Birney Imes: The Catfish Alley tapes

February 14, 2009

Birney Imes - birney@cdispatch.com

 

A letter last week from Bob Raymond questioning the origin of the name Catfish Alley reminded me of research a friend did on the subject years ago. The friend, Mark Gooch, is a Birmingham-based photographer. 

 

In 1974 Gooch was an undergrad studying history at Samford in Birmingham. There he came under the spell of Wayne Flynt, a professor who used oral history as a way to preserve and understand the past. As part of his course work, Flynt required students to conduct recorded interviews. 

 

For his interview subject, Gooch chose Bonnie Kimbrell, a barrel-chested cobbler, who with his wife, Pink, had run a shop on Catfish Alley since 1919. 

 

Growing up in Columbus, Gooch had ample opportunity to inhale the intoxicating profusion of sights, smells and sounds of the Alley, a one-block strip where the world of whites and blacks intersected in an otherwise segregated society. 

 

Gooch''s father, an optometrist, plied his trade from a rented space on the ground floor of what was then the Masonic Temple. Boarders lived in upper rooms in the three-story building that occupies the corner of Fourth Street and Main at what is now the north entrance to the Alley. 

 

Gooch ventured from his father''s office to peruse merchandise displayed under ceiling fans on flat tables in Joseph and Selma Hanna''s dry goods store, also in the Masonic building. The Syrian couple sold a wide range of merchandise, from overalls and gingham cloth to hoop cheese and candy to whites and blacks alike. 

 

During high school, Gooch with a classmate, Jim Carnes, hosted a radio show, "Lee High Beat," at WACR, a white-owned AM radio station, located in the Alley above what is now the Front Door. The station on Sunday mornings opened its studio to black preachers and music acts. 

 

So when Gooch returned to the Alley with recorder in hand, he was returning to a world that was both familiar and strange, a world that he had been a part of, but yet was an outsider to. 

 

To this day Gooch remembers Professor Flynt''s instructions: "He told us to be quiet and let people answer. Let them chase rabbits." 

 

The Kimbrell interviews were only a beginning. Gooch interviewed Keith Guyton, a mail-order tailor who by then had relocated above the Globe Credit Store; Alex Anthony, a black man who was a driver for the notorious Big Jim Cox, a Prairie planter who carried a pearl-handle pistol; James Sykes Jr., a black businessman whose family owned a funeral home and Ed Bush who ran a cafe, pool room, pressing shop and the Queen City Hotel. He interviewed E.J. Stringer, a dentist and civil rights activist, who was once head of the state NAACP.  

 

Those conversations still resonate in Gooch''s mind and to this day, he is able to reconstruct a vivid portrait of that slice of Columbus history. 

 

In the first decades of the 20th century, Gooch reports, the unpaved sidewalks of the Alley could be lined with catfish lying on croaker sacks. Thus the name. 

 

"They would bring the fish up from the river; they would weigh sometimes as much as 50 pounds," he said. 

 

Gooch found in a WPA report and confirmed in his interview with Kimbrell that the original Catfish Alley ran east/west connecting Market Street with Fourth in the middle of the block now considered Catfish Alley. A warehouse at that intersection on Fourth offered cover for card playing, whiskey drinking and, yes, the cooking of catfish. 

 

"Everybody talked about the sights and smells, the smell of people and catfish cooking," said Gooch. "This was before a sanitation code." 

 

The Alley, as late as the 1990s, served as a terminus for country blacks who rode to town crowded in the beds of pickup trucks to work at factory jobs. Seventh Avenue North with its Queen City Hotel, the Savoy Ballroom and bars offered a more sophisticated scene for blacks. 

 

"Country folks would come to town and sleep under their wagons," said Gooch. "Coming to town was a huge thing." 

 

A photo taken by O.N. Pruitt from a perch at the Gilmer Hotel shows crowded sidewalks lining a Main Street shared equally by automobiles and hay-filled horse-drawn wagons. 

 

"There were all kinds of street vendors," said Gooch, "peanuts, trinket salesmen, patent medicines and shoeshine boys and street preachers. You could buy a watermelon for a nickel." 

 

Kimbrell told Gooch about a pickled foot in a jar displayed in an embalmer''s window across the street from his shop and how the embalmer in his apron could be seen eating a goose liver sandwich on the sidewalk between jobs. 

 

Jack Burrage Jr. told him how his father kept a bobcat in his store to keep the mouse population at bay. 

 

He heard stories of an Eight O''May parade from Union Academy to the Alley. May 8th, of course, was celebrated here as Emancipation Day. Around the corner, at the Episcopal Church, white women on that day ate chicken salad. 

 

At one end of the Alley was the Gilmer Hotel, at the other was the Alexandria Hotel. Both were torn down, one to create the motel that bears its name and the other for a parking lot. Tennessee Williams'' first home was a half a block away. 

 

Looking at Catfish Alley today there is scant evidence of its colorful past. Other than Jones Cafe and a liquor store the strip with its renovated storefronts and stylish upstairs apartments looks like much of the rest of downtown. 

 

Fortunately we have photographs and stories such as those collected by Gooch a quarter century ago.  

 

What tales, I wonder, will our children tell of the early years of the 21st century? Try as they might, it will be difficult to to top a mouse-chasing bobcat and sidewalks lined with piles of dripping river catfish. 

 

Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at birney@cdispatch.com.

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.