Leaving Florida, the consensus of those with say in such things was to not miss New Orleans. At Topsail Preserve, our neighbor was a native of NOLA and said it was a must-see. So, naturally, we decided to head inland into the heart of the Deep South. On the surface, my thinking was about missing the congestion and stifling sameness of the Interstate, but deeper it was about not shying away from people and places that – I presumed – were utterly foreign.
So we headed up US98 through a bit of Alabama. I had to explain Roll Tide to Holly. She was unimpressed. We had an early lunch at the Hickory Pit in Semmes, AL. The placed was busy for lunch around 10:30. We were eyed suspiciously for drinking water, not sweet tea. The first leg of this trip took us to Petal, MS, to the home of a great man named Tony. He hosted us on his five acres as a Boondockers Welcome. He was doing it right, living in a motorhome while converting two new barns to living and workshop quarters. What a good guy Tony is! He has lived and worked all over from Alaska to Texas and knows a thing or two. He insisted we go deep into the Louisiana bayou and find some boudin to eat. We’ll report on that later. In the moment, we enjoyed his banter and his pretty acres of long leaf pine.
Leaving, we found ourselves on US84, a loveless road of empty miles and teeth-rattling bumps. I knew – I insisted – there must be something out there. We took a chance and took a left on Route 184 and found Monticello, MS, seat of Lawrence County, population ~1,500. We pulled up in front of a jewelry shop that also does watch repair, and – we came to learn – one of four florists in town. The jeweler took time from his work to raise his magnifiers just enough to assess us. We didn’t have interest then for either, so we took a walk up the street. There were a few shops, most closed. Farther up we saw the Lawrence County Civic Center Museum, a regional historical museum. The first three doors we tried were locked. The fourth got us in.
Inside we met Katherine, a 70 year old Black woman, born and raised in Monticello. She is retired, but comes to the museum three days a week to see that things are kept up. The former school building is well kept, and its various rooms each had its allure. One very moving display was local high school year books dating back to 1953. You may be aware of a landmark US Supreme Court ruling from 1954. Katherine shared some of her personally meaningful items, but what captivated us the most was her open love of the town. She mused that everywhere has its ups and downs – I couldn’t help but let my mind go to the horrors of the Confederacy, Jim Crow, and the lurching strides toward integration – and that in her heart, she “wouldn’t take nothin’ for it.” In that moment, I loved Monticello, too.
Back down at the bus, Holly said we needed flowers in our empty vase. Everything in the storefront was plastic – a motif of the South – and I didn’t really want to go in. So, in we went. I think we startled Elizabeth behind the counter. She is a White woman about the same age as Katherine. In the time we spent talking – quite a while – I never asked if she knew Katherine. She must, of course. Elizabeth warmed to us, and after learning that she had fresh flowers out of sight in the back, we asked her to make us an arrangement. Our vase is little, so she needed her imagination to put together something nice. As she filled our vase from a tub of special water, adding foam for support and gathering stems from the back, her ease of movement and talk came out. She snipped and snipped the stems, placing them just so and talked to us about her life – how she had moved about, returning to Monticello, taking over her father’s florist shop on his passing, how she doesn’t hire help because they all leave and open their own shop, about school integration when her father was superintendent of schools – all of it warm and unselfconscious. Still she snipped and snipped, with a final flourish of a sweet pea stem. When Holly picked up the vase, Elizabeth said – eyebrows cocked – “You DO know there’s a front, right?” We assured her we would place it right, and headed out. When we were halfway to the door, she called out,”Why do you do this?” Travel, she meant. I walked back to the counter to answer. “To meet people like you and see what your life is like,” I said. She had one more question. “Can I spray glitter on the flowers?” With a spritz of water and a flourish of silver glitter we were on our way.
Our next spot was a Harvest Host location, The Great Mississippi Tea Company in Brookhaven. We met our hosts, Timmy and Jason, Sagan who works at the farm, and Kiffin, the neighbor’s bloodhound-Great Dane mix. First, who knew about tea farms. Second, wow, what a slice of heaven. Timmy asked if we would like hot tea in the morning before he showed us around. We were floored by the intricacy of the farming they do, and the vast amount of work they accomplish in their stifling summers.
Farther yet down the road, and invigorated by this slice of humanity, we sought another stop for lunch. We wanted to get off the utterly blank US84 again, and off a side road we found Roxie, MS. I’d like to describe the wonderful folks we met there, but it was in fact – at least to our quick assessment – empty and disused. I think about Richard Wright – the giant of Black American literature, born in Roxie – and what mountains he had to move to attain his heights. I have believed that literature should stand on its merits, irrespective of the life of the writer. I have modified that view, standing in Roxie, aghast at the rusting and rustling metal roofs of the vacant storefronts, and how that can spawn greatness.
We got to Natchez, MS a bit later. We picked that spot specifically to see the Natchez Museum of African American Culture and History. I won’t recite the history of the area, but it was astounding to us just how nuanced our understanding needed to be. We were greeted by an older Black gentleman named Bobby who asked us to take our time viewing the rooms, and to sit for a short film. After, he spoke to us, adding shading and depth to what we had taken in. He was devoted to letting history tell itself through personal stories, artifacts, tools and the like, free from the interpretation that often adds little beyond the preconceptions of the student. His commitment to that principle was profound. We came to learn that despite being the second largest slave market of the South, Natchez had a history of free Blacks, who had sound legal standing under Spanish rule. Coming under American rule in 1817 was thus particularly bitter for many here.
We will be making it a point as we travel to discover and pay respect to the stories that America doesn’t teach, all the ordinary lives that proceed one way or another, suffering, flourishing, getting up and putting on one’s shoes, sometimes leaving to get the dust off one’s feet.