Shortly after 8 a.m. on Friday Sept. 7, three vans pulled out from the Trent Lott Center on The University of Southern Mississippi Hattiesburg campus bound for the Mississippi Delta. Two sections of CMS 111H (Oral Communication) plus three faculty members/drivers set out in search of experience, information and insights into the Civil Rights Movement, the influence of The Blues on popular music, and the meaning of The Delta for the state and nation—all in the interest of developing speaking topics for the rest of the fall semester.
Drs. Susan Steen (International Programs) and Richard Conville (Communication Studies) were the instructors of the courses, and Dr. Kevin Greene (History) went along as driver, history consultant and sometime bluesman.
Shortly after noon found us at the Delta Center at Delta State University where center director Luther Brown painted the Big Picture for us, including everything from the central role cotton played in international finance to the last public lynching in Mississippi to the ongoing revolution in Delta agriculture. Then it was on to Indianola and the BB King Blues Museum. Impressive! A serious chronicle of the state through the lens of The Blues: people who created it; what it did to and for them; and its contribution to popular music around the world. It featured a great gift shop and engaging biographical picture of the man himself.
Tallahatchie Flats was our home for two days: we occupied all six of the authentic tenant houses. After we got settled in, we went into Greenwood and found a right-fine Mexican restaurant.
Saturday we put ourselves into the hands of Sylvester Hoover, deacon of Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church and owner/operator of Delta Legends Blues Tours. Mr. Hoover took us down into Baptist Town where the most famous bluesman, Robert Johnson, got his start. Morgan Freeman grew up just around the corner, and The Help was filmed around the next corner: Abilene’s house and the bus stop where the maids got off each day going to work. On the corner we could smell the ribs smoking that were going to be our lunch, served up by Mrs. Hoover-Miss Mary.
Then we visited all three grave sites of Robert Johnson. When you are that famous, you can be buried in three places! Lunch was in the church, Little Zion, which was also featured in The Help. We ate down front around tables right below the pulpit. Then it was off to Money, which is no longer a town but more a historical marker telling the awful story of 15 year-old Emmit Till and his gruesome murder at the hands of white men whose racial sensibilities he had raised by whistling his appreciation of an attractive white woman. All that remains of what was the town of Money is an abandoned gas station and the tumble-down grocery store on whose porch Till made his fatal mistake.
Glendora is not far from Money. There, an abandoned cotton gin has been turned into a civil rights museum of passing quality. Why that location? Two people implicated in Till’s murder had worked there. The mayor himself gave us a tour. Hattiesburg’s own civil rights martyr is highlighted on the museum’s civil rights timeline: Vernon Dahmer, 1966, whose house was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan.
We headed back to The Flats to crash before dinner. After eating in Greenwood, we had a reflection session around a campfire with s’mores for dessert. We reflected on what new things we had heard or seen that day and what we could do with those things. Dr. Greene had brought his guitar. He and several of our number played for us as we searched the sky for the Big Dipper and pondered our own place in the universe and ate our s’mores.