A Delta Journey: Early Sunday Morning in Rayville and the Ruins of Thomastown

As I headed east on Old Highway 80 from Monroe on a sunny Sunday morning, I decided to spend some time looking for things to photograph in Rayville and Delhi, primarily. One reason was that I had already thoroughly documented Tallulah a few years ago, so I decided that I should look more closely at other towns in the Delta. At first glance, Rayville looked promising. A sign at the edge of the Black community read “Tribe of Judah Block Club” and there were a number of juke joints on the east side of the town south of the railroad tracks. But I was soon disappointed, as there were a number of men sitting out in front of Queens Hall and Club Suga Ray’s. I don’t generally photograph jukes if people are sitting or standing in front of them, as the people generally don’t want to be photographed. They tend to be suspicious of outsiders in general, and white people in particular, and often seem to think that I must be the police. So I only shot a couple of pictures of the cafes that were closed and didn’t have anyone around them, and then I headed on to Delhi, which was even more disappointing than Rayville. There were no clubs or jukes in Delhi, only the old 80/20 club that used to be outside of town, and it was not something that would look cool in a picture. But at Thomasville, west of Tallulah, I came upon an abandoned church called Peter’s Rock Missionary Baptist church, and the sprawling ruins of abandoned Thomastown High School. The latter school had been merged with McCall High School in Tallulah in 2001, and then that school had also been closed and abandoned when Madison High School was opened. Both McCall and Thomastown schools have been simply allowed to rot. At Thomastown, a nearby farmer is using the campus to store his hay, but the vines have grown up all the way over the two-story building, which is truly sad and shocking. Doors to the dangerous buildings are wide open, and there is evidence online that explorers have gone inside and taken photos. Judging from what they found, books and equipment were simply left behind to rot with the building. All of this represents a considerable amount of taxpayer expenditure in what is one of the poorest counties in America. The powers that be will tell us that the children of the eastern part of Madison Parish are better off this way, despite the forty-mile round trip to school each day. They will point to the newer and more modern building at Madison High School, and the larger enrollment. But is it really better? Louisiana is full of such abandoned schools, rotting along rural roads, almost all of them former Black schools before integration. Is there a correlation between closing and consolidating schools and worsening student performance? I think it is worthy of study.

An Old and Forgotten Rural Community on Memphis’ Henrietta Road

It was a blistering hot summer’s day, probably about 1977 or so. The ice cream truck had come past our house but I missed it, and I managed to convince my dad to take me out in the Mustang to see if we could catch up with it. It had turned left from Sycamore View onto Raleigh-LaGrange and then promptly disappeared. Dad supposed that it had turned onto a road called Henrietta, so he turned down that road and into something neither one of us have ever imagined was thereā€”a rural Black community, frozen in time, right within the city of Memphis.

We never found the ice cream truck, but there was an old grocery store. It wasn’t open, and I can’t recall the name, but I can still remember the Coca-Cola signs on it. Next door was a church, and I can recall that a sign in front proclaimed it Washington Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. Not finding what we came for, my father turned around and headed back out toward the house.

I never knew what the name of the little community was, and still don’t, but I had occasion to visit it another time when a woman in my church, Ruby Kaufman, went to visit her employee, an older Black woman who lived off of Henrietta on a street called Twine Street. I recall the woman’s house as being a wooden house off the ground on blocks. I remember her telling us that the older people were quiet and decent folks, but that there were younger people at the back of the community who were into drugs and were wild. The neighborhood had something of a sinister reputation.

When I got old enough to ride my bike, I rode down Henrietta one day. I don’t recall what I saw, except that I remember a group of younger people in front of a house, and one of them saying, “Where you riding to so fast, white boy?” I had begun to remember the old lady’s words, and began to feel I should not have ridden down there. The neighborhood sort of continued across Raleigh-Lagrange along a road called Joe Brooks. But I could never determine exactly who Joe Brooks had been.

I literally don’t think I had been down that road again until September of this year. It occurred to me that the old church building, which had been abandoned even back in 1977, and the old store, if they were still standing, were landmarks that I ought to photograph, lest they disappear like so much else has. So I went, and found them still standing, although all signs and markers are gone. It is a quiet neighborhood now, a far cry from the wildness and drugs that people warned about in the 1980s. There is only one way in and one way out. But I was saddened by the fact that not only was the church sign I had recalled gone, but the cornerstone had been removed as well, a fairly selfish act that obliterated history. I had hoped to find a date of founding for that church, and a list of the deacons at the time it was built. But it was not to be.

I suppose the community is historic, and I hope to one day figure out what it was called and when it was founded. It has held out against all odds.

Toll Gate: A Hidden and Historic Cemetery in Bartlett

While browsing online one afternoon, I came upon a 1965 United States Geological Survey topographical map of the Ellendale area east of Bartlett, and along Highway 64, this map showed there being a cemetery called Toll Gate Cemetery close to modern day Wolfchase Mall. Having never seen a cemetery in that area, I wondered if it had been built over, or if the bodies buried there had been relocated. After searching the name on Google however, I discovered that although thoroughly hidden behind car dealerships, a lighting company and a Lowe’s store, the Toll Gate Cemetery, also called the Oak Grove Cemetery and the Ellis Burying Ground, still exists. The name Toll Gate seems to refer to the cemetery being close to a toll booth on the Old Stagecoach Road, which in early Tennessee history was a toll road.

This cemetery, which thousands of motorists drive past daily without knowing it is there, is one of the oldest in Shelby County, and seems to have been a burial place for both white and Black residents. At least one grave is of a Confederate soldier named Berryhill, for whose family Berryhill Road must have been named, and another is for a woman named Erma Dorsey. A man named Thomas Dorsey owned a juke joint on Germantown Road north of Highway 64, and the family name is associated with the Black community of Oak Grove. Also, at least one grave bears the Ellis name, for whom, presumably, Ellis Road was named.

Although the cemetery does not belong to them, the members of Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church have voluntarily made a point of picking up the trash in the hidden and forgotten burial grounds, but more and greater preservation efforts are needed. A historic marker should be put up, and efforts need to be made to maintain the location, and prevent any further encroachment on it.

A Breakfast At Rossville

Rossville, Tennessee, in Fayette County, was once called Lafayette Depot, but there was another Lafayette in Middle Tennessee, so sometime during Reconstruction, the town was renamed Rossville. For most of its history, it has been a small, quiet settlement of three or so streets, with some historic homes. A frozen foods plant came in the 1970’s, as did a Federally-funded community health clinic, which the Reagan administration eventually removed from the control of local community activists. Although proximity to Collierville is fueling a fair amount of suburban growth in Rossville, the main attraction is still the Wolf River Cafe, a local eatery famous for catfish that opened in 1989.

What people may not know is that the Wolf River Cafe is a great place for breakfast, too. They serve it until 10:30 AM, and on a summer morning, the place is fairly crowded. Like many rural cafes, prices are low, and the biscuits, omelettes and breakfast potatoes are truly amazing, and worth a drive from Memphis.

Also worth the drive is the little town itself, shady but full of historic houses. Little signs in front of some of them name them and give their dates. Some were built in 1860 or 1869, and some have dates that show they have been continuously added onto or improved. Rossville is best traversed on foot, as the historic district is only a few blocks wide. There is also a battlefield of sorts, the site of a small Civil War skirmish at what was once Lafayette Station, as well as a city park and a sort of boardwalk leading back across a creek to a lake behind the cafe. Altogether, Rossville makes a pleasant destination for breakfast and exploration.

Haute Cuisine and Hill Country Blues at Home Place Pastures in Como

Home Place Pastures was originally founded in 1869 or 1871, depending on the source, as a cotton plantation in the wilderness east of the railroad town of Como, Mississippi. It has belonged to several successive generations of the Bartlett family, with the most recent owners having decided to convert it from traditional agriculture to sustainable and organic beef, pork and lamb. The decision was an inspired one, and more and more restaurant menus in our region bear the legend “We proudly serve Home Place Pastures pork.” In addition to pasture-raised livestock, the Home Place has also served as a wedding venue at times. But once a year, it also becomes home to one of the Hill Country’s most important food and blues events, the Hill Country Boucherie and Blues Picnic.

The French word “boucherie” literally means a butcher’s shop, but the Hill Country Boucherie is actually a five-course meal prepared by nationally-renowned chefs. This year, items from 25 of the South’s best restaurants were available, and many people chose to camp on the grounds for the whole weekend. There was also a rock and hip-hop music festival on Friday night called Muscle Fest, which included the groundbreaking Memphis hip-hop artist Cities Aviv.

Nevertheless, for lovers of the Hill Country Blues, it is the blues picnic after the boucherie that is the main attraction. The Home Place Pastures is actually the perfect location for blues music, with a large pavilion suited to the purpose, and a retrofitted school bus with its front wall cut away to convert it into a movable stage. Fans have to sit on bales of hay, but that is half the fun, and the kids love playing on the larger haystacks that separate the fans from the artists-only area backstage.

For those who didn’t buy tickets to the boucherie, the Blues Picnic always has excellent pulled pork, and this year was no exception, except that they also had delicious brisket sandwiches, provided by Smoke Shop BBQ in Oxford.

As for the music, the evening began with the Como Mamas, singing a capella, but their voices were so strong that they easily carried the crowd. They were soon followed by R. L. Boyce, the elder statesman of Hill Country blues, who had just celebrated a birthday a few days before. Boyce, who often improvises lyrics as he goes, sang that he had said he wasn’t going to sing anymore, but evidently had changed his mind. His slow and languid “Jesus Is Going To Meet Me By The River Jordan” is a study in discipline, a humid aural landscape based on the plagal cadence at the end of hymns, a fitting soundtrack to sweltering summer days, kids playing on haystacks, or slow-moving creeks and bayous in the late afternoons. As his fellow musicians often attempt to pick up its pace, Boyce calmly but firmly re-establishes the slow tempo he demands. It is a sound unlike any other in the region.

Kenny Brown is another matter altogether, a disciple of both Mississippi Joe Callicott and R. L. Burnside, who picked up the electrified sound of the latter man’s last stylistic phase. Hill Country blues amplified and electrified becomes a kind of rock and roll, and Brown, along with compatriot Cedric Burnside, are the two best exponents of this style and sound, which has a large following in and around the Oxford area.

The Home Place Band, AKA the Como-Tions, is Marshall Bartlett’s own band. They generally make an appearance at each year’s boucherie, and occasionally at the GOAT Picnic sponsored by Sharde Thomas’ Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band. Although music is more a fun hobby than a vocation for them, they are actually quite good, and their “Hog Farmin’ Daddy” is a hilarious song that somewhat describes what Home Place Pastures is all about.

Sharde Thomas and the Rising Stars Fife and Drum Band were not on the published schedule, but nonetheless made a welcome appearance. Black fife and drum music is perhaps the earliest secular Black music in the Hill Country, and simply the right thing for a moonlight picnic near Como. The rhythms and polyrhythms demand action, and people get up to parade and dance and second-line around the grounds.

The headline performer of the evening was the Rev. John Wilkins, son of the late Robert Wilkins, of “Prodigal Son” fame. John is the pastor of Hunters Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, not far from the Home Place, and a major gospel music star in his own right. Playing a music that differs little from traditional Hill Country blues except for the lyrics has given Wilkins a forum that few other gospel artists could attain, for he plays many nights a year at festivals and even night clubs where he is often the only gospel act. Yet he never compromises his beliefs, or sings a secular song. One can only imagine how many blues fans, perhaps burdened with troubles or sorrows, have been comforted and perhaps encouraged by something the Rev. John Wilkins sang or said at precisely the right time. After reminding us that when God says we have to move, we have to move, he then reminded us that “You can’t hurry God” but He’s “right on time.” There was a final country band scheduled to go on stage after Wilkins, but there was really no better message to carry away from the Hill Country boucherie and blues picnic. God is always right on time.

A Void in Vaiden

Vaiden, Mississippi is a town on Highway 51 in Carroll County, and since 1873, the county seat of the second judicial district of that county. Carroll is one of a handful of Mississippi counties that have two county seats, generally due to historic difficulties of travel. Several years ago, I had explored the other county seat, Carrollton, with my friend Travis McFetridge, but when Sherena Boyce and I passed through Vaiden a week or so ago on our way to the Neshoba County Fair, I noticed an old juke joint on Highway 35, and decided that the town was worth a visit to see what was worth photographing.

The juke joint was the best find. Called the 21 Up Club, it was located right on the highway in town, with a sign decorated with music notes, and I took quite a few photographs of it. East of Highway 51, on Court Street, I found the ruins of a Greer’s Bar-B-Que restaurant, along what was otherwise a residential street, although many of the residences seemed abandoned.

But the downtown area was largely a loss, with the business district largely gone altogether, and no trace of the stores on Front Street, or the crowds of Black men I recall from a bus journey to Gulfport in the 1980’s. Vaiden suffered a tornado in 1990, and apparently it pretty well destroyed the downtown area. Of course the town had been suffering a degree of decline ever since Interstate 55 was completed to the west in 1973, but the tornado finished what had been started. Even the historic courthouse I could remember is gone, made into a Vaiden Community Park instead, with a Confederate monument in one corner the only trace that a courthouse had been there at all. The new courthouse is an ugly, garish 1990’s monstrosity with pointed roof, located on Front Street where the business district had been years ago. It is an incongruous modernism in the old town.

Also depressing is the fact that both of Vaiden’s schools appear to have been abandoned. The former Black high school, North Vaiden High School (later Percy Hathorn High School and then a Headstart center) seems to have been made into an antique mall or thrift store called The Prissy Hen. All the same, it was not open, and the entire building was gated off and closed. The former white high school, Vaiden High, appeared to have been turned into a community center. A few trucks and trailers were pulled up to it, and I could hear music coming from it, although whether a DJ or a live band I could never determine.

The only thing really left of value in Vaiden are some historic churches and homes, some of which seem to date from the 1870’s, judging from their architecture. A couple of these were located on hills, and might have survived the tornado as a result.

Briefly, I rode out to the southeast along Highway 35, taking some pictures at Carmack, the next town along the road. Like Vaiden, Carmack too has seen better days. Its school has been turned into a community center, and other than that, there is a Carmack Fish House that seems to do a brisk business.

Back in Vaiden, there was one club along Highway 35 that was beginning to get a crowd. A group of men were barbecuing under a tent, and cars were pulling up. I was not sure whether it was a special party or a usual Saturday afternoon at the club, but it looked as if it was going to be fun. But even with the windows down, I didn’t hear any music playing, and didn’t see a stage of any kind or any instruments. So I resisted the temptation to pull in there and see what was going on, and decided to head on west toward Greenwood.

An Evening of Art at Arkansas’s Waverly Plantation

Historic Waverly Plantation in Crittenden County, Arkansas has suffered from the fact that it shares its name with a much better-known plantation home near Columbus, Mississippi, which was built in the 1850’s. By contrast, we are not sure of the age of the elaborate Greek Revival mansion at Waverly, Arkansas, as the dates of 1908 and 1913 are encountered in articles. A Memphian named Fontaine Martin Sr. leased the land from a deputy sheriff in Crittenden County in 1913, and decided to live on the property full-time in 1915, but by his recollection, the house was already there, although in what form or to what extent is unclear. Adding more confusion to the mix is the rumor that an older Waverly Plantation existed on the opposite side of the levee from the current home. I have been told at least once that the house was disassembled at its old location and reassembled in its current location, which could make the house, in theory, much older still.

What is clear is that the Arkansas Waverly, on the National Register of Historic Places, is a treasure, and for the last several years it has been the site of the annual Art on the Levee, a fundraiser for DeltaARTS, the local arts non-profit in West Memphis.

While I had not been able to attend the event last year, I wasthis year, and I am thrilled to have been there, as the house has been sold, and it is unclear whether Art on the Levee will be able to be held there going forward.

At least half of the charm of the event was the beautiful house itself, which really consists of three stories if one counts the basement. Every room was beautifully furnished and decorated, with art works prominently displayed. Lemonade was being served on the front porch as a guitar player played and sang. Most of the art works were displayed in the basement, where there was of course a considerable crowd.

In back, tables and chairs had been set around a large swimming pool, and a stage had been set for the musicians, a string band from Memphis. I was really surprised that a blues band had not been chosen, as the scenery greatly suggested blues, but at any rate, the musicians never played during the hour and a half I was there. The main food was provided by the Soul Fish Cafe, and consisted of catfish, which was actually quite delicious. But what really stood out to me were the freshly-made fried pies from Tacker’s Shake Shack in Marion, a place I had driven past many times but never eaten at. I’m used to the fried pies from Yoder’s in Whiteville that are sold at Bozo’s in Mason, and they are good, but these were even better, with a flakier crust, perhaps because they were being served the same day they were made. After getting thoroughly full, I wandered the environs, snapping photos.

Although I am saddened by the prospect of the Art on the Levee having to move to another location in 2020, I am at least glad that I got this final chance to see the grand and historic old home before the new owners take it over. A check of the Fletcher Creek Quadrangle map from 1966 shows that at one time Waverly had a church, a cemetery and an airstrip. I saw no trace of any of them on my visit, but it might be worth a trip back to see if I can find the cemetery, as long as I can do so without infringing on private property.

The Ruins of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, Amanca, Arkansas

West Memphis, with its dog racing track/casino and industries obscures the fact that Crittenden County, Arkansas was once Delta country, with plantations and sharecropper shacks. The road toward Waverly, south of West Memphis reminds you of that fact, and in fact resembles the long, flat roads of the Mississippi Delta. Here and there a silo or white-frame church is visible across the flat fields, divided by occasional bayous lined with trees and brush. To the right about four miles south of West Memphis, however, I came upon the ruins of a church that looked historic. A modern Pentecostal church had been built beside it, and presumably the new church owns the building and grounds, but there was no sign of the name of the older church, or when it had been built. With the sun going down, the old white structure looked majestic, despite its deteriorated condition, and I would have liked to have investigated it more closely, but I soon found that bees or wasps had made a nest in the structure, and were literally pouring out of it. With discretion being the better part of valor, I beat a hasty retreat.

The mystery as to what church it was I ultimately solved by looking at the Fletcher Lake Quadrangle map from 1966 of the United States Geological Survey. It showed that the church was called St. John’s Church, and that there was also a cemetery on the site. When the map was reprinted in 2010, only the cemetery is shown.

As the event at Waverly I was on my way to had started at 5 PM, I decided it was best to be on my way, but I captured some photos of the church, as it will likely eventually collapse from neglect. The community where that church was is shown on the 1966 map as Amanca, Arkansas, but there seems little of that community either nowadays. Evidently, it is just a name.

Delta Easter: An Abandoned Church Near Symonds

The map showed a road called Pemble Road, a direct route from Merigold to a community called Symonds, which I had never been to, and which had enough streets on the map to suggest that it was worth a visit. Unfortunately, the map did not show that Pemble Road was gravel, and the further west I headed, the worse its condition got. Past a crossroads at Oak Tree Road, there was a farmhouse, out from which came two large dogs, chasing my car and barking furiously. I did not notice that the road was increasingly rutted and muddy, and I soon found myself hopelessly bogged down in a mudhole. The man whose house it was soon came out and offered to try to help pull me out of the hole, explaining to me that even if I hadn’t gotten stuck, it would have done me no good to have gone on, as the bridge was out ahead, and there was no way to get to Symonds from there.

He went to look for a rope, but soon another truck pulled up, driven by a deputy sheriff and his wife, who were on their way to a fishing hole and did not know the bridge was out. He had a chain on the back of his truck, and with that, he was able to pull me out of the mud. I thanked both men profusely, and then headed back to Oak Tree Road, and, giving up any ideas of going to Symonds, I headed for Pace instead.

The man who had first come to my rescue had mentioned an abandoned church on Oak Tree Road, and I soon found it near its intersection with Pemble Road. There was no indication of its name, but it seemed an old and historic place.