Preserving Farish Street: No longer the vibrant hub of African American life but memories and hope remain

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Ma’ati Jone Primm, owner of Marshall’s Music and Bookstore, is photographed in the 600 block of Farish Street Tuesday, July 3, 2018.

The Farish Street Historic District was once a vibrant, economically independent black community — the heart and soul of black Mississippi’s civic cultural life.

Today, when the district, located in downtown Jackson, is talked about, the conversation predictably focuses on its abandoned storefronts and high crime. One capital city mayor even once described repeated unsuccessful efforts to revive the neighborhood as an albatross on the necks of municipal leaders. The most recent efforts to revive the business district remains mired in legal limbo.

It’s true — a stroll along the boulevard reveals a place far from its heyday.

A few family-owned businesses in the historic district exist today. Many more buildings offer only glimmers of light peeking around corners and through windows of tattered buildings. 

Next to the homes that have long occupied the neighborhood are new townhomes an Oxford-based developer built with low-income tax credits provided through a state agency. Whether that development is a sign of progress — or something else — depends on whose door you knock on. 

Despite the high-profile paralysis of the many efforts to convert the Farish Street business district into Jackson’s entertainment district, the district remains home to a dynamic neighborhood full of dedicated people fighting to retain its sense of history and place, fighting to hold it together as a community.

“We are ignored,” said Ma’ati Jone Primm, a community activist and owner of Marshall’s Music and Bookstore, one of the businesses that still operating in the district once known as a mecca for black Mississippians. 

“They give best pieces of real estate to outsiders for the smallest dollar, and construction companies want to tear down 20 or 30 homes at a time. We are about preserving Farish Street.”

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Tony “Dr. Shoemaker” Brothers is photographed outside of his family’s business, Dennis Brothers Shoe Repair Service, in the 300 block of Farish Street in Jackson Wednesday, June 27, 2018. “New Orleans’ Bourbon Street couldn’t compare to Farish Street back in the days, “ said Brothers.

Too much history to leave

“Bourbon Street in New Orleans didn’t have anything on Farish Street back in the days,” said Tony “Dr. Shoemaker” Brothers, who runs his family’s business, Dennis Brothers Shoe Repair Service in the 300 block of Farish Street. “There were so many businesses and so much opportunity.”

Back then, the street was filled with African American doctors, dentists, accountants and merchants because it was the place the white political leadership allowed black professionals to operate. Medgar Evers, when he served as NAACP field secretary, kept an office above the Big Apple Inn, which today is the last surviving establishment of the Farish Street glory days.

Although Farish Street is all but empty during the day, flashes of light from each end of Farish Street brightens the night sky until the early hours of the morning.

F. Jones Corner and Johnny T’s Bistro & Blues are pillars of the social scene for Jacksonians, tourists and residents of the Farish Street Historic District. F. Jones Corner opened in 2009 and Johnny T’s Bistro opened in 2015. These businesses are reminiscent of the early juke joints that helped vitalize Farish at night. Today, they bring life to the street after the sun sets.

But other, more personal, forms of history and memory also bond the residents of the Farish Street district.

For example, Marilyn Martin, 53, has lived in the District for nearly 20 years. Martin’s Davis Street home isn’t just a place to lay her head a night, she said, but also a place of refuge where she holds memories close to her heart. In the past eight years, she has experienced her husband’s losing battle with stomach cancer in 2016 and mourned the death of her only son who was murdered near their home in 2010. This summer, Martin’s nephew, who had recently moved in with her from California, was murdered in Jackson.

Martin is honest about the neighborhood’s challenges. She points to an abandoned house next door, an eyesore she wants torn down. She has made several complaints to the city about the issue and received assurances that the house would be demolished, but no action has been taken.

In the meantime, she plans to keep complaining to the city until the house is gone in hopes of one day being able to host birthday parties and other events outside.  Moving somewhere else, she says, is not an option.

“I have too much history here to leave my home,” said Martin. “You can’t pay me to leave.”

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Douglas Smith sits in the 500 block of Farish Street in Jackson Friday, June 29, 2018. Smith grew up in the Farish Street Historic District.

Fighting for survival 

Mississippi Today visited Farish Street to interview residents and shopkeepers in late June and early July.

Lee Eric Evans, 26, offered a unique perspective on life in the district having only lived there with his aunt, Marilyn Martin, for a few weeks. Evans said he came to Mississippi for the slower pace of life and to escape violence in Inglewood, Calif.

“Inglewood is known for crime, but I didn’t think Jackson would be worse,” Evans told me.

Not long after that conversation, Evans was fatally shot about two miles from his home. Jackson has experienced a spike in homicides this year, even though the number of overall major crimes has been on a downward trajectory for years.

Nonetheless, Evans’ comments reflect a commonly held perception about an unwieldy crime problem in the capital city.

On July 12, James Davis, the city’s new interim police chief, along with other officers, led a conversation about crime to a group of about 17 citizens at a community meeting for Jackson Police Department’s Precinct 2, which covers west Jackson, including the Farish Street neighborhood.

“We are committed to serving you all — that’s what we signed up to do,” Davis said. “However, for us to serve you, you have to get involved with what’s going on in your community.”

Davis went on: “I’m looking to tap into all entities of our community, put our heads together, come together, and unify to address our crime issues and it takes everyone to do so. It takes the churches, businesses, convenient stores, apartment complexes and neighborhood associations coming together.”

But it’s people like Vernon Hartley, who attended the Precinct 2 meeting and said he cuts the grass of overgrown lots in his neighborhood, or Marilyn Martin keeping the pressure on city officials to clean up blight or Ma’ati Primm sounding the alarm about the creep of gentrification doing just that — coming together — to hold the Farish Street neighborhood together.

So far, they think, they see success.

Said Primm: “I am amazed that we are still able to withstand.”