and to students of those and other disciplines such as Southern Culture.
If the reader knows any of the above people, please forward this page's url to them.
April 27, 2002
There exists in the black communities in the Mississippi Deltaand throughout the Southa need for academic research. Below, I describe some research projects I believe worthy of grant money. Any of these projects would make a fine master's thesis or Ph.D. dissertation.
I'm sure the reader's first thought is, Well, why don't you do it, Junior? The answer is, My health is too bad, and I'm perfectly satisfied with an occasional blues bumming expedition, thank you. But I will give all possible help.
One by one their empty shotgun houses fell down or burned down or were moved by slumlords to the inner cities and rented to the same black people who once lived in them rent free. Today there is no evidence of thousands of communities except lonely churches and cemeteries and glimmering shards of glass in freshly-plowed cotton fields.
To my peers in the social sciences I say this: we know more about antebellum plantation slaves than we know about the same people during the period of 1865 1960. Free, they moved from slave quarters behind the Big House to shotgun houses in little communities along the edges of cotton fields. From those now-vanished communities they moved to town. Therein lies my suggested project: a combined oral history and mapping project. Many of those people are still alive and living in a city near their original rural homes. Let us record their stories and get them to show us where they lived. Let us film them standing on the spot where they once lived and telling us how it was to live there. Let us map that spot for future archaeologists. As social scientists, let us learn how those isolated little communities functioned, clasped in the grip of poverty and encircled with racism.
Imagine the stress inside those communities as the peoples' already meager income dwindled to a pittance and finally became nothing. Think of the elderly as one by one their friends and families moved away. Were they the last to go, surrounded by empty houses? Think of the pressure surely put upon those unfortunate people by the landowner, once in need of them but now greedily eying the few acres of land beneath their steadily-emptying shotgun houses.
It would be easy to find those people and record their stories of how they handled the stress and pressure. If a church is still standing and being maintained, the people who once lived in the vanished community around it maintain it and probably still use it. Many of them, like my Mt. Pilgrim congregation, live in cities miles away, but they hold services in the old church at least once a month. So to find the people, find the church, then find and talk to the preacher. When he understands what you want to research, he'll think God sent you.
I believe grantslarge grantsto study almost any of those vanished communities could be easily obtained. For a fact, the black communities of today would overwhelmingly support such studies.
A word of caution. If the researcher listens only to church people, the researcher will get only 1/2 of the vanished community's storythe religion side. Those communities had either semi-clandestine bootlegger joints or wide open juke joints. So get the sin side of the story. You might find it the most interesting.
#2: Holmes County Mississippi and Elmore James: During the nearly two weeks I spent in Holmes County researching Elmore Jamesborn and buried therethe support given to me by the black people of Holmes County was unbelievable.
When I visited the Holmes County Library in Durant, I understood why those black people were so accommodating. I think it amazed them that an academic-type researcher was interested in them. The reason I think that is because of the reference material I found in the library. I assumed the hometown library of Elmore James, one of the founding fathers of American musicthe founder of rock ‘n' roll, I believe would contain lots of information on that person. Well, the library contained probably four feet of shelf space devoted to Holmes County history, but in all those books and pamphlets I found not one word about Elmore James and only 1/2 of one page in one pamphlet devoted to the black history of Holmes Countya list of high school janitors. I was stunned.
Holmes County is and always has been predominately black. But according to the written historical record, it must be 99.999 % white. So a half-dozen or so janitors were the only black people of consequence to ever live in Holmes County Mississippi?
Unusual circumstances made Holmes County one of the birthplaces of rock ‘n' roll. First, Elmore James lived there and was a young guitar player when Gibson introduced the first successful electric guitarthe EL-150. Second, Elmore had plenty of places to play. Holmes County was a wet oasis surrounded by dry counties. When a road or highway reached Holmes County, it was lined with juke joints and honky tonks.
The gracious people of Holmes County are full of juke joint and honky tonk tales, including the time the governor called out the National Guard to raid the juke joints and honky tonks.
It's a hell of a story; someone go there and write it.
#3: Itinerant Gospel Singers: A man recently informed me of a circa 1960 passenger train ride and the meeting of a black itinerant gospel singer on the train. It seems the singer, an old black man in a worn black suit, carried a ragged leather valise, an acoustic guitar, and a Bible. He traveled from town to town singing in churches for food and pocket change.
What a great subject for research! I'm betting there were dozens of itinerant gospel singers.