The Little Store Gets Fancy: A Memoir of Jitney 14

Many thanks to neighbor Susan McNease for passing along this October 2, 1988 article from The Clarion-Ledger by Leslie Myers about the extensive remodeling of the old Jitney 14. Given the recent changes to the store, it makes for a timely read, and many neighbors past and present are mentioned. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I have.

The Little Store Gets Fancy: But loyal Jitney 14 customers hope the neighborhood personality remains cozy

Jitney-Jungle 14 has recovered from its face lift and the surrounding Belhaven neighborhood is abuzz with the news. For reasons nobody can quite explain, Jitney’s store No. 14 has never been a typical grocery store. Since its 1929 opening at Fortification and Jefferson Streets, it has been a friendly meeting place, a lifeline for its loyal customers. Regulars say they keep in touch with their neighbors there, renew old acquaintances and even get an emotional lift from a Jitney trip. The dress code is: come as you are. For some, that means pajamas. It’s homey. Shoppers plan to keep it that way.

“I’ve always loved the Jitney,” said writer Eudora Welty. Welty, who grew up to become the store’s most famous customer, said its magic began on Day 1—as Jackson’s first self-service grocery store.

“I’ve been shopping there since it opened,” Welty, 79, said. “Then it was like a maze. That was part of the charm—that was the jungle part, turning corners all the time. Then they had bottled milk with cream on top in the refrigerator box—not homogenized. Real milk. You bought the one with the highest cream on top.”

Throngs of such loyal customers, along with past and present employees, will gather Monday morning at 8 to celebrate Jitney 14’s “Grand Reopening” (although it never has closed). Jackson Mayor Dale Danks will cut a ceremonial ribbon. This year-long renovation is the store’s first face lift since 1941. It includes a 10,000-square-foot expansion. Many culinary delights and services have also been added to its former meat-and-potatoes fare. Now there’s a fresh seafood counter with live lobsters instead of a freezer with fish sticks. Anchovy paste and fancy pasta? No problem.

For many customers, the change is a source of both joy and angst. Shoppers have been anxious for the store to stock some non-traditional foods . . . but they wonder if it really was necessary to level out the crooked floors and paint the walls.

“Professionally I’ve been going to the Jitney for 22 or 23 years,” said Cleta Ellington, a school teacher. “However, my grandmother used to shop there, so I would go with her, which puts it up to about 40 years. What I liked about the old Jitney was it was not all slicked up. That’s one of the dangers of the Jitney 14 getting all slicked up—its personality. It’s like when you have a friend that’s gray-headed and kind of fat and she loses weight and dyes her hair. You’re not sure you know her anymore.”

“I’m not sure about this new place,” Ellington, 44, said, the reconsidered. “Well, there is a man there who will decorate a cake for you on the spot if you’re desperate. It’s the new Jitney 14 that has this instant cake decorator. That’s a plus.”

Jackson City Councilman (sic) Margaret Barrett, a Jitney 14 shopper since childhood, said she already misses the sagging floors.

“Now, when you let go of your buggy, it doesn’t roll down three aisles,” Barrett, 43, said. “Before, down by the ice cream case, if you ever let go of your buggy it would never stop rolling—just like in the parking lot.

“When you go to the Jitney, you find out what’s happening with your friends,” Barrett said. It’s the community meeting place. If you’re ever feeling out of touch, you only need to go for one shopping trip.”

She is pleased that the Old English style and décor of the original store has been retained. “I know it was a decision that Jitney-Jungle made, to try to preserve the English village style,” she said. “I know that was costly for them. But I think that’s very much appreciated by people in the neighborhood. The Jitney has been a good neighbor.”

“It’s just real personal,” said florist Susan Milan, a 13-year customer. “Frankly I like all the people who work there, the bag boys and all the people at the checkout. You can go in and, if you need time and the lines are real long, you can tell them, ‘I’ll bring the money tomorrow.’ They trust their clientele, when they finally know you real well.”

But she worries about the ritzy signs on the new shelves. “When CANNED SOUP is written in Old English, it makes me nervous,” she said. “Maybe it’s getting too fancy. But well, now it’s cleaner.”

At least two other sleepers are wiping the sleep from their eyes.

Pat Cothren, a florist, and Patti Carr Black, Mississippi State Historical Museum director, have gone to the Jitney in their pajamas. Both have had Jitney as a “second home” for 20 years.

“One morning,” Cothren, 41 recalled, “I had nothing for breakfast to feed my family. So I ran to the Jitney in a night shirt. The Jitney is the Jitney,” she said, defending her attire. “It didn’t bother me, so I figured it wouldn’t bother them . . . it was a pretty decent night shirt. But I don’t know if I’d do it now, now that the Jitney is so fancy.”

Black emphasized with Cothren’s rush-hour plight. “I have been to Jitney a few times in my nightgown, with a long coat over it, early in the mornings,” Black, 54, said. “that was the way we used to go to breakfast at the ‘W,’” said the Mississippi University for Women alumna.

“The Jitney’s plurality is what makes it nice,” Ellington said. “There’s just all kinds of people in there. It cuts along class (and fashion) lines.”

Barrett said, “The employees also are people you know very well by first name. You’re very interested in their lives, and they’re very interested in yours.”

Two favorite employees mentioned repeatedly by Jitney 14 fans were store manager Sam Holley and veteran cashier Johanna Wade. Wade said she will never forget some of the customers.

“Three or four years ago, I was going to Holland to see my parents,” Wade, 53, recalled. “Margaret Barret, Karen Gilfoy, Cleta Ellington, Penny Hutcherson, Sis Hicks, Pat Cothren, Susan Milam and some others came up in here one afternoon. They gave me an envelope with all this money in it—almost $400—and said, “Go to Holland, spent it and have a good time.’”

“Karen (a judge) had some kind of declaration make up saying I could come back into the country as a joke. I had no idea they would do that,” Wade said. “I was shocked. It was so sweet, what they’d done. It’s just something we’ve got here in this store,” she said. “We’re close. It’s always been that way here.” Holley said the real magic of Jitney 14 mystified him, too.

Ellington said that the Jitney feeling probably is best described by Charlotte Capers, a seasoned shopper who likes to say, “I belong to the Episcopal Church and the Jitney 14.”

 

An Afternoon with Stan and Joan

In March, 2017, Joan Didion published the notes of her jaunt forty-eight years ago through Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in a slender book, South and West (Knopf). We’ll take a much more in-depth look at the book in a later entry, but first let’s focus on the passage in which Didion meets with the legendary “Voice of the Rebels” Stan Torgerson, in Torgerson’s home town of Meridian, Mississippi.

Bear in mind as you read that the month is June, the year is 1970. Nixon is in the White House for his first term. The nation as a whole is in a somewhat less turbulent mode after the riotous Sixties, but no section is more complacent than the South, where the key word had become progress. This passage is in essence an examination of the ongoing homogenization of the South as seem through the eyes of a transplant from the upper Midwest (Torgerson) and told to a visitor from California. At times Torgerson sounds like a one-man chamber of commerce espousing racial harmony, social equality and industrialization. When Stan says, “We’re not as inbred as we used to be” he’s referring not (necessarily) to genetics but instead to the influx of people and ideas from outside the South; when he says “we don’t wear crinolines any more” he’s telling Didion that Old South is gone. But though he says, “If there were elm trees hanging over the street it would be very midwestern,” as they drive through residential Meridian, the issues of race and poverty he discusses are those of the South.

This section from Didion’s work appears here in its entirety not only for the more compelling reason that it needs to be read in toto to grasp its exhaustive effect on Didion and to understand more fully Didion’s comments in context—particularly the last line—but also on a somewhat sentimental level because those many of you–as I do–remain familiar with Torgerson’s voice from his 17 years on air with Ole Miss sports might recollect his voice in the cadences of the quoted passages.

 

When I called Stan Torgerson for lunch at his radio station, WQIC, and asked him the best place to lunch, he said Weidmann’s, “but it wouldn’t win any Holiday Magazine awards.” In fact it had, and was not a bad restaurant, but everyone in Mississippi begins on the defensive. “I’ll be the biggest man in a green shirt to come through the door,” he advised me. He was, at lunch, wary at first. He said he didn’t think I knew what I was doing. I agreed. He refused drink, saying he wasn’t in New York City. Stan Torgerson came out of the cold North (Minnesota, I think) and headed to Memphis, where he went into broadcasting. He worked in Miami, and then, for a year, in San Diego, living in La Jolla. He felt ill at ease in La Jolla—his neighbors kept to themselves, had their own interests—and he wanted to get back south. His son had won a football scholarship to Ole Miss. He was worried about his children and drugs in California. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I just haven’t reached the point where I think pot is a way of life.”

When the black radio station in Meridian came up for sale he bought it. He also broadcasts the Ole Miss games, something he began doing when he was in Memphis. “That’s right,” he said, “I own the ethnic station, WQIC. In its thirteenth year of serving the black community here.” He programs gospel and soul, and reaches 180,000 in several Mississippi and Alabama counties, the thirty-second largest black market in the country, sixty miles in all directions and forty-three percent of that area is black. We serve a major black market, program soul music and gospel music, but what does that mean? A month ago in Billboard there was a survey pointing out that the Top 40-format stations are playing basically soul. Jackson 5 with ‘ABC.’ ‘Turn Back the Hands of Time,’ that’s Top 40 but it’s soul. Once in a while we throw in some blue-eyed soul, like Dusty Springfield with ’Son of a Preacher Man.’ We don’t play rock because our people don’t dig it. We don’t play your underground groups like the Jefferson Airplane . .. We have goodly reason to believe that ten to fifteen percent of our audience is white; some of the phone calls we get in the afternoon for dedications, they’re definitely white voices. We get thirty-six percent of the audience.”

He said I was probably wondering why he came back to Mississippi. “I came because I dearly love this state. I have a son—he’ll be a senior this fall—playing football at the University of Mississippi.”

He pointed out that Meridian was timber country, hill country. Pulpwood is the backbone of the agricultural product. He pointed out how progressive Meridian was: its three new hospitals. “In most southern cities there is a much stronger tendency to old-line money . . . Southern retailers stayed in business privately, home-owned, until very recently. In most cases the retailer has just begun to feel the competition from the chains. There’s the greatest business opportunity in the country right here in the South . . . We don’t have a McDonald’s in a city of almost fifty thousand people, don’t have any of these franchises here yet. You give one corner of one intersection in Jackson, Mississippi, or you give me the whole ball of wax right here in Meridian, I’d take the whole ball of wax and I’d put a McDonald’s on one corner, a Burger Chef on the other, a Shoney’s Po’ Boy (sic! jly) ‘cross the street . . . “

His voice kept on, weaving ever higher flights of economic possibility. “There is and must be,” he said, a “continued turning to the South by industry. The climate is certainly one reason. Another is that the South wants industry and is willing to give a tax advantage to get it. Another, of course, is that there is a relatively low level of unionism in the South. Lockheed assembles tail sections here and ships them to California for assembly . . .

“Atlanta is the magic city for the young around here, across the whole social spectrum . . . The great migration out in the past ten years has been black, they get these glowing letters, and of course they’ve got relatively liberal welfare programs in some of the northern states . . . No doubt, too, there appears to be greater opportunity in the North.”

More on the progressive nature of Meridian: “Our radio station has probably got as fine a list of blue-chip clients as any in town, black or not. We’ve got all four banks, and anyone in retailing who’s interested in doing business with the black—the black’s dollar is very important. The minimum wage was probably the most important thing to happen along these lines, and then food stamps were a good dead, I would say they added millions of dollars to the economy.”

“We are in a transitional phase. There’s a tremendous push to education on the part of young blacks. The schools here are completely integrated. Of course, neither you not I can change the older black, the forty-year old, his life patterns are settled.”

“Ole Miss has its standards to keep up. As more and more blacks get an educational advantage, you’ll see blacks at Ole Miss. There’s a feeling among some black leaders that because these kids have not had advantages they should get some kind of educational break, but basically what has to happen is the standards have to stay up and the people come up to meet them.”

We were driving through town at night, and Stan Torgerson interrupted himself to point out the post office. “There’s the post office, the courthouse where the famous Philadelphia trials were held, the trials for the so-called Philadelphia deaths.”

“If there were elm trees hanging over the street it would be very midwestern,” Stan observed as we drove through the residential district. He pointed out his $29,500 house, a two-story frame, “twenty-eight hundred square feet, with magnolia, dogwood and pecan trees.” He pointed out Poplar Drive the “Park Avenue of Meridian, Mississippi, all the houses built by the old-line families.”

Fervently, he kept reverting to the wholesomeness of life in Meridian. His daughter, who would be a high school senior in the fall, had “her sports, her outdoor activities, her swimming. It’s a quiet, pacific type of living, which is one of the reasons I wanted to come back down here. The kids are taught to say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’ I know it’s very fashionable to poke fun at the South, but I’ll pit our slum area any day against the slum areas where the Cubans and Puerto Ricans live in Miami, Florida, and Miami’ll lose.”

Meridian is the largest city between Jackson and Birmingham, and there is a naval base there which means a great deal to the community. At apartment buildings largely inhabited by the navy there are cars with plates from all over the country.

Some random social observations from Stan Torgerson included: most of the local children go to college within the state, at Ole Miss or Mississippi (sic jly): the other country club, built with federal money, has a membership which includes “assistant managers of stores and some navy people’: most of the subdivisions in Meridian feature “custom houses.” Torgerson paused dramatically, to emphasize the versatility of the new blood in town: “A fabric store.”

I asked if some of the children did not leave, and he allowed that some did. “Nothing here for the kid with an engineering degree. And of course the girls go where they marry. Southern girls are notoriously husband hunting, but I guess that’s the same anywhere.” It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?

Torgerson was would up now, and I could not stop his peroration. “There’s been a great metamorphosis in recent years in the South, the Volkswagen dealership for example comparable in size to anything you’ll find anywhere.”

“The KKK which used to be a major factor in this community isn’t a factor anymore, both the membership and the influence have diminished, and I cannot think of any place where the black is denied entrance, with the possible exception of private clubs. We don’t have any antagonistic-type black leaders working against racial harmony. Since the advent of black pride, black power, there is a little tendency to be self-segregating. On our station, we have a program we call Adventures in Black History to point out the contributions black people have made—a black minister does it. I have blacks working in the WAIC Soul Shop, and there’s a black druggist here, a man eminently qualified, who is a local boy who went north and came back, received his training at the University of Illinois. We have a certain degree of black business, including this gas station here, which is owned by a black. The key is racial harmony, and education, and we’ll try to provide our people with both, ‘cause we’re gonna live together a long time. Every major retailer hires black clerks, Sears has a couple of black department heads, there’s a black business college here, and a black and white Careen Training Institute.

“Of course we have transplants, too, new ideas, like any other hybrid we’re generally stronger. We’re not nearly as inbred as we used to be. We’ve been withdrawn in this part of the South for many, many years, but we’ve become more aggressive, and as people come in they’ve helped us become more aggressive—we don’t wear crinolines anymore, no we don’t.”

“And about our politics, well, George Wallace got a lot of votes in Indiana, let’s face it. I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight, ‘cause I’m not. But things are changing. I had a man the other day, owns an appliance store, he never believed you could send a black repairman into somebody’s house. Now he can’t find a white … He asks me if I know a black man who makes a good appearance. That’s progress . . .”

Of course, there’s a tremendous lack of skilled blacks, and the problem is training and education. It’s no longer a matter of lack of opportunity, it’s a matter of lack of skills. We’re still two generations from full equality, but so are they in Chicago, in Detroit, and have you ever been in Harlem?”

Glazed by the two hours in which this man in the green shirt had laid Meridian out before us as an entrepreneur’s dream, a Shoney’s Po’ Boy (!) on every corner and progress everywhere, even at the country club, I dropped him off and drove through the still-deserted streets of the downtown. A few black women were on the streets and they carried umbrellas against the sun. It was almost five o’clock. In the middle of 22nd Avenue, the main street of Meridian, there was a man holding a shotgun. He had on a pink shirt and a golfing cap, and in one ear there was a hearing aid. He raised the shotgun and shot toward the roof of a building several times.

I stopped the car and watched him a while, then approached him. “What are you shooting at?” I asked.

Pi-eagins,” he said cheerfully.

In this one demented afternoon Mississippi lost much of its power to astonish me.

Torgerson photo courtesy of Ole Miss Sports

The Man That Painted Banner Red

It was in the spring of the year in the dear long ago. There had been a long dry spell and the farmers were well up with their work, but, complaining as to the weather quite a number were gathered in town. A dark heavy cloud was seen rising in the west and about noon a nice refreshing shower fell to bless and benefit these sons of toil.

In the afternoon the village of Banner was filled with happy farmers. The postmaster, Esq. Brower, and myself were sitting in the post office looking at the throng around Frank Brantley’s grocery. The dingy old gallon pot was sitting on a stump in front of the grocery, well filled with red liquor and surrounded by a happy crowd, all in a merry mood and still partaking rather freely.

All at once a young man stepped into the post office and asked if there was any mail for John Martin. He was rather small, with light hair and a few strangling red hairs on his upper lip and chin. Brower, after a careful look, told him there was no mail for John Martin. He said then, “I am a stranger here. This is the first time I was ever in Banner. I am Fighting John Martin from Butta Hatchie creek; I am a fighter from the east. I have often heard of Banner and I have come over to-day to clean her up and paint Banner red. I understand you have some fighters here and I would like to meet them. I tell you I am a fighter.”

He pulled from his ponderous pocket an old-style, iron-barrel pistol, with tube and hammer on the top and said, “You see this. I am going to have some fun this evening. The first man that bristles up to me, I’m going to down him.”

He walked nimbly across the muddy street to the stump and gallon pot, introduced himself to the crowd and took a drink of the liquor. A dispute between the Van Winkles and the Hardins soon resulted in a general fight. The men were all in their shirt sleeves and most of the young men and boys were barefooted. The men engaged in the fighting were old Carter Van Winkle who had a small lumber stick in his hand and he knocking the Hardins right and left, when he was modestly confronted by John Martin who asked, “Who are you and which side are you fighting? I am Fighting John Martin from Butta Hatchie. Did you ever see me turn loose in Banner? If not, look out!”

He thrust his old pistol into Van Winkle’s face and pulled the trigger, but the pistol snapped and Van Winkle struck him over the head with his stick and brought him to his knees. Martin galloped across the muddy street on his all-fours with Van Winkle striking him with the lumber stick first on the right and then on the left side as he crawled across with his pistol in one hand and his hat in the other.

Just as he crossed the street Van Winkle left him and returned to the general fight. Martin dragged himself into the post office all covered with blood, handed his pistol and hat to Brower and called for a doctor. The little Banner doctor examined him and found that he had received a downward lick on the side of his head that pealed the scalp his forehead back beyond his ear.

“Fix it quick doctor I want to get away from here.” The doctor took two or stitches, brought the edges of the wound up together, tied a few bands across. Brower handed him his hat and pistol; remarking as he did so, “This is hell turned loose in Banner, is it not?”

“No,” said the little doctor, “he is the man that painted Banner red.”

“Let me out of here,” said Martin and he slipped out, took through the woods to the south of Banner and that was the last seen of Martin, the Fighter from Butta Hatchie that painted Banner red.

(Signed, The Rambler, The Calhoun Monitor, Pittsboro, MS, Aug. 18, 1904)

 

A History of Belhaven Heights : Part 1

The Setting

Today’s Belhaven Heights Historical District is one of Jackson’s most architecturally unique neighborhoods.  Situated on one of Jackson’s highest hills, it is known for its diverse architecture, terraced lawns and tree canopied avenues.

Map 3

Through the 1940’s and 50’s, the Belhaven Heights neighborhood grew eastward to its logical boundaries (Map 3). These boundaries have changed somewhat over the years but today are generally considered to be Fortification Street on the north, the old GM&O Railroad bed near Greymont Ave. on the east, Spengler Street on the south and North Street on the west. The actual neighborhood parameters are Fortification to High Street and State Street to I-55.

Map 1

Belhaven Heights Historic District was initially listed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 28, 1983. A revision and amendment was put in place in 1998. The historic district is located near the downtown core of Mississippi’s capital city. The neighborhood’s first historic district (1983) is shown on Map 1. This diagram shows residences along and on both sides of Morningside and North Jefferson Streets and Bellevue Place with Madison Street and Terrace Court also included in the district.

Map 2

The 1998 amended district, shown in Map 2, is generally bounded by Fortification Street on the north, southward along Quinn, and west to Monroe where it drops south to Harding and along the western edge of Belhaven Heights Park. The boundary line continues to just south of Spengler and west to Jefferson, then north and west to North Street, then back to Fortification.

In 1899, the Jackson Daily News described Belhaven College and its surroundings as “remarkably picturesque and attractive…located thus in the most beautiful spot in the city, surrounded by elegant residences, within easy reach of every important point in Jackson, yet enjoying the seclusion of a suburban position.”

Belhaven College c. 1900

Belhaven Heights consisted of scattered parcels prior to the 20th century but the first subdivision (part 1) was platted March 29, 1905, by the Belhaven Heights Company, (A.J. Hackett, president). This was largely the area south of Fortification with a small part extending north of Fortification to Persimmon Street and covering the area east of Monroe and west of Greymont Ave.

Few structures remained in Jackson following the burning of the city during the Civil War. One of these is the Oaks, located at 823 N. Jefferson Street (part of Belhaven Heights),  a Greek revival cottage built in 1853 by former Jackson Mayor James H. Boyd (1809-77). Today it is a museum and the property of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in Mississippi. Boyd, a Kentucky native, came to Jackson in the 1830’s, was mayor of Jackson for four terms and served at least six terms as alderman including the years when the American Civil War raged through the city.

Much of the land area that is now Belhaven Heights was part of the vast Edwin Moody Estate. The family land and residence was located in the area bounded by Morningside, Madison, Boyd and N. Jefferson Streets. In 1875, there was only one other residence in the Heights area.  This entire block of property was sold to Col. James Hamilton for his residence  he named Belhaven for his Scottish ancestral home. Col. Hamilton sold his home to Dr. Louis Fitzhugh in 1894 for the establishment of the first Belhaven College which is described in detail in the history of Belhaven. Other early land owners and developers in Belhaven Heights were J.B. Harris, J.C. Smith, W.J. Brown, Miller & Greaves, A.J. Hackett, Gilbert Hemmingway and Edward W. Crane.

As Jackson grew and new streets added, some of the thoroughfares in Belhaven Heights acquired new names. According to the 1925 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map, the 900 block east of Boyd Street became Bellevue (for the college). It achieved notoriety later as Judges Hill. Oldham Street became Harding, Rhodes Street became Rio, Greymont Avenue south of Fortification was known as East Street and the 1100 block of Riverview was Cherokee Street. George Street, named for U.S Senator James Zachariah George, was formerly known as Penitentiary Street as it ran to the north of the state penitentiary which occupied the land where Mississippi’s New Capital Building stands today after its construction in 1903.

Throughout the years Belhaven Heights has remained a largely residential area with its only early commercial establishment being the old Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad beanery at the intersection of Spengler and Madison streets. More on this structure, its colorful history and the railroad itself will be discussed in a later section.

(Information in this section is taken primarily from Living Places by the Gombach Group, Morrisville, PA (1997-2014) and the application for inclusion on the National Park Service Historical Register of Historic Places (2011).Thanks go to Jim Woodrick at the MDAH for assistance with the maps and narrative information from the Belhaven Heights application for listing on the Historical Register.)

The Residences

Homes in Belhaven Heights grew eastward from North State Street where early prominent Jackson citizens built their residences after the Civil War. Sadly, far too many have succumbed to the wrecking ball of progress. In the early 20th century young professionals built several blocks east of State on North Street and names in city directories of the time will be familiar to students of Jackson history. Home construction was sporadic and lots were large with few houses situated on a given block. These blocks filled in later as the neighborhood population increased.

The Oaks (photo by Cecile Wardlaw)

The Oaks at 823 N. Jefferson Street, former home of Jackson Mayor James H. Boyd, is the oldest residence in Belhaven Heights (1853) and one of the few structures that survived the Civil War. It is also the best known for several historic reasons one of which we will soon see. There was another nearby area that is renowned as well. This is the 900 block of Bellevue Place known throughout its lifetime as Judges Hill. The 800 block of N. Jefferson is also considered by some as part of this nomenclature.

Judges Hill was the home of six judges and one attorney in the early 1900’s. Most of these houses still exist. The primary “hill” peaks at the intersection of Bellevue and Madison streets where the observer looking eastward can see well into Rankin County. You can stand a few feet higher by walking up the incline of Terrace Court just to the west of Madison Street.

Lyell House

Bellevue Place judges, their street address and year their homes were built were: Fifth District Court Judge Garland Lyell, 935, (1910); State Supreme Court justice  E.O. Sykes, 942, (1912); State High Court Judge Clayton D. Potter, 943 (1916); and  Judge J.B. Holder, 948 (?). Jefferson Street judges were Circuit Judge Wylie Potter, 804 (1924);

Sykes House

and State Supreme Court Justice Sydney Smith, 855 (1923-24). Attorney J.A. Gordon resided at 857 N. Jefferson.  All structures are still standing except at 948 Bellevue and 857 N. Jefferson. These are now apartment complexes.

Lewis-Mack House

Other homes of interest in the district are the Lewis-Mack house at 901 N. Jefferson (ca. 1923-24) and the one story cottage at 909 Jefferson (ca. 1912),  which is listed in the 1985 Field Guide to American Houses (p. 457) as a prime example of an American Craftsman home. Persons interested in following the trail of property owners in the Heights from 1833 to 1905 are encouraged to consult the Abstract of Title to Belhaven Heights on file in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Chyrl Grubbs, former resident of the Sykes House was interviewed by Jack Bertham for his newspaper article. “You can ride up and down these small streets and know that important decisions were made in these houses,” she told the reporter. While not as large or distinct as the Belhaven area to the north, “the district is significant for the homeowners’ determination to remain close to downtown and their concentrated effort to stand against encroaching commercialization.” Grubbs points out that the Sykes residence was once literally fit for a queen to be. “In 1943, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands stayed at the house while visiting the city to inspect the Royal Netherlands Military Flying School stationed at the Jackson Army Air Base.”

While upkeep of residences over 100 years old is a challenge there is much restoration taking place and a prime example of this will be discussed in a future installment of this history.

The Boyd Home (Oaks) is more than just a historic dwelling and museum. It has the distinction of hosting the nation’s first Memorial Day concept in April of 1865. An accounting of this event was published in neighbor Jesse Yancy’s blog Mississippi Sideboard on April 23, 2015 and features an article authored by Greenwood Cemetery Association President Cecile Wardlaw based on research by local historian  Peter Miazza. It is presented here in its entirety.

The First Real Memorial Day

“Widely acknowledged as the precursor of Memorial Day, widespread observance of a Declaration Day began shortly after the hostilities in the Civil War, when citizens began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers.

“Many cities claim to be the home of this observance, including Waterloo, NY, Boalsburg, PA, Carbondale, IL, Columbus, GA, and much closer to home, Columbus, Mississippi. In their 2014 book, the Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday, Dr. Richard Gardiner and Daniel Bellware state that according to the Veteran’s Administration, at least 25 cities across America claimed to have originated the Memorial Day holiday. While numerous historians feel that the true history may never be known, this book rejects that claim and explores the factual history of the holiday and shows that most of the better-known stories are mere myths and local legends; that being said, Jackson, Mississippi can lay verifiable proof that the first Declaration Day was held on April 26, 1865 in the historic Greenwood Cemetery in downtown Jackson..

“As the story goes, citizens of the Confederacy were well aware of the strategic importance of Appomattox; those in Jackson, Mississippi were already shaken by the fall of Richmond on April 4, 1865, and the news of Grant’s victory reached Governor Charles Clark some days later. In her diary his daughter recalled the telegram being passed around: ‘yes, it was all over. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox! Like a thunderbolt it fell on all of us. We were stunned. I remember feeling astonishment that we were not all dead’.

“Many if not most were already resigned to defeat and were shocked by the assassination of Lincoln less than a week later, so it was a somber group that assembled on Tuesday evening, April 25 at the Oaks, home of former Jackson Mayor James Boyd on North Jefferson Street. Just before midnight two couriers arrived with the news that Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Taylor and Union Major General E.R.S. Canby had agreed to a truce in Meridian, darkening the mood. Among them was Sue Langdon Adams, a Missouri native and niece of Mississippi’s Senator Robert Adams. A nurse, Sue had infiltrated Union lines bringing medical supplies back to Confederate forces and informing Confederate authorities of Union troop deployments.

“When the news of the truce came, Sue was reading Plutarch’s Lives., where it’s mentioned that the graves of fallen soldiers are adorned with wreathes of laurel. Fearing that the reoccupation of Jackson was imminent, she tore out a blank page and penned an appeal to the women of Jackson to gather the next day at the city cemetery at two in the afternoon and adorn the graves of fallen soldier with flowers. One of the young couriers took the note and raced to the office of the newspaper, Mississippians, just in time for it to be printed in the next morning’s edition.

“The next day, a large group of citizens gathered in the cemetery and soon nearly every soldier’s grave was covered with floral designs of every kind. Troops led by Colonel McFarland marched through the cemetery as the band played Handel’s ‘Dead March’ from Saul. As Adams moved through the rows of graves, she saw that some were unadorned and asked why there were no flowers on them. Told they were graves of Union soldiers, she replied, ‘I will garland them with my pink roses for the mothers and sisters who sobbed over them as they marched away. Maybe they fell in the riven flags in the battle of West Jackson’.

“Adams moved to California and married a Judge Vaughan. She died in Arlington, Virginia in 1911 and is buried in the Mount Olivet United Methodist Cemetery there. Her memorial efforts were acknowledged in an inscription on the monument which was unveiled on the Jackson Capital Green in 1891:

‘It reeks not where their bodies lie,
By bloody hillside, plain or river,
Their names are bright on Fame’s proud sky,
Their deeds of valor live forever.’”

Now you know the rest of the story and the story began in Belhaven Heights.

Before leaving our visit with Peter Miazza we should take a look at one of the prominent family names of old Belhaven Heights. These were the Spengler’s who lived along the east side of the 600 block of N. Jefferson. Only one house remains, 646, the former home of Hubert Spengler, Sr.

Hubert Spengler was Peter’s paternal great-grandfather. He operated several businesses but was best known for the office complex still standing at the northwest corner of State and Capitol Streets known as “Spengler’s Corner”. A plaque on the building reads, “Spengler’s Corner: Oldest Jackson building in continuous commercial use, this was the cornerstone of the group of structures along Capitol and State Streets now known collectively as Spengler’s Corner Historic District. A commercial and entertainment center in the 19th century, it was the site of Spengler’s Hotel, a favorite meeting place of state legislators. Erected c. 1842, the building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”  According to Peter Miazza, the hotel burned about 1906.

There was only one commercial development in Belhaven Heights through its early years and that was the area which abutted the GM&O Railroad on the eastern boundary.  This was no ordinary string of warehouses and outbuildings. It had a roundhouse,  rail shops and a hotel with a ghost who we will meet in the next segment.

(Sources for this material are Justice Comes to Judges Hill, Jack Bertram, Clarion-Ledger, September 7, 2001, pp 1E, 3E (Judges Hill); Declaration Day from Voices Heard from the Grave (publication pending), Peter Miazza, local author and historian and Greenwood Cemetery Board President Cecile Wardlaw.)

(Copyright Bill and Nan Harvey, March 2018)

Dahomey

He was wealthy, born to wealth, with a wife and children in a mansion on St. Charles, land from Natchez to Memphis, a man of taste and discretion, well-schooled in the ways of the world.

She was famous, born to poverty, with a man who beat her and a red leather trunk containing everything she owned, a woman-child of the sort you find with a stage for a cradle, knowing nothing of the world beyond footlights.

But before the lights she shined, and oh, how she sang. One night as she did, moving the very air with her presence, the man with the mansion on St. Charles sitting in an upstairs box smiled knowing not only that his heart had been plucked from his chest and that she held it in her hand.

No, no, the story doesn’t end with her moving into the mansion or even with him setting her up in a nice walk-up on Ursuline. It ends with him keeping her for a dazzling week before the revue—now the musical comedy ‘In Dahomey’—swept her to the streets of Manhattan, London and other arms.

And the man? Ah, the next year he bought another lot of land in the Mississippi Delta, in Bolivar County, 24,000 acres, at a time he largest cotton plantation in the world, and he smiled when he signed the deed, naming it for her.

 

Hidden Treasure

Jaime Harker is owner and proprietor of the Violet Valley Bookstore in Water Valley, Mississippi. 

Every day so far in my nascent life as a bookseller, I go through boxes of books. I can hardly keep up with the donations; just when I think I am finally getting caught up, someone comes in with say, seven boxes of books from their home in Iowa, or a box of children’s books culled from their kids’ bookshelves, and I begin again.

I love it. I love digging through books, with no idea what I am going to find next. Going through a box of self-help books and mass market paperbacks, I find a 90s edition of Tales of the City; Somerset Maugham lurks under Nicholas Sparks. In true crime paperbacks from the 2000s, I discover a couple of Fitzgerald’s “Great Brain” books, and three “Black Beauty” volumes. You have to know what you are looking for, to have the eureka moment. I like to leave little surprises scattered through the bookstore for discriminating readers. I know when I have a kindred spirit, because I hear little gasps of delight as they find an unexpected treasure on a lower shelf.

My academic life has always been about hidden treasure. When I first moved to Mississippi, I read John Howard’s Men Like That, and he gave me a vision of a vast queer Mississippi underground, erupting in newspaper stories, highway rest stops, and bookshelves. He introduced me to three gay Mississippi writers, including Hubert Creekmore, Water Valley native, poet, novelist, translator, and editor. I checked Creekmore’s The Welcome out of the UM library; it took me over ten years to locate a copy. I have been asking every editor at the University Press of Mississippi to reprint the novel, with no success. Opening a queer feminist bookstore in Creekmore’s hometown is, I hope, the first step in a campaign to bring him back in print.

I love digging around in archives. I spent two weeks hunting for fan letters in Christopher Isherwood’s papers. I found amazing ones, including a young man from North Carolina who mailed Isherwood photographs of his lovers, with detailed commentary on the back of each; water color portraits in a handwritten tribute; flirty come-ons from English teenagers. He wrote them all back, and often invited them to his house. At Duke University, I found the papers of fantastic Southern lesbian feminists. They kept everything—not just letters with agents and editors, but love letters from exes, flyers for readings, gossip and descriptions of parties and chance encounters. Dorothy Allison’s are my favorite. Most archives organize correspondence by letter writer, and store them alphabetically. Dorothy Allison kept every piece of mail she received in order and has them in her archive by date. One has to really dig to find the gems. But in between, you get a sense of her life as it was lived: Flip; a flyer for a reading; flip, a letter to her friend about her recent breakup; flip, a letter to her agent; flip, an invitation to an S/M sex party; flip, a letter to a manufacturer complaining about a defective whip she received in the mail; flip, a letter from Cris South, a member of the Feminary collective and novelist, about her forthcoming book and her shifting identity from butch to bottom; flip, a contract from her editor. Finding the treasures was a delight, but so was the rich tapestry of a live lived in real time, without a sense of what would be seen as ‘important’ later. That sequence is what makes it important, even as the gems I uncover become part of another narrative forming in my own head.

The treasures are the stories I share when people wonder how I could spend seven years working on a book. But the truth is I love the searching as much as I love the discovery. Doing research has taught me patience, something that my wife Dixie tells me I sorely need. She’s right. Chefs understand this, of course. You can’t rush the rising of the dough, the marinade on the pork, or the brine on the turkey; slow-roasted vegetables in the oven are better than the microwave or boiling water. I have a tendency to want things right away, but Dixie knows that the best things take time. Writing a book teaches you that, too. You can’t dash off a dissertation, or a book, in a series of all-nighters. You have to work a little bit every day, without being able to see the end; you research, and write, and revise, and repeat, endlessly. To sustain this, you must learn to love the process, to learn to love the questions themselves, as Rilke put it: ““Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Violet Valley Bookstore is the same. I have no idea how I am going to keep the bookstore going once the semester starts, with a full-time job, how it will evolve, whether it can become self-sustaining. Dixie tells me I don’t have to. I have an emergency savings account, with enough for hard expenses to last six months. I have a plan, month-to-month, six-months to six-months. I have a vision. But I also love the process—the arrival of books, the evolving categories on the shelves, the unexpected visitors to the store, from San Francisco and Durham and Jackson and Oxford. I love the excited teenagers, taking photos for Snapchat, and the serious bibliophiles, touching the vintage Mississippi textbooks. I would like this little 10×40 foot bookshop to be a hidden treasure in Mississippi for years to come.

 

Kettle-Fried Matzo Balls

The name beneath this recipe from New Stage Theatre’s Standing Room Only: Recipes for Entertaining (1983) is Ellen Douglas, but everyone should know that Ellen Douglas is the pen name for writer Josephine Ayers Haxton. Born in Natchez, she married composer Kenneth Haxton in 1945 and shortly afterwards moved to Haxton’s hometown of Greenville. There she befriended Shelby Foote and Hodding Carter and began writing in earnest.

According to the author, she entered into a wager with her husband and a mutual friend on who could finish a novel in the least amount of time and won the bet. The resulting work, A Family’s Affairs (1962), is largely autobiographical in nature, requiring her to get her family’s permission to publish the narrative and resulting in her adoption of the pen name Ellen Douglas. The book not only sold well, but it also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award for best new novel and was named as one the year’s ten best books by The New York Times. Her second work, Black Cloud, White Cloud (1963), a collection of short stories, also won the Houghton Mifflin Esquire Fellowship Award, and her 1973 novel Apostles of Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other works include The Rock Cried Out (1973) and A Lifetime Burning (1982). Josephine Haxton died in Jackson in 2012.

Though Ayers was not Jewish, her mother-in-law Ellise Blum Haxton was the daughter of Jewish merchant Aaron Blum of Nelms and Blum department store in Greenville, and this recipe may have come from her kitchen. From my (demonstrably obvious non-Jewish) perspective, fried matzos seem like just another variety of hushpuppy, though serving them with catfish—which is decidedly non-kosher—might be a bit rude. These make a great side for any number of meat dishes—baked chicken or fish, beef roast, what have you—but they’re also a great buffet nosh served with a sauce made with one part each grated horseradish, sour cream and mayonnaise seasoned with salt and cayenne to taste.

Soak two matzo crackers in water; drain and squeeze dry. Heat 2 tablespoons chicken fat, and sauté ¼ medium onion until golden brown. Add soaked matzos and cook and stir until the mixture “clears” the skillet. Cool. Add a teaspoon chopped parsley, a teaspoon salt, a quarter teaspoon of ground ginger, an eighth teaspoon both ground pepper and nutmeg, two lightly beaten eggs and enough matzo meal (about a quarter cup) to make a soft dough. Let stand for several hours to swell. Shape into small balls. Fry in deep fat (assumedly not lard, jly) until golden brown. The balls can be formed and frozen before frying. (This recipe makes about 20 balls.)

An Interview with Jack Myers

Jack Myers stood at the forefront of gay rights in Mississippi for over fifty years, running a series of gay bars and clubs in the capital city of Jackson. In this interview Myers talks about the many places he ran and shares his memories of others.

This all started back when I was in high school, we’re talking 1962-63. I finished radiology school, lived in Memphis for a while, lived in Eupora for a while, worked at the state hospital and at the VA. While I was at the VA they sent me to Duke for a year for in-service training, and was hoping for a position in Jackson, but they never got the position open, and I gave them 30 days to decide if they were going to give me more money, but they just kept putting it off, so I left after 30 days.

The first gay bar I can recall going to was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. You go down here and you turn on Mayes Street, Cowboy Malone’s used to be right there by the tracks, and there’s a little bitty building on the other side of the track and it was called the Sportsman’s Lounge. As a matter of fact, I had my 21st birthday there. I worked there when I was… it was in ’60-something. I was in X-ray school at UMC at the time. There have always been clubs in Jackson that weren’t openly gay but where gay people were welcome. I remember T.C. Schilling, one of the first people I met when I came out here, he used to own Jackson Commercial College, and he talks of some places that he used to go and one was down there on West Capitol Street, and there was a place off Robinson Road, you know where East Ford used to be? Where Robinson Road crosses Hwy. 80? If you leave here and go out Robinson Road you’ll cross Ellis Avenue, and right before you get to Hwy. 80 on the left facing Hwy. 80 used to be East Ford. You get behind the Ford place and you turn right, there’s a long road that goes through there, and he said he used to go to a place, there was a woman that had a bar out there. He said she’d take up for the gays in a minute, wouldn’t let anybody bother anybody. And there’s a lot of (gay) people I know used to go to the Walthall Hotel downtown. That was in the ‘60s.

I worked at the Sportsman’s Lounge, then he closed that bar and opened a place on McDowell Road where the police shooting range is now. That was all wooded then, it had a drive that went up to this big old house; it was called the Mansion. The guy lived upstairs, and one side of the downstairs was the bar. And if the sheriff’s department or the police came by and two guys and two girls were dancing, they’d just switch partners.

I know when I first came out, on Woodrow Wilson, where you take a left and get on Bailey Avenue, they took several old houses and made them into businesses and there was a place called Chez Pierre’s that was gay-friendly. The Glass Kitchen on Five Points was a popular restaurant. When I was in school at UMC from ’64-66 all of us who were in school would go to Delta Drive because they’d taken a lot of old houses up there and turned them into bars and they had bands, you took your own bottle, they only sold beer. There was the Pepper Mint Twist Lounge, the Hilltop A-Go-Go, the Sirloin Room; the Sirloin Room always had this great band called the Poppas.

I can’t remember the exact year I opened my first bar, but it was in the early ‘70s. It was on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King Drive. And I moved from there downtown to the old Wagon Wheel which was on Capitol and Farish Streets upstairs. The entrance was on Farish. Then we bought the old Amite Theatre. It was behind Jack’s Saloon, it was on the corner of Amite and Roach; they were back-to-back. There was a Dr. Wade Windham who opened a bar there, a straight bar called the City Dump, I think it was. They took old cars and made benches and booths out of them. We sold them all for scraps. We completely remodeled it.

Bill’s Disco (black bar) was on the corner of Amite and Mill Streets there by the train station. It was called the Interchange when we had it. I’m thinking that when the old theatre burned we moved there and called it the Interchange and Bill Rimes ran it for us… well, the old theatre was called Bill’s Disco and it burned in 80-something. And then we moved on the corner across the street to that small building, opened it was the Interchange on Amite. They tore the old Amite Street Theatre down and built that monstrosity in the back; I can’t remember what it’s called (This is the catty-corner building on the corner of Roach and Amite.)

The dance bar on Capitol was Jack and Jill’s. It wasn’t the first bar; it was the first big dance bar. I don’t know if it was this article (in a local paper), but there was also one in the Washington Post that quoted me as saying that I had the first (gay) bar in Jackson, and no, I didn’t. There were bars years before I had one here. There was a girl bar where Amite Street gets to Capitol and crosses Capitol and turns into Robinson Road. I’m thinking that’s where it was. The road that goes by the train station, Amite, comes in (at an angle) there and crosses Capitol. There’s a little bar that sits there, there’s a parking lot out front. There’s been a bar there for years, but there was a girl that had it for a while. Her name was Polly Wilmer. In fact, I hadn’t seen her in years and Harry and I went by the Waffle House to get something to eat and this girl came by and said, “Are you Jack Myers?” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, this is Polly Wilmer,” she said. Oh, my God, I hadn’t seen her in years, and she’d gotten big, huge and she used to be a little tiny thing. We talked for a while; she used to have that bar, it was on Robinson Road, I think, used to be a Waffle House or something that sat right in here. It wasn’t Mississippi Street.

When I first opened Mae’s Cabaret on Delta Drive, now Martin Luther King, we got some hassle from the police. I was working at the Raincheck on Northside Drive; going west on Northside drive, you cross over the train tracks and as soon as you crossed over the tracks you took a left and there used to be a brickyard there. The only thing left there was an office; it was very small. It had a nice-sized room in the front, and a nice-sized room in the back, but to get to the back, you had to go through a hallway where the bathrooms were. And then you had the back room, where people could dance. When the police came in, the lady who ran the door would push a button under the desk and a light would flash and everybody would know to sit down. Because in order to have a dance license, you had to have an emergency exit off the dance floor, and there wasn’t a door back there. But one of the policemen said something to Doris about, “We know you have that light,” and she said, “I’m not worried about having a door back there, you know, trying to hem in a queen… (laughter).”

Doris wanted me and her to go into business, I worked with her for a long time, she wanted to open up a bigger place. I think I got a mortgage on my house; I had it paid for. So we opened up the place (Capitol and Farish?), and the police chief said, “The only thing I ask, you know, it’s fine having the show, but I want someone from vice and narcotics to come see the show.” And he did. It was Officer Fitzgerald. After that was over, he said, “Man, I don’t see anything wrong with these shows.” And I said, “Well, I did the right thing, paid the first people off when you told me not to have a show, and sent them back to Atlanta, but it’s not a strip show.” He said, “Well, I see that now, but somebody told us you were going to have a strip show.” That’s when we saw the chief and he said if the church could have their womanless wedding, then we could have a drag show.

 

 
When we had the old Amite Theatre downtown, we had a bunch in a pickup came by, they did not get out, just came by yelling stuff out to us. That’s the only incident we ever had like that. We always had off-duty city policemen working for us. Just a uniform; they could wear their uniforms. 95% of our protection was just them being at the bar. If you had an off-duty policeman working for you, you had to carry liability insurance and name the Jackson police department on that policy. That’s how you got to hire them. If you’re going to use a policeman, they want their ass covered. It wasn’t that expensive. It either paid a half a million or a million.

(In Jack’s bars) Momma and Daddy ran the door. And if Momma didn’t recognize you, the first thing she’d say was, “This is a gay bar, you’re welcome, and if you don’t like it or whatever, you can leave. If you cause trouble, we have a policeman here.” If it was someone (like a public figure) who might be looking around to see what was going on, she’d tell them not to be nervous, to come on in. Well-known people who were on the make’d go to New Orleans or somewhere like that where nobody could see them. People would come to me all the time and say, “I saw So-and-so (in this gay bar) in New Orleans.” They couldn’t come out up here but they could down there.