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.

A Delta Journey: A Chilly Homecoming in Grambling

When I woke up in West Monroe, the first thing I noticed was how extremely chilly it was, and that didn’t improve all that much as I drove over to Bayou Brew House for breakfast. The coffee house actually looked closed, but fortunately, it was open. Although I was the first customer, others trickled in as I was enjoying my meal, and my food was very good indeed.

The previous night in Grambling, I had noted the much smaller crowds than what I was used to seeing on previous homecomings, and that continued to be the case on Saturday morning. There were not nearly as many people lined along Main Street, not even by the Favrot Student Union and the McCall Dining Hall where in most years the bulk of the students gather. At least one factor might have been the chilly weather, but there was a palpable lack of enthusiasm as well. In addition, the parade was much shorter than previous years. Starting at 9 AM, it was over by 10, and there were not very many high school bands in it at all. In fact, there were none from Monroe at all, which I found shocking. The bands that did march included Lincoln Prep, which apparently is the old Grambling High School, Ferriday High School, Southwood High School from Shreveport, General Trass High School from Lake Providence, Madison High School from Tallulah, and Madison S. Palmer High School from Marks, Mississippi.

The four-hour window between the end of the parade and the kickoff of the football game led to me spending a lot of time in the bookstore, and then in the food court. But Grambling had evicted their former food service company and replaced them with Sodexho, and nearly everything in the food court was closed for construction. The exception was Pizza Hut, so I waited in line to get a pepperoni pizza, and it was fairly decent. Some of the band kids from the high schools had had the same idea. With plenty of time left to kill, I walked up into the Village to Black to the Basics bookstore, a reincarnation of a shop I remember in the early 1990s, and although I was interested in a book about the civil-rights era Deacons for Defense and Justice in Louisiana, I decided against buying it and walked back down to the student union.

Eventually, I made my way to the stadium. It was warm enough that I had come out of my jacket and hat, but around the stadium, I was shocked by the reduced numbers of tailgaters, compared to what I used to see. It appeared that the university had increased the fees both for parking and tailgating, and this may have been one reason, but throughout the day, I noticed smaller attendance at events than normal. But outside the band hall, the alumni drummers were playing cadences; this year was a commemoration of the legendary Grambling band director Conrad Hutchinson, and there had been nearly a week of events in his honor. As the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band marched into Eddie Robinson Stadium to the drummers’ cadence, I headed into the stadium as well.

Early on, it appeared as if Grambling’s band would have no rival, other than their own alumni band across the field. During Quarter Zero, as bandheads call it, Grambling came out playing not a march, as is typical, but rather a ragtime piece that I did not recognize. This year’s Tiger band was tight and impeccable in tune and tone. But at about the start of the second quarter, the Texas Southern University Ocean of Soul band marched into the stadium, and from that point, the two bands battled back and forth to a certain extent, although SWAC rules keep the bands from playing during football play.

Unfortunately, about halftime, the sun moved to the extent that the west side of the stadium where I was sitting was in shade, and it soon became downright cold. Despite the stadium being set down in a valley, the winds blew and made things much colder. After halftime, the Chocolate Thunder drumline from Grambling and the Funk Train drumline from Texas Southern battled back and forth with cadences across the field, but I was too far away to get great footage. I had hoped to capture the Fifth Quarter battle after the game, but my Iphone soon ran down to 3%, and my backup battery was also depleted, so I decided to leave out and head back to my car. As is usually the case, the late afternoon after the game resulted in the biggest crowds of the day, but even these seemed reduced this year, and there were few if any custom cars compared to the typical homecoming. Police were far more in evidence, too, and from a number of communities, including Hodge and Monroe. By the time I had reached the car, I was so chilled that I turned the heater on full blast.

One difference this year was that Grambling now has a supermarket in the new shopping center called Legends Square. But it was the most bizarre and truly spooky supermarket I had ever been in. Most of the shelves were nearly bare, and only a few were filled with products for sale. One employe was on duty, and I found nothing in the store that I wanted to purchase, so I returned to my car and headed back east toward Monroe.

A Delta Journey: How People Got A New Start in Crew Lake

On old Highway 80, heading west from Rayville toward Monroe, one comes to a community with a most unusual name—Start, Louisiana. It’s not an incorporated town, but it has gained a degree of notice for being the hometown of country star Tim McGraw. The town got its unusual name when their request to establish a post office with the name of Charleston, Louisiana was denied by the postal authorities, as apparently there was another Charleston in Louisiana at the time. Stymied by the decision, the local store owner and some others debated what other name to try. Legend has it that a teenaged girl contributed the name by saying “Now we will have to start all over.” There’s not a whole lot to Start, just a volunteer fire department, some apartments, a couple of stores, a school, a water tower and a few houses. But it has managed to spawn a suburb, or perhaps, more correctly, a twin city.

Just to the west of Start is Crew Lake, a shaded community strung out along the banks of a bayou of the same name. Both Start and Crew Lake seem to have begun around the early twentieth century as flag stops on what was then the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific Railroad, but the latter community seems to have been little more than a name until 1937. That was the year that the Farm Security Administration (formerly the Resettlement Administration) acquired the Melrose Plantation and divided it into what they called “farmsteads,” small acreages with modern, electrified homes. A number of poor farmers from Northern Louisiana took advantage of the opportunity to move into these new houses and try their hand at co-operative farming. The FSA formed the Crew Lake Co-operative Association, to provide for supplies, cotton ginning and other necessaries for the success of the experiment. And, indeed, for those who moved to Crew Lake, the experiment proved to be a success. On the other hand, conservative Southern congressmen were not so pleased. They saw the whole scheme, and other FSA projects like it, as socialistic or even communistic, and their objections succeeded in abolishing the Farm Security Administration by 1942. The replacement agency, the Farmers’ Home Administration, was more geared to making low-interest loans available to farmers, but it did nothing to build new farm communities or to convert tenant farmers into landowners.

Today, the quiet community of Crew Lake would almost seem like a resort. There are no businesses in it, and no sign of the co-operative association, and if the houses were once all remarkably similar, government-designed structures, they have now been either replaced or altered in such a way that no discernible pattern remains. But Crew Lake remains a vibrant community.

A Delta Journey: Lake Chicot and Old Juke Joints in Eudora

Across the Mississippi River Bridge from Greenville, Mississippi, a traveler immediately gets a view of a beautiful blue lake to the northwest. This long lake, for which the Chicot county seat of Lake Village is named, is a former channel of the Mississippi River, and is known as Lake Chicot. Lake Chicot is what is known as an oxbow lake, a lake formed when a meander stream cuts off loops and bends in shortening its channel to the sea. This particular lake is lined with gorgeous houses and boat docks, as well as an occasional motel, restaurant or bait shop. Boating and fishing seem to be the main attractions.

Some twelve miles to the south is the town of Eudora, an old and fairly-typical Delta town that has clearly seen better days. Once a refuge for people escaping river flooding, Eudora has a history of racial conflict, and in more recent years, white flight, mysterious arson fires, and wholesale abandonment of the downtown area. Like so many towns in eastern Arkansas, Eudora has also had its schools closed by the state, and its children are bused to Lake Village. But the stretch of old juke joints and cafes along Armstrong Street has always made me believe that Eudora might have blues stories to tell. One of them, Harris Cafe, still remains, although whether the place ever features live bands is unclear, and there are a couple of buildings nearby that look as if they once were clubs. Although the available newspapers do not tell much of the story of Eudora’s nightlife, aside from an occasional shooting or stabbing, I am hoping to eventually determine some of the community’s music history.

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.

The Remnants of Hulbert, Arkansas

Crittenden County, Arkansas, despite being across the river from Memphis, has struggled to develop over the years. Although there were frequent attempts to develop a town on the west side of the river from Memphis, few of those efforts succeeded. Hopefield, the first town on the Arkansas side, was burned in the Civil War. Although it was rebuilt, it ultimately became unstable, due to changes in the Mississippi River, and apparently its site disappeared beneath the waters. Its nearby rival Mound City avoided that fate, but ended up on an oxbow lake called Danner Lake, removed from the river altogether. Almost no trace of that place remains. Later, in the 1880’s, Memphis papers mentioned a park called West End Park in a new town called West Memphis, but that location was probably not the city we know of today, and I have been unable to determine exactly where it was.

Instead, the first community to actually gain a degree of permanence was a railroad station called Hulbert, at some distance from the Mississippi River. It apparently consisted of a store, post office, railroad station and some houses, and eventually became substantial enough to form a school district (in Arkansas, school systems are formed by local communities and not by counties).

Hulbert was done in as well, but not by the river, or economic failure. Rather, the Bragg Lumber Company, taking advantage of the demand for famous Memphis hardwood lumber, formed a community in the early 1920’s which was initially named Bragg, Arkansas. Finding that the lumber from Bragg did not sell that well, the company sought to link its products to the famous hardwood lumber of the larger city of Memphis across the river, and thus renamed their new city West Memphis in 1926. So rapidly did the new city grow that it was soon nicknamed the “Wonder City.” Not long thereafter, the school system was renamed the Hulbert-West Memphis School District, and the day came when Hulbert was annexed into the city limits of West Memphis.

Today, few traces of Hulbert remain, but the ones that do are worth seeing. A few store buildings, noticeably the large two-story store facing the railroad that once belonged to the Dabbs family. Unfortunately, it is now a private residence, and cannot be toured, but it has been fully restored, and some whimsical decorations exist in the yard. At least one other building seems to date from that era. Sadly, new buildings have been allowed to spring up that have nothing in common with the original community or its aesthetics.

A Tour of Dyersburg’s Bruce Neighborhood

After a late lunch in Halls, I drove on to Dyersburg. One of the reasons was that a few years ago, I had seen a listing for a cafe that I suspected was a juke joint in a neighborhood on the southeast side of Dyserburg that was surrounded by railroad tracks. I had never been in this area of the city, and wanted to see if there was anything historic in it. As far as where the cafe had been indicated, along the railroad tracks, I found nothing there, and I assume the building had been demolished. But I soon learned that this was the neighborhood where Bruce High School had been, the high school for African-American students in Dyersburg prior to integration. And while I didn’t find anything that looked like a juke joint, I did find some interesting historic structures; the Balboa Lodge was undoubtedly a Masonic body within the Prince Hall F & AM, and the bright-yellow Panama Food Mart stood out against the blue sky overhead. With the sunlight slipping away, I then headed out Highway 412, making my way to Brownsville for dinner at the Mindfield Grill.

The Tennessee Delta IV: Tipton County


On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in June, I decided to head out around some of the backroads in Tipton County in search of things to photograph, focusing primarily on the part of the county between Highway 51 and the Mississippi River. Some of what I hoped to see I just didn’t find, such as the site of the old gambling casinos near the Shelby/Tipton county line. Presumably they had been torn down. Likewise, I could see no trace of the ill-fated Riverbend land development along Highway 59 near Randolph, nor any remnant of the old community of Richardson Landing, which apparently vanished after a land cave-in at the foot of Highway 59, sometime in the 1980’s or 1990’s. But I did find some historic churches, the Gilt Edge Cafe (which was crowded and seems worthy of a more thorough investigation), beautiful views of the Mississippi River near Randolph, old school buildings next to Black churches like St. John MB Church outside of Covington, or Canaan Grove near Mason, and old country stores like the Anderson Store at Detroit. With Tipton County being a fairly large and diverse county, including two islands in the river that can only be accessed from Arkansas, there is still much ground to cover.

The Tennessee Delta IV: Ruins of George Ellis High School in Munford


Abandoned schools in the South always depress me. There is hardly a region of the country that needs education more than ours, and I can never understand why such a considerable investment as a school campus would just be abandoned and allowed to collapse, yet it happens all the time, particularly to schools that were earmarked for Black students prior to integration. South of Munford,Tennessee in Tipton County, I came upon the ruins of George Ellis High School, which had been the Black high school for the south end of Tipton County prior to integration. The school had been closed in 1970, and then served as a junior high school for Munford for a time, yet eventually it was sold off to some recycling firm, which later went out of business, and now the buildings are completely abandoned. It seemed to me as I walked around the decrepit and collapsing buildings that the campus could have been renovated to serve as a community center. From the outside, it appeared to have two gymnasiums, and could have been a great place for people of all ages to enjoy themselves during the summer, if Tipton County leadership had made a better decision. Next to a church in front (had they once given the land for the school?) was a sign placed by the Class of 1964 that proclaimed the ruins “Ellis Munford Junior High School,” which was likely the name at that class’s ten-year-anniversary in 1974 when the sign was likely dedicated. One of the peculiarities about George R. Ellis High School was that it was one of the few Black high schools in the South whose name honored a local white man rather than a Black educator. Apparently George R. Ellis was a prominent local man who eventually became a United States Marshal, but I could not determine what he had to do with the school or why it was named for him. I imagine that when Ellis graduates come back to what should be a sacred spot for them, it is not particularly a happy occasion. They deserve better.

Celebrating West Tennessee’s Lost Fife and Drum Tradition


Last summer, the Tennessee Arts Commission began a Folklife Apprenticeship program to preserve endangered folkways in the state, and one of the areas of interest was in Black fife and drum music. Unfortunately, Black fife and drum music seems to have died out in Tennessee around 1980 or 1981, but it still exists in a remote part of North Mississippi among the members of two families, so a decision was made to have people from that region mentor a young apprentice from West Tennessee. The apprentice chosen was a female drummer from Brownsville named Kesha Burton, and because the lessons between her, bluesman R. L. Boyce and fife-player Willie Hurt took place at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, that institution became interested in sponsoring a festival of Black fife and drum music. The first annual Fife Fest was held at the center on June 16, featuring performances by Kesha Burton with R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm, and with the Hurt Family Fife and Drum Band from Sardis, Mississippi. I gave a somewhat rambling lecture on the legacy of fife and drum music in Tennessee, and Willie Hurt demonstrated to the crowd how a bamboo cane fife is made. Another expert scholar on Black fife and drum music Carl Vermilyea had driven up from Tallahassee, Florida with his wife for the event, and ended up joining in on the snare drum. The weather was absolutely perfect for the event, and about a hundred people attended. It is to be hoped that festivals like this one and programs like the apprenticeship may reintroduce Black fife and drum music to Tennessee.