Thursday, November 29, 2012
Downtown popular on Saturdays
By WILLIE MALLORY
The scale of the Holly Springs square is one of the largest of any North Mississippi town, laid out using the square design. It is a courageous layout with broad streets and avenues.
This article looks back on how black people impacted the town’s commerce and culture and enriched its history simply by putting aside field labor on Saturdays at noon and coming to town in massive numbers.
Lois Swaney Shipp, Marshall County Historical Museum curator, said, “Nothing happened in Holly Springs until Saturday. Saturday was the black people’s day in town. Merchants had benches out in front of their stores for them to sit on. Holly Springs was bustling and vibrant then.”
In those words, Shipp summarized this entire article.
In the 1930s, the Depression brought the town’s economy to a near shut-down, but toward the end of the decade, recovery was on the horizon. In 1938, Highway 78 through Holly Springs was paved and the dusty and muddy roads around the square changed to paved streets and avenues with electric lights. One at a time, citizens traded their mules and wagons for automobiles. The upgrades, technological advances and the soldiers coming home in 1945 made town fascinating and alive again.
Third generation blacks held onto the work ethics learned from their ancestors and continued to labor on farms and plantations. Unlike their parents, the children of the slaves, they aspired to enrich their lives within the confines of Jim Crow laws.
The war, radios and lessons learned from the Depression and the northern migration impacted their thinking. They chose to break the monotony of field labor by taking Saturday afternoons off to do something for self-enrichment.
From all parts of the county, they came to Holly Springs by the hundreds. Some came on foot, riding their prized horses and in wagons and cars. Most of them rode on the back of neighbors’ pickup trucks. Having grown up in times when wagon and horseback was the transportation of the era, riding on the back of a truck was an upgrade.
As they had done when riding wagons, women wore dusters over their starched and ironed dresses and a head rag over their straight, combed hair to keep themselves fresh for their arrival in town. After some dusting off and fixing up, they joined the crowd for marathon strolling around the square. Appearance was incredibly important to them. Coming to town was an occasion when black women sought to look their best.
To the virgin eye, having seen no more than cotton fields and open pastures, paved streets, electric lights and traffic signals were a fairy tale come true. Annie Spight shared a 1930s experience she had on the square.
“Two cousins told me and another cousin to meet them under a tree on the square that next Saturday. My cousin and I walked around and around the square looking for the tree. We never did find a tree, but there they come walking up to the bench,” she said.
Tales about the pageantry and what happened in town Saturday made spicy cotton field conversation the next week.
When they came to town, they brought leftovers from slavery with them. Most glaring was their preference for either the south side or the north side of the square. Those living south of town preferred the south of the square and they hung about there.
Those living in the northern part of the county kept to the north side of the square. The north and south separation had to do with whether their ancestors were enslaved in the north or south part of the county. After slavery, most blacks stayed put and continued their lineage near the origin of their slave roots. Those from the north remained north and those from the south remained south. The self-imposed separation they had also helped when they would look for their rides home.
Merchants placed benches about town for sitting, storing purchases and as a gathering place for rides home. Blacks from Chulahoma, Waterford, Marianna, Laws Hill and farms and plantations in between gathered on benches along North Center, North Market, North Memphis and East College, extending to Curry’s Piggly Wiggly.
From the benches, blacks on both sides of the square accessed the square -- for strolling, to browse and shop, meet and talk to friends, take in a matinee at the picture show. They made their nature calls at Brittenum Funeral Home or the courthouse’s “colored only” restroom and water fountain.
A thriving retail business was behind every storefront door. Fair Store, Crawley’s 5˘ and 10˘ and Golden Rule were the children’s fantasy. Baddour’s, Stubbs, Tomlinson, McLain, Sam Coopwood, Three Sisters, Harris’ and Levy’s were the selection of dry goods stores.
What they did not sell in medicine, Tyson and Peel Drugstores made up for in ice cream sales. Rose’s, Liberty Cash, Armstead, Curry’s Piggly Wiggly and Moore’s were among the full-line grocery stores. When they sold their seeds from a bale of cotton, black men took home cold cut treats from Cottrell and Sam Coopwood grocery stores.
As they made their Saturday marathons around the square, blacks spent some of their pieces of silver at these stores to buy bologna, cheese and crackers and ate the “knick-knacks” on the benches. Saturdays’ volume of small sales was a big bang for the town’s merchants.
The right-of-way that starts at North Market Street, intersects North Center Street and ends at North Memphis Street has never been named. Throughout the town’s history, it has been called “the Alley.” The point where the Alley and North Center Street cross each other is where the black honky-tonk hub begins.
The good-time hub continued north on Center Street to the Do Drop Inn, then west to Annie Ruth’s Café and east to Sam Coopwood’s Café at Falconer and North Market Streets. All of the cafés were managed by black women. Two of them were owned by a city mayor, the Do Drop Inn (run by Ruth Burton) and Sam Coopwood’s Café (Mattie Brown). The café business was profitable.
These honky-tonk cafés were taboo for black wives and teenagers. They smoked ready-rolled cigarettes, drank beer, shot pool, played pinball machines and they two-stepped to Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, played on the juke box.
It was here, two blocks off the courthouse square that the blues were vindicated from locals’ wicked implications and began to flourish as an art form worthy to be treasured as a contribution to the black experience and legacy.
At first, many blacks thought the rhythm was the Devil’s work. But blues became acceptable for children to dance to after Elvis Presley popularized rock and roll.
Like a shadow, moonshine, the town’s best-kept secret, lurked behind blues and good times. If you didn’t drink it, it wasn’t for you to know who had it.
Kenny Rose remembers asking his father, Adrain Rose, who owned Rose’s Grocery on the square, “Why do some black men buy so much sugar, molasses and yeast?” His father replied, “Shut your mouth. It ain’t to make Coca-Cola.”
The famous Mississippi writer William Faulkner wrote, “I buy my liquor in Holly Springs. They make the best.”
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