The urban displacement blues

Look closely and you will see not a damaged and decrepit Mississippi River town, but the anguish and despair of inner-city neighborhoods across the United States. — Steve Goldstein for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 19, 1992.

KingBiscuit-03Helena, Arkansas, in the 1980s was a struggling Mississippi River port town when city leaders embarked on an ambitious economic turnaround using blues music and history as its foundation. I first visited Helena in the early stages of this “revitalization” during the spring of 1988 while working as a folklorist for the State of Arkansas. Results of some of my research there were published in a 1992 Southern Folklore article, “The Helena Blues: Cultural Tourism and African-American Folk Music.”

Ethnomusicology was the basis for my work in Helena and the subsequent article. Concepts like displacement and gentrification weren’t on my radar screen as I turned ethnographic experiences into written accounts. More than 25 years later I look back on Helena’s efforts to jumpstart its economy and the social engineering that went into turning the city away from its industrial past and towards its tourism-based future and I see the forces reshaping cities around the world in play in the Mississippi Delta. Continue reading

Separate and unequal: Preserving Jim Crow

Equalization schools were the South’s futile attempt to cling to Jim Crow segregation. They were built throughout Georgia, South Carolina, and other Deep South states as a last ditch effort to forestall court-ordered public school integration. According to Georgia architectural historian Steven Moffson, his state had the greatest number of schools built to preserve the separate but equal doctrine that ultimately was dismantled under the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

Decatur’s Beacon Elementary and Trinity High schools were among the hundreds of equalization schools built in Georgia after World War II. They were constructed in 1955 and 1956 on the site where the city had maintained its African American school, the Herring Street School, since the early twentieth century. In early 2013, three years after receiving a $10,000 historic preservation grant that should have led to the property’s protection, the City of Decatur began demolishing parts of the two schools to build a new police headquarters and civic plaza. Continue reading