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CLARKSDALE – In hopes of revitalizing the downtown area while also attracting tourists, a new branding project commemorates the lives of those influenced by the arts and culture of this town.
This three-phase project aims to market downtown as an arts and culture district by dedicating signs, memorials, and paintings to musicians, artists, leaders, educators, athletes and more who “are either from Clarksdale, came to or through Clarksdale, or was significantly influenced by the essence of Clarksdale’s arts and culture,” said Richard Bolen, Clarksdale native and creator of the project.
“Without a doubt, Clarksdale is home to more talented musicians, artists, writers, civil rights activists, businessmen, humanitarians, and just exquisitely interesting personalities than just about anywhere,” said Jon Levingston, Clarksdale native and businessman.
“Richard Bolen’s idea to create displays which feature the image of many of these people and their stories will create a unique look to our community,” Levingston said. “They celebrate our homegrown talent and they remind us of how special our community and its people are.”
The first phase of the project consists of 28 x 32 signs featuring original art of each honoree.
These signs have begun being mounted this week on empty poles on Sunflower Avenue, Delta Avenue, Yazoo Avenue, Issaquena Avenue, Sharkey Avenue, 2nd Street, 3rd Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
They will be mounted low enough for tourists and locals to easily see. To learn more about the honorees, there will be separate signs placed in businesses window fronts that will link directly to the new city website, said Bolen.
Memorials – 10 x 5 feet silhouettes cut out of industrial aluminum – include Elvis Presley, the Rock ‘N Roll legend, Dr. Aaron E. Henry, a prominent civil rights activist here, and Pinetop Perkins, a well-known blues pianist. The paintings are also a part of some of the memorials, but most memorials are silhouettes. Paintings also include murals. These are scheduled to debut at a later time.
The late Vera Mae Pigee, civil rights activist, leader, and beauty shop owner, will be among those who are being honored. Pigee was instrumental in registering thousands of African Americans to vote and also organized boycotts and demonstrations.
Pigee also served as secretary of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County branch of the NAACP, advisor to the Coahoma County Youth Council, and a multitude of others local civic work.
Last month, four local playwrights, Jessica James, Nick Houston, Charles Coleman, and Aallyah Wright (reporter for Mississippi Today), brought Pigee’s story to life by creating “Beautiful Agitators”, a play that portrayed Pigee’s involvement during the civil rights movement in Clarksdale during that time and how much activity took place in her beauty shop.
This original production was from StoryWorks – a project of Reveal from the Center for Investigative reporting – and co-sponsored by Mississippi Today.
NFL player and Clarksdale native, Mario Haggan, will be featured downtown, too. Haggan said he received a phone call from Dwan Brown, advisor to newly elected mayor, Chuck Espy, relaying the news that he would be honored with his own sign.
“I am still kind of floored by it. I am really humbled by it,” Haggan said in a phone conversation with Mississippi Today. “It’s really not about me. It’s about my kids. They get to see it when they come home.”
After receiving the news, Haggan said he called his mother and her reaction added confirmation of what he has accomplished so far, but shows how much more he can. He said that this shows the community they can achieve anything they want.
Haggan started his football career at Clarksdale High School then took his talents to Mississippi State University. Haggan went on to play 10 seasons in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, and St. Louis Rams.
“I hope the community realizes no matter the history or things that have happened, both good and bad, around our city, around our state, there are good people standing around you every day. And if you have a goal in mind and you have an opportunity, take it because you never know what will happen,” said Haggan.
Haggan noted that the late Blues legend Big Jack Johnson, Super Chikan and Blac Elvis, are all relatives of his and will also have their own displays.
“For all of us to be hanging on flags in the city… That’s all pretty cool and pretty neat in my mind,” Haggan said.
Longtime educator and advisor to youth here, Mrs. Josephine Rhymes was in total shock when learning about her tribute. She said she is forever grateful, but she doesn’t understand why she was chosen.
“It’s not like I want notoriety for it,” she said in a telephone interview. “This is all just too much for me. I just want to do what I do and go sit down somewhere,” she chuckled.
Rhymes wasn’t born in Clarksdale, but she’s been living here for more than 20 years, dedicating her life to empowering youth in many aspects.
Rhymes serves as the executive director for the Tri-County Workforce Alliance, where she helps youth and unemployed individuals obtain jobs and the education necessary to find work.
“I’m just doing what I would normally do and that is make life better for those who I can help,” she said. “I just want to reemphasize that if there is something that someone needs and I can provide that need then I am willing to do it.”
She said the signs can serve as an inspiration for those who don’t think they’re making a difference.
“You don’t have to be anyone great to help the community,” said Rhymes. “It’s the little things.”
A few months back, Nickalus Jones, a former Clarksdale High School student, produced a documentary on Rhymes that showcased how she has helped to revitalize Clarksdale by helping the youth.
At this point, there are about 65 signs, and that number won’t increase for a while, said Bolen.
Other honorees for the signs include: Blues and Rock ‘N Roll legends like Gus Cannon, Bessie Smith, Conway Twitty, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson and Ike Turner.
Former mayor Bill Luckett and his administration approved this project, but it is being executed by Espy and his new administration. Bolen said he has gotten financial support for the project from the city, county and private investors.
Almost two years ago when Bolen first introduced the project, his focus was on music, culture with a focus on civil rights, and athletes. The purpose of the project, said Bolen, was to have a visual attraction in the downtown area, so tourists can become social media advocates by marketing the town for free and attracting more people here.
But now, the vision has extended beyond that due to an acknowledgement of what he calls a “new” audience. Hip-Hop artists such as Rick Ross and Nate Dogg were added to the list.
On July 21, there was a public showing of 33 signs, currently increased to 56. A few days after the showing, Dwan Brown, Espy’s advisor and former campaign manager, posted images of the four signs of four football players: Terrence Metcalf, Trumaine McBride, Charley Conerly, and Haggan.
That post received 702 likes, 138 shares, and 76 comments; many commenters were African-Americans.
Bolen said once he saw this, it exposed him to an audience he knew was there but he never had any insight to or had any connection with.
He added that African Americans have been unheard and have felt unheard for so long in the community and now, they have a chance to be heard through this project. They were suggesting people who should be honored and Bolen said they used some of their suggestions.
Those suggestions included: Darren “Dapoo” Williams; Destry Wright, former player for Pittsburgh Steelers; Earl Barron, former player of various NBA teams; and Tony Bennett, former player for the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts.
Dr. Peggy Wells, first African-American pediatrician in the town; Pulitzer prize winning playwright Tennessee Williams; Henry Espy, first African American mayor of the town, and Luckett are all on the list.
Others include: Chase Bailey, a student from Lee Academy, who lost his life to cancer in 2015 along with Dayeveon Hill, a Clarksdale High student, who lost his life to gun violence in February.
The last Democratic primary election exposed a new audience that in turn added a new dimension to his project, and without Brown’s understanding of social media, that connection wouldn’t have happen, said Bolen.
This project is not just for the sake of tourism, attracting African Americans, or economic development, but its also for the sake of social development and equal rights, said Bolen, which he noted might be more important than anything else.
“This is the beginning about what is going to become the bridge to expose the rest of it, to find common ground, to put other people in downtown Clarksdale that aren’t in downtown Clarksdale and help revive this community,” said Bolen.