Birney Imes: E.J. Stringer and Catfish Alley's long history

August 11, 2012 10:10:22 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Some years ago freelance writer Sylvia Higginbotham gave me a thick folder she compiled on the late E.J. Stringer. Sylvia had sought out Stringer, a local icon, who had played a leading role in Columbus' decades-long struggle to come to grips with integration and racial equality. 


She was impressed by his kindness and sense of history. 


"He was the sweetest man," Sylvia recalled Friday. "I just found him delightful. I loved talking with him." 


Thinking she might write a magazine piece, Sylvia conducted three interviews with Stringer. This was 1987.  


Not a lot came of her efforts, at least not immediately. The Clarion-Ledger published a profile on Stringer the following year.  


The folder was stuffed with bits of local African American history: a two-page history of Catfish Alley from an unknown publication, a photocopy of "The Grapevine" published on the occasion of the "Seventh Avenue First Annual Cultural Enrichment Festival" in 1986 and a campaign brochure for an up-and-coming young politician named Leroy Brooks. Adorning the brochure is a picture of Brooks (sporting some very funky glasses) sitting at a table with Sen. John C. Stennis. 


Perhaps the most interesting item in the folder is a history of Catfish Alley Stringer compiled for Higginbotham. Stringer titled his 10-page handwritten (crosswise on sheets of legal paper) opus, "Catfish Alley, Columbus, Mississippi (Five Decades 1940s through 1980s)" 


With the recent talk about changing the name of Catfish Alley I remembered the E.J. Stringer file. Like Sylvia, I have fond memories of Dr. Stringer. We served together on several public school committees in the 1980s. More than once I gave him a ride home after a night meeting that had gone on too long. I found him genial and open and someone with whom you could speak frankly about contentious issues. 


The third of a school teacher's five children, Stringer grew up poor in the Mississippi Delta. "We were so poor, even the poorest people called us poor," he told the Clarion Ledger in 1988. Stringer earned part of his first semester tuition at Alcorn -- where he was a classmate of Alex Haley's -- by picking cotton at night. He studied dentistry at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, a historically black medical school where many African American doctors and dentists who practiced in Columbus earned their degrees. 


Stringer set up his dental practice in 1950 on Catfish Alley in what was then known as the Lewis Building. Stringer's Catfish Alley history names the many businessmen and professionals practicing on the alley decade by decade.  


Doctors Charles Hunter, T.V. James and M.F. Harris, all graduates of Meharry, were physicians and general surgeons. Hunter and James had an "integrated" practice, according to Stringer. Ed Bush, who would later own the Queen City Hotel on Seventh Avenue North operated a dry cleaners, pool room and dry goods store in the Alley. James Sykes owned a cab company and the Paradise Hotel. 


Stringer mentions several "Caucasian" businesspeople: a Mr. and Mrs. Watkins who operated a cafe and pool room in the Sykes Building; Jimmy Etherton, who owned WACR radio upstairs in the building that now houses the Front Door restaurant and Bonnie Kimbrell, a cobbler, whose shop I patronized as a boy. 


Stringer also mentions Willie Armstead who for four decades cut hair in an upstairs room over Jones Cafe. Armstead had a Sunday morning radio gospel show and was, in Stringer's words, "the dominant figure of Catfish Alley."  


Stringer mentions many others including a Bessie Lanier, who he calls an "elderly, well-known alcoholic," who "went from business to business disturbing the peace." That's Stringer's description of Lanier in the 1950s; by the 70s Lanier has become "an unauthorized director of traffic," who was "an excellent debater ... often in city jail." 


One of the striking features of life on Catfish Alley was how the strict policy of segregation in effect across the South was somehow disregarded here. The place seems to have been a world within a world, where people could socialize and do business with each other regardless their skin color. 


For his part, Stringer was active in getting blacks (he among them) registered to vote -- not always an easy task. He also organized the Columbus branch of the NAACP and the Lowndes County Voters' League and served as state president of the NAACP from 1953 to 1954. 


Myrlie Evers, when she was here a few years ago for a Dream 365 event, recalled how she and her husband, Medgar Evers, came to Columbus to meet with Dr. Stringer, who wanted Medgar to become field secretary for the NAACP. Evers took the position and as such mentored James Meredith in his successful attempt to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962. The following year Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson home by Byron De La Beckwith.  


Dr. Stringer died on Sept. 6, 1995. He was 75. 


The move afoot by a family to rename Catfish Alley for their mother and grandmother ignores the individual accomplishment and remarkable history of the many people who spent the better part of their lives there. To single out one above the rest gives short shrift to the accomplishment of so many others, E.J. Stringer among them. 


Catfish Alley is more than the name of a block-long section of a city street. Those two words stand for what is best about Columbus. They evoke a time and place where people could come together to do business and enjoy one another's company regardless the color of one's skin or the size of one's wallet. 


Sure we can and should find more ways to celebrate the history of Catfish Alley. Changing its name isn't one of them. 


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.