Landmarks fall, memories fade. Civil rights tourism may protect Mississippi history
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Across the south, civil rights trails have proven to be economic drivers for some communities. In Mississippi, a place with countless stories, there's a new push to better tell that history. And now the federal government is getting involved. We turn to NPR's rural affairs correspondent, Kirk Siegler, and Debbie Elliott, who covers the South. They report there's a sense of urgency in getting this work done before memories fade and landmarks are lost.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWING)
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: We start our journey on a remote country highway running along the railroad tracks in Money, Miss. There's a lone historical marker on the side of the road, but at first, it's unclear just why it's here.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: OK, You've brought me to this crumbled structure that's got vegetation all over it. Nature's taken over. Why?
ELLIOTT: So this is what's left of Bryant Grocery. This store is where Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black teenager visiting from Chicago, allegedly flirted with the white female shopkeeper in 1955 - a violation of the Jim Crow code.
SIEGLER: Days later, his disfigured body, beaten, shot and bloated, was pulled from the Tallahatchie River. The brutal killing sparked the modern civil rights movement.
ELLIOTT: But this key building in the Emmett Till story is close to collapsing. We're in the heart of the Mississippi Delta in the northwest part of the state, where cotton and soybean farms stretch as far as the eye can see. It's easy to miss a lot of these important landmarks.
JOHNNY THOMAS: Right here in the barn there, he was beaten and then taken on what we call the tear trail of terror.
ELLIOTT: This is Johnny Thomas, the longtime mayor of the tiny, all-Black town of Glendora. We're outside of the museum he founded here in an old cotton gin on property that was once owned by one of Emmett Till's murderers.
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ELLIOTT: He takes us to a nearby abandoned bridge, grass grown up all around.
THOMAS: This is the Black Bayou. This is the way - the route they would say that the body took.
ELLIOTT: Thomas says this spot, where the bridge span is severed, is thought to be where they dumped Emmett Till into the Black Bayou with the weight of an industrial cotton gin fan strapped to his back.
THOMAS: We see here, Emmett's body broke the bridge, the weight that broke the bridge.
ELLIOTT: This is one of several chilling, significant sites in the Emmett Till story.
SIEGLER: But the only thing a lot of them have in common are roadside historical markers for the Mississippi Freedom Trail. Federal money now coming in is giving some momentum to build up the tourism infrastructure here.
ELLIOTT: But it's a tall order. While there is a major state civil rights museum in the capital city, Jackson, a lot of these little Delta towns with big claims to America's civil rights history are spread out over a 250-mile expanse. A recent study by the National Park Service noted there's not enough context or investment.
SIEGLER: Johnny Thomas is encouraged by efforts in Congress to create a federally run Emmett Till National Historic District, linking all these sites and putting them in context.
THOMAS: Well, the significance for this community would be transforming. I mean, we the oldest community in the county, and we look like the oldest community in the county. We've been left behind. We are not benefiting as we should with this history.
SIEGLER: Almost everyone in Glendora lives below the federal poverty line, the same as it was when Thomas was a kid, and he's 69. Across the Delta, the land and wealth remain largely in the hands of the minority white population.
ELLIOTT: Some think civil rights tourism could help lift these little towns, so long as the people at the heart of the story are in charge of the narrative. Rolando Herts runs the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University.
ROLANDO HERTS: I think that's part of the concern that we see now, with civil rights heritage tourism now on the rise, it's African American civil rights. But who will be in control of that story? Who will be benefiting from the stories that are being told?
ELLIOTT: Herts is working with local communities to highlight this history through the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, a National Park Service program that's brought millions in federal grants.
SIEGLER: And he says there's a sense of urgency to preserve and interpret these civil rights sites before key people and places are gone.
FELICIA KING: Oh, yeah, Yep. OK.
ELLIOTT: Felicia King walks into a fragile clapboard house near downtown Indianola, Miss.
SIEGLER: A tarp covers the roof, and inside, the floorboards are rotting away.
KING: My grandfather built this house, my dad's dad, Estelle Tye King.
SIEGLER: She always thought this was just a rental house. But after she inherited it, she learned it was actually once the headquarters for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, during its Freedom Summer campaign in the mid-'60s.
KING: That was some dangerous times to be in the Mississippi Delta (laughter), trying to get Black people educated on their rights to vote and to vote. You know, that was people - they killed people behind that.
SIEGLER: Many freedom houses like this were bombed or burned down. King is using a park service grant to stabilize this home so it won't be lost.
ELLIOTT: She's been pondering why, growing up, she never heard about the role her grandfather and this house played in the civil rights movement.
KING: And the answer is because it's painful. Not it was painful; it's painful to talk about.
ELLIOTT: King hopes the next generation can take inspiration from how what happened in Mississippi changed the course of American democracy.
KING: We have history here. We matter. We are important. We have value here.
SIEGLER: You feel that same pride over in Mound Bayou, a nearby town founded by former slaves.
DARRYL JOHNSON: Darryl.
ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, good to meet you.
D JOHNSON: Debbie, good to meet you.
SIEGLER: Hi, I'm Kirk.
D JOHNSON: Kirk.
SIEGLER: Nice to meet you.
D JOHNSON: Deb and Kirk.
SIEGLER: That's right.
D JOHNSON: I'm Darryl.
SIEGLER: Darryl Johnson and his brother, Herman, have used a grant from the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area to amass an eclectic collection of Americana in an old high school band room.
HERMAN JOHNSON: Enslaved people had a vision, and in that vision, they came and they founded Mound Bayou, here in the most inhospitable state in the country.
SIEGLER: During Jim Crow, the town thrived as a center for Black enterprise, with its own hospital, insurance companies and newspapers.
ELLIOTT: Though, like much of the Mississippi Delta, Mound, Bayou is not thriving today. Darryl Johnson says new investment in civil rights tourism could be a boost locally but, more importantly, help heal a divided people.
D JOHNSON: If we tell this story, we can help a whole nation and the whole world in understanding who the United States is.
SIEGLER: And in Delta towns like Mound Bayou, they're counting on this. I'm Kirk Siegler.
ELLIOTT: And I'm Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Mound Bayou, Miss.
KELLY: And you can find more reporting in NPR's series on heritage tourism in the Mississippi Delta on npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MASEGO SONG, "YOU NEVER VISIT ME")
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