September 6, 2013 11:25:32 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Lifelong Lowndes County resident Charlie Smith, now in his 70s, admits he's forgotten a few things about visiting Catfish Alley during his youth.
On Thursday, city officials unveiled a monument commemorating the area's rich history as a commercial and cultural hub for African-Americans and a gathering place for all races. The sides of the monument list the names of those who ran restaurants, barber shops, dentist offices, drug stores and entertainment venues during the area's peak eras in popularity and success.
The occasion was such that Smith was able to recall some moments, some of which predate automobiles and involve he and some cohorts hitching their wagon and riding to town. Or sometimes, he said, they would just walk.
"They would have big tubs and strings holding big catfish all the way up and down this alley," he said. "We had to work in the fields and chop and plow...then we would come up here and shine shoes for a dime."
Many other memories of business owners and frequenters of the strip of Fourth Street between Main and College streets were re-kindled as they admired the recently completed mural, new sidewalks and park area all done to revitalize the site.
The late Sallie Mae Jones was one of those restaurant owners. Her daughter, Connie, admitted emotions were high as she spoke about her Catfish Alley memories and her mother. The Jones family has owned businesses on that street for more than 50 years, she noted.
"What I used to think about Catfish Alley is it was a place where something was always going on, whether it was good or bad," she said. "As I got older, I took a U-turn. I can safely say now that Catfish Alley was a birthplace for many of the black business owners. (My mother) used to cook right in the front door, just about. Her menu consisted of four things: pan trout, hamburgers, beer and sodas. Then she moved later on as she advanced in her business, she started out doing special plate lunches on a Saturday. When the people from across Tombigbee River would come to town... my mother used to make a pot of soup and feed people free."
Sallie Mae Jones' grandson, Columbus councilman Kabir Karriem, said he and his family had tried to have the street named after her. From there, the idea evolved into something much more far-reaching.
"What started out as a moment has turned into a movement," he said. "My grandmother is known as the matriarch of our family... Even in death, she is getting things done by redoing Catfish Alley. Hopefully we can continue the success and tell the history of Columbus, of the pioneers and trailblazers who set the pace for us to stand here today."
Mississippi University for Women art professor Alex Stelios-Wills and several of his students made the mural representing the area in multiple eras. Public input was key to its authenticity, he said.
"I've been doing mural projects for almost 20 years, and this is the first project ever where it was really a collaborative effort," Stelios-Wills said. "People showed up every day when we painted to tell us stories about the alley, to tell us what we were wrong on, to correct us and then correct us again, and to bring photographs. It really helped to be able to know about people individually."
Another lifelong Lowndes Countian, supervisor Leroy Brooks, read a poem he wrote illustrating a conversation between himself and his mother about the alley.
"What Catfish Alley meant depended on where you lived. For those of us living in the prairie across the river... the alley became a mecca on Saturday," Brooks said. "As a young boy when I came to Columbus with Mama, she didn't want us in the alley when we was young because she'd say there was a whole lot of things going on in the alley, and they wasn't all good."
As he grew up and began to earn money through farming, Brooks said, he would catch a ride to town. The first destination? Catfish Alley.
"I would stand on the wall in the alley because there were so many people and so many things going on that I was afraid, but as I got older and I could hear the sound of Johnnie Taylor coming from the jukebox out of the cafe... and I could see the guys standing and talking a whole lot of what you talk about in the street, it became a place that we endeared," he said.
The area saw good times and patches of bad ones, including incidents when people he knew were shot and killed. But fond memories would always prevail, Brooks said.
"Through it all, it's a part of who we are and it's a part of this community," he said.
Once located there was a local branch of a now-defunct Jackson-based insurance agency called Security Life Insurance Company of the South, said James Bridges, who now lives in Noxubee County but used to manage that branch. He said he appreciated the experience of being there during times of business and on the weekends when it became the place for entertainment.
"I had just started out as a young insurance agent. Everybody up there was about 70 or 80 years old and I was just young. They told me to be sure to keep everything in place. It brings back a lot of memories back from the 70s all the way through the 80s," Bridges said. "I used to love to see all the folks. There were folks from everywhere. This was a mini Bourbon Street ... if you ever got to town and you were trying to go back home, somebody was going your way. You could be on Southside or Northside. Once you were at the alley, you were going to get a ride home."
Columbus mayor Robert Smith, who pushed to restore the area, said there is still more work left to complete, including the installation of festival lights to provide another element associated with the area in its heyday. He said he'd also like to oversee the placement of historical markers placed on each side of the road.
"We're going to have to do things as we can come up with the funds, but it's a starting point here that I think most of the citizens can appreciate," Smith said. "This happened in a one year time span. That just shows you with people working together what can happen. It's for the betterment of the city. There's history here. For the people that really know Catfish Alley that have moved away from here, when they come back they always want to come back through Catfish Alley. Now, it brings back memories and we revitalized it and they can appreciate it more."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.