Hughes, Arkansas, the second-largest town in St. Francis County, has by all accounts been a resilient town. It was the home or birthplace of many great blues musicians, including Johnny Shines. It survived the Flood of 1937, an event so severe that it sticks in the memory of the area, and it has survived fires and the decline of agriculture. But it could not survive the decision of the Arkansas State Department of Education last summer to dissolve its school district and forcibly consolidate it with West Memphis, over 26 miles away on poor, two-lane highways. Hughes is merely the latest town to be victimized by a vicious state law that ought to be repealed, which requires the dissolving and merging of school districts whenever a school district falls below 350 students. The law makes no provisions for the wishes of the town’s residents or the students, either with regard to keeping the local school district open, nor with what district they would prefer to attend if their district must be closed. Nor does the law require the receiving district to keep local schools open, even when students would otherwise have to travel long distances, such as the 50-mile roundtrip per day that Hughes students now face, unless their parents decide to relocate to West Memphis, which is why this law is a town-killer. Hughes has lost an estimated 400 residents since 2010, and doubtless are losing many more by the day, largely because of the school situation. The local shopping center, which contained the town’s only food store, is now completely abandoned. Downtown looks even worse, with many old, decrepit and abandoned buildings. Hughes High School is abandoned, including the football field that was renamed for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn with such fanfare just two years ago. And even more shocking is the ruins of Mildred Jackson Elementary School, the campus of what was once the Black high school in Hughes. Not only is it abandoned, but in ruins, as part of the building has collapsed, likely from fire after it was abandoned. It is clear that the building has been vandalized and broken into. Not that the school situation is the cause of everything that has happened in Hughes. There is little industry there, and St. Francis County is not a rich county. Agriculture is not what is was, opportunity is limited, and close proximity to West Memphis and Memphis has encouraged many young people to move away. But the close proximity to Memphis could have been an asset rather than a curse. With proper planning, a better road link to Memphis, and a local school system, Hughes could conceivably have become a bedroom community for those who work in Memphis. It has many historic buildings and homes. But first, the draconian law that caused this kind of destruction needs to be repealed. Local communities that want to retain their own school districts should be allowed to do so. And in areas like many counties in Eastern Arkansas, where declining populations are wreaking havoc on local school districts, the state ought to consider the formation of county-based school systems, such as those in Tennessee and Mississippi, which would allow local high school like the one in Hughes to remain open. Without schools, no town can ever be renewed.
This has been a relatively rough year for Memphis, and yet one of the more uplifting things I have noticed has been the spreading of neighborhood-based outdoor artworks and murals. While this has been going on for several years, it has virtually exploded this summer. I was not pleased with the demolition of the historic W. C. Handy Theatre in Orange Mound, but it did cheer me to see the orange-and-white public art on the bricks that remain from the foundation at the site. The slogans emphasize pride in the Orange Mound community and its high school, Melrose. A brightly-colored mural a few blocks away carries a timely message: “Dreams Matter, We Matter”. Just north of the railroad tracks, the historic Beltline neighborhood is celebrated in a building-length mural on the wall of a grocery store. In Binghampton, the artwork near the basketball courts celebrates the game of basketball, for which The Hamp is known, being the neighborhood of Anfernee Hardaway. But perhaps the most striking effort was the long series of murals on the inside flood wall along Chelsea between McLean and Evergreen in the Evergreen neighborhood. The different panels celebrate many different aspects of hip-hop culture or Memphis culture, with the word “REVIVAL” prominently featured in the first one. It is an appropriate slogan for a city that is long overdue for renewal.