Category Archives: Mississippi River Town

Politics Meets the Blues with Mississippi’s Bill Luckett

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

Here at Ground Zero Blues Club of Clarkdale, Mississippi, I sat down for a one-on-one interview with Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial contender, Bill Luckett.  In this complete and uncut interview, Mr. Luckett, who co-owns the Ground Zero Blues Club with Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, answered a barrage of questions ranging from the cultural renaissance of the blues to his candidacy for governor.

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At the Heart of the Blues

 

Super Chikan in his Chicken Shack, Clarksdale, MS

Super Chikan in his Chicken Shack, Clarksdale, MS

CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

Am currently in the heart of the Blues smack dab in the Mississppi Delta – in a town called Clarksdale, Mississippi.  Thrilled beyond belief to be working a couple new stories on the blues, including interviews with Super Chickan, the Homemade Jamz Blues Band, and Mississippi gubernatorial contender and co-owner of Ground Zero Blues Club, Bill Luckett.  More to follow soon…

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The Great Migration of Cairo, Illinois

CAIRO, ILLINOIS

The positive voices of Cairo, Illinois are drowning out the exteriors of a now legendary, crumbling Main Street. When one takes the time to step behind this facade, there are a group of local leaders who are putting their best foot forward, hopeful of a future that has no other option but to be bright.

CAIROaMy muse for this story was singer/songwriter Stace England, who dedicated an entire album to the living legacy of Cairo, titled Greetings from Cairo, Illinois. After shooting a rather haunting rendition of “The North Starts in Cairo, Illinois”, Mr. England explained, “When [blacks] were traveling by bus from the South they were separated by a curtain from the white riders … They could take that curtain down in Cairo, because the North started here. So you can imagine people who had lived with segregation their entire lives getting into the land of opportunity [which would have been] a very dramatic thing.”

Yet the land of opportunity, or as Mr. Twain put it, “the promised land,” was not exactly full of promise for all citizens.

My first day in town, Preston Ewing, the City Treasurer and unofficial town historian, explained that before I could attempt to capture a glimpse of Cairo’s future, I’d “most certainly need to understand the past.” Mr. Ewing understands the past of this city as few others do, having served as the president of the local NAACP in the late 1960’s, a time in which Cairo gained national attention as a flashpoint of activity during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

CAIROhCairo, Illinois is geographically important due to its location as the very first city of the North, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers along the Mason- Dixie Line, a place locals refer to as “the epicenter of the country.” As such, Cairo was referred to as “the promised land” by runaway slaves, headed north. “If you made it to Cairo and crossed the Ohio River, then you could consider yourself to be on somewhat free territory,” explained Bishop Paul Jones, who serves as Alexander County’s Circuit Clerk at the local Courthouse.

Bishop Jones is the first African American to hold the title of Alexander County Circuit Clerk, while Mayor Judson Childs is the first African American to hold the title of Mayor in the City of Cairo. An achievement for the African American community, on a local level, considering the town has been around for the past 150 years.

In the past, there have been two, rather well publicized communities in the town of Cairo – white and black. And yet, as Reverend Ronnie Woods, affectionately known by the town as “Coach”, (a title in reference to his twenty plus years as Cairo High School football coach) is quick to point out, these once separate communities are now coming together.

CAIRObTake a look around, as Mayor Childs would say, “with your eyes and your ears” and one will find that folks here have moved past their racial differences. In only a few short days in town, I was able to witness this firsthand, from the positive energy of the teachers of the Jr. and Sr. High School, to a “20/20 Vision” program embraced by local entrepreneurs and city officials alike, to a number of patrons at the town’s local hangout, the Nu Diner, who confided that Cairo is, symbolically hand in hand, simply moving forward.

Music & Lyrics used with permission by Stace England. Copyright Pearlie Mae Music 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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The Shotgun Restoration Project

CAIRO, ILL

In a town showcased by major media as an epicenter of “urban decay”, it was encouraging to find a group of folks standing up for the historical “shotgun” architecture of the local area. Featured in this video are Professor Bob Swenson of Southern Illinois University’s School of Architecture, his students, Jim Schmidt, 25, and Toni Lettiere, 23, Shandll McGoy, 31, and local “Vision 20-20” entrepreneur, Bill Harrell. According to Mr. Harrell, one “could buy a local ‘shotgun house’ for between $600 to $1500 at auction [plus your own labor + $10,000] to make it livable.” Not a bad proposition for those looking to step into their first home – and save the living history of the community at the same time.

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Moving positive with Habitat St. Louis


ST. LOUIS, MO

Alfton Denise Jackson, a single mother of two young boys, was in tears when the news came through that she had qualified for a new home. “I received a letter from my case worker,” reported Ms. Jackson, “stating it was a program to build your own home and if I was interested in the program, to come to the site.”

H8The “site” is one of the largest Habitat for Humanity projects in Habitat St. Louis’ history, encompassing twenty-four new homes for this year, adding up to ninety-one total for the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood alone.

The Jeff-Vander-Lou district of Mid Town St. Louis is historic – first and foremost due to the fact it was the first place in St. Louis where African Americans were allowed to own property. Explains Habitat for Humanity St. Louis Director of Resources, Courtney Simms, “A lot of African American businesses were down in the corridor … a couple of blocks over, so to be able to come into this neighborhood and build homes… is quite significant.”

H9cAlexander, age 12, and Ledra, age 7, the two young sons of home-builder Alfton Denise Jackson, are excited about the family’s new prospects. Their reasons are first for safety, and second because they will now each have their own bedrooms. “We used to live next to a man who would beat on his wife,” explained Alexander. “But now we’re moving to a safer place.”

When asked if the present neighborhood where Ms. Jackson, Alexander, and Ledra now reside is safe, Alfton was quick to reply, “No … We [currently] stay in some nice apartments in an area [St. Louis] is trying to build up around here but we’re right next to some of the projects … it’s somewhat scary but [although] we [have] learned to cope with it … it’s not a place I would want to raise my kids because it’s kind of dangerous.”

H6Asked if he was at times scared of his present location in life, Alexander reported, “Yes. There was a shooting,” going on to explain there are gunshots nearby that ring out at night.

The Jackson family are gregarious and affable. They smile frequently, and it’s not only for the camera. There is a love and a bond that one can readily detect. Alfton is quick to tell me of her sons’ recent school honors, of “all E’s” and awards, and of a hushed thankfulness that her sons are so fond of their school – a school they will not have to change when they move into their new home in Jeff-Vander-Lou come late November. Catch phrases like “peaceful” and “pride” and even “college” are part of her young boys’ vocabulary. As is an excitement for a future they are proud to step into.

H2Looking around the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood, it is exciting to see a community quite literally on the rise, rolling up their shirtsleeves in an effort to reclaim a past pride, a past history that folks around here point to with symbolic reverence. There are the odd dilapidated structures of days gone by, before the factory jobs moved out of town. There are a large number of vacant lots, and amidst the vacancies there is a whole new community that is quickly taking shape, rising up from the dust.

Driving up and down the streets, Courtney Simms smiles broadly as she explains which new homes were built in which year, which vacant lots are owned by Habitat, as well as an impressively large row of homes, set out on multiple city streets, which are currently under construction. She takes a genuine pride in her work, showing and explaining the LEED Certified achievements of the new Habitat homes, of where a holistic approach to plotting and planning is merging cost saving features with the natural environment. “When you consider that … where these houses [now sit] were vacant lots and now they’re thriving families that will be raising their children … [we are together] rebuilding the community.”

H7And yet while folks are hopeful, the fact is that the recent history of Jeff-Vander-Lou is not exactly rosy, as seen most readily in the multiple stop signs strapped with stuffed teddy bears, of stuffed dolls of various shapes and sizes, pinpointing the intersections where children from the neighborhood have at some point in time lost their lives.

Which is where the desire for hope and for change have caught fire, where the sense of community, at least locally, is making a sincere power play. Where “ninety-one thriving families” are most certainly coming together, hammers in hand via Habitat for Humanity, made up of volunteers from CEO’s to Senior Vice Presidents to the average, typical “Joe” – together here unified, quite busily making a stand.

H9b2006 Habitat homebuyer Wendy McPherson, who is now volunteering as a “mentor” to Alfton Denise Jackson, amongst others, explained the phenomenon of what is happening here best by bringing the word ‘community’ down to its brass tax. Explains Wendy, “It says a lot about ‘community’ because it teaches your neighbors to come together as one and not just be next door – but to get involved … It helps others to become more aware of their surroundings and to draw together as a community and work together. It makes a difference when you know your neighbors and you look out for your neighbors and everyone comes together.”

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Husar: Sleepover in Twain’s home a moment ‘citizen journalist’ will never forget

By ED HUSAR

QUINCY, ILL. (Quincy Herald Whig)

NEAL MOORE got a lot more than he expected when he landed his canoe in Hannibal, Mo., last weekend.

Moore is a “citizen journalist” paddling the length of the Mississippi River in search of stories about communities doing good things. He shares the tales on his blog (flashriversafari.com) and through periodic dispatches on CNN.

Upon arriving in Hannibal, Moore learned about a campaign to raise $10 million to help preserve eight buildings associated with Mark Twain, whose boyhood years in Hannibal inspired some of the greatest works in American literature, notably “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

As Moore was interviewing Hannibal residents for his story, Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum officials became enamored by this modern-day Huck’s quest for adventure and good news. So they made him an amazing offer.

Moore was invited to spend a night in Twain’s boyhood home on Hill Street. He’d be allowed to sleep in the room where Twain, then known as Samuel Clemens, bedded down from age 3 until he left Hannibal at 17.

Only one other person in the past century has been allowed to sleep in the home. In the late 1960s George Seybolt, CEO of the William Underwood Co., selected Hannibal for a new plant, known today as General Mills. Seybolt also had a lifelong affection for Twain and asked if he could spend a night in the boyhood home.

Approval was given, and Seybolt slept on a cornhusk-filled mattress. “The next morning he left a check in the amount of $500 on the pillow as a thank you to the museum,” said Henry Sweets, curator.

Now Moore was being invited to enjoy a similar sleepover. He jumped at the chance.

According to his blog, Moore was served a meal Monday evening in the home’s dining room, courtesy of the Garth Mansion. Then after bidding goodnight to “what felt like half the town” gathered outside the front door, Moore retreated upstairs to Twain’s bedroom.

Moore spent about an hour reading “Tom Sawyer” while soaking up the atmosphere.

“Reading ‘Tom Sawyer’ in the boyhood bedroom of Sam Clemens was just too great an experience to put into words,” Moore said in an e-mail interview. “I guess the one word that would describe it best would be ‘surreal.’ ”

At around midnight, he crept down the back stairs and wandered over to the nearby former home site of Tom Blankenship, the inspiration for Twain’s Huck Finn character.

“I brought my lantern to make it exciting,” Moore said. “And I was by myself — alone with my thoughts, which I shared via the camera of my laptop computer. For the first time the character of Huck became real for me.”

Later, back in Twain’s bedroom, Moore positioned his sleeping bag in the exact spot where Twain would have laid his head.
“I slept on the floor with the door open. The house was hot and stuffy — in a magical sort of way, bustling with antiquity, with history,” he said. “The sounds I heard were of the insects and birds of the night. The odd passing car. No cats. The trains and tow boats didn’t interfere with my sleep.”

Moore slept from about 1:30 to 6:30 a.m. Then, with his dream experience over, he climbed back into his canoe and started paddling to his next destination, St. Louis.

The adventure of a lifetime was tucked away safely in his heart.

To visit Ed’s story at the Quincy Herald Whig CLICK HERE

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Twilight with Twain

HANNIBAL, MO

Couldn’t believe and still cannot believe the chance I was given to sleep over in the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. Many thanks to the Town of Hannibal — ‘America’s Hometown’ — along with all of the wonderful people I was able to meet. Here’s the full report of my rather magical Twilight with Twain.

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