Trekking through West Tennessee (part two)
By Renée S. Gordon
"A little old town in Tennessee, A quiet little community, A one-horse town, You have to watch what you're putting down in old Nutbush"
--Nutbush City Limits by Tina Turner
The Walking Tall Trail in West Tennessee guides you through 2,000 years of history and 360-miles and introduces you to numerous lasting themes and larger than life personalities. The route actually began as a pre-contact Native American trail along which the Woodland and Mississippian cultures constructed huge mounds for both ceremonial and residential use. These "mound builders" were responsible for the Pinson Mounds, six miles south of Jackson, the highest ever created in the country.
Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park is a 1200- acre area that protects prehistoric remains and at least 30 mounds, the largest of which is Saul's Mound. It dates from approximately 100 BC and is 67-ft. tall with a base 300-ft. by 367-ft. Visitors can climb to an observation point. www.tn.gov/environment/parks/PinsonMounds
De Soto gets the credit for being the first European explorer to enter West Tennessee. In 1541 he encountered the Chickasaw Indian tribes who used the area as a hunting ground. Less than 20 years later Juan Pardo explored the region in search of exploitable natural resources and found none. Pardo's trip in 1567 resulted in the region being named after the native village Tanasqui he passed through. The name has come down to us as Tennessee and may mean "meeting place." They ceased further explorations and in 1584 Queen Elizabeth I of England granted Tennessee to Sir Walter Raleigh. Nearly 80 years later, after Virginia was divided, Tennessee became part of North Carolina. Tennessee was granted statehood in 1797.
Brownsville was founded circa 1823 and named in honor of a War of 1812 hero, John Jacob Brown. The area has always been heavily dependent upon agriculture with cotton being a major crop. The city's architectural heritage is visible in the College Hill Historic District where 75 buildings and a cemetery comprise an area filled with largely Greek revival and Gothic structures circa the mid-1800s. The best way to see the city is to take the Historic Driving Tour. A map is available at the Chamber of Commerce, 121 W. Main Street. www.brownsvillehaywoodcounty.com
Brownsville is the county seat of Haywood County and as such both Civil War history and a unique Civil Rights story are told there. After the Civil War many of the formerly enslaved left the region but many more stayed on as sharecroppers because they had few skills and less prospects. By the middle of the 20th-century nearly 70 percent of the population of Fayette and Haywood counties was of African descent but the vast majority were not allowed to vote. In 1959 a movement to register people to vote by black and white activists was stopped and many of the people were evicted from the shacks they rented from landowners and many business owners refused to serve black customers.
The people ended up living in tent cities in inhumane conditions until a 1962 federal ruling made it illegal to exert economic pressure to prevent people from voting. The tent city residents did not really benefit from the ruling because the landowners still refused to allow them back on the land. Many left Tennessee forever. Blacks were disenfranchised until 1965 with the passage of the National Voting Rights Act.
The oldest synagogue structure in the state is Brownsville's Gothic Revival Temple Adas Israel. The building dates from 1882 though the congregation began in 1867 in the home of Jacob Felsanthal. The National Historic Landmark building was renovated in the 1920s. The most significant architectural element is the 1910 stained glass windows. www.templeadasisrael.org
Tennessee's largest sculpture, The Minefield, is the creation of self-taught artist Billy Tripp. The 70-ft. work of art, begun in 1989, relates the story of his life and will not be finished until Tripp's death. He plans to be interred there. The work of art is not easily seen from the road but a stop is well worth your time. www.sites.google.com/site/billytripp
The West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center is a free complex consisting of the West Tennessee Music Museum, the Cotton Museum, the Hatchie River Museum, two outdoor exhibit buildings and a gift shop. The center dates from 1998 and provides an excellent overview of all 22 counties in West Tennessee. The Cotton Museum displays artifacts and archival photographs that explain the development of the industry and its importance in the region. The Hatchie River Museum provides information on the 238-mile long waterway, the longest "wild" Mississippi River tributary.
The most impressive exhibits are located in the Music Museum. The focus here is on the region's legendary musicians like "Sleepy" John Estes, Hammie Nixon, Carl Perkins, Sonny Boy Williams, Tina Turner and the Brownsville Bluesmen. Showcases feature costumes, memorabilia, recordings and photographs and there is always an Elvis exhibit on display courtesy of Graceland.
The final home of "Sleepy" John Estes is located a short walk from the center. Estes was born in 1899 in Nutbush and moved to Brownsville in 1915 to sharecrop with his family. He began to play locally though he was blind in one eye. He recorded in 1929 but by the early 1960s he was completely blind and living in poverty. His career was revived and he began touring again. In 1977 he suffered a stroke and died. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991. His tiny cabin illustrates the fact that he never made much money but the front porch, on which performances are held, is a testament to his lasting legacy.
A few feet from the cabin sits the Flagg Grove School attended by Annie Mae Bullock, aka Tina Turner. Her grandfather built the school, undergoing restoration, in 1889. Benjamin Flagg donated the land for the 20-ft. by 40-ft. building and the teacher was paid from the $1.00 a month subscription fee paid by the students. The school was relocated from Nutbush, a small town a few miles away on Highway 19 now known as the Tina Turner Highway. www.westtnheritage.com
The Brownsville Family Restaurant is a wonderful place to eat and it offers accommodations. Located in the center of town it is accessible to all of the sites and attractions and the homecooked soul food buffet is extraordinary. www.brownsvillefamilyrestaurantbnb.com
Jackson, originally known as Alexandria, was settled around 1822. In that same year the name was changed to honor Andrew Jackson. www.jacksontn.com/tourism
The International Rockabilly Hall of Fame honors those performers who met at the intersection of rock and roll and hillbilly music* in the 1950s. The museum opened in 2001 with the mission of preserving, not only the history, but also the personal reminiscences of these great artists. In the main gallery there are 16 life-sized portraits of the major rockabilly artists and pioneers and visitors have access to 35 video interviews in which the artists tell their own stories. A second gallery features personal items, autographs and photographs. The highlight of the collection is the defibrillator used to try to revive Elvis at the Baptist Hospital on the night he died. On another note, Elvis continues to be the highest paid entertainer. His estate made $51-million in 2010. Concerts and events are held in an area on the side of the museum where a 28-ft. high by 70-ft. wide mural depicting music history serves as a backdrop. www.rockabillyhall.org
Casey Jones Village is one of Tennessee's most visited destinations. Guests can visit Brooks Shaw & Son Old Country Store, the Shoppes at Casey Jones Village, the relocated 1837 Providence House, Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum and listen to music at various places throughout the property. The traditional southern cuisine is served in the restaurants and this makes a wonderful family outing.
Casey Jones is believed to be the best-known train engineer in the country and his story lives on in legend, fact and Casey Jones Village. On April 29, 1900, Jones' passenger train left Memphis headed for Canton, Mississippi. At 3:52 AM on April 30th he ran headlong into an oncoming train. Jones refusal to abandon the train, choosing instead to stay and brake, resulted in his death but the saving of passenger lives. Slim Webb, his African American fireman, was told to jump by Casey minutes before the wreck and as a result Slim survived, went to Tulane University and died in 1957. Another African American, engine wiper and friend of Jones, Wallace Saunders, wrote the song. Jones' original house, built in 1860, was moved to the village in 1980 and a self-guided tour is available. Also on display is the pocketwatch Casey carried on that fateful day. www.caseyjones.com
One of the most important sites on "A Path Divided, Tennessee's Civil War Heritage Trail" is the 4,200-acre Shiloh National Military Park. More than 2,900 engagements were fought in Tennessee but Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862, is the best known and the first large-scale battle of the war. Tours begin with a 25-minute orientation video, "Fiery Trial," in the visitor center and a walk through a small museum. Once outside you should read the plaques on the side of the center to gain an understanding of how the park is laid out and how to interpret the tablets at the battle sites. There is a 9.5-mile self-guided loop that encompasses the major locations that can be driven. Within the park there are 156 monuments, 217 cannons and nearly 700 historic markers.
The importance of Shiloh cannot be overlooked. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war, 3,500 people were killed outright and there were 23,746 casualties and for the first time many soldiers and civilians realized the toll the war would take. A Union victory was important because Lee was having great success in the East. This was the beginning of total war. It has been said that," After Shiloh the South never smiled again."
Shiloh NMP was established in 1894 and is considered the most accurate of the battlefield parks because the veterans themselves laid it out. Ironically Shiloh is a biblical word meaning "place of peace." It is now one of America's most peaceful places, but oh, the cost. www.nps.gov/shil
Information on all the trails, accommodations, schedules and fees can be found on the website. No matter what your interest you can indulge yourself in Tennessee. www.tnvacation.com
I wish you smooth travels!
*Prior to being known as "country music" it was referred to as "hillbilly music."
From November 27, 2012-April 14, 2013 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City will present the groundbreaking, "African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde." On exhibition will be African art collected between 1910-30 by New York patrons of the arts. www.metmuseum.org
The National Museum of American Jewish History will exhibit, "Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges," from January 15-June 2, 2013. This exhibition relates the lesser-known history of Jewish scholars who left Germany and Austria in the 1930s and took teaching positions in HBCUs in the South. The emphasis is on the level of scholarship, the relationships forged and the Jewish impact on the Civil Rights Movement.
"Bruthas," by J. L. Whitehead, is a recently released murder mystery set in Philadelphia. The riveting story filled with intriguing twists revolves around three brothers, an attorney, an IT professional and a drug dealer. Be advised that this is book one of an intricate crime saga. It makes a great holiday gift and is available on Kindle. www.amazon.com/Bruthas-ebook/dp/B005JUPKLU
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