OPINION | REX NELSON: Holly Grove homecoming

It resembled a family reunion. While there were plenty of family members there, the crowd that Sunday afternoon last month in the Delta community of Holly Grove consisted mostly of friends of Raymond and Mockie Abramson. We came together to celebrate the 150th anniversary of R. Abramson Co., an event first scheduled for the spring of 2020.

Like so many other events scheduled for 2020, this one fell victim to the pandemic. Never mind that we wound up celebrating the 152nd anniversary of a Delta business and farming operation. That didn't bother any of the people who filled the Sammy Feldman American Legion Hall to eat catfish and barbecue, tell old stories and revel in the beauty of the harvest season.

Raymond Abramson, a judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in 1973 and his law degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville three years later. He and Mockie, a Virginia native, maintain the historic Abramson family home at Holly Grove and remain heavily involved in civic life in this part of the Delta.

Rue and Venda Abramson built that home in 1921 when the Delta was booming. Their parents had been among the first people to settle the area after the Civil War as thick bottomland forests were cleared and drained for cotton cultivation. R. Abramson Co. began with a dry goods store in 1870.

Raymond is the grandson of Rue and Venda and part of a rich tradition of Jewish farmers and merchants in the Delta. That tradition has disappeared with the massive population losses of the past 50 years.

In addition to farming, Rue operated a bank and several businesses. He opened the town's first garage and service station in 1927, the year of the big flood. He selected a well-known Memphis architect, Estes Mann, to design the family home. Mann, a Marianna native, had a remarkable career, designing more than 1,800 residences across the South, including some of the finest houses in Memphis.

The listing of the Abramson house on the National Register of Historic Places states: "The Abramsons were active in the commercial life of Holly Grove as merchants, ginners and plantation owners. By 1922, they also founded the First National Bank of Holly Grove. They were leaders in such organizations as the Crowley's Ridge Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Monroe County Fair Association, the Sahara Temple of Pine Bluff, the American Red Cross, B'nai B'rith, Temple Beth El of Helena and other Jewish organizations."

In the city's commercial district a few blocks from the Abramson home, R. Abramson Co. owned four buildings. Rue's son Ralph later took over the family businesses. Ralph's wife Rosemary Alperin was a Memphis native who married Ralph in 1946 and spent the rest of her life in Holly Grove. Rosemary (Raymond's mother) died in January 2013 at age 93.

Raymond refers to himself as the last practicing Jewish lawyer in the Arkansas Delta. That list once included well-known Arkansans such as David Solomon of Helena, a Harvard roommate of Raymond's father. Jewish immigrants came to the Delta during the 1800s as traveling peddlers. As was the case with the Abramson family, some of their descendants became merchants and planters.

Due to the wave of immigration from eastern Europe, Arkansas' Jewish population grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the Great Flood of 1927. There were 22 Jewish-owned businesses in Helena by 1909. Helena even had a Jewish mayor, Aaron Meyers, from 1878-80. In 1867, Temple Beth El was founded at Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded at Pine Bluff.

Jewish merchants received their goods from wholesalers in river cities such as Memphis, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Louisville. Generations of the same families operated retail establishments. Like the Jewish merchants, Chinese merchants who once operated grocery stores across the Delta are almost gone. At the Sunday event, there were descendants of those who operated Chinese groceries in Holly Grove.

According to the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss: "Chinese came to America in the late 19th century in search of the fabled Gam Sahn or Golden Mountain. When they arrived at the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta, all they found was backbreaking agricultural work. First introduced to the region as indentured servants by planters during Reconstruction, these early Chinese sojourners (mostly from the Guandong or Canton province) became disenchanted with working the fields.

"They moved off the plantations. Some left to go back home to China, but others stayed and opened small neighborhood grocery stores. Serving as an alternative to plantation commissaries and catering to the predominantly African American clientele, the Chinese American grocer was a mainstay in Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century. Life in the grocery business was by no means an easy living. Early mornings and late nights were normal, as were the stresses of competition from large supermarket chains."

Like other Delta towns, Holly Grove has lost population, falling from a high of 977 residents in 1920 to 460 people a century later. The railroad tracks were removed years ago and the school district was consolidated into the Clarendon School District in 2004. On a fall Sunday afternoon, though, people packed an American Legion hall not only to socialize but to send the message that this place still matters.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.