Look Out, Jackson

Old Capitol, Jackson MS, 1920s postcard

“Daddy had found a house at 1911 Robinson Street in West Jackson. It was owned by a cousin of his and was not far from the oil mill so we rented it and lived there the three years we were in Jackson. It sat in the middle of a lot of pecan trees with open fields on both sides and behind it. Later a street was cut through next to it, but that was after we had moved.

“The Matthews family lived across the street from us, but far back from the street on a hill, so we were really pretty isolated from the rest of the neighborhood, but we did have sidewalks out front so that we could walk up and down the block. At least this house did have three bedrooms but since Bama still had one of them Tiny, Mary and I slept in the same room and Son (and later Tricia) slept in the room with Mama and Daddy. We were still terribly crowded and still had only one bathroom, which was a very busy place in the morning with three of us trying to get ready for school and Daddy getting ready to go to work. There was an outside stair on the back of the house which opened into Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. Since Daddy was away from home a lot I don’t think Mama ever felt really safe in that house.

“We were immediately greeted on our arrival in Jackson by the Matthews girls, Phyllis, Dorothy and Charlotte. They lived up on the hill with their mother and daddy, his four old maid sisters and their grandfather, who was a Confederate veteran with a long white beard and a cane. We were not allowed to go to their house very often since Mama was afraid we would worry all the adults but it was interesting when we did go.

“The Matthews family was one of the older families of Jackson. They were extremely close with their money and owned worlds of property. The four old maids bossed the girls and their mother and told them every move to make. Mama was always sorry for Pina, the mother, because she didn’t have a life of her own. They could not believe all the things we had to play with since the sisters thought it was foolish to buy things like toys. I remember one year Dorothy, who was about nine, was so excited because on her birthday she got a ten cent red patent leather belt and a small box of marshmallows.

“The sisters were Daisy, Laura, Mae and Dora. Poor Pina would come over to visit with Mama and Bama to get away from them, and Grandpa Matthews would come down the hill to visit with Bama. Since she had been married to a Confederate veteran they had a lot in common. They would sit in the living room and listen to the radio, which by this time had improved and no longer had the bighorn and earphones. Bama loved to listen to ‘Amos and Andy’ and the very first of the soap operas. The radio was a lot of company for her.”

Bama (Thedorene Chavis West), Confederate widow and Sara's grandmother

So Sara and her family make it to Jackson. It’s the summer of 1929, the summit of an era of excitement and excess and devil-may-care America, and Howard’s new job has propelled this little band of Deltonians into a bigger, brighter, more treacherous world. For an eight-year-old girl, it must have been thrilling to have the whole Capital City laid out in front of her doorstep every day. New stores, new schools, new friends, and she soaked up every detail. It’s intriguing to me that she records nothing about sad goodbyes in Greenwood or who bought the Strong Avenue bungalow. Maybe her relentless optimism allowed her to suppress those unpleasant details, and it really wasn’t as if they had moved to Borneo.

The house on Robinson Road was still standing twenty years ago, and when Sara was in Jackson visiting us, we would occasionally ride out to West Jackson to see it. When her family arrived in 1929, that was the far western edge of the city, very nearly in the country, and in the ensuing half-century it cycled through development of middle class enclaves to post-war boom housing to its present state of seedy decline. On our excursions out there, she always had me pull over on the side street, just off busy Robinson Road, and let her just consider the old house for awhile. She did not have the romanticized affection for that home as she had for Strong Avenue, but that must have been as much a function of age as for the dramatic changes life wrought on the Evans family there. We’d sit there for a little while and then she’d say, “OK, let’s go, that’s enough.” She had paid her respects and was ready to leave that page of her life behind.

Wouldn’t you love to peer into the Matthews household on a summer morning in 1929? Imagine the excitement of those three girls (aged 12, 8 and 6, according to the 1930 census) as they watched the Evanses pile out of their Nash onto Robinson Road. One… two…three girls…..a toddler boy….a grandmother……a doting mother, herding them toward their new home…..Howard unloading boxes and turning keys and trying to keep this circus on track…..toys and bikes and dolls and noise and confusion and the potential for lifelong friends. In my mind, the four “old maid sisters” are on the porch, clucking and muttering like dowager hens, telling the Matthews girls that they are not to even think about running down that hill until proper introductions are made and genealogical pedigrees examined. And Pina, trapped between generations, trying to raise those three girls while keeping the harpies happy and Grandpa out of trouble. I hope Jessie made her life just a bit easier and brighter.

Ed. note: The 1930 census shows John C. Matthews, age 83, living in that house on the hill. I assume he was the bearded Confederate veteran. His four daughters were Daisy (55), Mae(53), Madora (49) and Laura (47); his son John was 44 and Pina 40. Pina died in Jackson in February, 1984, and I just hope she had many years of peace and quiet with no sisters-in-law trying to run her life. And I hope Dorothy married a very rich man and was showered with expensive belts and all the marshmallows she could eat.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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