By Renée S. Gordon
“White folks hear the blues come out, but they don’t know how it got there.” –Ma Rainey
Glendora, Mississippi is on Route 49 and it is well worth a visit. It was the home of Sonny Boy Williamson, one of the most influential early bluesmen, and is the location of the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center (ETHIC), an incomparable gem situated inside the Old Glendora Cotton Gin. www.visitmississippi.org.
The museum interprets the town’s history from its beginnings in 1883 as a railroad town and the “Las Vegas of the Delta” through the Emmett Till story. Tours are guided and begin in the lobby with an outstanding exhibit, “The Awakening: A Tree Remembers,” the story of a lynching. In the early galleries, visitors are introduced to the realities of sharecropping in an exhibit of a 9-foot cotton sack that required 500-lbs of cotton to fill. Additional cases highlight Williamson’s career and the fact that he was the first black musician to advertise a black product.
The Emmett Till exhibit area begins with the send-off, a life-sized picture of Mamie Till bidding goodbye to her son at the Chicago train station and giving him his father’s ring to wear. An exacting replica of Bryant’s store is next, complete with video interviews of the adults who as children, were with him on that fateful day. Visitors can look inside and see the layout of the store.
The replicated room from which Till was kidnapped personalizes the experience and then you are not quite prepared for the 1955 Chevy pick-up truck that represents the one he was carried in. The men drove him, for some inexplicable reason, 70 miles to Rosedale before dumping the body.
Emmett Till was accused of whistling at a white female shopkeeper, Carolyn Bryant in Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi, on August 24, 1955, her husband, Roy Bryant, and J. W. Milam kidnapped the 14-year-old from the home of his great-uncle, Moses Wright, to “teach him a lesson,” about 3 AM in the morning. He was found on August 31st, dead, beaten beyond recognition with a 70-lb. cotton gin fan tied around his neck. He was floating in the Tallahatchie River and could only be identified by the ring he was wearing. Emmett Till’s viewing and services were held in Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God and thousands filed pass he open casket. On September 6th he was laid to rest in Burr Oak Cemetery.
The museum tour continues with a view of the barn on the Sheridan Plantation where he was beaten, a small-scale copy of the bridge from which he was thrown and a fan of the type used to hold him down. Dioramas of the viewing and a replica of his grave conclude the pretrial portion of the displays.
Milam and Bryant were initially arrested for kidnapping on August 29th and on September 3rd the men were indicted for murder and held for trial. They pled not guilty. Jury selection resulted in an all white, all male, jury. On September 23rd, after 67 minutes of deliberation, both men were acquitted of murder. The grand jury dropped kidnapping charges on November 3rd. The museum interprets the trial with models of courtroom scenes and numbered exhibits from the trial.
The January 22, 1957 issue of Look magazine contained an interview in which the killers admitted the crime and exhibited no remorse other than the fact that it ruined their business and caused a boycott by the area’s black population.
ETHIC originally opened in 2005 but the new facility dates from September 2011 with the goal of healing the community. My guide was an outstanding young man, Scotty Simmons, who is a native Glendoran, heard the stories first hand from friends and relatives, worked on the project from its inception and is both knowledgeable and articulate. With any luck he will be your guide.
A number of the people involved in the Emmett Till incident lived in or around Glendora and it was to Glendora that officials came to interrogate residents. In order to keep them from talking some people were incarcerated in predominately white towns and then moved from place to place. The locations of two very significant structures are only a few steps from the museum, J. W. Milam’s House and King’s Café.
Milam’s house has been torn down but the site is designated with a marker. Milam, half-brother of Carolyn Bryant, was one of the accused. The King’s Café was the place where NAACP and law enforcement investigators met with potential witnesses. www.glendorams.com
From Glendora it is only a few miles on a rural road to Money, the location of the Bryant’s store. The building is in a state of serious disrepair but there is a marker on the exterior.
Greenwood is smack in the center of the Delta and has claimed most of its fame as the place in 1938 where Robert Johnson met an end as shrouded in mystery as his talent. Johnson was living in Baptist Town, a poor black community, when either a lover or a lover’s husband at the Three Forks Store allegedly gave him poisoned whiskey. He died after several agonizing days at 109 Young Street.
Johnson’s estate was not settled until June 15, 2000 when C. L. Johnson was declared his son and sole heir though he only saw him once as a baby. The estate records, E-380, are available for viewing at the Leflore County Courthouse. Personal documents are included in the file. www.greenwoodms.org
To round out the experience you must visit the Back in the Day Museum, 204 Young Street. It meticulously recreates the type of rooms a bluesman would have occupied. Because of vagrancy laws they faced possible arrest if they moved around during the workday. (662) 392-5370.
There are three possible locations for Robert Johnson’s gravesite, Little Zion Church in Greenwood’s outskirts, Payne Chapel M. B. Church in Quito and Mount Zion M. B. Church in Morgan City. Mount Zion has emerged as the site of choice and a large tombstone indicates his place in the cemetery. The monument includes photographs and a huge amount of text. There are always offerings from international fans adorning the grave.
Ruleville’s best claim to blues history is Greasy Street. It was once a Front Street row of live music venues. “Howlin” Wolf played these corners for tips as a teen.
Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Park is dedicated to one of Mississippi’s greatest civil rights activists. She learned, at the age of 44, that blacks could vote and set out to register. After being turned away she “set her sights” on voting. In 1963, she was nearly beaten to death in Winona, but she continued in the struggle until her death.
The 10,000-acre Dockery Plantation was listed on the National Register in 2006 and is recognized by many as the birthplace of the blues. Approximately 2,000 laborers lived in this insular environment with its own store, school, churches, jooks and rail stop. The plantation became known for the skill of its musicians starting with Henry Sloan who mentored Charley Patton. Patton taught and nurtured younger musicians including Son House, Robert Johnson, “Howlin” Wolf, Honeyboy Edwards and Roebuck “Pops” Staples.
Dockery Farms remains the most perfect example of the physical layout and aura of a farm of the era. One can stand near the still visible tracks and visualize the train coming in at week’s end bearing the sartorially splendid bluesmen, guitars in hand. They would play in the makeshift clubs where tired workers had never seen anyone looking so pretty or sounding so good.
The Dockery family established and supports a research foundation to preserve the blues legacy. Information on events and tours can be found online. www.dockeryfarms.com
Railroads began to change Delta culture in the late 19th-century and many bluesmen would take the train to points north. Riley King was one who left in 1947 and went on to fame. His story is told in Indianola in the B. B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. The museum is the largest in the world dedicated to one musician with 20,000-sq. ft. of space. The $14-million facility is built around the only brick cotton gin in the state and one in which King worked. The museum captures the essence of the Delta blues and the soul of B. B. King. You should allow several hours for the self-guided tour.
Your experience begins with a 12-minute orientation film and continues through King’s life and career with the creative use of memorabilia, video, artifacts, dioramas, models and audio. His iconic guitar Lucille’s story is not neglected. In the 50s King was playing a club in Twist, Arkansas when two men began to fight over a woman and accidentally set the club on fire. King escaped before realizing he had abandoned his guitar. He risked his life retrieving it, found out the lady in question was named Lucille and ever after called his Gibson guitars “Lucille” to remind him to never fight over a woman. www.bbkingmuseum.org
King has claimed Indianola as his home since he moved there in 1938 to live with relatives. In 1986, he placed his signature and hand and footprints in cement on 2nd and Church Streets where he once played for coins. He returns yearly to perform a free concert for the city. www.indianolamstourism.org
I wish you smooth travels!