Washington and Walthall, Part II

Greenwood cotton in the early-to-mid 1900s, some of which was likely ginned at Freeman's Electric Gin on Carrollton Avenue.

“Around on George Street where the Post Office now stands lived the Freemans. Miss Willie Freeman was strictly Old South, a very outspoken and staunch segregationist. She was ten years older than her husband, J.H.Freeman, and they had one son, John Howard, who had a chauffeur to drive him to out of town dances. Miss Willie was quite entertaining and she helped run the cotton gin during ginning season. One time when some Negroes got on the elevator at Fountain’s Store after she had entered it, she promptly chewed them out and said, ‘What do you mean getting on the elevator with a white lady?’ It didn’t take them long to exit the elevator and keep on going. She delighted in telling how she handled the situation.

Tricia in a little Adirondack chair made for her by John Howard Freeman, Jr.

“Then there was Captain Marcy Johnson and his wife, Miss Annie, who lived in a tiny little house across the street on Washington which was later a beauty shop. He was a retired steamboat captain who later took up tickets at the Paramount. We called them ‘Cap’n and Miss Annie.’ She was a dainty little lady with snow white curls, and she wore dresses to her ankles. She could tell interesting tales of the days when she was young in New Orleans and attended the opera. She gave Mary a lace dress that she had worn to the opera. At Christmas time, they would always tell us to come over for a gift, which was usually an assortment of stale Woolworth’s candy, dried out fruitcake, and always there were candied fruit peels which were most often too hard to eat. They apparently didn’t have much to live on.

Steamboats on the Yazoo River, 1896; perhaps one of Cap'n Johnson's boats? Photo from the collection of Imogene Lewis.

“Around the corner on Main Street lived a Jewish family, the Gilberts. Mr. Gilbert was a funny old man who was in the cotton business. One time he decided that since the Greyhound Bus Station was right next door, he would open up a hamburger stand in his front yard so he could get business from the bus passengers. So he just screened in his whole front yard, including a tree, and set up a hamburger business. As I recall it didn’t last too long.

Greyhound Bus Station, corner of Church and Main. Photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter.

They had a son called Aggie who was an alcoholic. One summer afternoon when we were all on the porch, we looked across the street and here came Uncle Roy and Mr. Wilson from the funeral home, both of whom never took a drink, holding up Aggie in between them and taking him home, and I am sure giving him a good lecture on the evils of drinking all the way.”

Regretably, I couldn’t find photos of any of these houses, although Miss Willie’s still stands where it was moved to Poplar Street in the 1960s. I have fuzzy memories of it being hauled in sections across the new bridge, and I suppose if the Keesler Bridge with its superstructure had been the only option, it never would have made it, nor would the Whittington house on Money Road or the old Wilson&Knight funeral home just off of Money Road. One can only wish that someone, anyone, maybe even Sara, had thrown a dramatic and effective tantrum when the decision was made to mow down almost an entire block of downtown homes to build an atrociously out-of-place Federal Building, which now sits almost totally empty. If it were to vanish tomorrow, no one would lament its loss, but we can never reclaim the character and charm of those houses that disappeared in the name of progress. There’s a lesson there somewhere.

Ed. note: Jane Biggers interviewed Miss Willie Freeman in 1971 for a special edition of the Commonwealth. Her fiesty nature, even in her ’90s, is evident:

 “‘Let’s see now,” she began. ‘I was about nine years old when I first came here from Preston Plantation, that was my home. We came down on the old Y&MV Railroad which used to go as far as a little place above Holcomb, and then had to back into Greenwood where the turn track was. The river was the hub of most of the activity, there was just Howell’s Ferry, just below where the courthouse is now. That was the only way you ever got to the other side,’ she laughed.

‘There was Dr. Henry’s house on River Road and Will Peteet kept his six mule team about where the First National Bank was. The water in those days was awful too. You could place water in the wash stands, that’s what we used then, and by morning it would have a thin film of scum on it, but we drank it anyway and I guess none was worse for it.

“Mrs. Freeman, whose uncle was J.K.Vardaman, former governor, talked about her school days. ‘There was I think about five of us who went to Mr. James Barnes’ School. Now Mr. Barnes was a Presbyterian minister and came here for that purpose, but he had a small private school and there was Bill Pillow, Will Garrard, Will Peteet and one other.’ The curriculum included bookkeeping and Latin, Mrs. Freeman recalled and the other typical courses of school.

“Mrs. Freeman talked about the landmarks around town. There was Henderson Baird in the location of Staple Cotton and the Magnolia Bank and, ‘I’m told,’ she laughed, ’20 saloons.’ In the location where the Commonwealth is now was the Austin Store. Charles Austin was ‘Miss Willie”s first husband. In the Carrollton Avenue area on George and Lamar Street there was the Dahmer Block. ‘I remember Mr. Dahmer had lots of candy and I think he sold bread too.’

“She vividly remembered what used to take place in the form of entertainment. ‘We really had good times, like boat rides and there were special shows that came to town on the stage at the City Hall, which was on the corner of Main Street and Market.’ She laughed about the fun ‘during the overflow. When we knew the river was going to get high, everything was made ready to move into the courthouse. We would dry fruit and preserves and take enough food supplies. In the evening we would get in boats and ride up and down the streets singing songs. When a young man wanted a date in those days he wrote notes, and when you were to go on a boatride you were asked by way of a note first,’ she smiled.

“She talked about the clothes in those days. ‘We had very few places to shop here and a trip to Memphis would take quite a ride, so Louisville, Kentucky, was a favorite shopping place. There was a firm there, I can’t recall the name, where they would send samples and they would make the dresses and send them back. The dresses then had little trains, which we held up when we walked, and high collars that came up to the chin.

“‘Other landmarks around town was the Craigstore, which was across from the courthouse and was operated by Lorraine Craig’s father. There was Charles Wright’s soda pop place. He had the real pop to his bottle, too, when you opened it, it did pop and there was a cork of some kind you put back in and it popped again.’

“‘The first public school was across from the Methodist Church. Mr. A.F. Gardner, who was also a lawyer, was also one of the teachers there, along with Sam Holloway.

“Mr. Freeman came to Greenwood from Lexington, Virginia. His grandfather was a doctor and lived near the Natural Bridge. ‘In those days, it was nothing thought much about crossing back and forth in a buggy, but today it is quite an attraction.’ Mr. Freeman first came here to work at Henderson Baird. The home Miss Willie lives in now was once on the ground where the Post Office is today but was moved three years ago to its present location on Poplar Street. Mr. and Mrs. Freeman have helped to create many landmarks around town. The old Freeman gin is located on Carrollton Avenue. The new one is on Humphrey Highway, where his son, John Howard, Jr. runs the operation. There is the Freeman Building on the corner of Market and Fulton. Miss Willie’s home in the early days was the setting for many festive parties. She had the first bathtub in town, and as the story goes, one of her neighbors was not feeling up to par and Miss Willied thought a tub bath would be helpful, so she was invited to partake. When the guest came from the bathroom, she remarked, ‘That will be a fine contraption someday, when they learn how to keep the water in.’

“For special events, Mrs. Freeman had food sent up from New Orleans. But she liked to remember best about the ‘overflow’ days. ‘They came each year, but we had fun, as I mentioned, but I should tell you about the cattle. We always sent them to the hills when the high water came.’

“She looked back over the years, to the time when the first telephone came here and the offices were located upstairs over the Episcopal Church. To Mr. McDonald who came here as a banker and gave the land for the present site of the Episcopal Church. To the Bank of Commerce, she is the only living original stockholder. To the slow but steady growth of the community, ‘I look back across town, where I once lived and then around here now, and see the new subdivisions, the beautiful homes.’

“She wouldn’t allow us to take her picture. ‘I called the Commonwealth years ago and said that Howard and I never wanted our names mentioned. But I guess this time, you can use my name, but no picture.’ When Miss Willie says ‘no’ it is a firm commitment.”

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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