Tuesday, January 5, 2021

"Pimpin' The Blues": Systemic Racism, Heritage Tourism, and the Mississippi Blues Commission

By Tim Kalich, editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth - originally published as "Vendor Selection Dissapoints Jordan" on Sept 17, 2019.

The Greenwood legislator who spearheaded the creation of the Mississippi Blues Commission is unhappy about how the commission selected its vendors. "When you don't follow bid laws, you cut off other people who could have had a slice of the pie," said Sen. David Jordan. The Democratic lawmaker was responding to the report released in the fall of 2019 by MS State Auditor Shad White that heavily criticized the spending practices of the Blues Commission. In the performance audit, White found that the commission--since it began operations 13 years ago--had paid out nearly $2 million to vendors without a valid contract on file and failed to retain documentation to support almost another $1 million in spending. It also questioned why Greenwood ad agency Hammons & Associates as well as some other vendors were awarded work by the commission without putting the business up for bid. 

Hammons, the project coordinator for the creation and placement of more than 200 Blues Trail historical markers, has been by far the commission's largest vendor. The ad agency has received a little more than $1 million of the $2.9 million the commission has generated largely from state and federal grants and private donations. The commission incorrectly designated Hammons as a "sole source provider," according to the audit. That finding, said Jordan, has rankled other African Americans who feel that Black-owned enterprises were not given the opportunity to benefit financially from promoting the music that originated in the African American community. 

"Hammons may have been the best bidder, but there's no opportunity for us to know when he was the only one that was selected," Jordan said. Allan Hammons, president of Hammons & Associates, said it is incorrect to suggest that his agency was "just handed the business" by the Blues Commission. Early on, according to Hammons, the commission was leaning toward hiring as project coordinator a Virginia firm that had put together a Civil War trail in that state. Hammons said his agency designed a prototype marker, including the concept of using a printed vinyl insert on the back to allow for illustrations as well as more text, and paid to have it cast before pitching it to the commission. "We competed for (the business) in my mind and actually invested in it quite heavily on the chance that we could convince them we could do this work," he said.

The "printed vinyl insert on the back" has since faded and peeled away in the Mississippi sun, causing the commission to address the widespread dilapidation of older markers.

The Blues Commission was created in 2004 when Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law a bill on which Jordan was the lead author. Fred Carl Jr., the founder of Greenwood-based Viking Range, was named the commission's inaugural chairman by the Republican governor, although it was apparently two years later before the commission began its work in earnest. 

Jordan, Carl, and a predominantly African American delegation had actually gotten the idea of a blues commission rolling in 2003 while Democrat Ronnie Musgrove was serving as governor, the senator said. Ruben Hughes, president of Team Broadcasting, which owns Greenwood radio stations WGNL and WGNG, was part of that delegation that met with Musgrove. After the Democrat was defeated by Barbour in the 2003 election, "people like myself were pushed back ... and other people came in and took control like Mr. Hammons," said Hughes.

Sylvester Hoover, a blues promoter who is African American, said he has been displeased with the Blues Commission for a while, claiming it deviated from what those who initially advocated for its creation envisioned it to be. "It was supposed to enrich the neighborhood and teach the history of the blues here in the Mississippi Delta, but it didn't work out that way," said Hoover, who operates a blues museum in Greenwood's Baptist Town neighborhood and gives blues tours. "It went to the people that didn't know anything about the blues. They just took it over." 

He objects not only that Hammons & Associates got the bulk of the commission's work but also that Jim O'Neal of Kansas City, Missouri, and Scott Barretta of Greenwood were selected as the two main historians on the project. O'Neal co-founded the nation's first blues magazine, Living Blues, for which Barretta was a former editor. For their research and writing for the Blues Trail markers, O'Neal was paid $136,000 and Barretta almost $55,000, both as sole source providers. O'Neal and Barretta are white, as is Allan Hammons. 

"We said from the start they pimpin' the blues. They making money off the blues."

Sylvester Hoover Knows all About Systemic Racism

"We said from the start they pimpin' the blues. They making money off the blues," Hoover said of the Blues Commission and those involved with the creation of the markers. "That's not fair. They're not distributing money in the black neighborhood. None whatsoever. None. Zero." 

In addition to questioning the commission's spending practices, White has recommended that it be dissolved and its responsibilities turned over to the Mississippi Blues Foundation, a private, non-profit organization that has contributed financially to the commission. The current chairman of the commission, J. Kempf Poole, is receptive to the idea. So is Jordan. A member of the Senate Tourism Committee, Jordan said he would want to know more details before support-ing legislation to make such a change, but he is open to considering it. "If that is going to lubricate the wheels and make it run better for everybody, sure," Jordan said.