Hwy. 51 Revisited: Jackson, Mississippi (pt. 1)

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Home of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Photo By Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

There seems to be a reoccurring theme of crossroads on this journey. The crossroads are a change in direction, a change of scenery, or a complete change of philosophy. Not many cities in America understand that, or embody that, as well as Jackson, Mississippi.

Jackson’s roots can be traced to a French-Canadian trader named Louis LeFleur that set up shop in a village along the banks of the Pearl River in an area known as LeFleur’s Bluff. Years later, as the Mississippi territory was being prepared for statehood leaders suggested a somewhat central location for the capitol. The location we know today was chosen in 1821 and named for General Andrew Jackson for his impressive victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. The new capitol was open for easy trade routes, and the new hub city would offer road that could lead in directions to other major cities.

After the Confederacy lost the Civil War in the 1860s, Jackson faced many challenges during the reconstruction period. Ultimately the expansion of the railroad was good for business, as interstate trade and commerce took hold.

Much of this type of transition into the modern era is documented at Mississippi’s Old State Capitol, which now serves as an official state museum. Built in 1839, the building wasn’t used for the state legislature for most of the state’s history as it was abandoned in years following the Civil War, but today the state’s earliest history is preserved for visitors through multi-media exhibits on self-guided tours. The museum is open daily, and admission is free.

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The old Standard Life building in Downtown Jackson. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

Mississippi has been based on agriculture for all of its existence so naturally the Mississippi Agricultural & Forestry Museum in Jackson is dedicated to that early history. In an interactive visit, tourists can come face-to-face with some of the earliest farm equipment in American history. There are exhibits devoted to trains, livestock farming, and the history of the logging industry. For anyone interested in getting a view of life from a previous century, this museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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The Hotel King Edward is a throwback to Old Jackson. Photo by Jesse Brooks

Jackson is a blues city, historically and presently. The capitol city became a facilitator for the music, as the country shifted into the 1920s. The city had several labels at the time, and most of them could be found on Farish Street, an area of town for African-American commerce. Hosting everyone from Robert Johnson to Cab Calloway got their first mass audiences on Farish Street, and the area was important for businessmen and artists alike. Today, most of Farish is abandoned, and the public efforts to revitalize the section have not worked out. However, a few business owners still hang on out of pride because of the import role the street has played in history. A blues club, F. Jones Corner, on Farish aims to keep the music of Jackson blues alive. On any given night at the club locals like Jesse Robinson and Vasti Jackson can be heard.

The Civil Rights era of the 1960s brought a lot of unrest to the city of Jackson, and the city has a unique place in the fight for equality. Many of the organized efforts to defeat segregation took place in the sit-ins of the city. One of the darkest days of the struggle occurred in Jackson on June 12, 1963, with NAACP state field director was assassinated outside of his family home by KKK member Byron De La Beckwith. Evers was a WWII veteran that had played an essential role in the desegregation of the University of Mississippi and schools in Jackson. His home is open as a public historical site today at the address of 2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive. Inside the home there is a clear image of the kind of life the Evers family lived and everything they had gone through. The most haunting sight of the visit is that Evers’ blood still stains the carport to this day. Tours are free to the public daily though times may vary.

Jackson is a city soaked in the heavyweight of the past, but it must make a choice on what direction it wants to take for the future. Fondren, Jackson’s newly self-declared “hip” neighborhood has some suggestions. The area is revitalized with a new, yet vintage, charm. It’s where Jackson’s art and music elite of a new generation met to keep the city fresh. At any of its local businesses, you can find pop-up restaurants, local beer, and indie rockers like the Stonewalls doing their take on Jackson music.

Jackson has faced some economically challenging times in recent years just as any other American city, but right now is no different than other times Jackson has faced as a crossroad. One can only hope that a city chooses a path that honors its tradition, while still being inviting enough to grow a new generation. That may be what is happening in Jackson, and it seems that we are seeing the very beginning of that growth. With a culture that blends the old with the new, great food, be it hometown favorites or new ideas, is being mixed into that blend.

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