Monday, April 8, 2013
Pastorgraphs: “Cleveland, Mississippi”
April 8, 2013
Pastorgraphs: “Cleveland, Mississippi”
While planning a Memphis trip later this month to attend the Methodist Eurasia Roundtable, I learned that Cleveland, Mississippi was named one of the top small historic towns to visit by Smithsonian Magazine. I know Cleveland well, and refer to it as my “second hometown” next to Yazoo City. I love the town where I went to college, worked at a local radio station, was ordained into the ministry, and served as pastor for two churches (one in nearby Benoit). But even I was surprised at the Smithsonian’s recognition of this amazing small town.
“One of the top small towns” is an understatement. You probably will not be surprised Gettysburg and St. Augustine were two of the top three small historic cities the Smithsonian recommends you visit in 2013. If I asked you to name the other top city, you would NEVER, NEVER guess Cleveland, Mississippi. But there Cleveland appears as the Smithsonian’s #2 recommendation, wedged between the famous Civil War battlefield and America’s oldest city.
So what is it about Cleveland that led the Smithsonian to rank it so high? I do not work for the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce or Tourism Commission. But as a former resident, I will give you a short list of why I think it deserves consideration for history minded tourists.
DELTA BLUES – Because Cleveland sits at the geographic center of the
Mississippi Delta, half way between Memphis and Vicksburg, it lays claim to being the birthplace of Delta Blues, which influenced the development of Rock and Roll (Elvis Presley admitted so) and other forms of American music. The Smithsonian wrote, “American music would not be what it is today without the blues. It welled up in the Delta—arguably at Dockery Farms plantation, five miles east of Cleveland—for myriad reasons.” If you visit, be sure to see the legendary “honky tonks”. B. B. King hails from nearby Indianola. Another Delta Blues Museum is in Clarksdale, not far from Cleveland.
GRAMMY MUSEUM – Quick quiz: Where is the only Grammy Music Museum outside Los Angeles? Answer: Cleveland, Mississippi. (I kid you not.) In early 2015 the $12 million 20,000 square foot Grammy Mississippi Museum will open on the Delta State University campus. The location was chosen because of the community’s ties to so many musical art forms, including Blues, Rock and Roll, Gospel and Country Music.
DELTA STATE - Cleveland is home to Delta State University (my alma mater). A traditional teacher’s college which opened in 1925 and now has an enrollment of 4,000 students, Delta State has become a diverse university with respected schools of aviation and hosts the respected Center for Geospatial Information Technologies. DSU won nationalchampionships in Division II football (2000) and the Division II World Series (2004). Legendary DSU Coach “Boo” Ferris from nearby Shaw, MS was one of the Boston Red Sox’s greatest pitchers. Coach Margaret Wade coached the Lady Statesmen basketball team to three consecutive AIWA national championships and a 93–4 record, including a 51-game winning streak. Her successor, Lloyd Clark, led the women’s team to three NCAA D2 National Championships. The Bologna Performing Arts Center is the epicenter for cultural and art events between Memphis and Jackson. The student body voted to have an alternate mascot to The Statesmen, and in keeping with the school colors of green and white, selected the “Fighting Okra”. (You cannot make this stuff up.)
DOWNTOWN – The Smithsonian continued, “There’s more to do now in Cleveland. New blood has washed through town, restoring the Historic Crosstie business district with its beguiling Railroad Heritage Museum, bringing an arts alliance to a vintage movie theater, filling rehabbed warehouses with galleries and restaurants. Creative young locals surprise even themselves by coming home to stay after college, though their art group’s wry motto—“Keep Cleveland Boring”—confounds elders.”
THE J. C. BURRIS HOUSE (nearby Benoit) – This beautifully restored Ante Bellum mansion, one of the few remaining in the area, was the setting of the 1956 movie, “Baby Doll”, starring Karl Malden, Carroll Baker and Eli Wallach. Built shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Burris Mansion fell into disrepair and narrowly escaped demolition. The Delta was mostly unsettled swamp land before the Civil War, so the Burris House is indeed a rare look at the Old South in this section of Mississippi.
CULTURAL/LITERARY DIVERSITY – The Smithsonian article continued, “Chiefly shaped by white Methodists and black Baptists, (Cleveland) benefited from surprising infusions of Chinese and Italian immigrants enticed to Delta cotton fields, traveling Jewish salesmen, Irish mule traders and Mexicans who gave Cleveland its taste for tamales. The region’s literary bent produced Eudora Welty and Willie Morris, their work underscoring the Delta’s loquacity.” Morgan Freeman, Charlie Pride, and Conway Twitty (my cousin, whose real name was Harold Jenkins) are a few of the well-known artists who claimed this region as home.
CIVIL RIGHTS LEGACY - Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy visited Cleveland. The Smithsonian noted, “The countryside east of town yields more history. Dockery Farms Foundation (a former plantation) vividly describes the sharecropping system that kept blacks in poverty or sent them into the Northern diaspora. Freedom Riders were held at nearby Parchman Prison. The 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till by two white men, likely in the hamlet of Drew, helped wake up a nation to the plight of Southern African-Americans. And then there’s the town of Mound Bayou, founded in 1887 by former slaves—the first haven of its kind in the United States—once with its own bank, train depot, swimming pool and hospital.”
Like most of the South, Cleveland manufactured more history than the local population can consume. That is why the locals are always ready to share a heavy dose of Southern Hospitality so visitors can take some of it back home. Good call, Smithsonian! As a matter of fact, since I’m going to be driving from Jackson to Memphis in a couple weeks, I think I will take Highways 49 and 61 through my beloved Delta to refresh golden memories of Cleveland.
From the Quote Garden:
“When a writer knows home in his heart, his heart must remain subtly apart from it.”
~ Willie Morris ~
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