. The waitress filling your cup at a coffee shop will complain about the racist environment permeating Jackson and in the next breath whisper some platitude concerning the unfitness of black people for civilized society.
Jackson is a nest of grasping, insular people huddled together for safety on the banks of a dirty river, and nothing is safe. Children are shot in their homes while sleeping, and thugs roam affluent neighborhoods. What should be a shining stage for vision and concord is instead a fetid wallow of greed and dissent. When change comes to Jackson, it will not come from within but from without, and from far away.
The Illinois Central’s Green Diamond by Howard Bahr
In the decades following the Great War, American culture shook itself out of the Nineteenth Century and woke to fresh ideas and new possibilities. Youth, having liberated Europe and ended war forever, had a voice for the first time in our history. Cynicism and joi de vivre found ways to cohabit, and under their common roof, Youth created a new way of living. Jazz was the soundtrack. Flappers in short skirts, long beads swinging, danced the Charleston, the Fox Trot, the Shimmy: girls smoked cigarettes and drank gin in public and were picked up from Mama’s house by sheiks in fast cars. The Imagists’ admonition–“Make it new!”–resonated everywhere.
Downtown, the staid dignity of the Chicago School gave way to soaring silver skyscrapers that transformed city skylines. In the suburbs, new houses traded a classical vocabulary for the sleek lines, portholes, and minimalist décor of the Moderne. Aluminum and glass replaced busy fretwork; cluttered, over-stuffed parlors vanished, and porches disappeared; tall Lombardy poplars, nature’s answer to Arts Decoratif, graced the landscaping. Even everyday objects like radios, toasters, pencil sharpeners, vases, clocks, mirrors, and telephones took on new forms in the up-to-date household. The automobile industry, ever alert to the public’s whims, abandoned the boxy bodies and spoked wheels inherited from horse-drawn carriages and began to experiment with streamlining, a movement that culminated in the startling 1936 Chrysler Airflow.
When that car and others like it appeared on showroom floors, they represented not only a revolution in style, but in movement as well. Newly-paved highways beckoned, and the motorcar, liberated from Sunday drives and trips to the park, was recast as a ship of dreams. The world was opened up in an unprecedented way: as Dinah Shore would sing in 1953, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet! America is asking you to call!” Travelers, once bound to the railroads, could now set their own schedules, carry as much baggage as they wanted (no charge!), and rest in the friendly motor hotels springing up in the wilderness.
American railroad companies looked on this newfound Freedom of the Road with misgivings. Railroads had bullied steamboats off the inland rivers, now, in their turn, they were threatened by the automobile. Passenger revenue was still high, but the Detroit competition was available, cheap, and attractive to the public. In 1882, when the railroads were at the height of their tyrannical power, Commodore Vanderbilt of the New York Central could proclaim, in an unguarded moment, “The public be damned!” Needless to say, by the mid-1930s, this sentiment was no longer viable.
To meet this challenge, railroad engineering and PR departments tapped into the Moderne craze and created the Streamliner: a first-class, air-conditioned train with sleek aluminum coaches, specially assigned engines, and a color scheme that ran from the locomotive pilot to the end of the observation car. Design luminaries like Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy brought steam locomotives into the realm of high art: when the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited (Dreyfuss) and the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited (Loewy) raced each other eastbound out of Chicago on parallel tracks, they represented a pinnacle of design unequaled for American industry.
Another innovation was the articulated “trainset,” the railroads’ first great experiment with diesel-electric power. Articulation meant that the power car” (that is, the locomotive) and all the coaches shared wheel trucks and were permanently coupled together, save when they went to the shops for maintenance. Trainsets were short–five or six cars in the consist–ran on tight schedules, and were well-appointed. The CB&Q fielded several silver, shovel-nosed Zephyrs. The UP and C&NW ran a joint City of Denver, the Santa Fe’s Chicagoan/Kansas moderne aesthetic.
The schedule of the Green Diamond was ideally suited for businessmen traveling between the great cities of St. Louis and Chicago, with a stop at Springfield, Illinois’ capitol. Northbound, the train departed St. Louis at 8:55 A.M. and arrived in Chicago five hours later. Southbound departure from Chicago was at the close of the business day, 5:00 P.M., with a St. Louis arrival at 9:55 P.M. Along the way, passengers enjoyed such amenities as air-conditioning, a radio in every car, and excellent dining (see Jesse Yancy’s article below). In addition, the train carried a stewardess trained in dictation, and a registered nurse for the hangovers and heart attacks common among Capitalists in the Great Depression years.
The Green Diamond must have been quite a sight as she glided through the cornfields on a summer’s day, or flashed her green against the snow of winter. People accustomed to a steam engine’s mournful whistle no doubt looked up when #121 blatted her air horn at grade crossings: perhaps they heard in it the sound of the Future, but probably not. Locomotives would always and evermore be driven by steam, just as the Great War had ended all wars, and drugstores would always sell Paregoric.
In the end, the very success of the Green Diamond led to her demise. The St. LouisSpringfield-Chicago schedule proved so popular that passenger traffic began to exceed the limited capacity of the trainset, which could not accommodate the addition of extra cars during a surge of ridership. In 1947, eleven years after her glorious debut, IC #121 and her articulated companions were replaced by conventional, more practical diesel locomotives and coaches. The train’s name and schedule remained, but the moderne novelty was gone forever from the Land of Lincoln.
The final chapter of the trainset’s story began at the Illinois Central’s Paducah shops, where she was given an overhaul. When she emerged, she was freshly-painted in the same two-tone green, but the Green Diamond banner had been erased from her sides. Train crews, doubtless Bemused by the assignment, took her across the various divisions to Cairo, Memphis, and at last to her new home of Jackson, Mississippi. Why she was sent there instead of somewhere else is lost to history, but for the next three years–until she was sold for scrap–she traveled the Louisiana Division between Jackson and New Orleans. Now called the Miss-Lou, her timecard schedule was almost identical to that of the Green Diamond, and she once again provided the reliable, courteous service for which the Main Line of Mid-America was famous. The Miss-Lou moniker derived, of course, from the states through which she traveled, but, as Yancy explains below, it was by another name that she entered the folklore of the Deep South.
We are given some things in life–the Iris, for example, or a young girl’s face–that seem the more beautiful because we know their flowering will not last. We treasure less, perhaps, those things we foolishly believe will last forever. So it was with the great passenger trains that once flowed majestically across the Republic: colorful carriers of Dream and Promise in a time when pride was still part of the national character and anything was possible. They are vanished now, every one scattered across the trash-heaps of memory, and few remain who remember them at all. They will not come again; that they once passed among us is testimony to what we had, and to what we can never have again.
Dining on the Green Diamond
by Jesse Yancy
In 1867, George Pullman introduced his first railroad “hotel car,” the President, a converted sleeper equipped with limited dining facilities. In 1868, Pullman built his next all-dining car, which he named the Delmonico after the famous New York restaurant. The Delmonico was placed in service on the Chicago & Alton Railroad between Chicago and Springfield, Ill. Meals were the lofty price of one dollar.
The 1940s and 1950s were the golden age of train travel and the pinnacle of railroad dining car operations. For many passengers, the ambiance of the dining car was the reason they rode the train. The Panama Limited maintained a high level of service until the Amtrak era. It was noted for its first-rate culinary staff and Creole fare in the Vieux Carre-themed dining cars, a service which the Illinois Central marketed heavily. A well-known multi-course meal on the Panama Limited was the Kings Dinner, for about $10; other deluxe, complete meals such as steak or lobster, including wine or cocktail, were priced around $4 to $5. The menu the Super Chief, called the “Train for the Stars” because it was the choice transportation from the East Coast and Chicago to Hollywood, rivaled that served in many five-star restaurants. A “Wake-Up Cup” of coffee was brought to one’s private bedroom each morning, on request, a service exclusive to the Super Chief. The elaborate dinner offerings generally included caviar and other delicacies, cold salads, grilled and sauteéd fish, sirloin steaks and filet mignon, lamb chops, and the like. For discerning palates, elegant champagne dinners were an option.
In that golden age of the itinerant epicure, the Illinois Central touted their schedules with its most famous advertisement stating, “Enjoy the fastest service ever offered and the supreme luxury of America’s smoothest riding train. Air-conditioned…radio in every car… Stewardess… Delicious inexpensive meals as low as: breakfast 25 cents, lunch 35 cents, and dinner 40 cents.” The ICRR original Green Diamond dining service carried on the railroad’s tradition of fine dining, with every element of complete passenger train service contained in four cars with 200 square feet. With dining seating for only 24, it would take 5 seatings to serve all 120 passengers in the dining space, and that had to be done in the five hour and 10-minute trip. Six serving tray stands were provided in each chair car for use in serving meals at the seats of the patrons, and this helped case the process.
The 22-square feet kitchen was provided with an oil burning range, broiler, warming ovens, urn and steam table. Polished stainless steel was used for the table tops, sinks, chipped ice wells, facings of refrigerators, range, work tables and lower lockers. The interior linings of cold boxes, refrigerator compartments, racks, etc. were also of stainless steel. Dry ice refrigeration, automatically controlled, was used in the large refrigerator, cold boxes, and ice cream cabinet. The kitchen was provided with a serving bay open on three sided to facilitate serving meals. Ornamental panels of inlaid Formica closed off these openings when the kitchen is not in use. An annunciator for waiter service was provided with push buttons conveniently located in the diner-observation car and at the dining section in the chair car.
The Green Diamond’s menu offered an impressive variety for what amounted to a glorified commuter train. Both the a la carte menu and the table d’hote included broiled codfish with anchovy sauce, lamb chops with spiced crabapple, pork tenderloin with yams, chicken a la king, and New Orleans-style pan-fried oysters served with succotash, French-fried potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. Lettuce and fruit salads, cold and hot soups, and freshly baked pie rounded out the menu. The bar offered cocktails, beers, and wines, mixed drinks, sodas (Seven Up and Coca Cola), and a selection of assorted cigars (5, 10, and 15 cents).
When the Green Diamond began her final runs as the Miss-Lou (MISSissippi-LOUisiana) between Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, she left Jackson at 6:20 AM, arriving in New Orleans at 10:20 AM; the return journey left at 6:20 PM and arrived in Jackson at 10:20 PM. This articulated version of the original trainset probably offered little more to eat than cold sandwiches and sodas. Along rails running among the small farms and homesteads of south Mississippi, the farmers along its route noted the green train’s resemblance to an unwelcome denizen of their vegetable gardens, and before long became affectionately known the Tomato Worm. The train was finally retired on August 8, 1950, and sold for scrap.
I call him Sir Yancy; he comes back, in a lighthearted reference to his North Mississippi upbringing, with “Earl of Calhoun, Knight of the Linoleum Table.” But we both agree, for how he has transformed an empty urban abandonment into a both beloved and maligned oasis, that Jesse Lee Yancy III is Guerilla Gardener Extraordinaire.
In 2007, Jesse started a corner flower and vegetable garden, cautiously low-key, on neglected property near his small apartment building. On land that he didn’t own. It’s called guerilla gardening – gardening on someone else’s property. Nothing can stop the owners of the space from taking a mower to it, any time. But for years, nothing had been done in the weedy, 5- or 6-foot wide space baking between the street curb and an unused, shaded parking lot. With a “better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” shrug, he stood up a chipped old birdbath and dug a few flowers, vegetables, and culinary herbs into the hard clay.
We crossed paths soon afterwards, following several of his somewhat pointed emails about my thoughts on the legality of what he was doing (including planting cotton other than on a real farm, forbidden by state law).
Turns out, Jesse, whose conversational face belies a fierce advocacy spirit (social issues, saving trees at a local park), is not your run-of-the-mill dabbler. He puts physical, mental, and spiritual effort into his insecure garden, just as he brings his university literature background to virtual pen in his prolific blog about…well, everything Southern, including beloved writers, classic Southern cuisine, heirloom plants, social relations, and local history and lore. What he quickly developed became as good an example of garden gallimaufry as you will find, a mulched horticopia of Southern heirloom plants and cast-off broken objets trouvé.
From the street, as with most maverick gardens, it appears a chaotic tumble of flowers, vegetables, herbs, and tropical plants, patches of seedlings tucked between withered wildflowers whose seed are drying for next year, vine-covered arches and trellises, assorted containers including inverted tires, unkempt piles of soil, compost, and mulch, and rough little walkways winding through it all. However, after just a short chat with its creator, its long-view sensibilities are revealed.
“My little corner of the world is, as one person put it, a ‘garden of the moment’ as if there were such a thing. And while I’ve learned a lot from other gardeners, most of the best lessons I’ve discovered the hard way, by screwing up and having to correct them.”
“I started the garden after the death of my last remaining sibling left me at loose s, as a form of therapy more than anything. Over time it has helped me regain focus – gardening is a patient art, and it makes you slow down and look at things. It also helps you learn how to care, to think outside yourself. The garden grew slowly, and it’s probably better that I don’t have a truck or equipment because that has taught me to use what I can find: fallen leaves, sticks, pieces of broken concrete, discarded lumber and wire. I work with what the world provides.”
When it came to choices of where to grow plants, Jesse had three choices: Containers, dense Yazoo clay, or raised beds atop hard concrete paving.
His pots are filled with whatever potting soil he can get help hauling. The hard clay is hand-dug as deep as practical, the hard clods broken up and mixed with leaves, bark, and compost, with each digging and planting getting easier. Atop the concrete of the parking lot, he shaped beds with logs and tree limbs, and filled in with more limbs, branches, leaves, and whatever else he could glean, topped with compost. It’s an ancient practice called hügelkultur – mound culture, which is ideal for difficult or dry sites; as these materials break down in his moist, humid climate they become decent soil. Takes time but works like a cheap charm.
As he puts it, “It’s a lot like cooking, starting with the most basic potato and gravy ingredients and building on that. I’m not a GREAT cook; worked as a journeyman chef for 14 years but I’m not one of these geniuses you read about being in the foodie press. I do, however, know what will work and won’t work in most any given situation. Same with my garden, unsophisticated with its pell-mell plants of anything hither and thither that will grow. Having said that, I am proud of its success in having even become a garden in the first place. And though my resources are quite limited, I’m very proud of my little pied a terre.”
From midwinter antique daffodils to late Autumn asters, Jesse grows an astounding menagerie of unusual plants, both tall and short. Black castor bean and brown cotton lock in a season-long pas de deux amidst the swirling ballroom of burgundy okra, bright red roselle, edible greens – mustards, turnips, Brussels sprouts, kale and collards, and colorful lettuces – and all-season wildflowers. He also provides a safe refuge for faded poinsettias, Easter lilies, and other cast-off holiday plants, often creating seasonal hedges with them. It’s partly possible because, tiny as the garden is, Jesse knows exactly where the sunny areas stay moist longer than others, how much shade is acceptable for sun plants and how much sun shade plants can tolerate.
“I’ve discovered to start big annuals like cosmos, peppers, and sunflowers in small containers and transplant rather than scatter-sowing and thinning. It gives the spring flowers time to bloom out and give up some room. And when the cold comes I cover cardoon and fledgling hollyhocks, since they’re in the path of the rolling frost that flows down Peachtree street and leaps over the hill into my garden. I’ve come to the belated conclusion there THERE’S NO HURRY. I mean, good grief, we have 9 month growing season here, and I’ve finally stocked the space with enough pretty perennials (however run-of-the-mill they might be) not to have to worry about getting the annuals in when the daffodils bloom. It’s a constant struggle, finding room for everything and making room for new. Not to put too fine a point on it, anything that’s in my bed for six months and doesn’t put out simply has to go!”
The plants in Jesse’s garden are curious phenomenon in the bigger picture as well. It’s an informal corner-of-the-world test plot for what the international Slow Food Foundation calls the Ark of Taste which collects and celebrates the sometimes-obscure food plants that help define cultures. Southerners, think “moon and Stars” watermelon and its pickles, white-fleshed Nancy Hall sweet potato, and white velvet okra. Jesse showcases and shares some of these prized culinary rarities as a way of helping stem the ebbing away of the extraordinary traditions of which they are part.
To highlight just one, there’s his unknown garlic he calls Pocahontas. “When a friend from Pocahontas dropped off his garlic for my garden all these many years ago, he piled the dried knobby stems in a haybale near the parking lot wall, and ever since then I’ve had Pocahontas garlic coming up there. In the late winter the leaves, all lovely to behold, nod like old men in a spring sun. It’s a tough plant, always late no matter where you plant it (at least it is for me) but keeps going and is prolific.”
“My corner garden is very much a passalong garden, not only because I don’t have a lot of money but also because the garden was designed from the beginning to be a “mother ship” for neighboring gardens. People can pass by and browse, and they share plants and seeds. Most times this simple act of sharing is the beginning of a friendship, and more often than not the friendships last longer than the plants.”
Jesse shares much of his largesse with neighbors, helping newbies get started, and donating extra plants to local plant sales. But in a determined nod to keeping on the good side of everyone, he takes it a step farther. Jesse’s community has informal libraries – colorful weatherproof stands where neighbors freely drop off and borrow books from one another. But for years Jesse has pioneered the “little corner herbary” concept in which he carefully places culinary herbs where neighbors can snip a little rosemary, oregano, or whatever they need.
“Height and color are primary visual objectives when it comes to street traffic, but scents, and something good to eat, can quickly pull pedestrians in and get hooked. Especially children.”
“It’s not entirely altruistic, just to keep these plants and practices alive with new people; if I don’t make the corner a neighborhood resource then there’s every chance of losing it to someone’s vapid idea of a ‘neighborhood improvement’ project. The more people touch and eat from my garden, the more learn to love it.”
“I come from a small town in north Mississippi where people are habitually friendly and cordial. But here in the city, people walking their dogs or strolling their kids don’t greet me while I’m puttering in the garden. A few passersby will stop and chat a bit, but many just nod or wave, maybe tarry a bit to watch me digging, weeding or pruning, without saying a damn thing, just stand there and stare at me. Some discuss what I’m doing between themselves as if I were some sort of deaf automaton. I find this very strange; am I crazy?”
“Also, a lot of earnest folks who come by give advice, want to micro-manage the garden for me, and I’m grateful for sure. Luckily it’s easy for me to feign that I had no idea that “four-o’-clocks or goldenrod can get away from you in a heartbeat.” I have to smile and agree, then go on with what I was doing. They also give me art to put in place, gnomes and pretty rocks and old trellises and all sorts of sundry things. I’ve had to find a place for everything, because they’re going to come looking for whatever they gave you one day.”
“Roger Swain, the Boston native and host of the Victory Garden, once said, ‘Mississippi IS a garden.’ And he was right. The problem is, it’s not being cared for. I simply found a piece and started caring for it. It wasn’t my piece of Mississippi, but that’s what guerilla gardening is all about: Gardening on someone else’s property. If the city ever decides to rework the neighborhood street, my garden might be paved. It’s been fun, but sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of the world). Meanwhile, things grow apace. You know of my vast plans, conquering what I can one foot at a time. It’s been a lot of effort; my old body is displaying aches unknown for many years, but frankly I feel the better for it, as evidence of physical competency if nothing else.”
“I’m determined to let things run their course, grow and flourish as they will and should, and I’ve already concocted new projects that will make the most use of it.”
(from the book, Maverick Gardeners, by Felder Rushing (UPressMS: March 2021)
“South Jackson as a place begins at 2155 Terry Road, the address of the city’s oldest home. It is the last remaining plantation house in the area. Today, an anomaly, a handsome Greek revival structure with Doric columns standing near Interstate 20’s cloverleaf, commercial enterprises and the decay of the Highway 80 Corridor.”
So begins One Direction Home: A History of South Jackson, by Dr. Vincent Venturini and former city commissioner Doug Shanks. Shanks recounts that the work began with a question: Were his fond memories of growing up in south Jackson just nostalgia, or was south Jackson truly a special place? The answer is, of course, yes and yes. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, particularly that of the sort leading to such a wonderful work as this. At once scholarly and informal, poignant and piercing, One Direction Home entertains and informs on many levels.
U.S. Highway 51 splits in Jackson, ending on South State Street to the east, and starting again on Terry Road some two miles to the west. When Terry Road emerges from the cloverleaf south of Highway 81, atop a broad ridge sits the Carmelite monastery housed in the aforementioned Greek revival home formerly owned by the Myrant family. The Myrant/Lester home is a focus for an early history of south Jackson, which is integral to that of the city and of Hinds County. Terry Road (Hwy. 51) provides an axis for the geography of the area, which Venturini describes as, “somewhat porous, but we largely see south Jackson as beginning at Highway 80 and extending south to Lake Catherine and west to Mississippi Highway 18. The eastern boundary is the Pearl River. We are also including Provine High School from its beginning until 1968. Although Wingfield High School opened in 1966 for students in the city’s southern section, those already enrolled in Provine were allowed to finish there. As pointed out in Doug’s Preface, Shoney’s is included as a south Jackson institution given the role it played in the lives of our contemporaries.”
And the time? While an early history is presented, Shanks claims, “What follows in the coming pages is a largely nostalgic visit to south Jackson as it existed between 1945 and 1975.” All Jacksonians will recall landmarks such as the Alamo Plaza, the “Chuc-Wagun”, the Frost Top, the Green Derby, Leavell Woods Park, Cook Center, Mart 51 and the Zodiac. They will also recall, among the many prominent south Jacksonians mentioned, Farmer Jim Neal of WSLI, Woodie Assaf of WLBT, “Skipper” Dick Miller of WJTV, Andrew Mattiache, and Walter Bivins. The neighborhoods, the churches, the schools, the streets, parks, and other elements that compose a city are part of this wonderful weave. The book has scores of wonderful photographs, and has a reassuringly extensive and detailed bibliography with notes.
One thing, though; Shanks and Venturini spend an inordinate time mentioning the proletarian reputation of south Jackson. This apologia is distracting, superfluous, and, most importantly, unnecessary. Let’s bear in mind that this is not Natchez, nor Vicksburg, but Jackson, Mississippi, a city no less a cosmopolitan than Audubon described in 1823 as “a mean place.” Sure, you’ll find people who will tell you one Jackson neighborhood is “better” than another, but many an outsider has found the entire city déclassé if not to say destitute. While no doubt many former and current south Jacksonians will find flaws and omissions (that assuredly only they could detect) all Jacksonians, even those (such as I) who aren’t natives, can celebrate this loving biography of a time, a place, a people, a portal in time to a backyard barbecue, a high school football game, or a corner soda fountain.
The project here at long last is over, and I should be coming home for good, back to the mountains, to the house you love, to the deep old woods I love, and to holding you, forever.
When I get home, I know you will ask me of this place, what it is like, what its people are like, how it looks, how they live, what makes the city what it is, but once home I do not want to think of it, not because I hate it, but because I want to clear my mind of it, so I’m writing you this letter to explain Jackson to you before you ask me about it one night when we’re settled on the front porch with a bottle of wine watching the stars wheel over Balsam Gap.
It’s been three months since I got here–I will never forget the heat hitting like a fist when I stepped out of the car onto the parking lot behind the hotel! This leads me to ask: how long does one have to be in a place to know it? My answer would be that it is not so much a matter of time as it is of engagement, not just of being but of living, of going out into the city and seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, tasting it, developing a feel for it. Surveying the streets has taken me all over the city, north, south, east and west, at all times of the day and often into the nights. Yet most of the work has been downtown, the strangest part of the city, yet its most characteristic.
Jackson doesn’t feel old, it doesn’t look old; there are no beautiful buildings save a few Modernist towers, none of the stately homes one would expect to find in a Southern city built before the Civil War, just blocks upon blocks of decaying buildings. The face of its main street, Capitol, is punctuated by vacant shops and offices with empty or shattered windows like broken teeth. Even the recent and prolonged transformation of Capitol Street itself into a two-lane thoroughfare with roundabouts and narrow verges cannot disguise the squalor. The city lacks grandeur, even faded grandeur, in any degree.
Poverty is one of two characteristics that shape Jackson; the other, closely intertwined, is racial tension, a volatile combination that composes more in discord than harmony the social, economic and political nature of the city. Time stands still here; though a great show of progress is made in the local media, there is no progress. The city weekly, which proclaims to be a smart alternative to the moribund daily, constantly aggravates the cauldron, and the political landscape is dominated by self-serving personalities motivated by a desire to stay in office. These people funnel federal funding to redevelopment projects designed not to improve the city, but to affect their political ends. No cohesive vision exists because Jackson is not a city, only a fractured collection of people in a place that has lost all sense of itself, a shattered glass best melted and recast.
I can see you smiling as you read this, thinking, “You fool, it’s Mississippi; what did you expect?” Well, darling, I did expect more. I told you that before I came here. I expected to find people working together, a marketplace of ideas, a common goal. Tell me that’s why you love me, because I am a dreamer, even though every night here I dreamed only of you in that old house on the mountainside under a starry sky.
Edith Downing’s kindergarten was at 901 Poplar Boulevard, on the corner with North Jefferson Street.
Mrs. Downing’s husband, James Downing, was an executive with the Mississippi State Banking Department. A native of Lima, Ohio, Mrs. Downing attended the public schools there, Lutheran College, and graduated from Ohio Northern University. Later she took special musical instruction in Aberystwith, Wales, and in London. She was in charge of the music department of the Mississippi Institute, French Camp when she met and married James Young Downing. The couple moved to Jackson in 1912.
The Downings moved to 901 Poplar in the very early Fifties, and opened the kindergarten in 1951 or ’52. She and two other teachers, Catherine Lefoldt and Martha Taylor, held classes in a long, low building on the south side of the lot with a playground in between. The school building was a little shotgun with an “L” at the end with a one-way mirror where parents could watch their children at play.
As in all schools, everyone loved recess and the big green wooden jungle gym in the middle of the playground was a focal point for games. The May Day celebration featured a May Pole dance. The girls wore pressed, and probably starched, dresses every day. Students were often given worksheets, and stars were given for correct results. There were many “hands on” games where the children would begin an activity then move on to others in a planned order to stimulate their learning. A child’s birthday was celebrated with a party and he or she was told to throw pennies in a bucket to tell how old they were. Sometimes Mrs. Downing would split the double popsicles she served for sharing. Students also took turns churning cream in a wooden butter churn.
The kindergarten was warm and welcoming place, the teachers kind and attentive, and many of its far-flung graduates have remained close friends throughout the past 60 plus years.
Class of 1956-57: Bob Biggs, Graham Blue, Bill Brockman, Eddy Butler, Rick Carter, David Chapple, Laura Neal Dear, David Denny, Miriam Dickson, Kay Eisenstatt, Bruce Evans, Frank Ezelle, Karen Ezelle, Patty Farlee, Betsy Finger, Betsy Gordin, Lee Gotthelf, Gary Grant, Susan Haynes, Sarah Hendrix, Janice Hines, Bill Hollingsworth, Pam Howie, Jane Hutto, Sandra Jackson, Bob Lawrence, Harry Kirshman, Dudley Marble, Linde Mitchell, Joe Morris, Alan Orkin, Marianne Painter, George Reynolds, Roseanne Solomon, Ethel Louise Seay, Sally Sherman, Rusty Shields, Ely Siegal, Sue Stevens, John Studdard, Lynn Thomason, Tommy Underwood, Kathryn Weir, Willie Wiener, Robert Whitfield, Lina Yates, Yandell Wideman
(Contributors to this article include Bill and Nan Harvey, Cecile Walsh Wardlaw, Tish Hughes, Sally Brown, Patsy Shappley, Susan McRae Shanor, Michelle Hudson, Karen Ezelle Redhead, Susan Shands Jones, July Lane Douglass and Cindy Callender Fox, Annie Laurie McRee, Dr. Richard Pharr, Bill and Martha Mitchell Brockman.)
During the heyday of Prohibition, the speakeasy districts of New York and Chicago became dazzling gathering places, filled with music, dance and drink (and 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, it was the Gold Coast.
When the National Prohibition Act passed in 1919, Will Rogers said, “Mississippians will vote for Prohibition as long as they can stagger to the polls, “which if you ask me takes a lot of balls for an Okie. Mississippi made liquor illegal in 1907, and even though the state eventually put a “black market tax” in place on illegal liquor (the potential for revenue simply could not be ignored) Mississippi did not officially repeal the ban on alcoholic beverages until 1966.
Also known as East Jackson or even “’cross the river”, the Gold Coast was in and around that area of Rankin County directly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the end of South Jefferson Street. Even though it covered barely two square miles, it was infamous. 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 corsses 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 the dice were rolling, and the governor, too. 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 the South 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” to the Gold Coast from Farish and Hamilton Streets).
By 1946, Rankin county was paying the highest black market tax in the state, but these “golden years” of the Gold Coast came to a crashing end one hot day in August of 1946, when Seaney and Constable Norris Overby met each other at place called the Shady Rest and gunned each other down. Others had been killed, of course—more often than not, a big-ass catfish turned out to be a body—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 area became dominated by a colorful character named G.W. “Big Red” Hydrick, who brought the Gold Coast as securely under his suzerainty as any corrupt satrap might. Red’s reign ended with urban sprawl and development.
Beale Street is back, sort of, and the French Quarter will (thank God) always be the French Quarter, but the Gold Coast is gone, lost in a maze of gravel, mud, and asphalt.