Baptist Town, Mississippi
On the outskirts of the elegant, mainly white, religious town of Greenwood lies Baptist Town.
It’s one of the recommended places to visit on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Early in the morning we drove past Greenwood’s elegant mansions, through the town and across the railway track, and entered another world.
Oh yes, the houses in Baptist Town are still detached, but they’re ancient, dilapidated, and quite honestly, I wouldn’t like to lean against some of them. Health and Safety wouldn’t know which way to turn!
They’re known as Shotgun Houses. The rooms are built behind each other without a hallway. The simple design was developed in Africa and Haiti. It may have been To-gun, meaning Place of Assembly. But nowadays it’s supposed to mean that if you open the doors and windows, you can shoot a gun straight through the front and out the back without any pellets hitting the floor. And I’m sure that some of the residents have tried it!
The church is the first thing that you notice, boldly facing the affluent aliens on the other side of the track. The blue (naturally!) Blues Trail sign stands next to it.
Oh yes, there’s a strong religious influence in Baptist Town too. But their interpretation of songs and prayers compared to their neighbours across the track is as different as their houses!
Our guide, Sylvester Hoover, was waiting to greet us. He runs the small supermarket, Hoover’s Grocery/Cafeteria, which was closed for the morning while he was showing us around, although I didn’t see anyone trying to go inside. He’s fighting an uphill battle, trying to improve the town and its residents.
Out of 500+ residents, 75% of them are unemployed. They haven’t been educated enough to get jobs.
Baptist Town was developed in 1876, mainly to house the freed slaves. And the old shacks are still there, falling to bits. I didn’t see any new buildings.
The town got its name because baptisms were carried out in the river, which had four ft of clean water.
Everyone was expected to work. If they were spotted on the streets in the daytime, they could be arrested, right up until the mid 1960s.
They’re still not very welcome across the railway track, but sometimes at night they go to downtown Johnson Street.
They were paid $1 a day for picking cotton. But they could earn $2 a day collecting money for playing the blues, and $5 a gallon for selling illegal moonshine.
Their motto was. ‘I’m glad this day is over. Tomorrow’s going to be a better day.’
Some freed slaves set up business as sharecroppers. They could rent the land fairly cheaply. But they had to buy their seeds and supplies in the local commissary, and they were charged a very high rate of interest. So they were still all really slaves.
In fact, in a lot of ways, they were worse off than when they were slaves. The slaves had free accommodation, often with a vegetable garden. They had free clothes and medical treatment. And when they grew too old to work, they could usually stay in their home for the rest of their lives.
Now most of any earned money goes on drugs.
One of the most famous Blues players, Robert Johnson, lived and died in Baptist Town. His life is a bit of a mystery. It’s said that he went out one day and sold his soul to the devil. After that, he composed and played amazing music that is even more popular today than it was when he was alive, including Sweet Home Chicago, Dust my Broom, and Crossroads Blues.
But Steve, his grandson, has researched it and he thinks that Robert just went to live with a friend for a while, and they both practised hard!
Robert Johnson died on a corner of the street in Baptist Town, poisoned by a jealous husband.
Morgan Freeman also lived here. Sylvester’s trying to get him involved in helping the town.
Sitting on a wooden bench outside Hoover’s Grocery was a thin man with a hooded jacket on despite the heat, clutching a bottle in a paper bag although it was only about 9am.
It was impossible to guess his age. He could have been anything from 30 to 60.
All the families have between 9 and 11 children, although the un-made-up streets were deserted. We didn’t see one woman or girl.
A couple of young boys ran barefoot over the broken bottles that covered every surface. They shyly followed us. Then I took their photo and showed them the pictures. After that, I had two fans! One of them politely insisted on taking my photo with my camera. He found it fascinating. They trotted along beside me while I explored.
I passed a small group of young males with a bull terrier puppy. I stopped to admire the dog, then I noticed that they had a large stuffed dog which they were using to tease the puppy, and they weren’t very happy to see me watching them.
And it suddenly dawned on me that they were teaching it to fight. My first reaction was anger. But they have to earn a living somehow, so who am I to judge them?
A decrepit red car rattled up. The driver leaped out and insisted on shaking hands, and introduced himself as Roger. He wanted to know who we were and where we came from.
‘Have you seen my motorbike?’ he asked, ‘It’s in my front garden.’ He pointed to another street. He was obviously classed as comfortably-off. I didn’t ask how he earned a living. Best not to know!
Next door to Sylvester’s supermarket is the Back In The Day Museum. It was set up by Sylvester and his wife in 2006.
The undecorated shack is stuffed full with a mish-mash of objects and articles that Sylvester has collected, including seats, magazines, a record-player and 78rpm records, toys, clothes and a cotton-picking bag. Sylvester lifted it up and showed it to us. It was huge and dragged along the ground. A slave was expected to ‘Pick a bale of cotton’ every day. The cotton, known as Mississippi Snow, is like large thistles. The slaves’ hands must have been in a terrible state.
There was no organisation to the set-up. It seemed as though when something was donated to the museum, Sylvester just stuck it in a convenient space.
Every now and then, one of the boys would grab something; a toy or an ornament, and take it outside to play with. Sylvester wasn’t at all bothered.
We heard a loud hooting noise, and we dashed along to the railway track. We watched as the longest train that I’ve ever seen rumbled slowly past. It seemed to take ages.
There were no fences or hedges between the road and the track, but the people of Baptist Town knew from a very young age not to go near it. It had an invisible barrier.
It was time for us to leave. Sylvester and the two boys stood outside the church and waved until we were out of sight. Roger posed beside his car and waved. We drove back over the railway track and into a totally different world.
47 Union Avenue
Memphis, TN 38103