Flappers and Flyers

Mamie and Tiny, little flappers

“The ’20s brought about a lot of changes in the way people lived, and this period has been described as ‘era of the First Youth Rebellion.’ The girls started wearing shorter skirts (they had been down to their ankles) and they bobbed (cut) their hair and did dances called the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Men wore knickers to play golf. I can remember Mama saying, ‘Did you see her with that cigarette in her hand?’ when some of the teenagers would ride by to see Mable’s brother Buster, across the street. Women were just beginning to smoke in public and Mama thought it was scandalous.

“We were beginning to see more airplanes, and stunt pilots would fly over and put on shows. At first only the daredevils were flying, but before 1930 people were beginning to use them for transportation though they were still sort of a rare means of getting somewhere, and there were few airports. I remember when Daddy flew into the Jackson Airport (now Hawkins Field) in the early ’30s, how impressed I was. Of course, he was a passenger, not a pilot.

Decaying terminal building at Hawkins Field, Jackson

“World War I had ended in 1918 and Mama still talked about it a lot. Daddy had not had to go since they had Tiny but when his draft number came up for review and his name came out in the paper she saved it, and I still have the paper. She told us about the local contingent Battery C leaving for France and how everyone went down to the train to see them off. Three Greenwood boys were killed in France.

Battery C marching to the depot down Carrollton Avenue, September 1917. Notice the old Fire Station #1 in the background.

Howard's photo of an unidentified WWI soldier. Wonder who he was? It may be his brother, Dewitt.

There was a terrible flu epidemic in 1918 and many people died. Mama would tell us how upset she was when the Armistice was signed November 11, 1918, and everyone celebrated with a parade and she couldn’t go. She was in bed with the flu and Tiny was a baby. Daddy took one of the Buckeye trucks and loaded it with people and rode down Howard Street. All the whistles blew and bells rang and they said this was the war to end all wars.”

A few of Howard's men at the Buckeye

So many questions with no answers. Where do you suppose Howard flew in the early ’30s? My guess would be Cincinatti, where the Buckeye’s Proctor&Gamble homebase was located, but I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Ed. note: Hawkins Field was the origination point for Delta Airlines’ first flight in 1929. It served as an Army Air Force field during WWII, the base for the Dutch flyers, many of whom are buried in Jackson’s Greenwood Cemetery. When the new airport was built in the 1960s, the old terminal at Hawkins was allowed to deteriorate and I’m not certain that it’s even still standing. Another shame.

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Revivals and Rabbit’s Feet

Gypsy Smith, famous evangelist

“Tents were used for everything from religious revivals to black face minstrels. Nearly every year there would be a big revival with a fiery evangelistic preacher, and many wayward souls got saved. I was taken to at least one but slept through the whole sermon so I am sure it did not do much for my soul. Bama and Mama loved to go to them and never stopped talking about the time it snowed in the spring and weighted down the tent when the noted evangelist Gypsy Smith was holding a revival. When it would snow late in the season they would say ‘Remember the Gypsy Smith revival.’

“Then we had the Chatauqua each year. For a week there would be a big tent set up on a downtown vacant lot and there daily afternoon and nighttime performances. There would be melodramas with a villain, etc. and there would be a magic show and musical performances. Each day was something different, and we looked forward to going as often as we were allowed. The minstrels featured men impersonating black folks. They sang and told jokes and really had some good talent. One was called ‘The Rabbit Foot Minstrels.'”

I strongly suspect that Sara slept through every revival, or found a reason to slip away to Woolworth’s. She found organized religion (and loud pulpit pounders in particular) tiresome and irrelevant. There’s an entertaining story later in these memoirs of her “conversion” at Calvary Baptist, Jackson, but once she got that little detail out of the way, she did not beat a path through the sanctuary doors unless someone was getting married, getting buried or really good music was involved. Her tastes evolved from the Rabbit Foot Minstrels to Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and, at the end of her life, Michael Ball. She and her granddaughter, Emily, were Mr. Ball’s American groupies.

Ed. note: Gypsy Smith was a traveling British evangelist who roamed America throughout the first half of the 20th century. His nickname came from the fact that he had been born in a gypsy wagon and spent much of his career seeking out gypsy encampments around the U.S. and Great Britain. He may not have found gypsies in Greenwood, but I’m sure there were plenty of souls who needed a little shaking up. For the funniest account ever of a Greenwood revival (held in the Courthouse!), see Mildred Spurrier Topp’s book, Smile Please.

The Rabbit Foot Minstrels were a staple on the traveling show circuit from 1900 to 1950 or so. Several famous singers emerged from this group and their headquarters site in Port Gibson features a Mississippi Blues Trail marker, courtesy of Allan Hammons and Wanda Clark of Greenwood. From the Wikipedia page: “In his book The Story of the BluesPaul Oliverwrote : ‘The ‘Foots’ travelled in two cars and had a 80′ x 110′ tent which was raised by the roustabouts and canvassmen, while a brass band would parade in town to advertise the coming of the show…The stage would be of boards on a folding frame and Coleman lanterns – gasoline mantle lamps – acted as footlights. There were no microphones; the weaker voiced singers used a megaphone, but most of the featured women blues singers scorned such aids to volume…”[9]

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Nurses and Nashes

Rena and Tiny, with Hupmobile (or maybe the Nash?) and Nurses' Home in the background left.

“The Nurses Home was on one side of our house. The nurses who were in training stayed there, and a little lady named Mrs. Gleason was in charge of the home. She would come over and visit with Mama and Bama, and on rare occasions we would get to go into the Nurses Home. I was always impressed with the large picture hanging in the big living room which was a picture of a little girl in a nightgown with her hair in long curls. Her name was Lois Aron, and she had died, and her parents built the Nurses Home in her memory.

Lois Aron Nurses Home in its better days, photo by Sara Evans Criss

“Sometimes Nancy and Thomas Trigg would come from Greenville to visit their aunt, Miss Mary Trigg, who was administrator of the hospital, which was right behind the Nurses Home on River Road. Then we would get to play around the hospital grounds and get chinaberries off a tree on the grounds. We would string the berries and make necklaces out of them. Miss Trigg was very stern, and we didn’t dare go over there except when her niece and nephew were visiting.

Old Greenwood Hospital, built 1918

“Automobiles were really just beginning to come into their own in the ’20s, and we went from a Model T Ford to the Hupmobile to a Nash.

Howard and Tiny in the Model T; Jessie is almost hidden in the background

Roadsters had become popular, and I wished we had one of those because they had rumble seats in the back where two people could ride and it was like riding in a convertible. You stepped up on the running board and up little steps to get in them. I don’t think I ever rode in one but once and that was when a man who worked for Daddy, Floyd Kemp, came by and took us for a ride.

Howard Evans on the right; perhaps Floyd Kemp on the left. This looks like a man who would drive a roadster, don't you think? Notice Howard's jaunty straw hat.

Most cars then cost less than $1000. They didn’t go very fast and were certainly not comfortable.”

1927 Nash, probably a bit fancier than the Evans automobile

The Lois Aron Memorial Nurses’ Home is still standing, a testament to those who built it almost 100 years ago. It’s one of those unique Greenwood structures that we all take for granted because we grew up with them and they seemed the norm. You don’t realize until you venture out into the larger world that other towns simply don’t have, and never had, Nurses’ Homes and Confederate Memorial Buildings and an Elks Club that looks like an embassy. Somehow we wound up with architectural delights that other towns didn’t get and we have been remiss in valuing them. The Nurses’ Home is owned by the Greenwood Leflore Hospital, as are the sad remnants of the 1918 hospital. Should both buildings be raptured up into brick-and-mortar paradise tonight, there would be rejoicing in the halls of GLH. This is sad beyond words. In 1921, the Aron family of Greenwood memorialized their lost child with a gift to the community, a place where young women lived and pursued their own dreams, generation after generation, going on to provide us with quality health care. The old building outlived its purpose, but not its integrity or value, until it was written off as redundant.

During the filming last year of “The Help,” a scene was shot in one of the nurses’ rooms and there was a brief buzz of life and activity on that end of Strong Avenue. Mary Rose Carter and I happened to be photographing sites for Greenwood: In a Different Light when we saw folks going in and out of the Nurses’ Homes. Curiosity (or nosiness, call it what you will) pulled us in for a look. As in so many of the places we’ve explored over the years, there was a palpable feeling that someone (or someones) made the decision to simply walk away, probably forty or fifty years ago, turning the key in the heavy front door for the last time and leaving a treasured place to its fate. In the quiet and dust, it was quite easy to imagine the flurry of morning activity as dozens of young ladies adjusted their uniforms, polished their white shoes, shared the morning gossip over breakfast and headed down the alley to the old hospital for a day of training and challenge. There are still yellowed notices stuck up on the hallway bulletin boards advising the residents that they are not to enter the parlor in bathrobes. How many students from all over Mississippi found their lives’ purpose and lifelong friends in that old building? And why are we, as a community, letting it continue to deteriorate? I wonder if the Arons had other children and perhaps they’re still out there somewhere, willing to collaborate with us to bring back this fine structure. Doesn’t hurt to dream.

Ed. note: The 1918 King’s Daughter’s Hospital opened on River Road in April of that year, where Jessie Evans (“Tiny”) was the first baby born in the new facility just a few days later. When it closed in 1951, one of the last babies born there was Jessie’s niece, my sister Cathy. From the times that the Evans girls crept over to pick chinaberries for necklaces to the days that Sara spent in the Civil Defense offices during the Courthouse’s temporary relocation to the hospital plant, that old  hulk of a building has been a part of our family lore. It’s such a moldy, musty mess now that our office staff will go into archival record storage there only under the severest duress. It’s tenacious, though. Its last patients were wheeled off down River Road sixty years ago, and the front portion is long gone, but the back wing and the basement just won’t go away. I hope they never do.

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Putting on Airs and Casts

Mable Petty, Mamie, Tiny and Sara, with no broken arms

“Most of our playmates lived right there in the neighborhood or over on Leflore Avenue, which was one block away. We played a lot in the Gardner’s yard, which was a few doors down and across the street. They had four children and if anything more playthings than we did, so we loved to go over there to play. We would make roads in their yards with our tricycles, and when their daddy, Frank Gardner, built a fancy playhouse for Edna Earle, who was a year older than I, and surprised her with it when she returned from a vacation, I was terribly envious. It had two rooms and a screened porch and a stove you could really cook on.

Edna Earle Gardner's 1938 Deltonian photo

“Sometimes the Gardners’ cousin, Ann DeLoach, who was Tiny’s age, would come down to play. Tiny was impressed with her, and when she would come Tiny would tell us not to call Mama ‘Mama.’ She wanted us to say ‘Mother” since that was what her friends like Ann called their mothers. She would say Mother but gave up finally when she couldn’t talk Mary and me out of the’Mama.’

There are Mamas and there are Mothers. This is a Mama, with Mamie.

“One day Ann was riding her tricycle over in front of the Gardner’s house when she turned over and fell on the concrete, breaking her arm. Tiny, who had been ‘felt for fever’ all her life, was very jealous since she could not imagine anything more exciting than being able to have your arm in a sling and have everyone ask you how you got hurt.

“Finally she could stand it no longer, and after snitching some of Daddy’s big white handkerchiefs out of the drawer she lined Mary, Mable Petty and me up and applied slings to our arms as well as her own. There we stood in the front yard for all to see and wonder what in the world had happened to us. The preacher had stopped over at the Petty house to see about Mr. Petty and could not believe it when he saw us until he learned there was really nothing wrong with any of us.”

Howard with his handkerchief-stealing oldest daughter, Tiny, circa 1919

Mable Petty, arms intact

I think the screenwriters for “Little Rascals” were channeling Strong Avenue in the late 1920s. And I’m going to look for that little playhouse later today.

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Young Love and Old Schools

1939 GHS Deltonian staff, with several of Sara's lifelong friends. Front row: Mary Charlotte Clarke (her best friend), Sara, Joyce Whittington. Back row, middle: Spot Pettey

“Prior to starting to school most of our friends had been children in the neighborhood or those who attended the First Baptist Church Sunday School. It was fun meeting others, and some of my special ones were a boy named Spot Pettey, another named Joe George Saunders and a girl named Joyce Whittington. I was very impressed with Joe George because he lived in a big two story house on River Road and wore little white linen suits to school and was the great grandson of U.S. Senator J.Z. George. The fact that he had the biggest pencil box in the class, with two drawers instead of just one, also made an impression. Then when Daddy brought home an insurance company calendar with a picture of Joe George, all dressed up and with curls, on the front of it, I just knew he must be the richest boy in the world.

Fifty years after Sara first met Joe George Saunders, she visits with his niece, Liz Williams of Cotesworth.

” One time when I was sick he sent me a box of candy from the drugstore and then invited me over to his house to play. Later when I was in high school I dated Joe George. He wanted to be my steady boyfriend and his mother, whom I liked very much, apparently decided we were meant for each other. She was always inviting me over for meals. After dating him for a few months I decided that all of his glamour had been confined to the first grade, and I broke that romance off.

“Spot and I remained friends throughout our school years, but we were more like buddies. When we were in junior high school he drove a big Packard automobile and would load all of us in it for a ride.”

Tricia and Sara talking with Spot Pettey, maybe in his Packard. Boarding house across from the Stott House on East Washington is visible in the background.

“At Davis School the boys and girls were segregated on the playgrounds at recess, with the boys playing on the west side and the girls on the east. In the springtime the girls would line the sidewalks playing jacks or jump rope, and the boys would be on the other side playing marbles or ball. They had the only sliding boards, and it was only in the afternoon when school let out that the girls had a chance to go down the sliding boards. We had big swings with heavy chains, and you could really pump them and go almost to the sky. It wasn’t unusual for someone to get hurt on them, and Mama was always cautioning us to be careful on the playground. Finally Miss Daisy Wright, a rich lady whose husband dug the first artesian well in Greenwood and started the light and water plant, donated a winding sliding board for the girls, but Mama wasn’t sure that was safe either.

Daisy Wright's home on Fulton Street. Photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter

She also donated the stone fountain with a plaque on it honoring Mr. Wright. For many years the fountain stood between Davis School and the Junior High while children quenched their thirst from all four sides, but it recently was moved after the Davis School fire over to where the Junior High had once stood.

One of Mr. Wright's Artesian wells, with Davis School in the background. These wells supplied the stone fountain which still stands on the old Davis School campus (but it doesn't work any more). Photo courtesy of Donny Whitehead, aboutgreenwoodms.com

“Davis School was still being used when it was destroyed by fire seven or eight years ago.[Ed. note: December, 1980]. We loved to go back in it and could almost imagine we were back in Miss Joiner’s first grade. The night it burned I stood watching it crumble along with many others who had many memories of their childhood years spent there. We cried and told stories of what we remembered most. Each of us had somehow thought that Davis School would be there forever, a monument to the thousands of kids who had learned to read ‘The Little Red Hen’ and ‘The Gingerbread Boy’ in those two first grade rooms.”

Sara was the most relentless keeper of friends I’ve ever known. She never forgot a name (except for that cross-eyed playground bully who terrorized her and Omega Lary) and she never let old friends drift away into oblivion. Among the boxes of her things that sit here in my house are several little address books with obsolete information carefully scratched out and new phone numbers and addresses pencilled in. She would surprise friends with “out of the blue” phone calls almost until she died, and I hope they got even a fraction of the joy that she did with those long-distance reconnections. She talked with her best friend, Mary Charlotte Clarke, just about every day for almost eight decades, which I find quite remarkable. Daddy laughed about South Central Bell having to replace a worn-out telephone in our kitchen in the late ’50s (the repairman said he’d never done that before), but what could have been better than keeping up with the people who populated her memories and made her happy? We’ll meet many more of those friends as we work through her memoirs, and I hope they’re all having a big old perpetual class reunion every day now.

Also somewhere in these boxes and albums is a clipping from the Commonwealth the day after Davis School burned. I haven’t looked too hard for it, because it still upsets me. I remember the phone call I got from my mother on that cold December morning. I assumed she was calling to talk about John Lennon’s murder the night before, but she quickly let me know that that event was not even newsworthy. “Old Davis School is gone,” she said, and you could hear the heartbreak behind those words. I was stunned, and I agreed with her assessment of this tragedy. The Beatles were not even in the same universe of “What Matters.” That grand old brick landmark, the repository of so many happy days for her and her siblings, was a smoking ruin, lost forever. Who knows what might have started the blaze, but she was convinced that eighty years of linseed oil on hardwood floors sent the flames racing through the hallways and up into the towers, defeating the Greenwood Fire Department before they were even out the doors of their stations.

I’ve spent twenty years researching “lost” architecture around Mississippi, and I’ve heard a lot of sad stories, but none impacted me more than Davis School. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Greenwood still had that proud structure? Or the 1914 building, which was just demolished for absolutely no reason except civic bullheadness a few years later?I look at the old Greenwood High School now and wonder when the public school administrators will decide its time is done, and I just hope they will stir up a hornet’s nest the likes of which they’ve never seen if they so much as remove a brick. Keep your guard up, Greenwood.

Greenwood High School, 1924. Photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter

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The Castle, Part II

Davis School, 1904, a few years before it burned

“My first teacher was Miss Margaret Joiner. I liked school and soon made lots of new little friends. Mary was in third grade just down the hall from Miss Joiner’s room. The first graders got out thirty minutes before the older kids so I was told to play on the playground or stay in the room until someone came to pick up Tiny and Mary. That would have been fine except for the fact that there was a boy who seemed to be slightly retarded and wore thick glasses beneath which I could see his badly crossed eyes. He was always on the playground after school so would tell me and a girl named Omega Lary, who waited to ride on the school bus, that he was going to cut our tonsils out. I fully expected him to carry out his threat and was scared to stay after school.

GHS Football game, 1928, Davis School in the background

“Then I had visions of being left all night in that big old building. I would not tell anyone what the problem was, but every day about one o’clock I would start crying, just sobbing, until finally one day Miss Joiner took me down to Mary’s room to see if she could help, but since she didn’t know what was the matter she was no help at all.

Mamie, perplexed by her little sister

“Other than this trauma first grade was fun, learning to read ‘The Little Red Hen, The Gingerbread Boy, Billy Goats Gruff,’ and other stories.I did go home and cry (I could always bring on the tears at the least provocation) because the teacher told us to draw a boy and bring it to school the next day. I did not realize that the boy could be a stick figure or anything else and did not have to be a work of art and I was ready to quit school. My teacher, Miss Joiner, could be mean sometimes, such as she was the day she made James Nader stand in front of the radiator to dry his pants which he had wet probably because he didn’t want to go to that terrible old basement. Of course he was humiliated, just as I was when she called me a baby in front of everyone because I couldn’t tie my own shoes after I had taken them off to be weighed by the health nurse. From then on I dreaded the health nurse coming because I might not could tie my shoes even though Daddy had spent some time showing me how.

Sad Sara before her Davis School days

“If we misbehaved we were sent to the cloak room. Every classroom had an adjoining cloak room where we hung our coats. They would also make children stand in the hall, facing the wall, when they had been bad. One day a dark cloud had come up and it looked as if it were going to storm. The teacher had left the room for a few minutes, and, having been taught to be afraid of dark clouds, I decided to lead a few of my buddies out into the hall. When she came out of the principal’s office and spotted us, we were brought back into the room and made to stand facing the wall in front of all the other kids. I think I learned my lesson that time and only had to go to the cloak room one other time, that being in third grade when I would not stop talking in class.

“When we started to school we were told by the older kids that Miss Varnado, the very stern principal, had a paddling machine in her office and that she would use it on you if you misbehaved. We, therefore, avoided Miss Varnado whenever we could. All of the teachers seemed ancient to us although I am sure many were only in their twenties. They were all either single of widowed because married women were not allowed to teach. Since most of them had to work, they taught until they were old enough to retire. Many of them taught three generations in a family.”

Sadly, no pictures of Miss Joiner and the Davis faculty were in Sara's collection; these were some of the teachers at Greenwood High School during the same time period

Sara had a complicated relationship with old Davis School. We would often walk around the campus when I was little, because I, too, was alternately fascinated and terrified of this grand castle of a building. It was so Edwardian-era outrageous, with its three soaring stories and fire escapes and arched entranceways and always, always, that dark, spooky basement that had almost ruined Sara’s renal status. She swore up and down that she went through her first two years of elementary school without taking a single bathroom break, and I believed her. But there was, at the end, something sadly endearing about the aging hulk of a school. Sara came to love it more than she feared it and as the years passed, it morphed into a symbol of a happy, resourceful childhood. Who else would have led her first-grade friends into the hallway when bad weather threatened, like Judy Garland clutching Toto as they sailed out of Kansas? This little girl could recognize a storm brewing over the horizon when everyone else was thinking blue skies and sunshine, and she knew how to take cover before all hell broke loose. Just a shame the infamous Miss Joiner disagreed.

Ed. note: Jefferson Davis School was completed in 1904, at a cost of $15,000, to serve all 12 grades of Greenwood students. The architect was R.H.Hunt of Chattanooga, who was also the designer of the Leflore County Court House, First Methodist Church and the Elks Club. The GHS football field was laid out on the south lawn of the school. In 1914, a second building was added to the campus and in 1924 yet a third GHS was completed on the east end. It served as the high school from that year until 1959, when the current GHS was built on the Highway 49-82 Bypass. More on those buildings in future posts.

One more note: Omega Lary was alive and well and still in Sara’s class in their Junior year Deltonian (1938). She does not appear in the 1939 yearbook, leaving one to wonder if she fell victim to the tonsil-threatening bully of Sara’s tale.

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The Castle

Davis School, original 1904 building

“I was very lonesome after Tiny and Mary were both in school and would sit every day on the front steps with my Sue doll waiting for them to come home to lunch. Mama and Bama would be in the kitchen fixing lunch (only we called it dinner and the night meal supper). Mama would feel sorry for me and would let me make a ‘mess’ which was a concoction of flour, eggs, milk and anything else I cared throw in, pretending I was making a cake. Of course the messes were never cooked, but I sure did have fun pretending.

Tiny in First Grade, Davis School

“In September 1927 I finally started to Davis School. Davis was big old red brick school building with a tower, high ceilings and long corridors which smelled of disinfectant. It was a very frightening place to little fellows going there for the first time, and I for one never felt completely safe and secure there even though I was very glad to be old enough to go to school. There were basements where the restrooms were located, and they were always dark and damp and smelly. When it rained that was where we had to play, so I hated rainy days, and I don’t think I ever used the restroom.”

Davis School and Football Field

Much more to come on Davis School………Stay tuned. And for more photographs of Davis and other Greenwood schools, check out Donny Whitehead’s website, aboutgreenwoodms.com.

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