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OPINION: My brief time living in Mississippi

by By Doug Chastain, Random Recollections | September 13, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

The summer before my senior year in high school, my family moved from De Queen, Arkansas, to Greenwood, Mississippi. My dad had been promoted to the status of plant manager of a piano manufacturing facility there and so we left the hills of southwest Arkansas for the flatland of the Mississippi Delta. To say that it involved a little "culture shock" would be an understatement.

I was not a happy camper there but I did my best to "go along and get along" with life in the Delta. And as time went by, I made some discoveries about the place in which I lived that I never would have made if I had not moved there. One of those discoveries was that Greenwood, Mississippi, seemed to be at a crossroads of American culture.

Let me unpack that for you.

Every night -- deep in the night -- I sometimes would see the headlight of a train going south close to our home and hear the lonesome sound of its horn as it approached a nearby crossing. I later found out that that particular late night visitor was an Illinois Central passenger train called the "City of New Orleans" making its way "through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea." The train was an American icon, at the time one of the last regular passenger routes in the country (until Amtrak revived railway passenger service). ("City of New Orleans" from the album "Hobo's Lullaby" by Arlo Guthrie, 1972.)

A few miles south of our home was an old iron bridge which spanned the Yazoo River. For some reason the structure was called the "Tallahatchie Bridge," and legend had it that a despondent young man once threw himself over the deck railing because of some conflict he had with a girl. Not sure about the veracity of that story, but I am sure that a Country singer once made a ton of money singing about it. ("Ode to Billie Joe" from the album of the same name, by Bobbie Gentry, 1967. [A little extra irony here: for a while Bobbie Gentry lived less than a mile from where our house would be, at the end of East Claiborne in Greenwood.])

A few miles north of our home was a place where one of the most horrendous events in Mississippi history occurred. In 1955, a Black teen from Chicago named Emmett Till, visiting relatives in the Delta, was accused of being rude to a white woman in her family's grocery store in Money, Mississippi. The woman's husband and his half-brother kidnapped Till, beat him beyond recognition, shot him and then dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River.

If that weren't bad enough, a jury of their "peers" later acquitted the men of the appalling crime. (The U.S. government eventually found it necessary to charge miscreants like the ones who murdered Emmett Till with civil rights violations and try them in federal courts. Some folks in Mississippi had to be dragged -- kicking and screaming -- into the 20th Century, but fortunately the tide began to turn and the state is much more progressive than it was in the 1950s and '60s.)

I may not have enjoyed my time in Mississippi much but I still feel blessed and grateful to have spent that time there, and learned about it history, its culture and its people – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Doug Chastain is a retired teacher and is currently a large-vehicle transportation specialist for the Siloam Springs School District. (Okay, he drives a bus.) He is also a grass maintenance technician at Camp Siloam. (Yeah, he mows the lawn.) You can contact him at dougcha[email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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