Shellmound to Sidon. 20 miles/910.7 total
Saturday, December 5, 2009
This morning I'm leaving from the ruined abandoned gas station—the haunted gas station—on Highway 49E south of Shellmound, headed through the city of Greenwood to a spot south of the village of Sidon.
It’s a beautiful cloudless day here in the Delta. It’s cold this morning, and there was a thick layer of frost on the car windows. Already the sun is warming things up, and it feels warmer than it did yesterday, although I’m sure that’s not the case this early in the morning.
Got another ride offer just now. I had several yesterday when it was really cold. These Mississippi country folks are very nice. Twice yesterday I talked to people who had seen me walking on two different days. Once I got to talking to two women who were stopped at road construction, one of whom asked me if she’d seen me up by Clarksdale the day before. Then right before I finished last evening a guy stopped to ask me, “Where have you been walking to the last two days?” I told him the whole story and he just kind of shook his head and looked down at my feet and said, “I hope you’re wearing thick socks.”
One of the toughest things I have to do on these walks is turn down the rides. People are so kind to offer that I wish I could take the rides and walk the walk. But I can’t do both.
Down where it merges with U.S. 82, Highway 49E heads east into Greenwood for a couple of miles. I’m now officially within the corporation limits of Greenwood, although this is still country at this point. Greenwood, as I mentioned yesterday, is the county seat of Leflore County. Its population is a little over 18,000. The Tallahatchie and Yalobusha Rivers come together here to form the Yazoo River. Yazoo means “river of death” in some Indian language.
Greenwood is the birthplace of bluesman Furry Lewis and also of Hubert Sumlin, who was Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player during most of his Chicago career, until Wolf’s death. Hubert Sumlin is still alive, at the age of about 79. Morgan Freeman lived in Greenwood while growing up, as did Byron De La Beckwith, the man who shot Medgar Evers. And most significantly, from the blues perspective, Greenwood is where Robert Johnson met his end in 1938, after (most people say) drinking poisoned whiskey. Robert Johnson has no fewer than three gravesites in the Greenwood area--one in or very near Greenwood, one in Quito, and one somewhere else out in the country. Frankly it’s hard for me to get too excited about visiting what is, at best, a one-in-three shot at being his real grave. Anyway, we all know that wherever his body might be, the Devil has his soul. A deal’s a deal.
I pass the site of Fort Pemberton. This was a Confederate fort, where Grant’s attempt to attack Vicksburg from behind was halted early in 1863. The Union forces broke the Mississippi River levee up around Clarksdale to fill up Moon Lake and float some troops down the Tallahatchie to Greenwood and from there down the Yazoo to the Mississippi down in Vicksburg. But the Confederates scuttled a ship in the channel, and attacked the Union flotilla and forced them to retreat. So this is where it happened, and Mississippians celebrate this great victory. The only trouble is that a couple of months later the Union took Vicksburg anyway, so what the hell. I walk on down the road, singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
I stop at the Cottonlandia Museum, but unfortunately it’s only open from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. today and tomorrow, so I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to visit it. I turn off 82/49E onto Park Street and take that up to Grand Boulevard and turn south. There’s a plaque in front of a huge house that once belonged to Captain Samuel Gwin and his wife Sally and their children, built in 1912. “Missy Sally” planted a thousand oak trees along Grand Boulevard in 1916. I’m guessing that Missy Sally probably had some of her faithful colored hands do the real work there. At any rate, this is a magnificently tree-lined street, and many of the original trees remain, nearly a century old. Grand Boulevard was once considered one of the ten most beautiful city streets in the country.
Grand Boulevard contains an eclectic mixture of large houses. Many are big solid colonial style buildings, many more are Tudor style, some are overgrown craftsman style bungaloes. The oaks actually are of several varieties. There are willow oaks and water oaks and a few southern red oaks (got my tree book with me again).
I come to a bridge over the Yazoo River. Just south of it is the handsome Leflore County Courthouse, which is not open for my inspection since today is Saturday. A sign on the courthouse lawn says Greenwood was founded by John Williams in 1834 and called Williams Landing, but since 1844 has been chartered as Greenwood. Since 1917 Greenwood has been the world’s largest long staple cotton market. As we know from the Cotton Exchange Museum in Memphis, long staple cotton has longer fibers than short staple cotton, making it more valuable for finer thread applications.
Out in front of the courthouse is a large memorial to the Confederate dead, erected in 1913, when it was still respectable to be in favor of, well, fighting and dying for the preservation of slavery. I’m thinking that in the 21st century this monument is pretty much an eyesore, not to mention a gross insult to a large portion (about 67%, as a matter of fact) of the population of the county—folks who have been insulted far too often for far too long.
Downtown Greenwood is very quiet on a Saturday afternoon. I’ll bet these streets have many sad tales to tell from the days of segregation and the early years of the civil rights movement.
Down at the south end of Greenwood things aren’t looking quite as spiffy as they were up on Grand Boulevard. Lots of shotgun shacks, rib shacks, fried chicken shacks, and just plain shack shacks.
As happens in virtually every American city with a significant African American population, the crappiest street in the crappiest part of town is named after Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s got to be one of the biggest insults to black people in their recent history. And what an insult to King himself--a guy who dedicated his life to lifting people up--to name some of the most wretched places in the country after him. Just once I’d like to see a city name its most magnificent street after King, instead of some crack-ridden whore-lined place that not even the people who live on it give a shit about. This phenomenon is one of the most disgusting aspects of modern urban life. Let them rename the street that runs in front of the Confederate war memorial for Martin Luther King, Jr., to remind everyone of which side actually won that war.
Cities do this all the time, as if to say, “You can have your stupid street name, now just leave us alone. Haven’t we done enough for you? We gave you your holiday on January 15th. What the hell else do you want?” God forbid white people should want to have their own streets named after Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who was, without qualification, the greatest American public figure of the 20th century. But nobody seems to mind having the faces of Virginia slave owners on the dollar bill and the nickel and the quarter. We're all supposed to accept that.
I rejoin 49E and head south into the country. Greenwood is behind me and the cotton and soybean fields are in front of me. A CN freight train lumbers by, hauling a hundred cars, and the sun is directly in front of me in a beautiful pale blue sky.
I stop to take a rest under a large spreading tree, which I identify from my book as an overcup oak. There are so many small variations in the leaves of oaks, almost like ethnic variations, that it’s not always easy to identify a tree just from its leaves. But the acorns don’t lie. These acorns have a cup that almost covers the nuts. The northern cousin of the overcup oak is the burr oak (after which that cemetery in Alsip, Illinois was named), with larger leaves and acorn cups ringed with fringe. So wide and spreading is this oak (typical of the white oak family) that as I stand under it I wonder how long it would take for rain to reach me.
I come to Hudson Park Cemetery. Sometimes I get curious when I’m in a cemetery, sometimes wistful, sometimes just peaceful. And occasionally I am overwhelmed with emotion. Today I see the tombstone of a nineteen year old girl who died last year. In front of the grave is a little purple teddy bear and a card that says “I miss you” on the outside, and inside it says, “Wherever you are is where I wish I were.” And it’s signed, “From your son, Drell” in the handwriting of a first or second grader. Here is a girl who was born in 1989 who died and left a son who's six or seven years old. I grieve for them both.
I’ve seen quite a few forks in the road today, as well as knives and spoons. If I had started picking up pieces of stainless steel silverware from the roadside when I began this journey, I’d probably have two or three hundred by now. That’s how prevalent the stuff is. So odd that people throw perfectly good silverware out the window.
I come to the community of Rising Sun, most of which lies a bit to the east of 49E. Across the road is the Staplcotn Compress Warehouse. There’s a water tower for the town and I imagine a little business district back there. I don’t intend to find out.
At 18 miles I come to Sidon, population 672 at the last census. A sign says it was originally named Marion Landing. Right next to the road is a small cemetery behind the Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church. “Mt. Pisgah” sounds like something Daffy Duck would say. Over next to that cemetery, filled with black folks, is another cemetery enclosed by a chain link fence. Some pretty old tombstones in there, probably from back when the white people were in charge around here. This is the Sidon Cemetery. I guess the fence is to keep the riffraff out.