The “Bastard Child of the Park System”

The “Bastard Child of the Park System”
and Emergence of Blues Tourism in Washington County, Mississippi
By T. DeWayne Moore

Hacksaw Harney, Sam Chatmon, and Eugene Powell
Due to the rampant clear-cutting by lumber companies and a lack of planning for reforestation, the Mississippi State Legislature created the Mississippi Forestry Commission (MFC) in 1926.  In the third section of an act to develop plans for reforestation, the governor received authorization was to “accept gifts of land” for the purpose of establishing state forests and parks.  The state did not acquire any land for parks before to the onset of the Great Depression, which limited such endeavors across the nation.  The 1932 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought with it a New Deal for all Americans, however, and he established the Emergency Conservation Works (later renamed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1937) and resumed the development of the national park system.[1]  In early 1934, some representatives of the state park division of the National Park Service approached the MFC about a cooperative program to develop state parks was possible, provided that the state furnish the land. Since neither the MFC nor the counties had statutory authority to purchase lands for the development of state parks, and the state had no legal justification for the use of state-owned lands for park development, the MFC solicited the assistance of legislators, civic organizations and individuals, all of whom sponsored a bill introduced in that year's legislative session. Known as House Bill 446, it allowed states to establish state parks using state-owned lands; it also authorized counties to purchase land for the future development of a state park.[2]

A host of civic leaders across the state greeted the passage of House Bill 446 with much enthusiasm, and Greenville was among the first communities to request the establishment of CCC camps in the Washington County for the purpose of developing state parks.  On May 29, 1934, the CCC setup camp near Hollandale on land that was to become Leroy Percy State Park, an event which marked the official beginning of the state park system in Mississippi.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the first nine state parks in Mississippi beginning in the mid-1930s.[3]  Sixteen members of the state park committee met at the Chamber of Commerce in Greenville and announced the construction of a Leroy Percy Park in Washington County in February 1934.[4]  By the summer, seventeen CCC workers had cleared a camp site about three miles west of Hollandale and started construction on the park.[5]  In the opinion of one chamber of commerce member, “he never before saw a group of people work together like the people of Washington County had done in securing” the construction of Leroy Percy Park.[6]  The state officially dedicated the two thousand acre park on July 25, 1935.[7]

Following a visit to the park in 1937, one reporter for the Delta Star informed of his surprise at “the modernity of the equipment, quality and accessibility of supplies, and its facilities for recreation and education.”[8]  Leroy Percy Park, in addition, featured several warm springs with a flow of 150 gallons per minute; according to one advertisement, they were nine degrees warmer than similar springs in Georgia.[9]  After the National Park Service provided $75,000 for the construction of a meeting camp, it became one of the most popular gathering places in Mississippi.[10]   “Unofficial figures” suggest that in upwards of 30,000 people visited the park during the early summer months of 1939.[11]

The park did not maintain its fresh, attractive image over the years.  According to one state senator, it was the “least used state park” in 1957, and he believed that a “good deal” of local sentiment wanted to “make it a Negro park.”  The park commission even agreed that if it became a black park, they would contact members of the Percy family and discuss renaming it.[12]    The state park director requested nine thousand dollars to renovate the old CCC buildings and maintain the park, but the state building commission only approved one thousand dollars for building an outside restroom and another five hundred dollars to remodel the bathhouse.  After the original lodge burned down around 1960, leaving the park without a meeting place and activity center, the citizens of Hollandale marshalled their resources in 1952 to secure the passage of a bill providing $50,000 for a new lodge at Leroy Percy Park.[13]  The new lodge featured ceramic tile baths, heating and cooling equipment, and a large kitchen.  The park remained, however, in a deplorable state; some youths drowned in the pool due to the lack of trained lifeguards and unsanitary conditions.  “The water is so black,” one woman complained, “that once they go down you can’t see them anymore.”  Even with a new lodge, the park failed to attract many people in the late 1960s.[14] 

In 1970, one journalist charged that Mississippi had completely “fallen down on the job” of maintaining its state park system.  Since the New Deal, the state had allocated only two million dollars for capital improvements to the parks, most of which continued to use outdated equipment built by the CCC in the mid-1930s.  In contrast, southern states such as Alabama had contributed over twenty million dollars to maintain and improve their state parks in the same time period.[15]  In October, a state economic council reported that the state parks were outdated and severely understaffed; one seven-person crew was responsible for the maintenance of all fifteen parks.  While attendance had increased in the early 1960s, it started to drop in the latter part of the decade.  The committee stressed the “urgent need” to improve state parks.[16]  The state’s continued failure to invest in its state parks was self-defeating, in the editorial opinion of Hodding Carter III, who believed that updated parks would bring an infusion of tourist dollars into the local economy.  The editor held that his fellow Mississippians deserved “far better outlets for enjoying their leisure time,” and “more money is an obvious and immediate cure.”[17] 

In 1972, the Mississippi Legislature at last appropriated twenty-five million dollars to upgrade and improve the state park system over the next five years.  Though one million dollars was earmarked for Leroy Percy Park, the state decided to work on other parks the first year, which provided time to develop a “master plan” of improvements to the park’s “crude nature trail with no identification of plants,” “seldom-used football practice field,” dark swimming pool, and fairly new meeting hall.[18]  Of the one million dollars allocated for improvements at Leroy Percy Park, one third of the money went towards new roads and improvements to the water and sewer system, which led some folks to believe it might be a while before any “large improvement” was evident at the park.  The improvements, however, were becoming visible at the park in a year-and-a-half.  By installing a revamped drainage system, a swimming pool, and a modern “adventure playground” on the two thousand acre site, one local journalist asserted that the one-time “bastard child of the park system” would likely come up leading the pack in the late-1970s.[19]  The state even provided new paddle boats, repaired cabins and a freshly painted main lodge.[20]

The Mississippi Parks Commission (MPC) combined forces with the Mississippi Arts Commission (MAC) to launch the Classroom in the Parks Program (CPP) as a promotional event in the summer of 1976.  Funded through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), specifically a pilot program to “explore the problems and possibilities of improved marketing, including such concerns as audience development, fund-raising, and new formats and locations for public presentations,” such as “Arts Centers and Festivals,” the CPP consisted of staging several folk art demonstrations and music festivals at the five newly-renovated state parks.[21] The NEA’s pilot program had no intention of superimposing its ideas about art on the local communities.  The program, in fact, encouraged organizers to involve the community as much as possible to nurture a mutual exploration of folk art in Mississippi.[22]  The local aspects of the program at Leroy Percy State Park included a two-day “Tribute to the Delta Blues” beginning June 5, 1976.[23]  While the event featured ten native craftsmen and artists who demonstrated, or exhibited, their work in glassblowing, printmaking, pottery, clay pottery, stained glass, macramé, woodworking, stone-carving, watercolor, and woodcarving, it also featured several important local blues and gospel musicians whose musical performances in the once-segregated park demonstrated the social as well as cultural impact of the black freedom struggle.

Not more than a few dozen people braved the inclement weather on Saturday to attend the first “Tribute to the Delta Blues” at Leroy Percy Slate Park.  Susan Ford, instructor for the Craftsman’s Guild of Mississippi, hosted the poorly-attended event, and she demonstrated the art of glassblowing to as many interested folks as possible.  The public was welcome at the free shows, and the brave attendees received a healthy dose of “gospel blues” music from MACE founder and longtime gospel singer Amzie Moore and his guitar accompanist, Reverend Leon Pinson, both of Cleveland.[24]

For Moore, music had always provided a conduit for introducing the initiatives of the black freedom struggle.  Having returned home from World War II with a new outlook on his place in the world, he travelled the rural countryside singing in a gospel quartet, the Four Gate Harmonizers, and signed people up to join the NAACP.[25]  According to Reverend Sammie Rash, whom Moore taught to sing in a quartet and who travelled with him to perform at different churches, singing was prevalent in the black communities of Bolivar County:

In those days, it was very easy to go among a religious group and find—especially in black Baptist churches—people who love to sing.  Even now they love to sing. They would form groups; that's why we have choirs. Out of the choirs sometimes you get individuals that loved to sing duets—you know, together—duets, quartets and what have you.[26]


Though he certainly maintained a passion for musical performance throughout his life, Moore saw his traveling quartets as a means to promote voter registration without drawing the attention of the White Citizens’ Council.[27]  His travels allowed for the creation of a network of activists, which he introduced to SNCC field director Robert Moses during his first visit to Mississippi in 1960.  Rather than employ non-violent direct action sit-ins, he explained that black folks in the state perceived the franchise as a “logical, long-term goal pivotal” to “breaking down the caste system,” forever “changing life in Mississippi.”[28] In this sense, he served as a circuit rider who spread the gospel of the black freedom struggle, along with several other World War II veterans, to black fraternal organizations, church auxiliaries, local NAACP chapters, and also SNCC freedom schools.  Moore and Pinson also participated in the later promotional concerts of MACE in the late 1970s.   

One writer for The Voice reported on one musical performance of guitarist Leon Pinson and longtime civil rights activist Amzie Moore, one of the three original founding board members of MACE.  The writer described the two men as “two longtime Deltans known from the Mississippi River to the Alabama State Line,” who performed “traditional blues music of the Delta variety.”[29]  The two men, however, did not play the blues; in fact, they believed the impression absurd.  In one interview, Pinson flatly refuted the notion, declaring, “I have never played the blues.  I don’t sing ‘em, I don’t play ‘em, and I don’t have ‘em.”[30]  He had never even tried “to play…blues or rock and roll.”[31]  The writer’s errant reporting is understandable, however, especially considering that the elder musician used a knife as a slide, tuned his guitar very low, and played chord-connecting runs that featured commonly in both blues and country music.  Pinson’s guitar playing sounded so much like blues, according to a couple of state employees, that folklorists and enthusiasts dubbed his musical style the “holy blues” or “gospel blues.”[32]  The only recognizable difference, in fact, was that the lyrics of the songs were sacred—not secular.  The music of Pinson and Moore, nevertheless, emphasized the similarities between blues and gospel, particularly their common historical foundations in the black freedom struggle. 

A biographical sketch of Leon Pinson reveals a more extensive relationship between community-based musicians, some of whom later found a measure of fame in the wider festival world, and the organizing traditions that buttressed civil rights activism.  Born in Union County on January 11, 1919, he grew up playing piano in the church, adhering to a strict repertoire of gospel and spiritual music.  Having been left crippled in one leg and almost blind from a bout with meningitis as a youth, he supported himself primarily through musical performance, “going from place to place singing and playing at churches and different places” around his north Mississippi home in New Albany.[33]  He never held down a steady job, which allowed him to travel and perform in cities as far away as Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, and Racine, Wisconsin, where he purchased his first electric guitar. 

Pinson was first discovered in the early 1960s by a future folklorist and organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Worth Westinghouse Long, Jr.  Long discovered Pinson after he moved to Bolivar County and started to perform at musical engagements outside his “regular round of church-related work,” such as the political rallies of the Bolivar County Voters League and the meetings of SNCC.[34]  “This middle-aged blind person carrying his amplifier through town playing on the street was in the movement,” folklorist Worth Long recalled, “He had a movement consciousness [and] he played for mass meetings.”[35]  His traditional gospel repertoire and increasing presence at civil rights meetings also brought him together with veteran civil rights leader Amzie Moore, who performed with him at local festivals and other MACE-sponsored events in the late 1970s.  Not too much of a blues singer, Moore travelled the rural countryside beginning in the fifties singing in a gospel quartet, the Four Gate Harmonizers, and signing people up to join the NAACP.[36]  In his opinion, the passionate performance of gospel music helped him find the “courage and strength to live” in such an oppressive society.[37]  Pinson expressed a similar sentiment.  “Gospel is uplifting [and] if you’re saved,” he declared, “you don’t have [any] need of the blues.”[38]

After the weather cleared up for the last day, they may not have had any need for the blues but they certainly got their fill.   “Tribute to the Delta Blues.”  Leland-based blues singer James “Son” Thomas and Hollandale’s own Sam Chatmon shared billing and attracted a crowd of about two hundred people to the park, many of whom sat on the grass or roamed around looking at the art exhibitions.  Lois Magee, editor of MACE’s newspaper The Voice of SCIMPH, was on hand that afternoon.  In a short article, she lauded both Thomas and Chatmon’s unique interpretations and performances of the Delta blues.  While she noted that their repertoires featured a couple of those “close-to-home ballads,” Magee also maintained that their performances did indeed reflect their “national reputation” as the keepers of an “authentic blues” tradition, which had germinated and developed in the Delta.[39]  Being a promoter of gospel concerts and fundraisers herself, and being as impressed as she was with their performances, she remembered the local musicians later in the year, when representatives of all the MACE affiliates came together at its headquarters in Greenville to present their needs assessments, program proposals, and potential fundraising ventures.  Isaiah Winters, of the Holmes County Union for Progress (HCUP), had included a blues festival “plan in his fundraising activities,” according to one attendee, which caught the attention of Charles Bannerman.[40]  The MACE director had already been thinking about establishing a public relations department to raise the organization’s low profile, and the concept of staging a blues festival in the Delta proved particularly helpful in this regard.  Magee helped expand upon the initial proposal of Winters to include booking paying gigs for local musicians.  Soon, MACE would stage the 1978 Delta Blues Festival at Freedom Village.

NOTES

[1] Stan Cohen, The Tree Army: A Pictorial History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942 (Missoula, Montana: Pictorial History Publishing Company, 1980), 91.
[2] Todd Sanders, “State Parks in Mississippi built by the CCC between 1934-1942,” NPS Form 10-900-b, National Park Service, http://focus.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NRHP/Text/64500330.pdf [accessed Nov 5, 2015].
[3] Tombigbee in Lee County; Clarkco in Clarke County; Legion in Winston County; Tishomingo in Tishomingo County; Holmes County; Roosevelt in Scott County; Spring Lake (later re-named Wall Doxey) in Marshall County; and Percy Quin in Pike County.
[4] “Continue Plans for State Park,” Weekly DT, Feb 15, 1934, p.1.
[5] “Workers Arrive to Begin Work on the Leroy Percy State Park,” Weekly Democrat-Times, May 24, 1934, p.1.
[6] “Most Enjoyable Meeting Held at Hollandale,” (Greenville, MS) Weekly Democrat Times, July 12, 1934, p.1.
[7] Advertisement, Weekly Democrat-Times, July 18, 1935, p.4.
[8] “CCC Boys are Well Fed Delta Star Reporter Finds,” Delta Star, Aug 31, 1937, p.1.
[9] “It’s a Fact,” Delta Star, Apr 8, 1938, p.3.
[10] “$75,000 Assured for Percy Park,” Delta Star, July 13, 1937, p.1.
[11] “Percy Park Very Popular,” DDT, July 30, 1939, p.1.
[12] “Building Group OKs $2,000 for Leroy Percy Park,” DDT, Apr 30, 1957, p.1.
[13] “Caraway Says Funds Will Be Approved for Percy Park Lodge,” DDT, Apr 9, 1962, p.2.
[14] “Leroy Percy Park Has Many Serious Defects,” DDT, Oct 15, 1964, p.13.
[15] “More Money for Parks,” DDT, May 31, 1970, p.4.
[16] “MEC Deplores State Parks,” DDT, Oct 15, 1970, p.12.
[17] “More Money for Parks,” DDT, May 31, 1970, p.4.
[18] “Park Funds Delayed,” DDT, Oct 8, 1972, p.12.
[19] Bill Rose, “Board Hears Report on Percy Park,” DDT, Sep 11, 1974, p.1; DDT, Apr 18, 1974, p.10.
[20] “State Park Takes on New Look,” DDT, Oct 9, 1975, p.1.
[21] Jimmy Weems was the coordinator of the CPP.  Initially, the program was for the benefit of fifth through twelfth graders, but during the summer, all guests of the park had the opportunity to learn the art of glassblowing; see, “Delta Blues Tribute Set,” DDT, May 23, 1976, p.12; “Glassblowing Featured in Classroom in the Parks,” DDT, Feb 29, 1976, p.6.
[22] 1976 NEA Annual Report (Washington DC: National Council for the Arts, 1976), 109, http://arts.gov/sites/default/files/NEA-Annual-Report-1976.pdf [May 17, 2015].
[23] “Delta Blues Tribute Set,” DDT, May 23, 1976, p.12; “Glassblowing Featured in Classroom in the Parks,” DDT, Feb 29, 1976, p.6.
[24] “Blues Story,” Delta Democrat-Times, June 7, 1976, p.1; “Blues Festival,” Delta Democrat-Times, June 6, 1976, p.12.
[25] Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart, 95; Reverend Sammie Rash, interview conduct by Mike Garvey, March 30, 1977, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage of The University of Southern Mississippi.
[26] Reverend Sammie Rash, interview conduct by Mike Garvey, March 30, 1977, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage of The University of Southern Mississippi.
[27] Moore wanted to take some pictures of a group of “singing boys” and he tried to get a civil rights worker in California to help them make a record; see, Amzie Moore, letter to Harvey Richards, Oct 20, 1963; Moore--Correspondence, 1963-1964 (Amzie Moore papers, 1941-1970; Archives Main Stacks, Mss 551, Box 1 Folder 5).
[28] Hogan, Man Minds One Heart, p.100. ?
[29] “Shaw’s First Black Mayor Takes Oath,” VOS, August 1977, p.1.
[30] Alan Young, Woke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), 37.
[31] Ibid., 32.
[32] Jim O’Neal and Scott Barretta, “Roma Wilson & Leon Pinson—New Albany,” Mississippi Blues Commission, website, http://www.msbluestrail.org/blues-trail-markers/roma-wilson-leon-pinson [accessed June 5, 2015].
[33] In the mid-twentieth century, Pinson was a member of groups such the Silvertone Quartet in New Albany, and he also performed with harmonicist Elder Roma Wilson in Arkansas during the late 1940s; see, Alan Young, Woke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), 35, 23.
[34] “League to Meet,” DDT, June 24, 1974, p.25.
[35] Though never a recording star, Pinson earned a local reputation and later attracted the attention of folklorists and music enthusiasts, many of whom visited the Delta in search of the “authentic” musical descendants of pre-World War II recording stars.  Beginning in 1974, he travelled to the nation’s capital three years in a row to perform at the Festival of American Folklife; see, Worth Long, “Cultural Organizing and Participatory Research,” in The Arts of Black Folk (New York: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1991) p. 32.
[36] Hogan, Man Minds One Heart, p.95; Reverend Sammie Rash, interview conduct by Mike Garvey, March 30, 1977, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage of The University of Southern Mississippi.
[37] “Singing convention at Rosedale, Mississippi,” tape recording 10 notes, Amzie Moore Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, Library-Archives Division.
[38] Alan Young, Woke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), 37.
[39]Zutty Alan, “Leland’s ‘Son’ at Percy Park,” The Voice of SCIMPH, July 1976, p.3.
[40] Emma Cooper Harris, interview by T. DeWayne Moore, June 6, 2013, Anguilla, Mississippi.

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