Another Vanishing Civil Rights Landmark

On my recent trip to the Delta, I decided to take the county road north of Greenwood, instead of Highway 49. I wanted to check on the old Bryant Grocery Store in the Money community to see if it was still hanging on. The answer, I guess, is both yes and no.

Passing this building on the highway without knowing its story, you probably wouldn’t give it a moment’s thought–a typical brick two-story commercial building common to the early 20th century and usually forming the heart of rural communities. In this case, the building is so far gone down the road of collapse that you might experience a glimmer of melancholy at the decline of our agricultural communities. But this seemingly insignificant and decaying building is at the center of one of the most important stories in our state’s recent history: it was the site of the beginning of the Emmett Till saga, a murder of a young black teenager that brought the world’s attention to the violent racism that was all too common in Mississippi and in the South generally.

After the acquittal of the self-confessed murderers, the store fell on hard hard times–a symbol of maliciousness and hatred rather than of sustenance and consumerism. It remains in the hands of the Bryant family, who really have no reason to want it preserved. It was listed on the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s 10 Most Endangered Places in 2005, but seeing it today and knowing that there is no imminent hope of any new owner, I just don’t see it lasting much longer.

You can see a picture of the store (unfortunately taken with the sun head on to the camera) in 1999, when it still was recognizable as a standing structure: http://www.bluejeansplace.com/EmmettTillMurderSite.html

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Maybe it’s fitting that a place that witnessed the spark of a horrible murder should molder away. On the other hand, too many of the sites at the heart of the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi have languished forgotten, or just been demolished outright. The recent news story about the ongoing vandalism of the Amzie Moore House in Cleveland (and the possible demolition of the African American Nailor School–site of civil rights rallies–across the street from the Moore house) is just one more highlight of this ongoing neglect.

I may get in trouble for saying this in print, but here goes. While I can see why the Bryant family would be uninterested in preserving this shameful piece of their family history, I can’t figure out why the small (and still serviceable) house of a civil rights leader, located in a black neighborhood in Cleveland, should be abandoned and repeatedly vandalized, not apparently by white racists but by neighborhood youths. Preservation begins at home, and if the home folks don’t care enough just to respect a historic place, then why should the rest us be concerned?

Is Mississippi’s Civil Rights history worth saving? Or will it only be evident in 10 or 20 years primarily via a series of historic markers standing in front of vacant lots?



Categories: African American History, Civil Rights, Demolition/Abandonment, Historic Preservation

21 replies

  1. Whew. This is something to wake up to. Thank you, EL. This is such an important post. When we think of the preservation of buildings we tend to think in appreciations of their formal qualities, or if of their programmatic histories, of the nurturing stories they have to tell. But utter darkness can be a subject for preservation as well.

    Though its stories are generally happier, I cannot help but think of this little grocery as a bookend to the abandoned Mississippi Industrial College campus, and that terribly missed school’s role in fostering civil rights. Any new thoughts about Holly Springs?

    Best regards as always . . .

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  2. History must be preserved, even if we may not like the content of what it teaches us. The casual erasure of our built environment deprives us of the opportunity to learn from it. Too many have a sanitized Williamsburg or (God forbid) Disney idea of cherry-picking and saving only those elements which please our vanity. Even Williamsburg has moved on from this thinking. The Bryant Store at Money is crucially important to the state, as are the other examples you have mentioned. History need not always be pretty.

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  3. A great, if depressing, post. Great points (as always) about the nature of preserving places that many would not like to see preserved. I think we only need to look across the state to Columbus to see the dark future of African American landmarks in the state. During the Sam Hairston Festival in Columbus last month, they dedicated a historic marker for the Queen City Hotel, a building which was allowed to deteriorate and collapse just a few years ago.

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  4. Also, if anyone wants a good picture of the Bryant Grocery in a less-deteriorated state, they should check out the Joel Sternfeld book On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam. It has pictures of the Bryant Grocery and all manner of other sites where various events have occured that belong in the darker side of history.

    Here is a link to the Joel Sternfeld photograph “The former Bryant’s Grocery, Money, Mississippi, June 1994” at Christie’s.

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  5. Such a good question, Malvaney. The answer is yes, yes, yes!!! It’s extremely difficult to understand why our African American children are not being taught more thoroughly the importance of The Civil Rights movement and other great African American feats in hisotry , but Preservationists have to keep trying. I personally believe that Historic Preservation should be worked into the school curriculums and taught alongside world, national, state, and local history. The kids should read it in the books and then be taken directly to the places where historic events occurred. If only the kids knew how incredibly tough a person has to be to do what our Civil Rights leaders did, they would definitely be more interested. The sacrifice was immense. To be afraid for your life for a few days or a week or a year is one thing. To be very afraid for your life along with your family members’ lives every day for years on end is quite another thing. Very few people are born into this world who can handle that kind of pressure and STILL get things done, still make a difference. Yet our African American children choose to worship some spoiled rotten hip hop artist from the Detroit suburbs. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that the effort to preserve the buildings of our Civil Rights history must carry on. We definitely can’t let markers stand as our only reminders. Perhaps we need to make a greater appeal to the prominent African American families in our state. Who are they? How could the importance of HP be conveyed so that a mission from within the African American community could be developed? I know many grass roots orgs are around, but do we have any super power groups we could latch onto. What about African Americans who grew up poor in MS and then made it big later in life? How could we persuade them to help preserve this history??? I would be so happy to see ALL the buildings and other historic resources surrounding the Emmett Till episode rehabbed and preserved. It can be done and it’s worth it to keep on trying. I feel this in my bones and my bones are just little ole white chick bones. I am however black from the neck down, like Malvaney.

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  6. The Bryant family has nothing to do with the preservation (or not) of the store in Money– it ceased having anything to do with the Bryants decades ago. The local property owners, though show no sign of being interested in saving this (in fact extremely to the contrary).

    I conduct a Delta tour as a part of Ole Miss’s Faulkner conference, and have done so every year for a bit over a decade. The first year I did it, I started going to Money, and from there to Fanny Lou Hamer’s grave, and then on to locations like Sonny Boy Williamson’s grave near Tutwiller. The continued deterioration of landmarks important in Delta history, including the store at Money, has been a continued part of those trips even on the short time of the last decade.

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  7. I’ve put pictures of the store on my blog the last couple of years.

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  8. Thanks for setting me straight about the ownership, NMiss–I should have checked that “fact” that I’ve heard and passed on in the post. The basic point though is that I can see why this place, whose story is one of a vicious murder, would be difficult to preserve, whereas the places that show the courage and success of local Civil Rights leaders shouldn’t be so difficult.

    And something I should have emphasized in the post and that Scape touched on: Civil Rights landmarks are not just African American landmarks. They are important to all of us because they shaped the world we live in. This is something that has bothered me about the National Register categorizations for a while. As anyone who’s ever written a NR nomination knows, you have to choose a building’s significance from a specific list of areas, but there’s no area for Civil Rights. Instead, you have to check “Ethnic Heritage: Black.” This shows a blind spot even on the part of the national experts to the truly universal meaning of the Civil Rights struggle, and it allows those landmarks to be marginalized to black history month. Which in turn perhaps leads us to one reason for the neglect and abandonment of these places even at times by the black community. “Ethnic Heritage: Black” makes only limited sense for places like the Amzie Moore House, but it makes no sense whatsoever for places like the Money Store or the Philadelphia historic district, whose stories include both black and white people, and on both opposing sides. The story is complex, like Mississippi itself, and should never be allowed to be categorized into “your history” and “my history.”

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  9. There are civil rights landmarks that probably aren’t on tours, usually:

    1) Lyceum building at Ole Miss, which still has bullet holes from the Meredith riots (and also the dorm room elsewhere on campus where Meredith lived.

    2) Various courthouses: The one at Sumner is obvious and being preserved. But there are others–The courtroom in Jackson in the Eastland building (which include WPA murals of blacks picking cotton) where Judge Cox tried Cecil Ray Price and others for the murder of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, What is going to happen to that courtroom when the federal courts move into their new building? The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals told Judge Cox they would cease appearing for arguments in Jackson, and thus the big curtan covering those WPA murals.

    Another would be the courthouse in Marx, which has over the entrance: “Obedience to the Law is Liberty,” a motto that comes up in more than one civil rights memoir.

    3) The old Maximum Security Unit at Parchman, where the Freedom Riders were taken after being imprisoned in the livestock yards in the Fairgrounds in Jackson. I say “old,” although it was new when the Freedom Riders were locked up there. (There are a number of buildings at Parchman that should probably be on a civil rights list– the old library, the gates themselves, etc. The old camp buildings are all gone…)

    I really wonder what is out there. In the entrance to the Central Office in the Holly Springs School, there are framed photos from about 1955 of every school building that was in the system. There’s a Rosenwald school, and there’s the white school. The Rosenwald school looks dated but ok, and the rest of the black schools are shocking. The pictures are one simple wall display of school desegregation. Are any of the buildings out there still? I have no idea.

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    • The Civil Rights Movement was a social movement of epic proportions that fundamentally changed the literal and social landscape of Mississippi. Every building that existed during that time, especially those with any sort of public function, probably played a part in the Movement. I agree with you that those parts are largely ignored and forgotten. The major sites of the Civil Rights Movement are only celebrated by a very small portion of Mississippi society for their historic (and often architectural) merit, so what about those “lesser” sites.

      I am sure that there is a list of some sort, somewhere, that documents all (or at least most) of the Civil Rights sites in this state. I may know a book that has a list, but I will have to get back to you about that.

      If nothing else, this subject could make for several interesting posts.

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    • I’ve been working on a survey of historic schools built before 1960 in the state since 1999 for MDAH, and based on that survey, I can safely say that those black schools (no better than shacks) pictured in Marshall County are no longer standing. They were barely standing in the 1950s, so it’s no surprise.

      I would place Marshall around the bottom of the list regarding the quality of facilities for black schools before the 1950s–other exceptionally bad counties were Wilkinson, Adams, and Jefferson. Surprisingly, Jefferson still has four (at last count) of its pre-Equalization black schools, one of which, Poplar Hill was recently listed on the National Register. Another small black school, Fairview School in Madison County, was also listed on the NR a couple of years ago. So there are a few out there, but compared to the huge number that were there during the segregation period, these schools have a very low survival rate.

      The Rosenwald schools in Mississippi, although better-built structures, also have a low survival rate compared to other states. Out of the 557 school buildings constructed in Mississippi (second among the states), we have found only fifteen remaining. From talking with other states, it seems like in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama, they expect to find at least one or two still standing in those counties that had 5-10 originally. One explanation for our poor showing is that the vast majority of Rosenwalds were in the Delta, and as you know, abandoned structures of any kind tend to get demolished and the land integrated into a cotton field. I’ve seen even large white brick school campuses that have completely disappeared in the Delta.

      As for other building types, I will say that MDAH is working on getting a survey of Civil Rights sites going. The Ole Miss Circle area, including the Lyceum was recently designated as a National Historic Landmark, and the Sumner courthouse has been listed for its significance in the Emmett Till trial. But staff has been cut and funding has been an issue. Hopefully, the upcoming 50th anniversaries might be enough impetus to get it moving. Your list here is very helpful, NMissC, as it uncovers some of the not-so-obvious sites. Let me know if you think of others, and I’d also like to take that Delta tour you give!

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  10. A long-ago post about a tour of Civil Right memorials in Alabama and Georgia reminded me of a book that also might contribute to this discussion, Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory: https://misspreservation.com/2009/08/18/sah-civil-rights-memorial-study-tour/

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    • Yes, that is a great book. I read it cover-to-cover about three times the month I got it so that it would really sink in. Not the book I was thinking of though, since Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory does not focus much on Mississippi. There is a picture of the Bryant Grocery falling into ruin, and the authors make a statement that commemorating the Civil Rights Movement is difficult in Mississippi because the Movement still has not achieved its goals in Mississippi, unlike other more progressive states in the South.

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    • That last statement being one I don’t think the authors backed up with evidence. It’s too easy to say that because Georgia and Alabama have more memorials, they’ve made more progress racially than Mississippi. How exactly does one thing automatically mean the other? Did Mississippi’s Civil War memorials mean that the state had made great progress after the Civil War? No.

      I think all the Deep South states have made great strides since the Civil Rights Movement, but I see no evidence of greater progress when I travel through AL and GA. Mississippi’s relative dearth of memorials may indicate other differences, such as a different way of viewing the Movement, a more rural population (both black and white) that hasn’t felt the need or hasn’t had the motivation to organize to create memorials, or a variety of other explanations.

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  11. I agree. I’ve surveyed all through Georgia and I’ve really never sensed that they’ve “progressed” more than MS. It’s different in Georgia, but not better. I really believe that a big push needs to come from the AA community itself. I think there is still a lot of fear there and a lot of discouraged folks AND a natural tendency to not want to make a big deal of things; to not draw attention. A solid study of what has worked grassroots-wise in the AA community and why would be so helpful.

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  12. This is a very important discussion that needs to be held in all communities with these sites. The ugliness and the need for the Civil Rights movement is largely ignored in standard history texts and on the landscape. While I understand the need to celebrate how far we have come, it is critical to recognize and preserve these places on our landscapes that stand for the reasons WHY the movement had to occur in the first place. In the South, the landscape itself was fully segregated with separate entrances into buildings, buildings that never had black customers, and buildings that were constructed to serve the black community. This landscape has been largely erased, and those buildings that remain are often out of context and need additional interpretation to argue for the case for preservation.

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Trackbacks

  1. Civil Rights Sites from Charles E. Cobb Jr.’s “On the Road to Freedom” | Preservation in Mississippi
  2. New Grant Program for Civil Rights Sites | Preservation in Mississippi

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