My Father

Jesse L. Yancy, Jr. was an attorney, politician, and humanitarian who served the people of Bruce, Calhoun County, and Mississippi from 1956 until his death in 1970.

Born in Springville, Mississippi on Jan. 17, 1926, Yancy moved to Bruce ten years later, where his father, Jesse Lee Yancy, Sr. established a general store. He graduated from Bruce High School in 1944, joined the Army Air Corps in 1945 and served overseas in the Pacific. He attended the University of Mississippi School of Business and School of Law, earning his J.D. in 1951. In 1952 he married Barbara Young. They had three children.

Yancy was first elected to office in 1960 as district attorney for the Third Circuit Court District. During the Meredith Crisis at the University of Mississippi, Yancy entered the national spotlight when a Lafayette County grand jury issued an indictment against Chief United States Marshall James P. McShane, Meredith’s escort to registration at the University, for inciting a riot.

While serving as D.A., Yancy became president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association. Elected to the Senate in 1968, during his first term Yancy, as chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, guided the state’s first Open Election Law to passage.

A member of the Senate Commission on Appropriations, he wrote and gained approval for the Idle Funds Bill, which authorized the investment of in place funding for the state, a key piece of legislation that has garnered Mississippi millions of much-needed dollars for over four decades.

Yancy served as an attorney for the City of Bruce for 17 years. His most influential act in that capacity came in 1961, when Bruce had outgrown its fledgling infrastructure, and the city was badly in need of repairs and updates to its streets, water, and sewer systems.

Yancy commandeered a grant of $25,000 for the city to hire Cook Coggin, an engineering firm in Tupelo, to conduct a survey of what repairs and improvements were needed. On completion of this study, the city secured a loan of $500,000 to fund the improvements. Yancy helped Bruce to grow into a clean, attractive town, appealing both to current and potential citizens as well as businesses and industry.

He was a president of the Bruce Rotary Club, the Bruce Chamber of Commerce, the Calhoun County Bar Association, and a founder and commander of VFW Post 5571. He served on the Pushmataha Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and taught Sunday school (somewhat periodically) at the Bruce United Methodist Church.

Jess Jr. made a lasting impression on a very great number of people for any variety of reasons. His generosity is legendary, encompassing all in a vision of community, unity, and compassion.

The Sultan of Jazz: A Black Russian from Mississippi

If you were to travel back in time to Constantinople’s Taksim Square in the 1920s, you might hear the lively beat from Club Maxim. Inside, you’d likely find a black man in a top hat, perhaps with a pipe in his hand. He might just tell you, as he did one tourist, how he’d overcome “difficulties that would stagger the ordinary man.”

This would be Frederick Bruce Thomas, known later in his life as Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the Mississippi farm boy who became a Moscow impresario and introduced jazz to Asia.

Thomas was born June 12th, 1872 to Hannah and Lewis Thomas, who owned 600-plus acres in Coahoma County, Mississippi. In 1886, a white planter took over their land. Against all odds, the Thomas family sued the planter, and in what must have been one of the few successful cases for black landowners at the time, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in their favor. However, the planter appealed and, under threat, in 1890 the Thomas family decided to leave Mississippi and settle in Memphis. In late October, 1890, just a few months after moving the family to Memphis, where he took work as a flagman for the railroad, Lewis Thomas was hacked to death in bed by a jealous husband.

A short time later, Frederick Bruce Thomas, who’d only known life in the South, hopped on the rails, first to Arkansas, then to St. Louis, Chicago, and Brooklyn. He went to Europe in 1894, and in 1899, after crisscrossing the Continent, mastering French, and honing his skills as a waiter and valet, he signed on to accompany a nobleman to Russia.

Thomas’s career in Moscow proved to be more successful than he could ever have imagined. He found no color line in Moscow, where he worked for ten years as a waiter, a butler, and a valet, before becoming assistant to the owner of Yar, the city’s most prominent café-theatre. The Sokolovsky gypsy choir performed there on a regular basis and their songs about their years as slaves likely reminded him of his own people’s story.

Yar was frequented by the bourgeoisie of Moscow and Frederick Thomas became the darling of the wealthy clientele. By 1911 he had earned enough money to open an entertainment garden, “Aquarium,” with the help of two Russian partners. In 1912, he rented a music venue in the city center called “Maxim” which very quickly became popular with wealthy Muscovites.

In Russia, Thomas was one of only a dozen blacks. With his résumé of jobs in the finest European hotels and restaurants, he had the three things he needed most: opportunity, access and know-how. Ironically, he also had history on his side. The African Abraham Gannibal had been seen as “the dark star of the Enlightenment” in Russia as far back as the 18th century, and his great-grandson, Alexander Pushkin, became an icon of Russian literature.

With his talent for booking musical acts from Western Europe, Thomas’ night spots, Aquarium and Maxim, became the spots in which to be seen (and from which to disappear) during Russia’s late imperial era. Black performers visiting from the States remembered, everything was “gold and plush” so that “you would sink so deep in carpets that you would think that you would be going through the door to the cellar.”

Frederick Thomas blossomed in Moscow. He obtained Russian citizenship, was married three times and had five children. Around 1914, he bought a dacha near Odessa and he also owned buildings in Moscow. An African-American immigrant from Mississippi, the son of slaves, had made a fortune in Russia.

But when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Thomas found himself on the wrong side. His newly acquired wealth trumped his past oppression as a black man in the United States. He went to Odessa, but the city was evacuated in April 1919 by the French and British forces allied to the White Army. He managed to embark with his wife Elvira, his children and other refugees on the Russian ship “Emperor Nicholas” bound for Constantinople.

Arriving in the Ottoman capital, he hastened to the American embassy to seek help, or even repatriation to the United States. Officials at the embassy refused to recognize his American nationality and therefore refused to help him; his skin color undoubtedly played a decisive role.

Having lost all his wealth, Frederick Thomas started to do business again in Constantinople, like many Russian refugees. After three months, he opened his Anglo-American Garden Villa (the “Stella Club”) on August 31, 1919, with acts by “Mr. F. Miller and Mr. Tom.” Thanks to his new establishment’s success, he rented the basement of the Magic cinema with gardens in Pera in 1921, and transformed it into a jazz and night club. He named it “Maxim” in memory of Maxim in Moscow which had allowed him to start his career in the entertainment world.  Harry A. Carter and the Shimmie Orchestra to headlined the first season, 1921-22.

Though opening “Maxim” left Thomas on the verge of bankruptcy, business at last started to pick up. After the First World War, you had been an American tourist looking for a good time in Constantinople, you probably would’ve been directed across the Golden Horn to one of the popular Russian-Western, European-style “cafés chantant,” where you could order a drink (outside of Prohibition), sample the finest cuisine, listen to all kinds of music and dance.

Despite the economic and political upheavals of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Frederick Thomas succeeded in making his establishment the most popular place in the city.  He was the first person to import jazz to Turkey, and its popularity among the city’s natives and swarms of well-heeled tourists consolidated his success and made him rich once again. All those who remained of the Stanbuliot bourgeoisie, along with the English and French soldiers occupying the capital, hurried to listen to jazz at Maxim. Thomas became known as the “Sultan of Jazz.”

It’s astonishing that a black American who’d left the U.S. in 1894 and became a Russian citizen in 1914 was bringing America’s greatest music to the other side of the world by hosting black jazz bands in Constantinople before Louis Armstrong had even joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. But Thomas had already done similar things for the tango in Russia, and whatever obstacles he had to overcome as a Russian refugee. Ottoman Turkish had no word for Negro. Thomas told those who visited his clubs “he was ‘conservatively rated to be worth at least $250,000,’ which would amount to $10 million today.

Then, during the first years of the Turkish Republic, business began to decline. Foreigners and a large part of the bourgeoisie had left the city, while embassies and their staff began to be transferred to the new capital, Ankara. Frederick Thomas plunged into debt. Unable to pay his creditors, they had him put in jail and seized his nightclub, which they renamed “Yeni Maksim”.

Frederick Thomas was never to recover. Although his skin color was of no concern to the Turks, he could not avoid dealing with the diplomats in the American Consulate General in Constantinople, or with their racist superiors in the State Department. When he most needed their help, they refused to recognize him as an American and to give him legal protection.

Abandoned by the United States, and caught between the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic and his own extravagance, Thomas fell on hard times, was thrown into debtor’s prison, and died in Constantinople on July 12th, 1928 at Pasteur Hospital in Taksim. Forgotten by the Americans, Russians, Stanbuliots and all those he had entertained throughout Europe, Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas was laid to rest at the Protestant Feriköy Cemetery in Istanbul, far away from the “most Southern place on earth.”

(Thomas’s biography, The Black Russian, by Vladimir Alexandrov, was released by Atlantic Monthly Press in 2013.)

The Free State of Calhoun

The following article, written by Col. M.D.L. Stephens, appeared in Calhoun Monitor in 1900, was reprinted June 18, 1931 and on in July 6, 1972 The Monitor-Herald. It later appeared in the newsletter of the Calhoun County Historical Society MS, First Quarter, 2000. This colorful account of a traveling circus touring north central Mississippi at the turn of the last century gives you a stiff dose of Colonel Stevens’  wry humor.

In 1856, Old Dan Rice, the celebrated clown and circus showman, made a venture through Calhoun County, striking Benela first, next day at Pittsboro and thence over to Coffeeville. Being a man of extraordinary abilities and sagacious comprehension by nature as well as the experience of extensive travel, it took him no time to discover the prominent characteristics of the denizens of that inland county.

Really he did not expect to find so far out in the interior a class of people so intelligent and independent. Calhoun’s citizenship made no pretensions in those days at style rather on the grotesque order. Such a combination, Old Dan, in all of his travels, had never struck before. Evidently their mark made its impression upon his mind as the independent sovereignty he had ever come across in all of his travels, so much so that at his next performance in Coffeeville the next day, he got off some laughable jokes at their expense, which were heartily enjoyed and applauded by her sister county-men attending the circus that day.

The first one the writer remembers was by Old Dan on his little trick mule in the grand entry, which always captivates the audience into an enchanted trance. I may say as they emerge from the dressing tent, indeed there is a charm about the “Grand Entry” of a circus; irresistible, even with the most stable-minded—the beautiful horses of varied colors, the riders in their dazzling costumes, will surely product the same effect that it did upon St. Peter, when that panorama of four-footed beasts descended to earth from the heavens.

After this parade, leaving the ring-master with his whip in hand, Dan Rice and his mule made possession of the ring to round up this initial act with something ludicrous. He made many circuits around the ring, imitating each round some laughable incident real or imaginary. Finally to close the scene, he humped himself as awkwardly as he could, at the same time remarking, “This is the way the Schoonerites rode into Pittsboro yesterday, coming to see Old Dan.”

Of course this brought forth a yelling applause from the Yalobusians. About the same time, however, the little mule was nearing the exit gap in the ring, apparently tired of the game all at once as if imitating his rider, got a vigorous hump in his own back, and just at the gateway, made a sudden stop, sending the clown forward like a flying squirrel, spreading him out in good shape in the dirt, instantly darting in to the dressing tent.

After a few seconds of suspense, Dan rose, hobbling about as though he was disjointed and a fit subject for the hospital for several weeks at least. At this juncture, the ringmaster in way of reproof said, “Oh, yes, my laddie, see what you get by making invidious comparisons?” To which the clown said pathetically, “Master, do you reckon that dang little mule was taking up for them hossiers in Calhoun County?”

“Why, sir, of course he is; he knew every word you said, besides he has relatives over there, didn’t you see them?”
“Dad drat it, them was the fellows I saw riding that way?”
“Yes, sir,” said the ringmaster.
Cogitating a moment, Old Dan came back to his master, “Say, Mr. Ringmaster, if you wanted to get out of this world without dying, where would you go to?”
“That, sir, is an impossibility; no man can get out of this world unless he dies.”
“No! I know where to get out of this world without dying,” said Dan.
“And where would you go, sir?”
“Why, just over the Schooner, into the Free State of Calhoun!”

The rebel yell followed this enunciation. Many Schoonerites present and their generous natures added in the eclat of that day. In this tour of Dan Rice of Mississippi, The Memphis Appeal had accompanied the show, and reporter and solicitor, and this joke upon Calhoun County seemed to be enjoyed and relished with such tenacity that this reporter sent it to the office and a few days after I read in the humorous column of that paper a verbatim account of Dan’s act in Coffeeville. Afterwards, I heard Old Dan kept the joke all through North Mississippi, which gave the county that notoriety as “The Free State of Calhoun”, and will no doubt follow her through the decades to come. Thus Calhoun County bears that name and is amply able to take care of herself amid exigencies of any sort.

The Christmas War in Calhoun County

While no battles of importance took place in Calhoun County, Mississippi, Leon Burgess, in his M.D.L. Stevens and Calhoun County, Mississippi offers Stevens’ account of a December skirmish in the northwest. The original story appeared in The Calhoun County Monitor on June 4, 1903.

In December, 1862, Gen. Grant’s army pressed back the Confederate army from Holly Springs to Coffeeville where after a sharp engagement Grant fell back to Water Valley, threw out a strong cordon of cavalry and encamped for the winter.

About Christmas a strong company of Kansas Jayhawkers invaded Calhoun County north of Schoona River, spending their fury in and about the village of Banner. They captured the few horses and mules remaining in the county, robbed every chicken roost and hen nest, stole turkeys, geese and ducks, and now and then they took a fat hog. In their rounds they confiscated a barrel of moonshine whiskey near the big rock at the head of Cowpen Creek. They drank freely, filled their canteens and came to Banner, where they took and destroyed everything in sight. In the afternoon they set out for Water Valley. Each marauder had his canteen full of “wild cat” and, tied in front and behind his saddle, a good lot of turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens, and a haversack full of eggs. They left Banner yelling like a mob of Hottentots, all full of wild cat whiskey; more than a hundred strong, the Federals insulted every old man they met and drove women and children from their homes.

A small squad of Willis’ Texas Cavalry was hanging around Grant’s army, watching every movement. They learned of the contemplated raid on Banner, followed in the of the Federal cavalry and kept a close eye on their movements. The Texans received into their ranks a few of the Calhoun boys at home on furloughs, armed with double-barreled shot guns and mounted on mules and horses. The company numbered about 20 of the battalion and 12 or 15 of the local boys. They saw from a distance the devastation of Banner and the surrounding country and saw that the Jayhawkers were tanking up on the “bust skull” whiskey and were preparing to leave for Water Valley. Willis, under the guidance of a friend, hosted his small band of braves in a narrow valley were the horses were tied and the boys were concealed on the crest of a narrow ridge about 60 yards from the road that ran up a narrow hollow west of Gore’s Branch 5 or 6 miles from Banner.

On came the drunken Federal mob, more than a hundred strong, singing, cursing and looting, all bent on reaching Water Valley with their booty. They crossed Gore’s Branch, the headwaters of Long Persimmon Creek, and moved up the road running parallel with the long ridge. When the Federal cavalry had filled the road at the foot of the ridge, Willis gave the command to fire. Sheet of flames leapt from 30 guns; volley after volley was poured into the panic-stricken Federal ranks. Horses and riders were piled promiscuously on the road.

The Rebel boys rushed down the hill and captured men, horses, turkeys, ducks, chickens and canteens half full of mountain dew. They mounted and followed in hot pursuit of the fleeing Federals. Down by Trusty’s and Tatum’s they charged the retreating Jayhawkers, killing and capturing men and horses; their charge to Tuckalofa Creek was a race for life. The next day a regiment of Federal cavalry came out and buried the dead and cared for the wounded. No estimate on killed or wounded.

A Mississippi Christmas

In north Mississippi, where the Father of Waters skirts the edges of the Appalachians, the land undulates mile upon mile between river bottoms and wooded ridges. Here the sun is strong, and by the time December comes around a weary green still lingers along the roads. Rain arrives after warm days, ushering in longer spells of drier, colder weather.  If snow falls, rarely more than enough to cover the ground, it’s made into muddy, leaf-littered balls and stacked in the yard, or gleaned cleanly and mixed with sugar, vanilla and cream.

Though winter still comes the same way, much has changed there since I was a child. While not rich by any means, most of my family was well off when few were, but Jess Jr. made no bones about being a child of the Depression. He and those older remembered hardships at a more distant time, but the young, as all young at all times, had little yet to remember.

In our home, Thanksgiving amounted to a modest overture to Christmas; just after the turkey was eaten, Barbara filled the house with glowing towers of glazed glass jars, papier-mâché crèche figurines and ornaments light as air hung with shining ribbons. Her trees took days to decorate, one a loblolly pine draped in angel hair studded by tiny blue lights and hung with glittering glass ornaments.  In the den, smilax, holly and magnolia draped the mantle; bowls of walnuts, almonds and pecans, oranges, tangerines and hard candy topped the tables and on the hearth stood a bucket of dried pine cones to start an open fire where we made popcorn in a long-handled shaker.

Barbara provided a groaning board. What she didn’t cook herself, she shared food friends and relatives brought for her table: ambrosia from Aunt Gay, bread-and-butter pickles from Ruby Zane, tea cakes from Aunt Leila, peanut brittle from Betty Edwards, pecan divinity from Ora Crocker, a coconut cake from Zara Arrington. A splendid cook, Barbara spent days on the Christmas feast, making pans of chicken and dressing, baking a turkey, a ham and yeast rolls, candying sweet potatoes and stuffing dozens of eggs. The bounty of our home was there for all who called, and none left hungry.

Above anyone I’ve ever known my father Jess loved Christmas, threw himself completely and unreservedly into the essence of the season and drew everyone he knew along in his wide wake. He was the Spirit of Christmas Present, bigger than life, colorful and jovial, generous and gregarious. For him, Christmas was to be celebrated with everyone, not just family and friends, but with his world.

By the first week of the month, Jess had set his plans in motion, beginning with a party at the community building at the city park on the south side of town where local bands provided music for dancing (an activity widely frowned-upon at the time) and the local blue laws banning liquor were casually set aside while he pumped his friends for contributions to fund  his Christmas expedition. After the party, he would make a trip to Tupelo, to the Lady Lee outlet store, where he would buy boxes of firecrackers and bottle rockets, huge sacks of Tootsie Rolls, cinnamon candies, peppermint sticks and butterscotch rounds; then to Cockrell Banana Company where he’d buy crates of oranges and tangerines.

These he brought home where they were put in a spare bedroom, and in the days before Christmas my brother Tom, sister Cindy and I along with a cadre of neighborhood children would sort them out and stuff them into small paper sacks, staple the tops together and pile them into boxes. On Christmas Eve, we’d pile into a car, at best a station wagon commandeered from a neighbor, at worst a ’65 Mustang convertible, and we’d head to the black neighborhoods.

Jess wore a Santa suit, and Barbara would dress us children as elves. He once drafted his brother-in-law Jim to play Santa while he sauntered alongside laughing and greeting. When we rolled across the railroad tracks, we collected a troop of children flanking our route, shouting and jumping, reaching out to catch the sacks of candy and fireworks. Jess would make sure that those children who were too shy to come to the car received their share, and he would often walk into homes where he knew of special need bearing a ham or an envelope with money.

Jess was in his glory then, doing what he felt was the most important thing he did all year. His career in public service gave him an opportunity to help many people, but seeing the eyes of these children for whom his visit was the only Christmas many if not most of them would have gave him a sense of wholeness that few men are afforded. His largess, his sense of noblesse oblige, was untainted by any shadow of arrogance. He remembered the deprivations of his own childhood, and sought to relieve those of others.

Now I am an old man, far from home and missing my people who have passed on before me. I spend my holidays simply and in little company, but the living memories of my childhood are with me, my heart is warm, and I know no want. My father’s gifts live on.

The Man Who Loved Christmas

First published in the Calhoun County Journal Dec. 20, 1984, this memoir of my father, Jesse L. Yancy, Jr., was written fourteen years after his death by his friend and political partner, Sellers Gale Denley. Jess Jr., as he was called, was a remarkable man, well-loved, and still missed by many, none more so than me, his last surviving child. 

If there was ever a man who loved Christmas, it was the late Sen. Jesse Yancy of Bruce. The word “loved” is used advisedly. For there are those who might be said to “enjoy” Christmas, “respect” Christmas, “anticipate” Christmas, etc., but Jesse loved Christmas. His enthusiasm might have been regarded as extreme; except that was the way Jesse was about most things. He worked hard. Then he played hard. More than likely this approach to life was a primary cause of his untimely death on Aug. 26, 1970, at the age of 44, from a massive heart attack. Prior to assuming the senate post he served as district attorney of the third circuit court district for eight years and was city attorney in Bruce for 17 years. So it wasn’t unusual that the new city library was named in his honor.

And the way that Jesse launched the Christmas season was not particularly unique or unusual, either. It began with a big party with his friends at the Bruce community building. Funds were solicited for a live band and a case or so of assorted spirits and goodies, with a few dollars left over for another project. You see, Jesse had a secret Christmas vice. He liked to dress up in a funny red suit, hide his face behind a mask of white whiskers and, on Christmas Eve, visit the area in South Bruce where most black citizens lived.

Before each of these visits his automobile was filled with candy, nuts, fruit, toys and firecrackers. In the early 1960s it was all the Christmas some of the children had. The ritual started in the ’50s when he dressed up to play Santa for his own children. His family decided he should also go see the children of the black woman who worked for them. His appearance was an immediate hit. It was the Christmas of 1960, when I started helping him with the project, that he said he realized back then on his first trip that most of the black children had never really seen Santa Claus. So it became an annual event, growing in scope each year, to make the Christmas Eve appearance. The addition of toys and other goodies was a part of the evolution. The project was financed with any excess funds from the party, plus contributions from several of us who usually helped, with Jesse taking up the slack. It started each year with several trips to area wholesalers to purchase the large volume of goodies needed for some 250 to 350 children.

The bounty would be hauled in and the Yancy children—Cindy, Tom and Lee, often assisted by cousins Bill and Bob Cooper—and others would assemble individual sacks. Then, on Christmas Eve, Jesse would put on his Santa suit, we would load up a vehicle or two—the most memorable and utilitarian being a dark green Mustang convertible— and begin the appointed rounds. There must have been a lookout, for as soon as the first vehicle crossed the railroad tracks, which marked the boundary of the black community, several young boys would take over the lead position. With wide-eyed excitement they would precede the caravan down Murphree Street shouting: “Here he comes. Here comes Santa. Here he comes.” And for the next hour or so Jesse would be in his Christmas glory.

He handed out presents to those close by while keeping an eye out for those too shy to come up to him, so he could seek them out later. He knew quite a few of them by name. And almost all of the parents knew Jesse and whispered their thanks. But if the children knew him they didn’t let on. And neither did they let on if they sometimes got a whiff of the Old Charter Santa and his helpers found useful in warding off the cold and other miseries.

The custom died with Jesse. The party lasted another year or two, and some of us talked about continuing the Santa Claus visit. But, we rationalized, it was 1970 and the children were being encouraged to visit Santa on the Square, sponsored by the city as a part of the Lion’s Club Christmas parade. So we didn’t.  It has been 35 years, but every Christmas about this time I begin to get a little bit anxious. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably need to do. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably will never get to do again. It has been suggested that one can sometimes recapture the spirit of Christmases-past by recording remembrances like these. I am confident that Jesse would overlook my indiscretion in writing about it now.

Jesse Yancy, Jr. (left) with his brother-in-law, Jim Young, as Santa.

Indianola Egg Nog

Claiborne’s recipe has been printed in almost everything he did, but this version comes from Christmas Memories with Recipes (1988) along with his endearing “Distant Christmases”. In this essay, he recalls:

“On Christmas afternoon there was also, to my mind, a surprising annual ritual, surprising because both my parents were teetotalers, and alcohol, other than the pharmaceutical sort, was absolutely forbidden in my home. Each Christmas, however, my mother would ask a neighbor to buy her a pint of bootleg bourbon (it was during Prohibition and my home state was dry). She would then assemble her rich-as-Croesus eggnog, made with an abundance of eggs and heavy cream, and temper it with a bit of bourbon. She would also pour a generous quantity out of the bourbon bottle over the homemade fruitcakes, which would be sliced and served with the eggnog.” You must use fresh organic eggs for a this recipe.

8 eggs separated
3/4 c. sugar
1 c. bourbon
1/2 c. heavy cream
Nutmeg
Put the egg yolks and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until light and lemon-colored. Gradually add the bourbon, beating on low speed. In a separate bowl whip the cream until stiff. Fold it into the egg-yolk mixture. In a clean bowl whip the egg whites until stiff and fold them into the eggnog. Serve with a generous grating of nutmeg.

Andrew Bucci: Art, Food, and History

As incredulous as it may sound to us now, in the 1940s the Old Warren County Courthouse in Vicksburg was under threat of destruction from the very city itself.

The building is perched on the highest point in Vicksburg on land given by the family of the city’s founder, Newitt Vick. Construction began in the summer of 1858 on what was then to be a new Court House for Warren County. Contractors were the Weldon Brothers of Rodney, Mississippi, who used 100 highly skilled artisans to make the brick and erect the building, which was completed in 1860 for a cost of $100,000. During the War, the building dominated the city’s skyline and was the target of much Union shelling but suffered only one major hit. It was here on July 4, 1863 that the Stars and Bars were lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised as General U.S. Grant reviewed his victorious army.

Enjoying an After-Dinner Pipe-Bucci

With the construction of a new Warren County Courthouse in 1939, the Old Courthouse stood practically vacant for years, and there was talk of its demolition. What was possibly planned to take its place on the highest point in the former Gibraltar of the Confederacy goes (perhaps mercifully) unrecorded. But a local activist, Mrs. Eva Whitaker Davis, realized the significance of the building and established the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society for the purpose of preserving the structure. In 1947 she was elected president of the society and with the help of a few volunteers began cleaning the building and collecting artifacts.

On June 3, 1948 the museum opened its doors, where she continued to work on a volunteer basis for many years. Eva Davis was a local celebrity; she had a daily radio show, “Court Square”, which was a feature of WQBC in Vicksburg for many years. She put out two cookbooks, Court Square Recipes and Mississippi Mixin’s, both likely in the 1950s, though neither book is dated. A grateful public added the name Eva W. Davis Memorial to the Old Courthouse Museum several years before her death in 1974.

Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci
Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci

Mississippi Mixin’s was illustrated by her fellow townsman and renowned Mississippi artist, Andrew Bucci. Sadly, Bucci’s art is reproduced in black and white, but the impact of the images is still powerful, perhaps even somewhat enhanced. Most of Bucci’s artwork in the book is comprised of small images for chapter headings, doubtless resized from larger works, but two large images are printed full-page (5.5×7). Again, dating these works has so far been unsuccessful and it is not known whether the original artwork still exists.

At least one image is by artist Suzanne Wilder, who was a student in the Mississippi Art Colony at Allison’s Wells, a popular resort in Way, Mississippi that was established in 1889. The Mississippi Art Colony was founded at Allison’s Wells in 1948, and Bucci along with noted Jackson artist Mildred Wolfe taught there until 1963, when the resort was destroyed by fire, then relocated to Utica, Mississippi.

To the Ramparts of Infinity: A Review

With “Sartoris” (1929), William Faulkner began “sublimating the actual into apocryphal,” targeting his great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, as inspiration for the Yoknapatawpha cosmos and prototype for Colonel John Sartoris.

While it’s the incandescence of William Faulkner that provides the impetus for critics and historians to piece together the life W.C. Falkner, Colonel Falkner was a prominent, if not towering figure in his own right, certainly in terms of the history of north Mississippi, and an archetype of the men who fashioned a nation out of the Southern frontier.

The Yoknapatawpha stories also led Jack Elliott to W.C. Falkner. Elliott first heard about “Old Colonel” Falkner at the initial Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi in 1974, and a field trip to Ripley brought young Elliott to the foot of the nineteen-foot Falkner monument that dominates the cemetery, the actual counterpart to the “apocryphal” monument in the Jefferson cemetery where the marble statue of John Sartoris [gazes] “to the blue, changeless hills beyond, and beyond that, the ramparts of infinity itself.”

In time, Elliott began formulating a work on the life of W.C. Falkner, and found that not only were the stories that circulated about Falkner during his lifetime “fantastic and exaggerated,” these stories themselves were “perpetuated and augmented by short, poorly researched historical pieces.” Elliott sets out to amend these shortcomings, which indeed he does superbly, with a seasoned scholar’s attention to detail and an ear for the written word.

Elliott’s account of Falkner’s early years and the progress of the Falkners and their Word relatives from the eastern seaboard is supported by comprehensive documentation. When the U.S. Congress declared war against Mexico in May 1846, Falkner was elected first lieutenant, which, Elliott confirms, “was certainly due to his popularity among his peers rather than his ability to command.” Elliott provides a thorough account of Falkner’s actions in Mexico, as well as the succeeding Civil War in which he was an officer (“brigadier general, then captain, then colonel and … captain again”) of the Magnolia Rifles, a company from Ripley.

Elliott doesn’t neglect Falkner’s education, stating that he “read law” under his uncles Thomas Jefferson (“Jeff”) Word and J.W. Thompson, and was admitted to the nascent Mississippi bar in 1850. Little else is known of his formal education, though Elliott says that Falkner himself alludes to studying Cicero and Julius Caesar.

Though Elliott’s biography doesn’t stint on a full account of Falkner’s extensive feuds with the Hindmans or with Thurmond, Elliot is determined to discredit earlier portrayals of W.C. Falkner that paint him as a pathological megalomaniac, stating that “The evidence for such a scenario is weak and the conclusion little more than a strained surmise that was bolstered by repetition.” Elliott points out that Falkner was “well-liked by most and even idolized by many,” and that earlier historians (particularly Duclos) “failed to see the feud [with R.J. Thurmond, his assassin] in terms of a conflict over differing visions for the railroad …”

Throughout the work, Elliot provides supporting evidence of Falkner’s character, including this from Thurmond’s great-nephew: “[Falkner] loved power and the trappings of power; he delighted in playing the Grand Seignor (sic), yet was a public-spirited citizen and at heart a kindly if hot-blooded man.”

Another falsehood Elliott seeks to dispel is that Falkner was not the prime architect of the Ripley Railroad, that Falkner managed to inveigle the public into believing that he was the driving force behind the project when in fact he was only one among many who contributed to the scheme. But, though the original charter for the Ripley Railroad Company was issued to W. C. Falkner, R. J. Thurmond, and thirty-five other incorporators in December 1871, the mountain of evidence Elliott presents is far more than enough to convince even a skeptical reader—who are at this late date likely to be few—that it was indeed Falkner “who brought the social, political, and financial elements together and made it happen.”

Elliott examines Falkner’s life in letters with marvelous detail. He gives, for example, an entertaining synopsis of Falkner’s famous melodrama, “The White Rose of Memphis” (1881), complete with contemporary reviews. Digging deeper, he examines Falkner’s less successful second novel, “The Little Brick Church” (1882), and his play, “The Lost Diamond” (1874). Earlier writings—including a sensationalist pamphlet, a narrative poem, and a short novel—also come under review.

Elliott offers insights into Falkner’s writing habits, and documents his familiarity not only with the Bible, but with Shakespeare, Scott, Byron, Homer, and Cervantes. In May 1883, Falkner toured Europe and published an account of his travels, “Rapid Ramblings in Europe” the following year.

What Elliott sets out to do is to “to inquire into the image of a man long dead, an image partly frozen into that of a marble statue.” Elliott’s biography of “Old Colonel” Falkner embraces far more than that life, that image. “As in much of local history, the memory of a place draws us to delve into the matrix of interconnected symbols, whether stories or documents or associated places.”

To that end, Elliott’s work on Falkner embraces not just the man, but the milieu, the town of Ripley and the society and culture—such as it was—of north Mississippi in his day. He includes a fascinating “Field Guide to Colonel Falkner’s Ripley,” a block-by-block examination of the town using the grid established by the surveyor “who in 1836 laid out the streets, blocks, and lots, and this geometry still frames the lives of residents and visitors today.” Filled with historic photos of homes, businesses, and downtown traffic (i.e., cotton wagons and railroad cars), this section of the book will undoubtedly find the greatest appeal among casual readers.

Elliott’s writing is lucid, orderly, and compelling. Perhaps Elliott didn’t consciously set out to write the “complete, sensitive, and discerning biography” of W.C. Falkner Thomas McHaney expressed a need for almost sixty years ago, but, in the end, he has.

Drama Peas

As librarians in Tupelo, a colleague and I were in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t come to us. Every Wednesday we’d load up our trusty little station wagon and drive around the city dropping off new checkouts and picking up returns.

Our main destinations were nursing homes, and they were all, without exception, far from the dismal environments some people might imagine. As a matter of fact, those under care were often robust enough to elbow a neighbor out of the way to get the best Cartlands, Christies, or L’Amours, and if we didn’t have enough copies of the latest John Grisham potboiler, they’d fight over one. We even had to disarm a dame wielding a plastic knife. During one of these feeding frenzies, a blue stocking with pink hair sniffed and said to me, “They shouldn’t have been taught how to read.”

My partner Beverly, a seasoned veteran, rarely instructed me on nuances, so the assignment was full of pleasant surprises and lessons. We often picked up returns at the nurses’ stations, which are always a nexus of activity. I remember once early on reaching a station just as a produce man was dropping off three bushels peas in the pod. Being a fugitive kitchen grunt myself, I expected some surly person to appear, haul them in the back, and begin the tedium of shelling them, so I was astounded when at least a dozen ladies came out of the TV room, ripped a pea sack open in seconds, filled up their colanders, and retreated—just yakkin’ up a storm the whole time—back into the TV room.

I was trying to take it all in while Bev started packing up the returned books. Finally I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Bev, are they in there shelling peas?”

She looked over at the TV room door and said, “Oh, yes. They love watching soap operas and shelling peas.”

Sure enough, a squadron of ladies had settled into their seats with peas and bowls in their laps and paper sacks on the floor at their sides. They didn’t even look at the peas as they shelled them; their eyes were glued to the drama unfolding before them. The nurse on duty told me that the shelled peas were collected before dinner (I had a vision of some old lady trying to stash HER colander of peas in a bottom drawer), bagged and kept in the refrigerator until cooked or offered to visitors, but “sometimes there’s so much in there, we just end up taking some home to keep them from being wasted.”

Bill Neale suspected that the Lord invented porches and television to make pea-shelling easier. My mother Barbara, as a young bride, was out on her porch one afternoon sweeping when she saw her husband’s Aunt Bess walking down the road with a sack and crying her eyes out, going to her sister Ethel’s, who was Barbara’s mother-in-law. Not being one to impose (at that point), mother assumed the worst and started cooking. After about an hour, with two casseroles and a cake in the oven, she called up Daddy and said, “Jess, your Aunt Bess just went over to Ethel’s just bawling her eyes out. I think Uncle Ed’s finally died.”

So Daddy ran up to Ethel’s house, assessed the situation, came out sweating and said: “Barbara, Ed didn’t die, Bess is just all wrung out over some soap character dying—her and Momma both.” Then Daddy handed her a bag of shelled peas. “Here,” he said. “I told them to come over for dinner tonight. You need to start watching ‘Days of Our Lives.’”