For those looking to experience another side of the Old South, a Clarksdale, Mississippi, enterprise offers tourist lodging in historic sharecropper shacks. Though a hit with the literary set, not everyone is charmed by the idea.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For years community developers have been advising hard-hit communities to build on their assets, not their weaknesses. But what do you do when your cultural assets include painful reminders of oppression and economic distress? In this excerpt from her new book, The New Mind of the South, Tracy Thompson takes a look at how small cities like Clarksdale, Mississippi, have tried to build on the concept of poverty itself to bolster the local economy.
If there is any small silver lining in all of this [bad news], it’s that the economic pressures of the rural brain drain have forced many areas to scour their histories for something, anything, with which to lure some tourist dollars. Hence the idea of civil rights tourism, born of the need to generate income for places like Dallas County, Alabama, home of several key events of the Montgomery-to-Selma civil rights march of 1965, or Dougherty County, Georgia, where Martin Luther King was once put in jail. People who might otherwise have been content to live their whole lives without seeing Neshoba County, Mississippi, now have an inducement to visit: there, they can pick up a brochure directing them on a driving tour of notable civil rights sites, including the place where civil rights workers James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in the infamous “long, hot summer” of 1964. The need for money is powerful enough to overcome the lingering reaction of many whites—and blacks, for that matter—that some chapters of local history are best laid to rest. “Tourism has been forced on these places,” Jim Carrier, a Montgomery, Alabama author of The Traveler’s Guide to the Civil Rights Movement told the New York Times in 2004—but in the end, the result has been a fuller, more complex and more honest picture of the South.
In Clarksdale, which cannot boast of any significant local civil rights-era history, imaginative entrepreneurs have found a way to market something else: rural poverty. Hence the Shack Up Inn—a collection of authentic sharecropper shacks which businessmen Bill Talbott and Guy Malvezzi moved to the site of the old Hopson Plantation a few miles outside of town, retrofitted with some modern necessities like indoor plumbing, heat and air conditioning, and then rented to tourists traveling down Highway 61 on the Mississippi Blues Trail. It’s a hit among the musical and literary set: when I was there, most of the other guests were students in a New York City documentary filmmaking class which comes to Clarksdale once a year. Not everybody has been charmed: Malvezzi told me about one National Public Radio reporter who compared it to an Auschwitz-themed bed-and-breakfast. Overall, though, the concept has been so successful that it has spawned an imitator—Tallahatchee Flats, a few miles away in Greenwood.
The number of black visitors has been few, Malvezzi told me, and he and Talbott were concerned at the beginning about perceptions that they were simply exploiting a painful part of black history. But they have taken pains to uncover what they can about the stories of the families who lived in their shacks, and each shack bears the name of its last full-time resident. “Last summer, I had an African American family reunion on the grounds here,” Malvezzi told me, and shortly after the reservation was made he got a visit from one of the granddaughters of the organizer. The granddaughter was incensed at the very idea. “She was a 17- or 18-year old who had a real chip on her shoulder. I went into defensive mode and I said, ‘Before you fire off any more questions, let me walk you through the Robert Clay shack. We’re trying to honor a man who raised seven sons in this place.’” The reunion was a success, and Malvezzi hopes that the word-of-mouth advertising they have always relied on will now start percolating in a wider market. Considering the growing popularity of black family reunions and the millions of black families in the United States who can trace some part of their origin to the Delta, Malvezzi and Talbott may be on to something.
So cultural tourism is a business model that works—for the owners and employees of the tourist attraction in question. Besides the Shack Up, there’s Ground Zero, Clarksdale’s major nightclub, and Messenger’s, a pool hall over on Martin Luther King Avenue which is one of the oldest black-owned businesses in the Delta. Madidi’s, an upscale restaurant that is a business venture of the actor Morgan Freeman, also draws steady customers, and there are plans to renovate the old Alcazar Hotel and convert it into apartments. Those plans may make a few people a lot of money, George Messenger tells me, but it’s unlikely to reinvigorate the larger economy. His own restaurant and pool hall would probably be out of business if it were not for tourist traffic. “We gonna end up with a few places really thriving,” he said. “But I see Clarksdale dying every day. I don’t see it getting better.”
Tracy Thompson is a writer, editor and former reporter for the Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You may contact her through her website.