Wednesday, October 16, 2019
One day in late September, Vikki Terrell entered her restaurant Vikki Layne's on Walnut Street in downtown Hattiesburg, Miss., to find a disastrous scene. Overturned tables and chairs, smashed plates, and shattered glass covered the floor of the dining area; in the kitchen, inventory littered the ground. Terrell had no idea who had broken into her restaurant and trashed it, but the vandal left an unmistakable series of messages in black spray paint.
"GET OUT," a mirror proclaimed. "YOU NOT WELCOME HERE," said another on the men's bathroom wall. The n-word appeared in other places. Police have made no arrests or indicated a suspect, but Terrell told police about a white man she saw examining the locks outside the building the night before and gave them video footage of the man.
Now, the 32-year-old African American businesswoman is not sure whether she will stay or take her business elsewhere, she told the Jackson Free Press.
"No one is running me off. Even if I do move and relocate somewhere else, it would not be because I'm running off or shutting down my business. It would be to expand," Terrell said. "If I go somewhere else, it will be a better opportunity with more room for growth and positivity."
The restaurant opened in April, and business has been steady. Vikki Lane's is the fourth restaurant to open in the Walnut Street building since 2012, after three white-owned restaurants there failed. That is a trend in downtown Hattiesburg, where several other black entrepreneurs have also launched thriving businesses in spots where white business owners closed up shop in the past five years.
While white owners have long run most downtown businesses, that fact obscures the history of an almost-forgotten part of the city's central business district.
On Mobile Street, not far from Vikki Layne's, black residents gathered for the 14th Annual Mobile Street Renaissance Festival on Oct. 5 to relive the glory days of an almost forgotten part of downtown Hattiesburg that, during the reign of Jim Crow, served as one of Mississippi's most important hubs of black entrepreneurship, professional life, commerce and, later, a crucible of civil-rights activism that would have ramifications across the state and the nation.
It was separate from the part of downtown where Vikki Layne's is today—an area that was largely reserved for white people in those days.
The Freedom House
Today, Mobile Street is a narrow wasteland of deserted patches of ground, abandoned concrete slabs and hollow buildings. Though a handful of small businesses still operate there, most of the structures still standing in the old business district are in varying states of dilapidation, with rusting doors and broken glass. Some are made of rotting wood; others of brick, now covered in ivy and dead vines. On a few of the structures, remnants of signage hint at the kinds of businesses that once operated inside their walls.
Doctors, a dentist, a tailor, barbershops, grocery stores, a bank and even a movie theater used to be here, Frederick E. Varnado, a retired army lieutenant colonel who lives in the south Mississippi city, said from his tent where he was promoting the local African American Military Museum on Oct. 5. He is among a number of town residents who remember the days when Jim Crow laws necessitated the creation of black enclaves within cities like Mobile Street.
"Racial segregation limited (the prospects of former black slaves and their children) in every walk of life but also helped form remarkable communities like the one that formed in Hattiesburg's Mobile Street neighborhood. The nature of Jim Crow knit African Americans into tight, self-reliant groups that struggled together in their churches, businesses, and schools to insulate themselves from the horrors of racial oppression and to provide better lives for their children," University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill historian William Sturkey writes in his 2019 book, "Hattiesburg."
At the festival, Varnado pointed to a large, two-story brick building on E. 7th Street, perpendicular to Mobile, known as the Eureka School. When the City first opened it in 1921, it was one of just a few brick public schools for black children in Mississippi. As segregation ended, Hattiesburg's white and black schools consolidated, and white families fled to the suburbs in nearby Petal and Oak Grove. By the 1980s, Eureka was closed.
Soon, though, the City of Hattiesburg will reopen it as a museum devoted to the city's civil-rights history—including the residents and business owners of Mobile Street who led the charge. That history largely unfolded in churches, businesses and in what is now a rectangular block of green space on Mobile Street where, on Oct. 5, festival goers sought respite from the heat on benches beneath shade trees.
One day 57 years ago, though, Mobile Street businesswoman Peggy Jean Connor looked over to that very spot from the window of Jean's Beauty Shop to see two young activists from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Curtis Hayes and Hollis Watkins, entering the two-story Woods Guesthouse that then stood there.
It was a hotel for African American travelers, and its owners had allowed the SNCC organizers to start an office in their building for the Council of Federation Organizations, which coordinated activities between major civil-rights groups across the South. Connor, the daughter of a civic-minded father, soon took an interest in their work, she told the University of Southern Mississippi in a 2001 oral history.
At meetings on Mobile Street and in the surrounding area, Connor met Fannie Lou Hamer, a community organizer and activist from Ruleville, Miss. With encouragement from local SNCC field secretary Victoria Gray, Connor became a citizenship teacher, helping African Americans learn how to understand the Constitution and their rights under it and, pivotally, how to register to vote.
During the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, the Freedom House, as the hotel became known, was a hub of civil-rights activity, headquartering the city's seven freedom schools, which taught thousands of students things they could not learn in a black public school—like foreign languages, black history and how to petition their government.
Registering to vote as an African American in Mississippi in the early 1960s, though, was nigh impossible. Forrest County Circuit Clerk and Registrar of Voters Theron Lynd, an ardent segregationist Dixiecrat, required black residents to answer absurd questions in order to register, like, "How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?" Connor's own father had been a registered voter in the 1920s and '30s—until Jim Crow finally took away his franchise.
Frustrated, Connor sought to demonstrate her displeasure with her activism against the white supremacist status-quo to the City's leaders. In February 1964, she and a handful of fellow activists landed in jail after they picketed for the removal of a tall Confederate monument that stood on the lawn just to the right of the red brick Chancery Court building.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy had erected the monument in 1910, ostensibly to honor "the memory of those who wore the gray," but no Hattiesburg resident had ever even "worn the gray" or fought in the Civil War because the town was founded in 1880—15 years after the war's end. Forrest County itself is named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan and its first grand wizard.
'The Right to Live and Die'
Still determined to fight back against the all-white, segregationist Mississippi Democratic Party of her day, Connor joined Hamer and others as they launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in April 1964, with Connor chairing the Hattiesburg chapter, whose headquarters they set up inside the Freedom House.
In August 1964, Connor served as an MFDP delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where they made national headlines by demanding that their delegates be seated in place of the Mississippi delegation (the MFDP walked out after rejecting the DNC's offer to seat just two of them). Back home, prominent Dixiecrat lawyer Charles Pickering switched to the GOP, blaming the MFDP for his "embarrassment and humiliation." Pickering later became a controversial federal judge.
Connor took matters into her own hands when a group of angry whites, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, surrounded the MFDP's bus on the trip home and tried to stop it. In an oral history interview with the University of Florida in May 2011, MFDP Director Lawrence Guyot, who had been on the bus, recalled this "little, sweet, nice lady" getting up, walking over to the bus driver and brandishing a large knife.
"Now, if this bus stops, your head comes off," the beauty shop owner told the man. Connor and the other activists, Guyot said, "understood that the right to vote was tied to the right to live and die." The possibility of death stayed on the minds of the Hattiesburg activists. In July, a failed firebomb attack on one activist's home had left only minor damage served as a warning.
That same year, Gray, running on the MFDP ticket, unsuccessfully challenged Dixiecrat U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis for his seat. Still, she made history as the first Mississippi woman to run for a U.S. Senate seat—long before Cindy Hyde-Smith finally broke that barrier when Gov. Phil Bryant appointed her in 2018.
'If You Don't Vote ...'
Voting-rights activist and Forrest County NAACP President Vernon Dahmer had been instrumental in Mississippi's Freedom Summer project; he first asked SNCC to send Hayes and Watkins to Mississippi to help with organizing efforts in Hattiesburg.
Dahmer's work drew the ire of a variety of racist organizations, including the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, the Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan—all of whom had been keeping tabs on him for years.
One night in January 1966, the Dahmer family awoke to the sound of gunfire and breaking glass as Klansmen tossed gas jugs through their windows. Dahmer grabbed his gun and shot back from inside the home to give his wife, Ellie, time to get out safely with their children. The house erupted into flames with Dahmer still inside. He died at a hospital not long after, his lungs scorched and body burned.
Dahmer's death would lead to the convictions of several klansmen. But Gov. William L. Waller, the father of the former Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice who ran for the Republican nomination for governor this year, ordered an early release for one of the men, Charles Clifford Wilson, in 1972 on the grounds that his skill in making artificial limbs were sorely needed in Laurel.
After a series of mistrials, the state finally convicted former KKK leader Sam Bowers in 1998 for masterminding the murder.
Connor died last year. An open field off the Mobile Street sidewalk betrays no evidence that her beauty shop, and a row of other once-bustling businesses, once stood there, just as Farish Street in Jackson was once the hub of black commerce and entertainment. Mobile Street is now desolate, in large part, because the people for whom it was ground zero in the local fight for civil rights helped bring an end to the Jim Crow laws that had made such black-only business districts necessary in the first place.
Despite the vandalism at Vikki Layne's, Terrell insisted that she will not give up on her dreams of being a successful local millennial businesswoman.
"When I said I don't plan on stopping, I meant that. It just may be in a different area," she told the Jackson Free Press, noting that she had received offers to move her business to other parts of town.
"Right now, I'm just keeping my options kind of open. I love downtown, I absolutely love Hattiesburg. I was born here. I would've loved to stay downtown forever."
But not far from Vikki Layne's, on the right lawn of the Paul B. Johnson Chancery building (named for a segregationist governor who served from 1964 to 1968) in downtown Hattiesburg, the Confederate monument that Connor and her fellow Freedom House activists were jailed for protesting still stands, with the Mississippi flag and its Confederate imagery flapping on a pole close by.
Forrest County plans to place another in a new plaza on the courthouse's left lawn. The bronze-cast likeness of Dahmer, sculpted by two local artists, will include one of his famous quotes carved into its base: "If you don't vote, you don't count."
Presently, Forrest County has no plans to remove the granite Confederate soldier, guaranteeing a stark visual representation of the double-mindedness that, after all these years, still persists in Mississippi's government and public spaces.