The Forgotten Town of Austin, Mississippi

Tunica County, Mississippi once had dreams of greatness. After all, it bordered the most important navigable stream in North America, and had some raised hills along the banks that would provide for a protected townsite, so the early settlers imagined that there would be a bustling metropolis on the Mississippi River in their county. They chose the site for it near an Indian mound, and, appropriately enough, named it Commerce. It was quickly made the county seat of the new county, and for awhile, it lived up to its name as a fairly busy river port. But the river began to eat away at the bluff on which the town was built, and in 1843, part of Commerce sank into the river. The Board of Supervisors chose to move the county seat to Peyton, another river landing to the south, but a few years later, they moved it back to Commerce. With the river continuing to threaten Commerce, a permanent solution was needed, and eventually the decision was made to move the county seat even further south to Austin Landing, which became known as the town of Austin.

I had never heard of Austin Landing or Austin, Mississippi, but one day, while researching the Black fraternal organization known as the Independent Pole Bearers, I came across a Mississippi corporate charter for a Pole-Bearers chapter at “Austin Landing” in Tunica County. That captivated my interest, and a check of my phone showed that the name still appeared at a place near the levee on a road due west of Evansville, another ghost town that I had discovered on a previous journey through the Delta.

So, on a rather grey and overcast winter day, I headed west from Evansville to see what if anything remained at Austin. Online maps showed about two streets, a cluster of houses and supposedly a church. The road from Evansville was beautiful despite the dreary day, running alongside dark swamps on its southern edge, with seemingly historic homes on the northern side. The journey took awhile, but Austin soon appeared dead ahead, a small cluster of houses and trees against the levee.

I soon found that there are no businesses in Austin whatsoever, although I noticed a building that looked as if it might have once been a store. There is also a sort of community building that looks as if it might have once been the post office, and is probably now used as a voting precinct. Although the maps showed a church, I saw no trace of it when I was actually there, and few of the houses seemed old enough to warrant interest, with one exception. That house, an abandoned house on the northern street of Austin looked as if it had been there since the late 1890’s or early 20th century. Other than that, there was no trace of the courthouse, any businesses, the old street grids or, for that matter, the river, which was now safely behind levees and several miles further west.

I later learned that Austin had also been the scene of a massive race riot in August of 1874, caused by a white store owner attempting to shoot a thief. Instead of shooting the thief, he fatally wounded a 5-year-old Black child, and was arrested and charged. But the decision of the sheriff to release him on bond outraged the Black people of Tunica County. Reinforced by Blacks from Friars Point in Coahoma County further down the river, they armed themselves and marched on Austin in an effort to seize the town. In their initial capture of the downtown area, they took over the store whose owner had shot the girl, and seized him and locked him back up in the jail.

Memphis, only 40 miles to the north had been the scene of racial tension all summer, heightened by a racially-charged election between Democrats and so-called Radical Republicans, most of whom were Black, and this election had occasioned the establishment of white militias such as the Chickasaw Guards. At the news of an uprising in Austin, these militias commandeered boats from the Memphis harbor and headed to Austin to put down the Black uprising, which they succeeded in doing after several days. Several Blacks were killed, and many were arrested in both Tunica and Coahoma Counties. Austin would soon lose the county seat to a new town that had formed when the railroad came through the county- Tunica. Today it is a sleepy and forgotten place in the middle of nowhere, and one could not possibly imagine any noise or confusion there. Several of the homes are for sale, for the person that really wants to get away from it all.

Launching the Americana Music Triangle at Club 21 in Helena, Arkansas

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Live blues is common in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which makes its rarity in neighboring Helena, Arkansas all the stranger, but Helena just hasn’t seen the renaissance that Clarksdale has seen in recent years. Nevertheless, when I saw that fantastic Arkansas bluesman Lucious Spiller would be playing at a place called Club 21 for the kickoff party of something called the Americana Music Triangle, I called my homegirl Evelyn Archer and asked her if she wanted to go.
Evelyn used to live in Helena and owns a building on Cherry Street that blues fans recall as Bunky’s during the King Biscuit Blues Festival in previous years, so I knew she would want to go, but unfortunately she had church responsibilities, so we got a late start out of Memphis, and by the time we got to Club 21, things were winding down somewhat. We were met in front of the club by the grandson of the legendary bluesman Houston Steakhouse, and Lucious was playing a great blues tune when we walked in. Unfortunately, he only played about four more songs after that, and all of them were rock or pop covers, including his closing version of “Purple Rain.” Still it was great to see the juke joint, which the people in Helena are trying to turn into a regular music venue, and the Americana Music Triangle is a website that covers a half-moon shaped region from New Orleans to Nashville where so many roots forms of American music were born. Evelyn took us by her building so we could see it, and we dropped her friend off at his house. But it was now after 11 PM, and there was no place to eat in Helena, so we grabbed a breakfast at the Waffle House in Tunica before heading back to Memphis.

Keep up with Lucious Spiller:

Club 21
130 Walnut St
Helena, AR 72342

Breakfast at the Blue & White Restaurant in Tunica

I had passed the Blue & White Restaurant in Tunica, Mississippi many times in my life on trips into the Mississippi Delta, but I had never stopped there to eat. But this year, on my way to the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, I hadn’t eaten breakfast before I left Memphis, and decided to stop at the Blue & White when I realized that they served breakfast all day. The interior of the restaurant had been lovingly restored to its vintage 1940’s look, and the breakfast was really quite good, especially the homemade biscuits. Thoroughly satisfied, I headed on out to Clarksdale.

Blue & White Restaurant
1355 U.S. 61
Tunica, MS 38676
(662) 363-1371