Greenwood, Miss., has long been one of my favorite places to visit. A stay at the Alluvian Hotel and meals at the Crystal Grill, Lusco's and Giardina's (order the flounder at Crystal Grill and go for the pompano at Lusco's and Giardina's) can cure whatever ails me.
On those pilgrimages to the Mississippi Delta, I always make time to cross the Tallahatchie River bridge (those of you of a certain age are beginning to sing Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" about now) and drive out the Money Road to the ruins of Bryant's Grocery. This is where Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was visiting relatives during his summer vacation in August 1955, spoke to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, one of the store's white owners.
Till was accused of flirting with or whistling at Bryant. Several nights later, Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam abducted Till from the home of the boy's great-uncle. They beat him beyond recognition, shot him in the head and sank his body in the Tallahatchie. Till's body was found three days later.
It's usually quiet on those mornings when I visit. There's not much traffic on summer Saturdays on the Money Road. As a hot Delta breeze blows through the trees, one can almost hear the ghosts in this haunted place. Those who have studied the history of the American civil rights movement know the rest of the story. Till's mother insisted on an open casket so the world could see her son's mutilated corpse. The photos helped galvanize opponents of segregation. Roy Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury. The next year, they admitted in an interview with Look magazine that they had killed Till. Milam died in 1980 at age 61. Bryant died in 1994 at age 63.
I thought about Till earlier this month as I stood in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum at Jackson. I had made a road trip to Mississippi's capital city with three other Arkansans--former University of Central Arkansas President Tom Courtway, former Arkansas Humanities Council director Paul Austin and well-known historian Tom DeBlack--who share my fascination with this period of Southern history.
Downtown Jackson hasn't experienced the renaissance that's occurring in downtown Little Rock, but history hangs as heavily here as it does along the Money Road. In her essay "Finding a Voice," Eudora Welty described Jackson as a "region to itself."
We stayed at the former King Edward Hotel, now called the Hilton Garden Inn following a $90 million renovation that was completed in December 2009. The first hotel on the site was known as the Confederate House. It opened in 1861 and was destroyed by Union troops in 1863. It was rebuilt as the Edwards House in 1867. For decades, this was the heart of Jackson politics and society.
The current 12-story brick structure, designed by New Orleans architect William Nolan, was completed in 1923. In 1954, the hotel changed its name to the King Edward. As downtown Jackson emptied out, the King Edward closed in 1967 and remained vacant for more than four decades prior to the massive renovation.
The hotel is just down the street from two of the oldest dining establishments in Mississippi, the Mayflower Cafe and the Elite Restaurant. The Mayflower was opened in 1935 by George Kountouris and John Gouras. The Greek immigrants from the island of Patmos first operated it as a hamburger stand. The Mayflower evolved into a full-service restaurant. Old menus show everything from sandwiches to Chinese dishes such as chop suey to Greek entrees to Southern staples.
Jerry Kountouris, George's grandson, took over in 1990 and began focusing on seafood. Mayflower standards are stuffed flounder, broiled redfish and a Greek salad with lump crabmeat. Stepping into the restaurant is like stepping back in time. Scenes for the movies Ghosts of Mississippi and The Help were filmed at the Mayflower.
The Elite was opened in 1947 by Panagiotis Constantine Zouboukos, who was known in Jackson simply as Mr. Pete. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1929 and found his way to Waco, Texas, where uncles George and Mike Colias ran the Elite on the Circle.
That restaurant became famous in central Texas. It closed in 2016 but was reopened earlier this year as Magnolia Table by HGTV Fixer Upper stars Chip and Joanna Gaines.
In Waco during the Great Depression, Mr. Pete learned to cook dishes such as enchiladas and chicken fried steaks. He moved to Mississippi with younger brother Jimmy Zouboukos after World War II and opened a restaurant with turquoise booths, comeback dressing and a neon sign that featured a fish jumping into a frying pan. Mr. Pete ran the restaurant until 2002, when eldest daughter Toula took over. It's a hangout for members of the Mississippi Legislature. Enchiladas are still on the menu.
As much fun as it is to stay in a historic hotel and eat at iconic restaurants, the main reason for our visit was to see the Civil Rights Museum, which opened last December along with the adjoining Museum of Mississippi History. Mississippi might seem an unlikely place for such an attraction, but it's Smithsonian quality and tells the full story. A December article on the museum in the New York Times was headlined "The New Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Refuses to Sugarcoat History."
"Jackson, a primary scene of that history, is the right place, karma-wise, for the telling of the history to unfold, as it does through a series of tight, lowlighted galleries packed floor to ceiling with photographs, texts, films and recordings," art critic Holland Cotter wrote. "The material is magnetic. I had intended to make an initial fast sweep, then double back for a closer look. But an hour after starting, I was still only halfway through my preliminary tour."
This isn't a museum where one hurries. We spent an entire afternoon there, and that wasn't enough. It's also not a place where one leaves feeling good about the state of the nation or the South. Cotter thinks that's a good thing.
"The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum offers no closure," he wrote. "The story it tells is still in progress: from 1960s Jackson, to Ferguson, Mo., Charlottesville, Va., and the 2017 White House. That the new museum says this outright, and leaves us upset, its story unresolved, is what makes it work. We don't need our museums--any of them--to calm us down; we need them to sound alarms."
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 07/29/2018
Print Headline: Well done, Mississippi