Greenville, Mississippi, in the 1920s

At the outbreak of World War I the [Mississippi] Delta was still the Wild West of the South. More than 60 percent of the land remained wilderness, with bears still invading cornfields and wolves devouring livestock. Like the West, and unlike the already settled South, it had few churches, few schools, much drinking (despite statewide prohibition), and violence….

Incongruously, cotton had simultaneously created an elite whose sons went to Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell and traveled the world; in 1914 several Greenville planters attending the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany, were stranded by the outbreak of the war. After the war, with cotton prices soaring, the best Delta land brought $1,000 an acre …. Even the social elite of New Orleans considered Greenville exceptional….

By the 1920s, Greenville had become “The Queen City of the Delta,” with twelve miles of paved streets. Its population reached 15,000 souls, all nestled close to the river. Downtown teemed with life. Barges piled with goods docked at the concrete wharf, warehouses burst with cotton, trucks and spavined mules pulled supplies. The city had one French and two Italian restaurants, twenty-four-hour coffee shops, bowling alleys and pool halls and movie theaters. The biggest entertainers, including Enrico Caruso and Al Jolson, regularly stopped at the Opera House or the even larger People’s Theater. Enough Chinese lived in Greenville that a tong war erupted. The four-story Cowan Hotel was the state’s finest. The Armour Packing Company, the largest meatpacker between Memphis and New Orleans, distributed fresh meat throughout the Delta and into the hill country. Three cotton exchanges each had a wire to Liverpool, New Orleans, New York, and Chicago. The Greenville Cotton Compress, a huge operation owned by [Senator LeRoy] Percy, baled cotton and sold it directly to international buyers. Fourteen trains a day arrived in Greenville at the Y&MV [Yazoo & Mississippi Valley] railroad station; six more trains arrived daily at the Columbus & Greenville station. Four oil mills, the smallest covering two city blocks, crushed cotton seed. Half a dozen sawmills worked the great masses of logs floated to them; the two largest each made 150,000 board feet of lumber a day.

The city’s most exclusive gathering place was the Swan Lake Club, a shooting club outside the city. Since anyone in the Delta acceptable for membership already belonged, no guests were allowed who lived within a hundred miles. The Greenville Country Club was new; it and the Mississippi Club were for the fine families, and unlike other cities—including nearby Greenwood—both had Jewish members. (Only the Garden Club excluded Jews.) The Elysian Club, a two-storied yellow brick building with a vast porch, held dances renowned throughout the Delta; fans were placed behind a 300-pound block of ice to blow air over it and cool the room, and a hedge in front was used to hide corn whiskey. W. C. Handy, one of the fathers of the blues, frequently played there….

More than half of Greenville’s population was black, and there were two black neighborhoods. If young men from one entered the other, trouble followed. Newtown lay north of downtown; there “blacks tried to be citified, uppity,” according to one black man. Southside was more working-class. Most blacks worked on the river, or in the sawmills, or as servants for whites. By 6 A.M. the streets were alive with maids and cooks and chauffeurs heading to white folks’ homes. Several black doctors and dentists had offices in two buildings on the edge of downtown. There was a black printer, a black-owned newsstand serving whites, several black funeral home operators, black shoe repairmen. A black bank was nurtured largely by money from black prostitutes who serviced white men only. Their brothels flourished just east of downtown, near Broadway and Nelson, across from the pride of the black community, Mt. Horeb Church, a small but magnificent stone structure. A block away, there were black juke joints and pool halls and gambling joints. There was liquor, and women, and the blues. And there were knives, razors, and pistols….

In the 1920s, Greenville was a thriving small metropolis, and, like most ports, more cosmopolitan than neighboring communities. But what set Greenville apart was the imprint that [Senator] Percy and those few who allied themselves with him had imposed.

GREENVILLE’S SCHOOLS epitomized the difference. In 1920 the city spent $85 per white pupil, double the state’s second-most-generous locality; five Mississippi counties in the hills spent less than $5 per white child, while one spent only $2.75. The teachers and facilities were outstanding, and for its size Greenville produced an extraordinary number of writers, including LeRoy’s son William Alexander Percy and great-nephew Walker Percy, David Cohn, Ellen Douglas, Beverly Lowry, Charles Bell, and Shelby Foote.

For blacks, Greenville schools were, relatively, even more special. The city spent $17 per black child, compared to 68 cents in another district. At the same time that many Mississippi politicians opposed teaching blacks arithmetic and reading, Greenville public schools offered blacks Latin. Lizzie Coleman, principal of the black high school, intimidated students and teachers into excelling. She made each teacher raise $150 a year for the school, and also said, “I don’t believe in the melting pot.” But she knew how to survive. During the week she bought groceries from two black men; on Saturdays she bought steaks from Will Reed, a white man, on Washington Avenue. The steak was more expensive, but that did not matter. Because of her good relationships with whites, when black teachers asked school superintendent E. E. Bass to stop calling them by their first names in front of their students, he agreed to address them in school as “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss.” Greenville was also state headquarters for several black fraternal organizations, including the Pythians and the Masons, and Percy had even sued a white fraternal organization on their behalf and won.

SOURCE: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry (Touchstone, 1998), pp. 132-135

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