Healthy Soul

Jackson, MS – Civil Rights Movement Driving Tour

My friend Valarie and I are on our own Black History tour aboard Amtrak, visiting heritage sites pertaining to African American history in Chicago, Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans, Birmingham, and Washington,DC. We began on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. Here is what we did on Day 5, our second day in Jackson, MS.

We started the day sitting around the island in Dawna’s kitchen filling her in on the details of the trip, eating leftovers from last night’s dinner at the Bonefish: crabcakes, scallops and shrimp in mango salsa, while going through the Jackson: Civil Rights Movement Driving Tour booklet. There were 55 stops included with detailed driving directions. We decided on:

  • Smith Robertson Museum was the first school built for Black students in Jackson, MS, and the alma mater of author Richard Wright. We arrived at the same time as the busload of Johnson-Robinson-Green family members in town for their family reunion. We chatted with cousins – daughters of two brothers who took different paths. One brother stayed in Jackson while the other went north to Chicago to seek a better life. These women were now encouraging the generation after them to stay connected. As part of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, there was an exhibit titled “Freedom Sisters” focusing on the powerful impact of women, local and from surrounding states, to the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Greyhound Bus Station was now infamously associated with the Freedom Riders but now housed a private architectural firm.
  • International Museum of Muslim Culture was the only one in the nation. It was started a part of an international expo in 2001 and has continued to live on. The videos and exhibit about Timbuktu helped me better understand the relationships among the world’s major religions.
  • Medgar Evers‘ statute was in the gardens at the Medgar Evers Library, and we almost crashed the annual celebration of his birthday, open to the public, that it hosted. Unfortunately for us, it was starting later in the day. We also visited Medgar Evers’ home and school. We saw that tours of the house had to be prearranged. No markers were visible at the school. The Medgar Evers neighborhood was one of five historic districts in Jackson. Local residents have dubbed the intersection of Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. streets as “Freedom Corner.”

Freedom Corner at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Medgar Evers Blvd. in Jackson, MS.

  • Margaret Walker Alexander’s home was only a few doors down from the Medgar Evers home. The street was named in her honor. It was so heart-wrenching to see her home seemingly abandoned. No love for the home of the poet who gave us the poem of love “For My People,” and the book “Jubilee.”

Margaret Walker Alexander Dr.

In the afternoon we again drove sections of the Natchez Trace Parkway heading south 40 miles toward Natchez, getting off in Port Gibson, and then heading north to Vicksburg to the casinos and the seafood buffet.

  • Natchez Trace Parkway, referred to as the “trace,” was 444 miles long, beginning at the port of Natchez on the Mississippi and ending in Nashville, TN. Created and used by the Native Americans, it was the primary thoroughfare for travelers for many years before major cities were developed and  connected by interstate highways. Several of the markers showed the connections to the Civil War. My favorite spot was the “Sunken Trace” where the soil erosion created a ravine where the travelers trod.

Valarie (red shirt) and Dawna (blue shirt) on the Natchez Trace.

  • Vicksburg, MS, gave me another opportunity to see the mighty Mississippi. I saw it flowing along in Memphis, but here I saw the impact of the floods on the community and the evidence – sandbags used to preserve lives and property. At the casino: Not a gambler, I put $2 in the penny slots. Then we were off to enjoy the sunset, take pictures of another bridge spanning the river connecting Mississippi with Louisiana, and feast at the seafood buffet.

Sandbags that were used to protect lives and property when the Mississippi River overflowed its banks.

One of the many beautiful things about this trip was that I was beginning to make connections:

  • The work of the various activists in, and contributors to, the Civil Rights Movement were coming together for me. For example, I’ve always known about Ida B. Wells Barnett. I saw one of her homes in Chicago, IL. In Memphis I saw both the church where she started her first newspaper and the site of the People’s Grocery whose owners were dragged out of jail to be lynched. In the exhibit at Jackson’s Smith Robertson museum, I was reminded that she was born in rural Mississippi. She is no longer a textbook heroine. Meeting her again and again over the past three days and integrating different pieces of her life have taken her off the pages and into a whole person in my mind.
  • My sense of the geography of the United States is still being developed. Intellectually, I knew where the southern states were located. However, seeing the bridge linking Memphis, TN, to West Memphis, AK, helped me to place the Mississippi River as the western border of Tennessee and the eastern border of Arkansas. In Vicksburg, MS, I looked across the Mississippi River into Louisiana. As I talked with Dawna, I learned that in addition to Memphis and New Orleans, Jacksonians consider Dallas, TX, as a getaway spot. I am now learning how to “cluster” the states into “communities.”

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Click here to read the other posts from Jennifer’s Black History Tour.

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