CLARKSDALE — On the afternoon of Aug. 7, 1961, Vera Mae Pigee and her daughter, Mary Jane, were prepared for the worst: ridicule, jail or even death.
More than a year after the famous sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C., helped spark similar protests against segregation across the United States, Pigee planned a demonstration at the Illinois Central railroad station in downtown Clarksdale with support from the Coahoma County chapter of the NAACP.
Mary Jane, Adrian Beard and Wilma Jones, each members of the NAACP Youth Council that Vera led, attempted to buy a fare to Memphis from the white side of the ticket counter, but the agent refused. When the young activists declined to move out of the white side, he called the police. Within minutes, they all were arrested for intent to breach the peace.
The young activists broke out into freedom songs as they marched toward the police cars, hands cuffed behind their backs. Like the changes in a Blues scale, three voices harmonizing the Mississippi Delta on a Wednesday afternoon marked the beginning of change for civil rights in Clarksdale.
• • •
The Illinois Central sit-in was the first major demonstration of many for Vera Mae Pigee. Through her relentless work with the NAACP, she became one of Clarksdale’s most prominent civil rights activists.
From her beauty shop on Ashton Avenue, she led efforts that helped thousands of African Americans register to vote, organized young people through her leadership of the NAACP’s Youth Council, and coordinated widespread demonstrations to integrate Clarksdale.
But after her death in 2007, Pigee’s already marginalized existence began to fade. Like other women in the civil rights movement, her legacy became a footnote to history.
“Beautiful Agitators,” an original theater production by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and Mississippi Today, is an attempt to explore Pigee’s work and the echoes of her impact in Clarksdale. The production is a part of StoryWorks, CIR’s theater-meets-journalism initiative that pairs journalists with playwrights.
Born and raised in Glendora, 40 minutes southeast of Clarksdale, Pigee was the daughter of two sharecroppers. She took after her mother, Lucy Berry, whom she saw confront both white men and women in an unprecedented manner for the time.
Pigee “would challenge you at every turn regarding civil rights, objectives, the way things were in Clarksdale and how blacks were being treated,” said Jimmy Wiley, a friend and fellow church member. “She had her own way of challenging the system. And of course, it was her challenge of the system that moved things forward.”
Pigee was a reluctant leader in the civil rights movement. She was first elected secretary of the Coahoma County branch of the NAACP in 1955, but wrote in her memoirs that the role was “forced” upon her.
“When I was elected secretary … the only thing I knew about the NAACP was that it is something that is supposed to make these Mississippi white folk act like human beings,” Pigee wrote. “And I want to be a part of that monster.”
As an adviser to the Coahoma County NAACP’s Youth Council, Pigee organized young people and trained other leaders across Mississippi to launch their own chapters. Through these councils, activists led voter registration drives, organized demonstrations against segregation, recruited members for the NAACP and worked to improve living conditions for African Americans in Mississippi.
Central to Pigee’s civil rights work was her beloved business, Pigee’s Beauty Shop. Located at 407 Ashton Ave. in downtown Clarksdale, her shop was far from a typical hair salon; it became a discreet location for local civil rights organizers. She often would give her keys to members of the Youth Council and allow them to sleep or work at the shop when she wasn’t there.
“Many times, she would take the $15 to $20 she made a week and she might give you a dollar or two of her own money,” said Earl Gooden, a Clarksdale resident who knew Pigee. “That’s quite a person.”
Although the beauty shop was a safe haven for local organizers, violence and persecution followed Pigee and Mississippi’s civil rights leaders. Clarksdale was no stranger to attacks from the Ku Klux Klan, “night riders” and radical proponents of segregation.
On June 7, 1963, the homes of both Pigee and civil rights leader Aaron Henry were riddled with bullets in a drive-by shooting. No one was injured. Just a few days later, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed at his home in Jackson.
Despite this adversity, Pigee persisted in her organizing efforts and became an integral piece of Mississippi’s civil rights movement. Her work touched thousands of people in the Delta, paved the way for deeper civic engagement and helped improve conditions for her community in Clarksdale.
More than 50 years later, Clarksdale still has its share of challenges. More than 40 percent of black residents in Coahoma County live below the poverty line, compared with about 11 percent of white residents. The county’s high school graduation rate remains far below the national average. And Clarksdale’s recent mayoral runoff saw racially fueled exchanges between its two leading candidates.
“I’m afraid for our city right now and where we are going,” said Eddie “Smitty” Smith, who participated in Clarksdale’s civil rights movement with Pigee. “As I stand where I stand or as I sit where I sit, I don’t know whether it’s today or yesterday. That means that things, the more they change, the more they are the same.”
Chandra Williams, director of the Crossroads Cultural Arts Center, expressed an urgency and optimism about the ability of the Clarksdale community to come together and address lingering problems of inequality.
“The world needs Clarksdale,” Williams said. “When the bottom rises up, we all rise up. When Clarksdale is healed, the nation will be healed. We feel desperate about the healing that needs to take place here. We have the desire to heal, and when we do, the nation will benefit.”
Nick Houston is a member of the creative team for “Beautiful Agitators,” an original theater production by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and Mississippi Today. The production is a part of StoryWorks, CIR’s theater-meets-journalism initiative that pairs journalists with playwrights.