In the History Corner… Sunflower, Mississippi, a small town that produced giants

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On Highway 49W and the Sunflower River, less than 10 miles from Indianola, Moorhead, or Ruleville, sits the town of Sunflower. It has been there since the 1890s, never attracting many people. Even today, it is estimated to be home to fewer than 1,000 people – 696 to be more precise. Because of how and why it was established, it has long been predominantly African American. Today nearly 72% of its inhabitants are Black. For the same kinds of historical reasons, Sunflower has long been plagued by poverty. Today, nearly 40% of the residents are below the official poverty level with many others close to that level.

Yet, as quietly as it is kept, this small town of approximately ½ square mile, has produced far more than its share of giants in the area of the humanities. This history has not been significantly publicized. Among these Sunflower natives are: actor Willie Best; singers, musicians, and songwriters Jerry Butler and Willie Clayton; and religious minister and singer C.L. Franklin. We would hazard a guess that millions may have heard of them, but only tens of scores know that they were born in Sunflower. 

In the 1950s and 60s, Rev. C.L. Franklin gained national notoriety long before his daughters Aretha Franklin, Erma Franklin, and Carolyn Franklin became top-notch soul singers. His songs and sermons, recorded by Joe Von Battle, were played over radio stations WLAC, WDIA and others that catered to large audiences in Black population centers. So popular was he that he went on national tours preaching. Of his seventy-odd recorded sermons, “the Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” was perhaps the most popular. Due to his fame, many other Black ministers imitated his sermons and his style.

Franklin started preaching in Bolivar and Sunflower Counties. He then migrated to Memphis, to Buffalo, New York, and finally to Detroit. It was in Memphis, and even more, Detroit, that he was most often identified. Because of that, despite the fact that the writer had followed his sermons since the 1950s, it was only after a biography of him was published in 2005, that he learned that Franklin was born in Sunflower. According to a 1977 interview, “On January 22, 1915, in a farmhouse in the hamlet of Sunflower, just outside Indianola, Rachel delivered her first child, a son the couple named Clarence LaVaughn.” This, however, is seldom mentioned. Many accounts, as is the case of Wikipedia’s, indicate only that he was born in rural Sunflower County or Bolivar County.

In the case of Jerry Butler, for years writers would simply say that he was born in Mississippi. Finally, on an album jacket in the 1970s, he confirmed that he was born December 8, 1939 in Sunflower, Mississippi. Butler had gained national notoriety with the release of “For Your Precious Love” with the Impressions in 1958. That was quickly followed-up by a string of hits both with the Impressions and as a solo artist, including “He Will Break Your Heart,” “Need to Belong,” “Let It Be Me,” and “Only the Strong Survive.” Because of his prominence in the Chicago sound, many assumed that he was from Chicago. That was where he made his home and where the record labels with whom he recorded were located.

Butler has, in these latter years, proudly claimed his Mississippi roots. His parents moved from Sunflower after he was born but before the birth of his younger brother, Billy Butler.

Much biographical information on Willie Clayton indicates that he was born in Indianola. This is not that unusual as many people claim or identify with the larger town in the area from which they come, not necessarily out of shame, but in order to avoid having to explain where the town is in which they were born. Fortunately, the writer has heard Clayton profess that he was born in Sunflower. It was at a concert similar to the profession of Denise LaSalle, who after years of publicizing being born in Belzoni, stated that she was born in Sidon. Clayton is from Sunflower, not Indianola.

Like Butler and many other Black musicians, he traveled to Chicago to make his mark. He has written for numerous other Blues singers, but also registered his own hits with “I Love Me Some You,” “Happy,” “Unconditionally,” and others. In addition to that, he is still active and popular as a singer and musician.

Fourthly, there is the case of Willie Best. Best was born May 27, 1913 in Sunflower. Unlike the previous three, there has not been as much of a shadow on his birthplace. He migrated from Sunflower to Los Angeles as a chauffeur. While there, he tried out for and received contracts to play in many films and later on television shows. 

On the one hand, it is unfortunate that, like Hattie McDaniel, Mantan Moreland and many early Black actors, he had to play many roles that were racially stereotypical or demeaning. On the other hand, he made more appearances than most other Black actors.. The exposure from the 1930s through the 1960s made him a national celebrity.

In addition to those quite well-known individuals, Sunflower can boast of having produced Big John Wrencher and Matt “Guitar” Murphy. They were both noted musicians, but more as sidemen than major stars themselves. Beyond the four who worked in the humanities, Sunflower also produced noted baseball player Larry Herndon and food critic Craig Claiborne, a white man. Thus, the town has certainly been blessed with talented descendants.

We spotlight the town of Sunflower because of the kind of niche it occupies in Black history. Like many other small, seemingly insignificant towns, it has produced sons and daughters who went on to influence/benefit millions of other people. Also, like many other contributors of small-town origin, they have found it necessary to migrate elsewhere in order to develop and provide their contributions. This means that they, and people from similar towns, can be like the apostle Paul and boast that Sunflower is no insignificant city.  

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In the History Corner… Sunflower, Mississippi, a small town that produced giants

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
October 7, 2021