Hwy. 51 Revisited: Greenwood, Mississippi

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IMMORTAL- One of the three alleged gravesites for bluesman Robert Johnson in near Greenwood in Money, Mississippi. Photo by Jesse Brooks.

By Jesse Brooks

For the next two weeks, we will explore two visits that serve as side trips accessible from Highway 51: Greenwood and Oxford, Mississippi. Our first side trip, a route west of the highway, takes us to Greenwood, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

The floodplains of the delta leave the land lush with vegetation and wildlife like a farmer’s paradise. In Greenwood’s earliest years, the economy was based on plantation farming that was centered on slave labor. Following the Civil War, businesses experienced devastating lows but were revitalized again as railroads were placed in the 1880s. Driving through Greenwood, it sometimes looks as if the area’s landscapes haven’t changed at all. There are small homes placed around large farming fields and marshy banks around creeks and rivers.

Our journey into Greenwood takes us likely south after leaving Grenada to find one of the three alleged grave sites of Robert Johnson, the bluesman whose life we explored in Hazlehurst. Johnson died near Greenwood, and over the years, there were many conflicting accounts that alleged to know where he was buried, and one of those sites is Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church. The journey to the site moves through an unincorporated area called Money, and to travel south on Money Road. Travelers approaching the turn at Whaley Road and Money Road are to encounter one of the most haunting sites in American history.

Just three miles before reaching Johnson’s grave, a historical marker near the tracks indicates the site of Bryant’s Grocery, the place where Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy, allegedly flirted with a young white shopkeeper. The incident led to Till’s brutal murder from the accuser’s husband and an accomplice. Though the evidence was overwhelming against the two men, an all-white jury found them “not guilty.” We have since learned as recent as 2017 that Carolyn Bryant Donham, Till’s accuser who is still living, fabricated her claims. The moment of injustice received international attention and is credited with sparking the Civil Rights Movement.

Three miles later, Johnson’s grave is found at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church underneath a pecan tree. The environment is intensely quiet, and the nearby view is vast flat farmland. It’s found that Johnson fans leave guitar picks or money for good luck, or shots of whiskey to share a drink with the King of the Delta Blues Singers.

The road into town that is present day Greenwood leads you to find farmer’s markets and art markets on the weekends. The town also features several tours for visitors. The Robert Johnson Life and Legacy Tour is a guide to all of the musician’s stops while in the area. The Girlfriend’s Tour is a three-day women’s social event that highlights culture spots of the city ranging from restaurants to spas. The Help Tour will take visitors to all the locations involved in the filming of the movie that bares the tour’s name.

Greenwood’s most authentic dining experience can be found at Lusco’s, a seafood and steak restaurant that has been open since 1933. The restaurant was founded by Italian immigrants that moved from Louisiana to Greenwood for a business venture to serve Italian-Louisiana infused food. The original seating is in use today, and tables come in their own private sections. The menu features Louisiana favorites like gumbo and Delta favorites like catfish and boiled shrimp with greens.

Author James Charles Cobb once penned the Delta as “the most southern place on earth,” and after an experience there, it is hard to disagree. It is a place where the scars of history are just as present as a desire to move forward. As we find our way back to the highway, we move toward the home of Ole Miss and discover another place dedicated to preserving the past, as well as being a leading force in the thirst for knowledge.

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