No. 485
On May 25, 1904, the small delta community of Yazoo City, Mississippi, literally burned to the ground. Only one livery stable, one drug store, and two black churches were left standing in the entire area. At least 3,000 people, almost half of the town's population, were directly affected by the disaster, either as owners, tenants, or employees. As soon as the area had cooled enough for them to draw close, people began to sift through the ashes of their property, making plans to rebuild. With the help and cooperation of the Keystone Lumber Yard and the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, Yazoo City was rebuilt within a year.
The stately buildings that line Main Street today have a continuity that enhances, yet are all different. In 1979, the entire downtown business district and some of the residential area, 174 structures, were placed in the National Register of Historic Places, the largest area then so designated. These same stately buildings serve as a constant reminder to Yazooans, of the spirit of the people of Yazoo. While coming very close to losing everything, the town of Yazoo City was alive and well a year later.
Following the fire there were a lot of rumors about what had started it. No story was more prominent than the story of a mean and ugly woman who lived in carefully guarded seclusion on the banks of the Yazoo River. It was rumored that on stormy nights she would lure fishermen into her house, poison them with arsenic, and bury them in a densely wooded hill nearby. One late afternoon in 1884, a boy named Joe Bob Duggett was passing by her house on a raft when he heard a terrible, ungodly groan from one of the rooms. He tied his raft to a cypress branch and ran to the house and looked through the window.
What he saw chilled his blood and bones. Two dead men were stretched out on the floor of the parlor, and the old woman, wearing a black dress caked with filth and cockleburs, had turned her face up to the ceiling and was singing some dreadful incantation, waving her arms in demented circles all the while. At this point, Joe Bob Duggert ran to his raft, untied it, and raced to tell the sheriff and his men what he had seen. The sheriff quickly arrived at her house, chased the old woman into the swamp where she became mired in quicksand. As she was sinking to her final reward, she pointed her finger at him and said, "Everyone always hated me here. I will break out of my grave and burn down the whole town on the morning of May 25, 1904."
When they buried the old woman in the town cemetery, they placed the heaviest chain they could find - "Some 30 strong and solid links" - around her grave. Twenty years later, the day after the big fire of 1904, several citizens visited her grave. The chain had been broken as if by some supernatural strength - like the old woman who was "half ghost and half scarecrow - but ALL witch!" This legend has been detailed in the book, "Good Old Boy" written by the famous Yazoo City author Willie Morris. Some think it's pure fiction but others quickly point to her grave in Glenwood Cemetery that was there for many years before Willie Morris was born, and also to the chain that has been broken for a long, long time.
Besides Willie Morris, there are many other famous people who hail from this small, historic delta community. They include country comedian Jerry Clower, actress Stella Stevens, former secretary of agriculture Mike Espy, famous train engineer Casey Jones, motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, professional football players Willie Brown and "Gentle" Ben Williams, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and many others. While Yazoo City has a rich and storied past, it also has some modern-day problems as well. These include a very high illiteracy rate, teenage pregnancy, illegal drugs and the almost daily incidents of crime.
These problems are certainly not unique to Yazoo City, or even the delta, because every community in America, to some degree, is also affected by these problems.
The root of the problem is illiteracy, because the educational level of a community determines its quality of life. I was deeply honored on Nov, 4, 2004, when I was invited to speak to the annual Yazoo City Chamber of Commerce banquet. At this meeting we officially kicked off a communitywide Literacy Campaign, sponsored by the Yazoo Herald newspaper. There are many warm and gracious people in Yazoo City and I was privileged to meet some of them. After my speech, I have no doubts that these people know that I care and will work side by side with them, over time, to improve literacy in their community. We are going to encourage parents to start reading to their kids, to teach them respect, manners and courtesy. Simple things that make life better for everyone.
As I drove out of town the next day on Jerry Clower Boulevard, no less, I said to myself, "Witch Way Yazoo?"
(Jim Davidson is a motivational speaker and syndicated columnist. You may contact him at 2 Bentley Drive, Conway, AR 72034.)