In the county, there were Black-owned cafés, or “places” (another word for a juke joint), that sold homemade moonshine and food, and featured local blues musicians. Cafés provided an alternative source of income for sharecroppers. Leflore County resident Bernice Magruder White remembered that her father had
[A] room built onto his house and he had a piano and he would hire a piano player. Every Saturday night, they would come and they would dance and play the piano. This little room was off kind of like, we couldn’t go in there, not even during the weekdays. It was always locked till on weekends. And, of course, maybe two or three miles over somebody else would have one very similar, and they did the same thing. So that’s how they were entertained in the rural area before people could get to town. It was a hardship getting to town.
Black church members eschewed “places” because, to them, they promoted immoral behavior, including bad language. Sadie Hammond recalled, “Every night they’d have their dance somewhere. Fiddling and dancing and drinking whiskey. And cussing too, they say. They tell me they be cussing. Uh huh . . . but I never did go. If I’d ever go, mama would’ve beat me to death.”19
The rare white man might show up at one of these places, but rigid notions of racial purity meant that white women were strictly excluded. Black women, on the other hand, because of the strong tradition of Black female musicianship, were welcomed—and sometimes owners themselves. Referencing that Black female musicianship, resident Georgia Denton Bays remembered the lure of her aunt’s guitar. One day, her mother called out,
Go get me some water. I said, “Mama, wait a minute.” My auntie had a guitar and I was in there playing that guitar. “Georgia, come get that water so I can finish your daddy’s dinner. He’ll be here directly.” “All right, Mama.” Before I knowed anything, Mama got there, had a switch just about that long, and come in there, and that guitar went up in the side of the wall and everything.20
But even the most positive public musical exchanges that crossed racial lines could not mitigate the significant tensions that emerged in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in May of 1954, a decision that challenged the foundations of white racial power, in particular the all-white schools that educated southern children. Aggrieved white southerners called it “Black Monday” and white politicians politicized white elementary and high schools, locating them as sites of white racial power under attack by nefarious forces like the Supreme Court. The decision provoked racists like de la Beckwith to claim that the naacp sought to “put a negro in your daughters [sic] bedroom as the master and ruler of a mulatto family,” again positing even the most basic racial accommodation as a threat to white female purity.21
The Brown decision also catalyzed the founding of the White Citizens’ Council (wcc), a white supremacist middle-class organization devoted to maintaining Jim Crow segregation, in next-door Sunflower County in July 1954. Brooks Brothers suits and artfully designed homes, key symbols of respectability, masked a virulent masculinity bent on protecting an idealized and symbolic white womanhood from the imagined threat posed by Black men—in this case, young Black boys attending school with white girls. The wcc helped to modernize the southern rape myth and root it in these new notions of respectability. The myth, a trope created in the 1890s, leveraged threats of violence, specifically lynching, when white southern men were faced with insurgent Black power in that era. (Bridges were especially prominent in this iconography.) As the White Citizens’ Council reformed the myth to fit 1950s Mississippi, it required a new incarnation of white women to follow its updated views on race and masculinity. Where she was once a fair flower of southern womanhood in the late 1800s, in the 1950s, she was a southern June Cleaver, of Leave it to Beaver television fame, a white woman who kept house, raised children and did charity projects on the side, all the while supporting her husband in his work.22
Greenwood citizens were prominent in the White Citizens’ Council, and two of its citizens sat on the council’s statewide educational board as the organization spread quickly. By 1956, it claimed eighty thousand Mississippi members, with chapters in nine other states. The organization’s recruiting language promised the fine folks in the North that racial control was still appropriate in this era of respectability. The middle class used different means, or at least so they said, to control Black behavior. They did not (supposedly) use violence, for example, touting in council-produced pamphlets, “After all, we’re not the Klan.”23
The wcc’s focus on the Brown decisions was more than remaking gender and racial boundaries under supposed attack. Labor control still mattered because cotton did not get chopped and June Cleaver’s fine suburban home did not get cleaned without a large Black labor force of all ages. The Brown decisions thus challenged not only racial and gender practices but also local labor practices because the Brown decision assumed that Black kids should go to school (and good ones at that)—and eventually leave behind grueling farmwork and poverty altogether for new lives. It was in this tense time that the Streeters’ move across the river required Gentry to attend the North Greenwood Elementary School (now the Katherine Bankston Elementary School, named for her principal in the 1950s).24
Whites perpetrated acts of violence against Black residents in the city and county, illustrating the intimate, symbiotic link between Greenwood—where cotton sales dominated the local economy—and Leflore County, where that cotton was grown. Booker T. Federick, a local Black man, said, “Now, I’ve heard of them drowning people. That happened back in the fifties here in town . . . A young man wasn’t drowned here in this lake, but up the road over yonder in the river. But the things that they put on him that may keep him from coming up and make sure he drowned, those weights and things come from here in town.” Although it is not clear, Federick was most likely speaking of Emmett Till, though two Black men from the area had been killed in 1955 as well. Numbers illustrate Leflore County’s and neighboring Carroll County’s grim reputations as places notorious in the history of racial terror violence, with Leflore County having the highest number of confirmed lynchings in the state of Mississippi at forty-eight. (Carroll County had twenty-nine, the second highest.) Mississippi was also the state with the highest number of lynchings in the country (654 confirmed).25
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45 RPM 7″ UK record label of Ode To Billy Joe by Bobbie Gentry on the Capitol label from 1967. Neil Baylis, Alamy Stock Photo.