Monday, September 30, 2013

Southern scandals

It has been a couple of weeks since I put up a blog so I am taking care of that today. The digitizing process has been a relatively painless one but now I have begun creating metadata for the first half of the digitized letters. This is the more painstaking process. It’s a bit time consuming but will be worth it in the end when these letters have the appropriate data attached to their digital file.

In the meantime, I can’t help but read some of the letters that I’ve been digitizing. The transcriptions provided in the files I’ve discovered are a bit inaccurate and I may be providing new transcriptions of time allows for this project.

One of the most interesting letters I’ve come across was a young lady writing to her friend telling her of the new gentleman in her life that takes her to all of the plays and brings her flowers at her recitals. She says “He is 6’1” and awfully handsome, a graduate of Cornell University and quite swell.”

She goes on to say that he is from “one of the best families too.”

The letter gets more interesting when she begins to speak about her past relationships as she states “I am so glad Mr. M--- is going out again – and do assure those people he never was thinking of being in love with me. I tried southern flirting and am afraid I carried it a little too far, from some of the remarks I have heard.”

Her flirtatious behavior didn't appear to end at this point! She continues to elaborate further about her other gentlemen suitors:

“Mr. B---- has acted as if I were in love with him and I think, but am not sure, Mr. M--- said I loved him – well let them think so, but you know how much I was in love.”
“You always thought I was engaged and would not tell you – it was awfully foolish to wear rings belonging to men and accept jewelry, but I returned it every bit. I did enjoy myself though and the two beaus made it right lively for me. But my sweet A---- I was never engaged … in my life.”

Given that this letter dates back to the late 1800s/early 1900s, this kind of behavior had to be relatively scandalous in a small town like Clarksdale but I am having a hard time tracking down exactly who this woman was. At any rate, she surely seems to have left her mark on the hearts of the men who attempted to woo her!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The joys of archival work!

This past week I began, though only briefly, my practicum for my certificate in archives and special collections. I am working with the Charles W. Capps Jr. Archives at Delta State University in Cleveland, MS to digitize and create metadata for a collection of letters from one of the founding families of Clarksdale.

I'm looking forward to this work as it gives me hands-on experience under the watchful eye of a trained archivist (who is also a blast to work with). I'm looking forward to working on this project and will be posting progress and nifty facts that I learn here!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival 2012: A not-quite-so-free festival.

I have to admit I was excited. Robert Plant was performing at the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale, MS. My little hometown of barely 19,000 people was hosting a genuine music legend. Sure, I was busy playing shows throughout the weekend, but I specifically tailored my gigs so I could get over to the stage and see the man who absolutely defined what a lead singer should be. I was giddy.

          On Friday I strolled to the stage to see a friend’s band perform. That’s when I saw it: the “VIP” section. A barren wasteland of white tables with black tablecloths and plastic chairs stretching over 100 feet from stage to street and covering the entire width of the stage - without a single person (besides security) to enjoy the bands. Prices for these tables ranged from $10,000 near the stage to $2,500 in the back. All the spectators who came to see what was advertised as a “free” festival were shoved to the far right, in front of the Delta Blues Museum.

          I almost cried. I knew they were setting up a larger VIP section than usual, but I just expected a bigger tent setup to the left side (which they had also done). The sight was heartbreaking.

          For two long days, bands were forced to play to empty tables and security guards.  Meanwhile, the festival faithful, the people who had been there since Friday to see every band perform, were forced to watch from the wings like peasants peeking over the fence of a rich man’s garden party. The usual dancing, cheering, and gawking from the front of the stage were gone. No one seemed excited to be there, least of all the musicians! They had become an afterthought. One musician (who played with several bands over the course of the festival) said that the audio engineers practically ignored any requests for monitor adjustments and there wasn’t even anyone to tell the bands when to start and stop playing. Robert Plant was in town and everyone else be damned.

          I’ve heard the myriad excuses for this massive new VIP section. “How else could we afford performers like Robert Plant?” and “We have to make money for this festival somewhere!” While I understand these concerns and sympathize with the need for funding I have to question the labeling of the festival as “free” when those who came for a “free festival” are forced to the side and treated like second-class citizens. The sound system was even directed entirely at the VIP section with the section in front of the museum only receiving dissipated and reflected sound. Vocals were difficult to understand even when performers were simply talking without any music to be heard over. Apparently it wasn't worth setting up a few extra speakers on the side for those who couldn't afford to pay $10,000 per table.  They just had to settle for the audio leftovers of the privileged.

          I’ve heard from those that say we need to look past this and look for ways to fix the problem for next year. Of course I agree that we must find a way to address this problem so that this type of situation doesn’t occur in the future but at the same time, someone must be held accountable for giving this festival the biggest black eye it’s probably ever received. On a weekend when Sunflower Blues and Gospel Festival and Clarksdale needed to make the best impression possible on a mostly new crowd, someone dropped the ball. The hope was that this would reignite this withering festival by drawing a record crowd to Clarksdale. I can only hope that there wasn’t more harm done than good but based on the backlash I’m hearing and seeing through friends, tourists, and social media I’m doubtful.

This display of callous disregard for performers and patrons who come to the Sunflower Festival year after year and support our city is simply deplorable. This attitude of socioeconomic elitist segregationism sends the message that our city doesn’t actually care about the American art form birthed in our region. It only cares about capitalizing on the name of a legendary performer – a performer who only comes to our town because of that art form in the first place. The blues was created by the poor and underprivileged. If Robert Johnson himself had been alive for this festival, he wouldn’t have been able to afford a good view. 

photos 1 and 4 © Sean Kaufman 2012
photos 2 and 3 © Phillip Carter 2012

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Occupy Wall Street as a Call to Arms for All People

[Writer's note:  I've been so far behind on my blogging.  Things have been busy and time for research of my own has been rather limited.  This week I have been completely engrossed in the Occupy Wall Street movement so I apologize for my uncommonly political blog, but I felt like I needed to say this.]

In a park who’s northwest corner is across the street from the World Trade Center site (or as we know it now commonly, Ground Zero) a movement is taking hold.  On September 17, 2011, a group of a few hundred organized in Zuccotti Park (formerly Liberty Plaza) to raise awareness of the corporate greed they (and many others) believe is running rampant in the large corporations and banks of the U.S. and to call President Obama to setup a commission that would end “the influence money has over representatives in Washington.”

          A volunteer organizer, Bill Csapo, told a CBS Station that “I don’t think that anybody can look at the political and economic landscape we have now in Washington and not come to the conclusion that the system is broken. The main focus is the toxic and corrupting effect of unlimited money on the political situation, which would be called a Corporate-cracy, not a Democracy.”

          The constant presence of police in events like this should go without saying.  When a large group of angry people get together there are bound to be problems and while the group as a whole has remained peaceful, there have been moments of tension and arrests have been made.  Marring it all though is the blatant police brutality and inexcusable use of excessive force when it has not been warranted.  Videos of police beatings, dousing of a crowd (mostly female) with pepper spray and violent arrests have spread virally over the internet.  To watch these videos it’s easy to forget that we’re not looking at a political uprising in Africa or the Arab nations but a movement on our own soil that is now sweeping the nation.

          Splinter groups have sprung up in Washington D.C., New Jersey, San Francisco, Boston, Knoxville, Los Angeles, Chicago, Tampa, Connecticut and Idaho.  What started as a few hundred people rallying in New York under their banner of general disgust for the entire financial system has grown into a national movement that eventually the news media are going to have to make note of.  Thus far there has been little coverage on CNN aside from an interview in which the interviewer, preying on some of the less informed protesters asked pointedly slanted questions to illustrate that some of the group aren’t even sure what they’re protesting.  The group has not made any single, concise demands other than to express their dissatisfaction with the system as a whole and their desire to see it changed.

Signs are being paraded through the streets bearing slogans such as “Tear down the Wall Street Greed”, “Stop the War on the Working Man” and “We are the 99 Percent”.  The movement is as of today almost 3 weeks into an occupation that has been stated will last months.  They have setup their own kitchen, library and even a newspaper for the movement.  Having grown from a few hundred to estimates of 20,000 in New York alone it doesn’t appear it’s going anywhere and has only been fueled by the police intervention and violence. 

          We, as Mississippians, tend to be a bit detached from the goings-on of Washington and New York but we have to stand up and take notice.  Whether you are for or against the Occupy Wall Street movement is irrelevant.  What is relevant is that you take an active interest in where your tax dollars go and what we support.  Get involved in local politics, get involved in your community, have an opinion, understand how things are done.  These are my calls to action.  If a group of a few hundred in a city the size of New York can spark a national movement, what can a handful of people in any given Mississippi town do if they are motivated and dedicated to seeing real, positive changes in their own communities?  I love this state and I love living in Clarksdale, MS.  I moved back here because I believe in us and I believe in what we can be.  This is my call to arms for everyone to get involved if only by being informed. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Port Royal - Lost "Seat of Justice" of Coahoma County

Most citizens of Coahoma County have never heard of this little town but it was at one point the county seat (or “seat of justice” as it was referred to then) of Coahoma and also the oldest town in the county. 

In 1830 the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was agreed upon by the Choctaw Indians and the U.S. Government.  This was the first “removal” treaty carried out under the Indian Removal Act. This treaty ceded about 11 million acres of land, most of which located in the state of Mississippi, to the U.S. Government.  This land included lands in east Mississippi stretching from Clarke County to Lowndes county, crossing the state to lands in west Mississippi from Coahoma County to the border of Tunica and Desoto Counties. 

(Maps of Mississippi showing (at left) the area ceded by the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek and (at right) the present day county borders)

Following this treaty and the move of over 15,000 Choctaw Indians to Oklahoma (incidentally, ‘oklahoma’ is the Choctaw word for ‘red people’), the lands ceded the U.S. were available for settling in Mississippi. 

Driven by the prospect of cheap land and fresh starts, people began to move, many arriving by river.  In those days, counties on the Mississippi River typically made their “seat of justice” a town along the river because that was their principal point of travel, commerce, and society.  It was for these reasons that Port Royal was originally designated as the seat for Coahoma County.

(Early map showing the location of several plantations along the Mississippi River. Helena (Arkansas), Delta and Port Royal are clearly marked.  Though this map is from 1839 it shows the 'Horseshoe cutoff' already having been completed and the river diverted from Port Royal.  Records indicate the completion of this cutoff did not occur until 1848. Speculation exists that the maps plate was changed post 1848 to reflect the change in the river, but the truth of the matter is not known.)

Unpublished histories of the region assert that a settlement existed as Port Royal as early as 1833.  According to records, land sales were being made by the U.S. Government for the Port Royal, Rescue Landing, and Sunflower Landing vicinities even before the county was established in 1836. 

Though never incorporated and never having established a post office (according to U.S. Post Office Department records), the town still became the most important town in the county.  On February 4, 1839 the Mississippi Legislature issued a memorial to the U.S. Congress asking that post offices be located at several riverfront locations including “Powhatan, the seat of justice in Coahoma County”.  Based on stories passed down from generation to generation, some believe that Powhatan existed on the Mississippi River shore opposite the southern end of Island No. 63.  Historians however disagree and believe Powhatan to have been the original name of Port Royal. 

The name for the settlement, according to George Maynard’s memoirs, was given by William J. Oldham who owned considerable amounts of land at the south end of the ‘U’ in horseshoe bend.  According to the memoir, Oldham was born at Port Royal, S.C. and chose the name of his birthplace for the settlement in Mississippi.  Since Oldham didn’t come to Coahoma County until 1939, it’s entirely possible the settlement was called Powhatan previous to his arrival. 

(Oil painting by artist John Stobart entitled "A Night Run to Friar's Point".  Steamboats like this were commonplace during the 'steamboat era' of the Mississippi River.  Towns like Port Royal, Delta, and Friar's Point were the major ports for these rambler's of the Mississippi, but it was not uncommon for larger plantations along the Mississippi River to have their own ports.)

During this time the settlement most assuredly was the largest and busiest community in Coahoma County.  The 1840 census lists just 1,290 people (766 whites, and 524 slaves) in the entire county and most of which settled in the locations of Port Royal, Sunflower Landing, and Rescue Landing. 

The only available description of Port Royal is included in a script that was prepared for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Hernando DeSoto’s discovery of the Mississippi River and it states:

“Her rude stores, saloons and shanties stood back a safe distance from the precipitous edge of the river’s bank. At low stage, river craft landed at her feet; at high stage they unloaded their cargoes into her one muddy street. At flood stage, river and village were one.
Both public buildings and private homes were roughly but stoutly constructed of logs.
Although accorded the honor of being named county site, no [official] courthouse ever was built in Port Royal. Court, school and church were held in the same one-room log house. When the jury retired to deliberate upon and decide the fate of those early transgressors against the law they took themselves into a thicket of low timber behind the ‘courthouse and’ seated themselves in solemn dignity upon the trunks of felled trees.
The (official county) records, so it is told, were kept in a trunk and carried about by the clerk in an ox wagon.”
Before the settlement was even a decade old, it would succumb to the volatile nature of the Mississippi River.  The river, which is said to possess a will of its own, finally cut across the 1 mile wide stretch of land that separated the bends of horseshoe bend thus straightening the river and marking Port Royal as no longer a riverfront settlement or steamboat landing. 

(Extract of a google map showing present day terrain around the former location of Port Royal.  Horseshoe Lake, as indicated, has dwindled to a scant shadow of its prior significance as seen in the early map above.  It, like Moon Lake in this extract, was abandoned to its own devices when the mighty and aberrate Mississippi River chose other paths. 

Upon the realization that Port Royal would no longer be a riverfront town, a vote was held to elect a new county seat.  The county seat chosen was Delta, MS, a town located approximately 5 miles north of Friars Point, MS.  This removal of the ‘seat’ from Port Royal had an immediate impact on its business and commerce. 

Today Port Royal exists in record only.  The remains of the town have never been found or identified though some theorize that they were cover by the levee built to protect from the untamable Mississippi river.  What truly became of that town may never be known but its existence was paramount as it was the first gateway into the cotton empire of Coahoma County.   

**This post would not have been possible without the research of legendary Clarksdale historian and newspaper reporter Harry Abernathy who's articles on the topic of early Coahoma County provided the lion's share of information for this blog.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fletcher Field - WW II Cadet Training Facility

In 1941, the Japanese naval and air forces launched an attack on the U.S. Navy facilities at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The American response to these attacks was quick and though life in the Mississippi Delta tends to move a bit more slowly than the rest of the country (even then), changes came to Clarksdale with rapidness.

(Left: Guard House, Right: Operations Building)

In the Spring of 1942 the United States Government issued a contract to the Clarksdale School of Aviation.  That contract established the operation of a primary flying school located about 8 miles north of Clarksdale, MS.  Construction for the school began immediately and in July of 1942 the first class (Class 43-A) began their training at Fletcher Field (The airport was named for Clarksdale football great and aviation cadet Jack Hughes Fletcher who was killed during a training incident at Curtis Field, Texas in 1941).  The Army wanted schools in the South where the weather was warmer and winters less harsh.  That would mean better flying conditions for training for the cadets. 

(Image of several of the original buildings including barracks at Fletcher Field)

Major T.W. Bonner was the first commanding officer and worked closely with both Army personnel (the Army and Air Force were still a single department at this time) and civilian flight instructors and personnel.  The civilian instructors were said to always be cooperative and anxious to graduate the best recruits but occasionally regulation wasn’t followed as closely as it should have.  After 2 fatal accidents involving civilians in Fall of 1943, instructors worked more strictly with Army-Air Force personnel to prevent and report violations of regulation.

(Fletcher Field hangers)

The city of Clarksdale was openly receptive of this new military training facility.  Funds were donated by individuals and civic sources for the establishment and maintenance of a Recreation Center accessible to cadets during ‘open post’ and it was available to officers anytime.  The local Red Cross sponsored a reading room and Lounge for use by enlisted men not only at Fletcher Field but also in the area.  Individual citizens even opened up their homes on to cadets for dinner and weekend stays. 

(Photo of the 'Ready Room' at Fletcher Field where pilots prepped for flight training)

The airfield originally used Stearman 17’s for flight training but Fairchild PT-23’s were later sent in for training.  With the change in aircraft, a problem with finding replacement parts rose as the PT-23’s were relatively new planes and parts were scarce all over with only completely disabled planes being able to have parts replaced.  Eventually a shipment of repair parts was sent in to fortify Fletcher Field’s aircrafts. 

(On the left, a trio of Stearman PT-17's and on the right, a lone Fairchild PT-23)

The school operated between 1943 and 1945 (closing before the war’s end) and trained many classes of cadets.  Each class was bigger than the last with classes reaching as big as 250 cadets.  Classes so big meant food, water and housing became an issue.  New, expensive wells had to be dug and quarters became cramped but it is said the students were never poorly treated.  Though there was less space, morale stayed quite high. 

(Cadets writing home from Fletcher Field in Clarksdale, MS)

In 1943 a prisoner of war camp was set up at Fletcher Field for German and Italian prisoners.  The P.O.W.’s were remembered as being friendly and rather fond of America.  Many worked as hands on local farms and there was even a P.O.W. band that played for dances at the base. 

(One of many dances held at the base)

After the war, the War Assets Association began selling off surplus planes and equipment and later deeded the airfield to the city of Clarksdale.  Mabry I. Anderson, Ben White, and Berkley Ellis took advantage of the opportunity and prevailed upon the city to lease them the airfield to open the Mississippi Valley Aircraft Service, an agricultural flying firm.  The firm bought up surplus Stearman’s from the military and converted them to cropdusters.  Using modern and innovative techniques, MVAS established itself as a premier agricultural flying service. 

(Two cadets showing off one of the Fairchild PT-23's)

By 1970 Anderson, the soul owner, was ready to sell and sold the business to another agricultural application business.  Now the airfield is again owned by the city of Clarksdale and is used for general aircraft and agricultural use. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival

[Blogger's note:  Due to time spent out of state this past weekend and a thoroughly busy schedule this week I've been unable to put together a proper blog.  My topic for this week was to be the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival held annually the second week in August here in Clarksdale, MS (this week!) and as I researched information I came across the history of the festival on the internet and decided I couldn't word it any better than they did so here it is.]

The first Sunflower River Blues Festival took place in 1988 and was funded primarily by Clarksdale's downtown merchants and organized by Jim O'Neal and Dr. Patricia Johnson. It featured dozens of musicians performing on outdoor stages on the banks of the Sunflower River beneath the Riverside Recreation Center and in the open space between Sunflower and Delta Avenues. It was filmed by Mississippi Educational Television (ETV).

Some of the performers were the Jelly Roll Kings, Jack Owens and Bud Spires, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Boogaloo Ames, and Othar Turner and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. The finale performances by James "Son" Thomas followed by Otis Rush took place inside the Larry Thompson Center for the Performing Arts, formerly the Paramount Theatre, formerly the Marion Theatre.

[Blues great James 'Son' Thomas]

The second festival (1989), funded primarily by a group of individual donors including the late Z L Hill, owner of the Riverside Hotel, moved to Martin Luther King Park on the banks of the Sunflower River. A flatbed truck served as a stage for musicians - predominately local performers including Mr. Johnnie Billington and two students he was mentoring: Quitman County brothers Deon (drummer) and Harvel Thomas (bassist). Although the lineup was smaller than the previous year, it attracted an international audience including fans from Australia.

The third festival (1990) was a tribute to Muddy Waters, and the stage moved again across the Sunflower River to Soldiers Field, where Clarksdale High School once played its football games.

Among the performers were Keith Sykes from Memphis, harmonica master Snooky Pryor, Vasti Jackson backing up swamp queen Katie Webster, jazz virtuoso Mose Allison, and Jessie Mae Hemphill.

Blues Association members met regularly at the Chamber of Commerce, then located in the downtown Bobo Building, to plan the event dedicated to showcasing Mississippi musicians or musicians with roots in Mississippi.
The organization continued to be composed entirely of volunteers who loved blues and were committed to keeping the festival free and accessible to all since blues sprang from the local culture.

Although the association became an official 501 c 3 non-profit and received funds from the Mississippi Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, it retained its unique individuality and laid-back, informal hospitality that has remained a trademark.

The fourth festival (1991) moved once again across the river to the former loading docks of the freight depot (now the Delta Blues Museum). The stage faced the railroad tracks, Delta Avenue, and the raised concrete "porch" now the exterior of Ground Zero Blues Club. The festival remained in this location until the city of Clarksdale built the Blues Alley stage facing Yazoo Avenue.

[The stage at Blues Alley during the festival, now the permanent home of the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival]

The first acoustic stage was housed in the Delta Blues Museum when it was located on the second floor of Carnegie Public Library.

Frequently it featured an educational component - lectures, talks, panels, discussions that often were funded by the Mississippi Humanities Council and organized by John Ruskey, museum curator. One year it featured foods of the Mississippi Delta with Big John Broom cooking catfish, Boss Hogg and his family with barbecue, Shirley Fair with soul food.

Frequently musicians performed on the steps outside the library; other times on a makeshift tent-style stage. After the Blues Museum moved into the freight depot and when the festival main stage moved to the Blues Alley stage, the acoustic stage was transferred to one of the air-conditioned waiting rooms inside Clarksdale Station, the renovated passenger depot.

In 2004 the Blues Association was awarded a Southern Arts Federation grant to present Big Bill Morganfield, son of Muddy Waters, in an educational program which took place inside the Delta Blues Museum. In 2005 SAF again awarded the Sunflower a grant to present Charlie Musselwhite in a discussion about his Southern musical roots. In 2006 soul superstar Latimore will be interviewed about his long career.

Organized by Melville Tillis and Julius Guy, the first gospel festival was held on a very hot Sunday afternoon beneath the New Roxy theatre marquee on Issaquena. It has been held outside on the Blues Alley stage, inside the Civic Auditorium, and also inside several area churches. In 2006 it will return to the festival main stage Sunday afternoon.

[James 'Super Chikan' Johnson performing at the Sunflower Fest]

Several motions have been made to change the festival date from the second weekend of August to a cooler month. However, members have voted to retain the August format since the event has become global. June is universally recognized for B.B. King's Homecoming concert in Indianola and Delta Jubilee in Clarksdale; July for July 4th; September for Greenville's Blues and Heritage Festival, and October for Helena's Arkansas Heritage, formerly King Biscuit Blues Festival.

Approximately 25,000 music fans from 17 countries and 35 states attended the 2005 festival; a larger crowd is expected in 2006.

[Celebrated Norwegian blues band Spoonful of Blues came to the Sunflower in 2001]

In 1996 Clarksdale became the official international Sister City of Notodden, Norway, home of Europe's largest blues festival. The Sunflower and the International Notodden Blues Festivals are sister festivals with Clarksdale musicians performing in Norway, and Norwegian musicians performing in Clarksdale.

The Sunflower has also established a sister festival relationship with the Maximum Blues Festival in the Quebec Province of Canada. One of the Canadian bands will be performing in 2006 on the Sunflower's main stage.
The Blues Association is a true bi-racial organization, and members attribute much of its success to this racial composition.

[Local blues musicians Terry 'Big T' Williams (left) and Bill 'Howl'N'Madd' Perry (right) performing on the Blues Alley stage]

Although the association is solely responsible for the festival, it relies on many partnerships to make it happen including the Delta Blues Museum, the Coahoma County Tourism Commission, the Chamber of Commerce, the Care Station, the city of Clarksdale, Clarksdale Public Utilities, Police Department, Public Works, area churches, and hundreds of businesses and individuals.