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
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?