The Museum of the Mississippi Delta, formerly known as the Cottonlandia Museum, continues to undergo a makeover. According to its website, it changed its name because the museum is about Greenwood being more than just a land of cotton, which is certainly a noble gesture. In keeping with the intended makeover, there is a great deal of construction and rearranging taking place inside the museum.
In its entry gallery, there are write-ups and photos of persons and events associated with Greenwood and Leflore County covering much of the period since slavery. It was this series of displays that was of greatest interest to the writer, since it was the one attempting to portray Greenwood’s diverse life beyond cotton and agriculture-related endeavors. The rest of the museum dealt with Greenwood’s military actions, prehistoric life, and the area’s namesake, Greenwood Leflore.
For sure, the planners managed to provide some historical data representative of its African American population. For an example, there is an 1899 photograph and write-up of The Greenwood College, which also referred to in other places as The Greenwood Colored College. It talks about the college’s accommodations, the credibility of Dr. W.T. Burnsides, who was apparently the academic dean. That is informative but is virtually the totality of positive features of Black life, except for a passing mention of marches and protests for civil rights.
The gallery contains very brief sketches on Blues musician Mississippi John Hurt; Blues artist Furry Lewis; track star and Olympian Willye B. White; major league baseball player Dave Hoskins; Jazz musician Mulgrew Miller; Rhythm and Blues and Soul singer Betty Everett; and Bluesman Robert Johnson, who was believed to have been poisoned and died in Greenwood. These displays are well and good, but are terribly limited in trying to represent the volume of talent that originated in Black Greenwood after slavery ended.
There are at least seven other celebrities with whom the writer is familiar who could and should have been included, based upon the criteria used by the museum planners. For starters, there is Lusia Harris, who although she was born and raised in Minter City, 20 miles to the north in Leflore County, attended Amanda Elzy High School, just outside of Greenwood. She made national and international news as a basketball player at Delta State University. Led by her skills and ability, the college won three consecutive national championships. She most certainly was a product of Greenwood’s metropolitan area and identified with the city in many ways. Her inclusion would just have made Greenwood look more impressive.
The same is true of Denise LaSalle, of Blues and Rhythm and Blues fame. For more than five decades, she kept the Blues world swaying, beginning with “Trapped by This Thing Called Love.” Nevertheless, she is often listed as from other places, such as Belzoni, rather than Sidon, which is only 10 miles from Greenwood and in Leflore County.
There is Blues musician Guitar Slim, whose two-sided hit “Things that I Used to Do” and “Well, I Done Got Over It,” put him on the national charts. By the time that he reached his peak of fame, he was living in New Orleans, but his native home was Greenwood.
Also identified with Greenwood for good reasons was Blues singer and harmonica virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson, also known as Rice Miller. He is often listed as from Glendora, the probable place of his birth. Nonetheless, he can easily be listed as a Greenwooder since Greenwood is where he spent much of his adult life. He lived in the Gibbs/Johnson Street area of “Baptist Town” with a long-term common-law wife, while traveling as a musician. It is amazing that he is not included since he is by far one of the most celebrated Bluesmen from the Delta and since there is so much confusion as to whether he was born in Glendora, Money, or Greenwood in the first place.
Another undisputed Greenwood native, who definitely achieved celebrity status is Blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Sumlin provided the rhythmic sound that became identified with Howlin’ Wolf. He was such a foundational part of the Howlin’ Wolf band until on the occasion wherein Muddy Waters secretly lured him away from Wolf, a big commotion was created that nearly came to a shooting, until Sumlin returned to Wolf’s band. Yet, a musician of this status is not included in the museum.
Tonea Stewart, also known as Tommie Stewart or Tommie Harris, is another Greenwood celebrity who has not received the recognition. In addition to her other acting credits, she was one of the longest featured stars on “In the Heat of the Night.” She and her family grew up in the heart of Greenwood. It was from there that she went off to Jackson State University and achieved stardom, based upon her dramatic skills.
There is also noted actor Morgan Freeman. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but received his education from Broad Street High School, which shortly after his departure was replaced by L.H. Threadgill High School in Greenwood. Like the previous six, he is not featured as a native son of Greenwood.
Finally, there is no mention of Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power Movement. It is true that Carmichael was not a native of the city, but it was there that he definitely had an impact. As leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he spent a substantial amount of time organizing in the area. He was well-known, respected, and beloved by the local residents. It was because of that, that he was able to make Black Power a rallying cry on the Meredith March against Fear. The rally occurred in Greenwood. There is a historical marker erected at the park where he spoke. Black Power became such a controversial term that he wrote a book on the subject and his identity and popularity took off like gangbusters at the time. Even if Carmichael was not mentioned, it is almost criminal to not have a speck of information about Black Power and the Movement that it generated, since Black Power was often portrayed as a rival to Martin Luther King’s approach of nonviolent protest.
It is amazing that those native sons and daughters were not included. Younger generations of Greenwood residents may never know of them and what they provided in their own community.
Even as the museum mentioned a handful of Black celebrities, it did a woefully inadequate job of underscoring the importance and impact of those seven. For example, there is no discussion of how long the Greenwood College lasted, how many students matriculated there, who some of its alumni were, or its reception by the general community. The record of Willye B. White’s exploits is not listed. The same is true of the record output of Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Mulgrew Miller, or even Betty Everett. This leaves one to wonder about the point of even mentioning them. The absence of such basic information, along with the omission of so many other Black celebrities from Greenwood, causes one to reach the conclusion that the museum underrepresents Black people in the area to a serious degree.
The museum mentions the fact that there was an army air field in Greenwood from 1942 to 1946. It fails, however, to reveal the fact that the air field was strictly segregated as was virtually everything else about life in the city until well after the Civil Rights Movement. Similarly, the museum mentions the fact that James K. Vardaman lost his last election, but does not discuss the fact that in his earlier campaigns and as governor, he was a very vocal racist when it came to funding education for Black children and to keeping the Negro in his place.
Rather than making things better, the museum’s treatment of Greenwood Leflore builds an even stronger case of racism in the area. One gallery is devoted exclusively to Leflore. It was Leflore who signed away most of the land belonging to the Choctaws in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. He was regarded and rewarded as a hero by local white leaders. Leflore, however, was what other Indian people referred to as mixed-blood, perhaps because he identified more with his French heritage than with them and was what later more militant Indians referred to as an “Uncle Tom-Tom.”
Considering the museum as a whole, it is easy to conclude that Greenwood’s Museum of the Mississippi Delta presents the kind of history that conservative white leaders intend to promote under the guise of opposing “critical race theory.” It may not appear to be blatantly racist, but it does underrepresent Black people, omit matters of Black assertiveness, turn a blind eye to matters of Jim Crow, and celebrate the manner in which Greenwood Leflore betrayed his people. Having changed from calling itself Cottonlandia, it just may be the model in the making for what is a “white conservative-acceptable” museum.