Monday, December 14, 2020

The Messengers of Clarksdale


In the Earth’s early days, at some locations the Mississippi River was ten miles wide.  Today it’s more like a half mile.  One of these locations is the Mississippi Delta.  Rich in farmland and a unique history, in 2018, I spent time in the heart of the Delta.  Clarksdale, Mississippi.  A place of which you’ve never heard.

Clarksdale has a niche tourism industry.  The Blues.  Legend has it that Blues guitar great, Robert Johnson sold his soul at the Devil’s Crossroads, to said Devil.  A friend of the town’s mayor is Morgan Freeman, was kind enough to open a blues club there.  Blues pilgrims continually flock to Clarksdale.  There are a handful of blues clubs there.  Without Freeman there would still be blues tourists, but his name created a bigger economy.  Butts in seats and locals punching timecards.  The wealth has spread…a bit.  I'm sure some businesses benefit the trickle down of his club’s impact.  Some many are on their own.

One such beneficiary is the Shack Up Inn.  The coolest place I’ve ever stayed.

Ever.  EV-ER.

Shack Up Inn.  Look it up.  I stayed in the cabin that once housed Blues great, Pinetop Perkins.  Along with most creature comforts, my former sharecropper’s cabin included the piano where Pinetop taught a certain Ike Turner how to play.  If that doesn’t get you to their website (below), then I just can’t help you.

My first full day at the inn, I was sitting outside of the main building, trying to get some sort of cell signal.  I was enjoying a cocktail and marveling at the grounds when I saw a woman taking pictures.  I said, "I assume you're visiting, too."  She wasn't.  She was local, taking pictures for the Shack Up complex’s marketing plan.  We talked about the town a bit and she told me how people are working towards a resurgence in the less-trafficked parts of town, especially the historically black business district.

The previous evening, I drove around town after leaving Morgan’s blues place.  I saw a bar with some black men gathered outside the entrance.  I hadn’t planned to stop, so it didn’t faze me.  Truth be told, I wasn’t so sure I’d be welcomed there.  It’s not like I thought I’d be stabbed, but I was in a strange town, seeing a place that wasn’t listed on any tourist websites as a must-see.  However, I was drawn to the sign by the door.

Ping Pong Nightly.

Say no more.

I chose to not go in, but made a mental note about the place and investigating it the next day, which is what I had been doing before talking to the photographer.

She continued, "You know, if you want a great Clarksdale experience, you really have to go to Messenger's."  I couldn't but interrupt.  "PING PONG NIGHTLY!" I cheered.

"Yes!" she said.  I told her I'd seen it and wasn't sure about it.  She gave me the full story.  The oldest, singularly-owned bar in Mississippi.  The Messenger family has owned the pool hall and cafe since 1907.  I knew where I'd start my evening.

Messenger’s is located in a section of town called The New World.  In the early 1900’s, when Clarksdale flourished as a cotton town, it was a multi-cultural breeding ground for jazz, blues, and ragtime music, of clubs, bars, juke joints, and, of course, brothels.  Like most cotton-rich Southern towns, times got tough when farming changed.  Today, the New World exists mostly in historical markers.  Most brick storefronts are boarded up and some just look so dilapidated it’s looks like a rundown movie set.  There are plenty of churches though.  Few businesses remain, but recently a few new places opened near Messenger’s.

I walked in, hoping for multiple ping pong tables with some decent games in progress.  My game was rusty, but in a short time I felt I could lose respectably.  Sadly, one table and it folded up against the wall.  I knew it was a pool hall, but it was really a pool hall with a ping pong dream.  Still, it was pretty cool.  Imagine a pool hall from The Hustler.  1950’s.  Paul Newman.  The place was fitting of men in suits with skinny ties and fedoras, engulfed in cigar smoke.  Instead, I saw empty tables and a couple of older black gentlemen watching NBA playoffs on TV, and a woman at the bar.  A Messenger.  I told her their local friends said I needed to come there for the Clarksdale experience.  I didn’t mention “great”.  No need to put pressure on anyone.

I bellied up for a beer.  The place drew me in right away.  The bar was more like a counter.  No liquor, no beer taps, but an Enjoy Coke wall menu from decades ago.  The kind where you change the menu one letter at a time.  Drinks were kept in a picnic cooler.  I ordered a bottle of Bud.  The going price was $2 and each came wrapped in a paper towel.  Like a paper towel koozie.  I met the husband when he came up to the bar, then he left to puttered around the place.  The wife stayed and became my friend.

To give you an idea of the quality of my visit, after a couple of beers, I told the wife/owner, “I had planned to leave and go listen to some live music, but I’m having too much fun talking with you.” 

Truly a great Clarksdale experience.

Messenger is the family name of the bar owners.  113 years’ worth.  It started with the father.  He died and later his wife was murdered.  Messenger’s closed.

Their daughter and her husband own the place now.  Marthella and Sherman.  Marthella was a teenager when Messenger’s no longer had an owner, and her and her siblings were headed to foster care.  However, her older brother George left a good military career in Germany to save the day.  “He gave up his future to make sure we were ok,” she said.  Messenger’s was back. 

She offered me a tour of the bar and their next-door café; walls covered with photos from the many eras of Messenger’s.  I passed.

Right.  Do you think I’d really pass?  Have you met me?  I was ready to move into the second story apartment and run their online presence!  There’s none, except for a rather splendid Yelp review.  Wink, wink….

She showed me around the place.  Most of the pictures and some news clippings involving George.  Beloved in Clarksdale.  Involved in the community.  An avid runner and athlete.  In January of 2018, George died.  He was 78 and Messenger’s closed…again.

George’s sister and her husband reopened Messenger’s in April 2018.  It’s slow going, but they’re committed to bringing it back.

There was a point in my visit where I really wanted to get beyond the Messenger’s history and to Mississippi’s 1950-60’s notoriety.  A few miles from Clarksdale is a very small town called Money.  Money, Mississippi is where Emmitt Tills, a teenager visiting from Chicago was brutally murdered.  Some say it launched the Civil Rights movement.  Two white men were arrested.  In classic fashion, an all-white jury found the two white men not guilty.  A short time later, their confession was printed in Look Magazine (below).

“There’s something I would like to ask you about,” I said to Marthella, “and if you don’t want to discuss it or it’s none of my business, just say so…but you lived here in the 50’s.”  I just left it there.  She paused for a moment and said, “Well we knew to not be on the other side of the railroad tracks after sundown.  If we were, we’d get killed.”  Her voice tailed off and she said, “Things aren’t like that anymore.”

I trusted she meant the literal over the figurative.

In the 1950’s and likely some of the 60’s, if the owner of Messenger’s walked a few hundred feet and crossed the railroad tracks, remaining after sunset could get himself killed, as would his young daughter.  Because their skin produces more of a certain kind of melanin.  Because they are black.

Hmm…if only there was a quote about judging by the content of one’s character, not skin color.  There is.

More people should try it.

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