Before You Go
Central High School National Historic Site, (501) 374-1957 or home.swbell.net/chmuseum
Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission, 1-800-346-1958 or www.lafayettetravel.com
Cleveland-Bolivar County Tourism Council at 1-800-295-7473, www.visitclevelandms.com
Jackie Townsell Bear Creek Heritage Center, (972) 721-2426,

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Black threads
Hear the sounds and find the places where black Americans have left their indelible mark on the South
Published: Jan/Feb 2003
By Lynn Grisard Fullman

A Zydeco musician helping teach a young performer (above). /Louisiana Office of Tourism photo. The Central High School National Historic Site recalls the days when the Little Rock, Ark., school was a stage for civil rights struggles (below). /Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau photo.
Whether singing soulful songs, fighting civil rights injustices or hammering out a place of their own, black Americans have left their indelible mark on the South.

During February's Black History Month, the nation salutes the power and influence of black Americans. In cemeteries and music halls, inside museums and at sites of civil rights struggles, trace the heritage and learn a bit more about the powerful influences that became our history and shaped our days.

Although these sites are abundant, a few are detailed below.

Rambling in Little Rock

As steamy summer days faded into crisp days of fall in 1957, the nation and world looked on as Little Rock's Central High School became a stage for civil rights struggles.

Blocked by the Arkansas National Guard, nine black students attempted to enroll in the previously all-white school.

Three weeks later, after negotiations between Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus and President Dwight Eisenhower failed to end the stalemate, the president ordered the Army's 101st Airborne Division to escort and protect the students who became known as the “Little Rock Nine.”

As the media broadcast the events around the world, Little Rock became a symbol of the federal government's commitment to eliminate separate systems of education for blacks and whites. During those times, images of the school's facade were seared into people's minds.

Still one of the nation's premier high schools, the building is not open to the curious public. However, across the street from the school, a former Mobil service station has been restored to its 1957 appearance and converted into a museum and visitor center that spotlights segregation and the school's role in the struggle.

The visitor center features a permanent exhibit, “All the World is Watching Us: Little Rock and the 1957 Crisis,” which chronicles the school's first year of integration which ended on May 27, 1958, with commencement ceremonies for 601 graduating seniors, including Ernest Green, the school's first black graduate.

Saluting the school and its role in the desegregation, a commemorative garden across from the visitor center is a place where you'll want to take a quiet stroll.

Southwest of the capitol, at 2125 W. Daisy Bates Dr., in Little Rock, the Central High School National Historic Site is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

Lingering in Louisiana

You'll find links and roots to the nation's African-American history in the south Louisiana towns of Lafayette and Lake Charles. Here, blues clubs and the rhythm of Zydeco are evidence of the African-American influence.

Birthplace of Zydeco, the area with its moss-draped bayous and quiet swamps echoes the African-French soul. Like a tempting pot of gumbo waiting to be tasted, these influences have simmered for centuries.

Zydeco was built by musicians who had little or no formal training but improvised the music of their generation. When you visit the area, you'll notice that Zydeco bands are characterized by the use of the frotoir (a metal washboard) played with thimbles, spoons or bottle openers, plus the use of the accordion and the singing of rhythm, blues and soul in Creole French.

When visiting Lafayette, check out “The Times of Acadiana” for a schedule of bands playing in the area. Among the most accessible are El Sido’s Zydeco & Blues Club (on the corner of North St. Antoine Street and Martin Luther King Drive) and Hamilton’s Club (1808 Verot School Road).

While the sounds are found almost everywhere, scattered sites offer concrete places to connect with the area's black history.

St. Edward Cemetery in New Iberia is the final resting place of William “Bunk” Johnson who died in 1949. Revered nationally and internationally for his traditional trumpet style and intuitive improvisations, Johnson played with jazz legends including Budd Bolden and Sidney Bechet.

Dallying in the Delta

In the Mississippi Delta, about two hours from Memphis, you'll discover a region rich in black history.

Drive down the famous Blues Highway (U.S. Highway 61), today a four-lane expressway, which leads to Mound Bayou, one of America's oldest towns founded by former slaves.

Named for a nearby Indian mound where Native Americans performed ceremonies and escaped rising waters, it was founded in 1887 by former slaves Isaiah Montgomery and Benjamin Green, visionaries who carried out the dream of Scottish industrialist Robert Owen. Owen, who established New Harmony, Ind., believed that given the chance to live good lives, people would rise to the occasion.

Montgomery's home, while not open for tours, is a monument to the enterprise of newly freed slaves. Walk around the grounds of Mount Bayou’s City Hall, which holds a carved, wooden plaque depicting famous black Americans.

The town also features one of Mississippi's black-owned banks, now a historic structure. And look for the Tabourian Hospital, founded by the Knights of Tabor, a black fraternal organization that predates the Civil War.

The area also is home to creative artisans at Peter's Pottery, a well-known Delta ceramics business. Founded by the Woods brothers in 1998, Peter's Pottery is the only place in the world using Mound Bayou clay. Another famous pottery, McCarty’s, is south of Mound Bayou in Merigold.

Immediately outside of Merigold is one of the Delta's last surviving rural juke joints, Po’ Monkey's Lounge, reminiscent of the places that plantation farm workers visited to listen to the blues. Adjacent to the lounge are several abandoned sharecroppers’ shacks, typical of those that once dotted the Delta.

Beyond Merigold is Drew Rosenwald School, a brick building erected with funds provided by Julius Rosenwald who made his fortune converting Sears Roebuck into a national catalog company. Although Rosenwald built more than 660 schools for blacks in Mississippi, only six remain, including the one in Drew, which is being renovated with state funds.

Near the base of the Ruleville water tower you'll find the grave of civil-rights leader Fanny Lou Hamer, famous for her expression, “I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Basking in Bear Creek

Venture to Texas to tour one of the state's oldest communities, Bear Creek, which was established in the 1850s by former slaves. The Jackie Townsell Bear Creek Heritage Center in Irving is comprised of two houses, one made into a small history museum, and the other restored to show what life was like in the 1930s. Walk the land, traipse into houses, view displays and often meet ordinary people with ties to the hamlet's roots.

Bear Creek tells the story of everyday people who met the hardships and discrimination of their day with determination and fortitude. It tells a “hero's tale” in the truest sense of the word. For residents of Bear Creek, the center serves as an homage to their past; for visitors, it provides a window into a world few have ever known.

African-American historical displays are housed in the former home of J.O. Davis who was one of Irving’s first black school teachers. A 1920s-era farmhouse, once home to longtime farmer Sam Green, serves today as a period authentic home.

The center is located at the corner of Gilbert and Jackson streets, just south of Texas Highway 183 off Beltline Road in Irving. Admission is free; hours currently are by appointment.
Look for threads of African-American history as you travel and don't be surprised at the gaggle of skeins that you discover.

Lynn Grisard Fullman is a contributor from Birmingham, Ala.


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