Dispatch from Jackson: Exploring the Civil Rights Act of 1964

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Turry Flucker, Anna Hamilton, and Kate Hudson, three graduate students from the University of Mississippi’s Southern Studies program, spent two weeks doing research, documentary, and oral history work in Jackson, Mississippi, for a project sponsored by the SFA and the UoM’s Media and Documentary Projects. Their work examines the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the legislation that desegregated public and commercial spaces, and will culminate at the SFA’s 2014 symposium. Here’s a dispatch from Anna, who is also one of the SFA’s graduate student assistants:

Our goal for this summer’s immersive Jackson trip was to explore and understand more fully the root cause of Jackson, Mississippi’s deteriorating Farish Street Historical District. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the Farish Street district flourished as the vibrant African American community of Jackson. Black businesses ranged from legal firms to loan companies, doctors and dentists to jewelers and banks, retail stores to hospitals. Medgar Evers’ NAACP office once sat above the Lees’ Big Apple Inn, a restaurant that sold pig ear sandwiches and quietly held many Civil Rights meetings. The Alamo was the theater for blacks, where entertainers like James Brown and Cab Calloway often performed.

Today, however, the district is but a shell of its former self; people have moved away, most of the storefronts’ signs have faded and the roofs have collapsed. Many buildings have altogether vanished. Without the historical markers lining the sidewalks it might be hard to envision the once-prosperous and bustling Farish Street of the mid-1900s.

What, we wondered, could cause such a serious and dramatic downturn? Much of our research pointed to a cause and effect: while African Americans exercised their rights to patronize white establishments, the district’s economy eroded, and so followed the social fabric. As Geno Lee, proprietor of the Big Apple Inn, put it, integration was “good for the black race, but bad for the black businessman.”

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The longer we spent in Jackson, the more we came to understand the complexity of the conversation surrounding Farish Street. Residents have become wary of words like “redevelopment” and “rennovation” applied to Farish Street—discussions of revitalization have been taking place since the 1980s, and may people are simply tired of hearing about ideas that have yet to materialize.

In large part, the obstacle for the district’s revival seems to be one of “too many cooks in the kitchen:” many differing intentions and dissenting visions for what the district should be; how the past should be balanced and interpreted; and little communication between stake-holding parties. Should the district become a neighborhood or a business district? Or both? And for whom should it be redeveloped? To some, looking at Farish Street implies looking backwards— many have moved out of the district in order to move forward.

We are interested in the complicated ideas presented by Farish Street: that the effects of desegregation may not have been as wholly positive as is conventionally believed. We will continue to explore the tension of Farish Street, though our next step is to extend our scope into the greater city of Jackson.