Hollywood, Harvard and the blues collide in Greenwood, Miss.
At first glance, Greenwood, Miss., is the prototypical small Southern town with its stately homes and majestic live oaks juxtaposed with rundown shacks and struggling poor.
It hardly stands alone as a Southern town with a checkered racial past that made it a flashpoint during the Civil Rights Movement. But it is one of the few such communities that is able to wrap its arms around its past while at the same time pulling itself forward.
Lately it’s had plenty of help doing that … literally. In 2010, Greenwood hosted the vast majority of the shooting for “The Help,” which has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Among those who will be watching the Feb. 26 awards show closely is Rocky Powers, who leads The Fuller Center for Housing of Greenwood/Leflore, which is among the groups leading the town’s resurgence.
“If you have not seen it, you need to see it,” said Powers, who can remember the days of segregation both bluntly and humorously presented in the film based upon the book about black servants in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it won all the Oscars it’s nominated for because it’s really good.”
“The movie was wonderful,” Greenwood Mayor Carolyn McAdams agreed. “They took a rather controversial issue and eloquently displayed the movie. The great thing about the movie to me was this movie mirrored the book (by Kathryn Stockett), and that part I truly loved.”
While the filming of the movie brought attention to the area’s past and present, it also laid the foundation for the Greenwood area to improve its future, particularly in the impoverished neighborhood known as Baptist Town. Not only did the movie’s filming boost the local economy, but a premiere attended by the film’s stars and producers in Madison, Miss., raised about $150,000, all of which was designated to improve the Baptist Town community.
The Fuller Center and a group of Harvard Kennedy School students are among those instrumental in putting that money and other resources to use in Baptist Town.
“They’ve got a lot of good ideas, but they can’t get enough people to follow through,” Powers said of the many people concerned about Baptist Town. “But these kids from Harvard are following through.”
THE HARVARD CONNECTION
The Harvard group followed through as recently as last month, when they teamed with The Fuller Center to help rebuild a front porch for a Baptist Town resident, Marie Reed, who merely wanted to be able to sit outside her home once again.
“She said if she could just get that fixed she could sit out there in the summer time and enjoy being outside,” Powers said. “So we had enough materials in our warehouse to give them all the stuff that they needed. So all they needed was their labor. And they found a friend of the lady who was a professional carpenter, and he took them on and they did it. They did it in a couple of days.”
The project was just the latest undertaking by the Community Development Project, founded a little more than three years ago by a couple of Harvard Kennedy School students who had worked in the Mississippi Delta.
“They had partnered with the mayor at the time (Sheriel Perkins), who had asked them to go to Baptist Town and see if they could talk to residents and see if there was any sort of movement for working together,” said the CDP’s James Solomon, a 27-year-old working on his master’s in public policy at the Kennedy School. “After the initial conversations, they decided that there was. And since that time we’ve been able to see both a lot of challenges in Baptist Town but also a lot of capacity with the residents and people there, so we think it’s a good partnership.”
“They’re a driving force for us,” McAdams said of the students. “It’s such an objective point of view for us. We see this every day, but they come in and they see it through a different lens. They just kind of take these projects on.”
“James is a real sharp guy,” Powers said. “It doesn’t make a difference whether it’s cold, hot, raining or whatever, they come down here on their own, pay all their expenses.”
“Mr. Powers has been great,” Solomon said. “He’s been really supportive, though he probably got tired of how many times I was calling him and his wife (Elizabeth). But we couldn’t be more thankful for his commitment.”
That commitment, plus the model of offering a hand up rather than a handout, makes The Fuller Center a good fit for the Harvard group.
“The model of helping people help themselves instead of just getting a handout is the exact right way to do it,” said Solomon, who in addition to his studies at the Kennedy School works with the City of Boston to help its snow removal department operate efficiently. “If somebody just gets a handout, there might not be any sort of follow-through. We think that The Fuller Center model of really having the residents work on improving their own housing really ensures more sustainability.
“In this case, we had a couple of residents really helping us,” he added. “There was a guy overseeing us, a guy responsible for construction, and Ms. Marie had her son and her grandson help out. To me, it’s a great model, and we’re really thankful for Mr. Powers’ working with us.”
Of course, what the students take away from working in Baptist Town goes far beyond gaining real-world experience and padding resumes.
“Ms. Marie’s grandson was telling us that she worked three jobs for about 30 years and was retired on a fixed income, so she didn’t have the kind of capital to do these sort of improvements on her own,” Solomon said. “But she’s a really wonderful woman and very, very sweet.”
BAPTIST TOWN AND THE BLUES
Baptist Town looks like the kind of place where the Delta Blues would have been born. That’s exactly what it is. It was a haven for early blues artists, especially the local Three Forks juke joint. Artists such as Mississippi John Hurt, Honeyboy Edwards, Betty Everett, Guitar Slim Jones, Denise LaSalle and many others spent time in Greenwood or made it their home.
But the blues man most associated with Greenwood is the legendary Robert Johnson, the man who legend has it sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in Clarksdale, Miss., to gain his guitar skills. He lived just 27 years before the Devil supposedly came to collect his payment — in Baptist Town. The 1986 posthumous inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was supposedly poisoned at the Three Forks juke joint and died a few days later on Aug. 16, 1938, at the age of 27.
No one is certain exactly where Johnson is buried. There are burial markers in Quito, Miss., and nearby Morgan City, but most believe he is likely buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave near the place where he was allegedly poisoned. A third burial marker now stands in Greenwood.
“Not many people are buried in three places,” said McAdams, who believes the site is in Baptist Town. “It’s where the blues was born.”
Unfortunately, many of the homes in Baptist Town look as though they haven’t been touched since Robert Johnson plucked his last bluesy guitar string.
“They’ve got blues markers, and it’s a tourist attraction. But it’s a terrible section of town for housing,” Powers said.
“It’s got a lot of history and a lot of shotgun, row-type of houses,” McAdams added. “It’s a small, little area. The streets are small. It’s nestled in there between two railroad tracks. But we’re trying to revitalize that area and put affordable housing in there.”
That revitalization includes Fuller Center Greater Blessing projects such as the one at Marie Reed’s home. It also includes the use of cottages that were first intended for use along the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
“We were given about 27 Katrina cottages by MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency), offering it first to the Baptist Town community and second to those who ever lived in Baptist Town and thirdly at large to those in the community who wish to move there,” McAdams said. “The Fuller Center put one of the first Katrina cottages in there. We were hoping (the city) would be the first. They beat us to the punch, but that’s great. They put one on College Street, and it looks fantastic.”
While the City of Greenwood is looking to use its cottages through the Greenwood Housing Authority, McAdams doesn’t mind being beaten to the punch, especially by someone named Rocky.
“I love The Fuller Center. I think they do just phenomenal work here in Greenwood,” she said. “I think it shows that you’ve got a great leader in Rocky Powers. He’s doing an excellent job with The Fuller Center here. We’re glad to have them. We actually wrote our contract to where if we can’t use all these Katrina cottages, then we can partner with them and see how they can best use them.”
‘THE HELP’ CONTINUES TO HELP
The filming of the Oscar-nominated “The Help” in 2010 brought all the economic boost one would expect in a town of 15,000 residents hosting a major movie production, pumping an estimated $12 million into the local economy and pushing sales tax revenues higher at a time other Mississippi cities’ coffers were dwindling. But the impact of the filming is measured in more than dollars and numbers.
“I definitely think that the movie has really focused a lot of attention on Baptist Town,” Solomon said. “A lot of the residents got really energized by getting to work on the movie and getting to film it. And the folks from Dreamworks have been really wonderful in their commitment to Baptist Town. They’re sort of putting their money where their mouth is, and I think that’s really brought people together. The movie has definitely served as a catalyst to get people in Baptist Town more excited about improving their community and get other people to work together and make it a better place.”
“It continues to help because now it’s giving us global recognition,” McAdams said. “It’s being shown in Britain now and is just getting great reviews. And then being Oscar-nomination material, that’s given us even greater recognition. People have come from everywhere to see the actual filming locations. The impact was just enormous to our town.”
But Powers sees the lasting effects of hosting the movie’s filming in ways few others do — in the Greenwood/Leflore Fuller Center’s storage sheds.
“I knew a man who worked as a builder on the inside sets where they did the shooting, and they had tons of lumber and stuff like that,” Powers said. “And they put all that stuff together with screws so that they could take it apart without tearing it up. When the filming was over, I said, ‘Why don’t y’all take this with you?’ They said, ‘We don’t know when we’re gonna make another movie, and we don’t wanna haul this stuff back to California. So if you can use it, we’ll just give it to you. Come get it.’ … We wound up with a tractor-trailer load of leftover scrap.”
That just gives Powers more inspiration to root for “The Help” to win an Oscar for Best Picture, Viola Davis to win for Best Actress and for Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer, who are both nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
Greenwood already has one connection to the Oscars. Morgan Freeman, who has been nominated for acting awards five times and won Best Supporting Actor in 2005 for “Million Dollar Baby,” spent his youth in Baptist Town, graduating in 1955 from Broad Street High School, which is now Threadgill Elementary School. Still one of Hollywood’s biggest actors, he owns a blues club in Clarksdale, Miss., near the crossroads where the legendary blues transaction with the Devil went down.
While Robert Johnson’s soul may not rest so easy these days, The Fuller Center of Greenwood/LeFlore may finally be able to lay the blues to rest in Baptist Town.
All they ever needed was a little “Help” — from Hollywood, Harvard and a legend of the blues.
Click here to see the official trailer for "The Help".
Click the video below for one of blues legend Robert Johnson’s songs, "Love in Vain."
Loved both the book and the movie. How wonderful the lumber from the sets can be put to good use in Baptist Town. I knew Morgan Freeman is from Mississippi but didn’t know he grew up in Greenwood. About 20 years ago, I was seated next to Morgan Freeman at a Golden Plate Award dinner being held at Jackson Hole, WY. I chatted with the person to my right and then turning to the gentleman on my left to introduce myself. Our eyes met and after I spoke my name he just looked at me without saying a word. "And you are…?" With a twinkle in his eye and in a deep voice, "You don’t know who I am?" After too many embarrassing seconds, "Did you see the movie ‘Driving Miss Daisy?" I responded, "Why I sure did". "Well", he said, "I was the one driving Miss Daisy." If I could have slid under the table and stayed there I would have. He started laughing because he was amused that I didn’t recognize him. Those years of raising 4 kids and growing Habitat didn’t allow much time for viewing films. As it turned out, we had a nice chat and that’s when I found out that he grew up in Mississippi. I told him that I grew up right next door in Alabama. But back in the 50s, just as in The Help, those states were side by side but races were not. All the best to Fuller Center work in Greenwood!