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Down There on a Visit

For years now I’ve been looking at a photograph Walker Evans took in the summer of 1936 in the South. I thought of it again while getting ready to travel to the South a few weeks ago. At the intersection of two dusty, unpaved roads stands a dilapidated building with a small porch and a single gas pump. There’s no human being in sight. The intense heat and the bright sunlight must have made the locals, a few of whom can be seen standing on the very same porch on another occasion, seek shade. The shutters of the two upstairs windows are closed except for small openings where the slats are broken or have been removed. The postmaster and his wife, who run the pump and the store, are most likely napping, their heads covered with newspapers to protect them against the flies.

Downstairs, in the small side room with a scale and rows of bins for the mail, there are a few letters whose recipients live too far or receive mail too rarely to bother making the trip. With so little to see and so much to imagine, a photograph like this is an invitation to endless conjecture. There’s nothing more ordinary, nothing more American than what it depicts: a small town one passes with barely a glance on the way to someplace else.

This June, driving around Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, I decided to pay a visit to Sprott and Hale County, where Walker Evans and James Agee collaborated on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, their photographic and verbal record of the lives of three dirt-poor tenant farmer families in the region. I wanted to, as it were, poke around the photograph on my wall. I drove from Mobile past a series of tiny little towns with names like Sunflower, Wagarville, Sunny South, Catherine, and Marion. It was early Sunday morning so my daughter and I were a bit dressed up, hoping to find a church along the way and attend a service. We saw plenty of houses of worship, but oddly, not much activity around them yet. Driving through one of the bigger towns, we were surprised to find a huge Wal-Mart open at 9:20 with dozens of cars parked outside.

The other puzzle was a number of abandoned churches both in towns and in the countryside. I recall a small, unobtrusive, white wooden church sunk in the earth, the grass and weeds grown tall around it. It had a thick, squat steeple, a single door, two windows on each side covered up with boards. The sky over it was cloudless, the quiet so deep we could hear the crows flap their wings as they flew over our heads in alarm. The people who came to pray there must have died or moved away years ago, but the spirit they sought after lingered on. I wondered if there was anything left inside the church, a hard bench, a hymnal, a suspended oil lamp, a skeleton of a dead bird.

The landscape of central Alabama alternates between patches of woods and rolling fields of cultivated land that open onto long vistas before closing up again. We found the crossroads Evans photographed and a small shut-down country store where the old one most probably stood. It did not appear that much had changed in sixty-eight years. There was a large sign announcing a rodeo in nearby Marion, two half-collapsed barns across the road, and a cat that came out of the bushes hungry and lonely, but ran away every time my daughter tried to make friends with it. The population of Sprott today is reputed to be ten people and that sounds about right. Hale County has 17,185 inhabitants and the county seat, Greensboro, only 2,731. I have no idea how many people lived there in the 1930s, when the cotton plantations were in full operation, but there must have been more. The impression one gets is that there’s not much work to be had on the farms that remain. Most of these are large and require a small number of people to work the machinery. Whoever can pick up and leave the county does so, or if they decide to stay, they commute great distances to their jobs. On weekdays, the traffic to Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Montgomery tends to be heavy. Most of these commuters are heading to low-paying retail and service jobs in numerous shopping malls at the outskirts of these cities.

We headed south to Selma. What we found there surprised us. Its spacious downtown, where some 30,000 people once gathered with Martin Luther King to make a march to Montgomery, is badly rundown. It’s a shell of the town it once was. Many of its beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings and storefronts appear in part vacated while others are completely closed. This I found almost everywhere to be the case. The heart of Montgomery has broad avenues, a restored Greek Revival state capitol atop a hill where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office on February 18, 1861, as the president of the Confederate States, and the famous civil rights landmarks, like the Baptist church where the bus boycott was organized in 1956, but there are few people there even on a Monday morning.

The capital of Mississippi, Jackson, is deserted on Friday afternoon. No one walks its streets. There are no restaurants or bars and no hint of where people who work in its many offices get fed. Old photographs of all these places show streets teeming with pedestrians, stores big and small, signs and marquees advertising cafés, drug stores, tobacco shops, and five-and-dime emporiums. The centers of many of the most interesting Southern cities, the neighborhoods that make them most distinct and attractive, have been forsaken for fast-food places, gas stations, and shopping centers at the outskirts, which resemble any other place in the United States.

The middle classes and the rich reside in well-maintained old and new suburbs and vote Republican, while their impoverished neighbors, who tend to be mostly African-American and who outnumber them in many counties, live in rural slums. While there’s no official segregation between the races, there is a caste system with clear class distinctions and accompanying inequality that is apparent wherever one goes. There are towns like Jonestown, Mississippi, that in their shocking poverty make one gasp. Weathered, sagging, and unpainted houses, boarded-up windows, others covered with plastic, yards full of dismantled rusty cars, their parts scattered about amid all kinds of other junk and trash, are everywhere. Idle people of all ages lounge on collapsing porches or stand on street corners waiting for something to do. In the countryside with its fertile dark soil, soybeans have become the chief crop, poultry farms are a major business, and there are nine gambling casinos in the next county. All that has increased per capita income in the region, but there was no evidence of it among the blacks I saw.

In Clarksdale, the former capital of the cotton kingdom, which President Clinton visited during his 1999 tour focusing on the nation’s poorest communities, I saw in a parking lot of a closed supermarket two ancient cars parked side by side with their four doors wide open. Over their hoods, roofs, and doors, spread out and draped, someone’s once-pretty dresses and worn children’s clothes were covering every available space. Two black women sat on low stools, one on each side, waiting for a customer. This is the town, they say, where the blues began. One of its legends, Robert Johnson, was reputed to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads nearby. There’s a blues museum in town and an excel-lent restaurant and juke joint called Ground Zero owned in part by the actor Morgan Freeman, a part-time local resident. The downtown buildings of what was once clearly a flourishing city reminded me of towns in the Midwest and New England after their industries went broke in the late 1960s and their factories were shut down. Clarksdale has the despoiled look of a conquered and sacked city. Ranking conditions of poverty is a risky business, but what I encountered in Mississippi surpasses anything I’ve seen in a long time in this country. That the people here vote Democratic and have a liberal black Democratic congressman has not been of visible help to them.

When one enters the small store that also serves as a post office in nearby Belen, one first comes upon shelves cluttered with ancient TV parts. On one side, in the half-dark, an old black man sits poking his screwdriver into the back of a black-and-white set that must be at least forty years old. Beyond the TV repair section, there’s a grocery store selling a few absolute necessities like canned beans and white bread, and finally in the back, the post office itself with its single oval and barred window where one can purchase a stamp. The old white storekeeper who shows me and my friend around could have walked out of one of Eudora Welty’s Depression-era photographs. He is so pale; he probably rarely leaves the premises. In the meantime, he is happy to chat. It’s not a cliché that people are courteous in the South. Many of them tell memorable stories, love words, and can make something unexpected out of the simplest verbal ingredients. No wonder so many great writers have come from Mississippi.

My first acquaintance with the South was in 1961, when I spent four months at Fort Gordon, Georgia, being trained by the US Army to be a military policeman. On my weekly passes, I went into Augusta, where there was little to do beyond getting drunk in dives frequented by soldiers. With the news of men and women who protested segregation being beaten and occasionally murdered all over the South, it was not the most comfortable place for a Northerner to be. Without even trying, one inevitably got into arguments with the locals. The place seethed with hatred, I thought then. All that changed, of course, over the years, and so did my own understanding of the complexities. There were plenty of racists to be sure, but there were also people of conscience who did their best to alleviate the wrongs in their midst.

Fifty miles from Jonestown, Mississippi, is William Faulkner’s Oxford. It has a pretty courthouse square, a bookstore that could match any in New York City or Boston, fine cafés and restaurants, most of which have second-story porches with tables and chairs overlooking the square. People laze there for hours sipping a drink and gabbing. One could live here—one thinks—in a kind of timeless present. Bank, church, a few elegant stores, a barbershop, and a hotel—what more does one need? In the afternoons, when the shadows lengthen and the heat subsides a bit, one has the overwhelming sense of well-being as if everything were just dandy everywhere and one really had no cause to make oneself a nuisance to strangers with whom one happened to strike a casual conversation.

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