Our view: Simply, Catfish Alley

August 9, 2012 9:50:24 AM



On Tuesday, family members of the late Sally Mae Jones asked the Columbus City Council to change the name of the stretch of Fourth Street between Main Street and College Street to Sallie Mae Jones Catfish Alley. 


The board tabled the proposal, with Mayor Robert Smith casting the decisive vote to delay a decision renaming the street so other business owners along the street can be consulted. The Council will revisit the request at its next meeting. 


Jones was a long-time owner of Jones Cafe on the historic street. The restaurant, now called Jones Restaurant, is still operated by family members. 


In making a case for renaming the street for her mother, Laura Jones Chalmers correctly noted: "African Americans have done a great job in shaping this city into what it has become today." 


When the Council does take up this request, we respectfully submit the Council vote not to make the name change. If the section of Fourth Street is to be renamed at all, it should be renamed simply, "Catfish Alley." 


This view should not be regarded in any way as an effort to denigrate Jones' contributions to the vibrant history of the section of town that has been affectionately known as Catfish Alley for more than 100 years. 


Beginning near the turn of the 20th Century, Catfish Alley was the business home to scores of black entrepreneurs and businessmen. Their talents, skills and cultural contributions spread not only throughout the black community but through the white community as well. Columbus residents are divided on many things; but they are united in their affinity for what Catfish Alley came to represent. Catfish Alley was a melting pot that allowed the races to learn about each other during the era of segregation when those opportunities were few. It was, indeed, a melting pot of cultures. 


In 1918, Catfish Alley included four black-owned restaurants, two black-owned barbershops, a black-owned harness-shop, a black-owned boarding house and a black-owned pool room. In addition to those businesses, Catfish Alley was home to the city's most prominent black professionals, some of whom exerted their influence far beyond the street and city, men like Dr. Emmett Stringer, who had a dentist office on Catfish Alley.  


Stringer founded the city's first NAACP chapter and became the state chairman of the NAACP. In 1954, he was one of eight black Mississippians put on a "Death List," by the Ku Klux Klan. By the end of the next year, only he and two others on the list remained in Mississippi. The others had either been killed or fled the state. Stringer risked much and sacrificed much in his courageous struggle for Civil Rights. 


Catfish Alley was also "home" to the city's first black doctor and its first black dentist. The Masonic Hall on Catfish Alley was home to no fewer than eight black civic organizations. 


Jones was one of many pioneering black business people whose presence on the street are a storied chapter in the city's history. It would be extremely difficult to single out any one person for distinction. In fact, it would be wrong.  


The truth is, there was no single person who, by virtue of their presence on the street, singularly shaped Catfish Alley's identity. 


Instead, Catfish Alley was a collaboration of scores of black artisans, business people, professionals and entrepreneurs -- including Sallie Mae Jones, whose restaurant operated on the same site black restaurateur Cecile Taylor operated as early as 1922. 


It is for that reason that name of the street called Catfish Alley -- a name that is instantly recognizable for its role in telling the story of the contributions of African Americans to the history of Columbus -- should not be altered to honor any one individual.  


It belonged equally to many and should remain their collective legacy, both in spirit and in name. 


Simply, Catfish Alley.