Hey y’all, Colleen here. I created both Shared Experiences USA and Visit Clarksdale's VoiceMap tour to share our community’s voices; I’d intended to let them speak for themselves without sharing my own. So far I’ve hesitated to spread this “Vote for Clarksdale” message because idk, it felt a little internet-silly — who’s to judge which town is “most historic”?
(See below for video on the online public voting for USA Today's title of "Most Historic Small Town in America.")
But here I sit in Silicon Valley, playing VoiceMap clips to someone on the other side of the country, thinking by golly it IS historic. And Clarksdale is special.
Clarksdale isn’t rich only in the civil rights or blues histories you’d expect — it’s ALL of it. When I tell people how elements of Tennessee Williams’ plays are based upon so many stories and “characters” he grew up with here, the easiest way to describe it is “like discovering Lake Wobegon actually exists — and you can still go there.” The Chatterbox Café is real; here, come have a seat.
If you haven’t taken our Visit Clarksdale VoiceMap tour yet, here's an abridged mp3:
If you could walk it all in person, here’s what you’d hear:
You’d hear the voices of a town, over 20 people walking you through space and time. You’d start quite literally at Ground Zero (formerly a cotton grading facility; now a famous blues club). In less than a block you’d be standing at Crossroads, hearing director Chandra Williams and Cat Head’s Roger Stolle elucidate music and the Delta itself as a crossroads of histories; you’d hear how the blues traveled here through the voices of those who sang it, through slavery and sharecropping. Then you’d walk farther, through the mounds of the first Native American Mississippians; the immigrant communities that followed; the Civil War and Reconstruction. As Quapaw’s Mark River reminds us, it’s complex history. Sitting in the storied Clark House library recording Vicky Espy’s stories, I did a mental double-take while she recounted the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments granting civil rights and “equal protection under the law.” Wait, was she talking about the 1870’s or 1970’s? In creating this walk through Clarksdale, I began connecting the fragments of history I’d left forgotten in textbooks long ago.
Poll taxes: remember what those were? I barely did. Yet as Mrs. Espy described them, I heard echoes of news today. And as Paul Pearson recounted Mr. Solomon paying his granddaddy’s poll tax, it brought intersections alive: that Jewish man in Mississippi not long after WWII, paying his neighbors’ taxes, black and white, so that they might vote. As Trevon Boulton and other Griot Arts teenagers recorded narration for this tour, he turned 18. Before we stepped into the studio, he told us with a grin: he’d already registered to vote.
Trevon & Griot students interviewing Bubba O’Keefe in the historic WROX studio | March 2019 | (c) Shared Experiences USA
If you could take their tour, you’d hear more than a dead people’s history. In the poorest part of the poorest state in the country, where you can hear live blues 365 nights a year — you’d come to understand why ours isn’t entirely a sad history either.
We weave past with present, with a recent history of revitalization, peeling back layers of where we came from, to explain where you stand today. We show you single buildings embodying change: Delta Hardware now appears empty, but you’ll see it as a Native mound, then church, then hardware store, then blues album cover. Next? That’s a chapter yet to be written.
One of our voices is Bill Sutton, a former history teacher now working with Habitat for Humanity, putting history’s lessons into action. He provides context behind racial and economic complexities, beginning with the textbook history you’d expect, and ending with the rich fabric of work happening here today.
It’s unusual, traversing BOTH sides of the tracks. Figuratively and literally. In a way tourists don’t often do. In a way we ourselves don’t often do. We’re sharing histories that aren’t always spoken. Personal, Green Book stories — IRL, in people’s own words. Black and white, separately and together. It’s history, but it’s also history-in-the-making, painful and beautiful conversations across time and generations, crossing the tracks in Clarksdale now.
This kaleidoscope of voices, the Silicon Valley geek told me, is walking audio “augmented reality.” It’s history laid out in space, a literal walk through it. It’s a newfangled technology, this GPS-enabled app — doing what Chandra reminds us is ancient tradition, telling our stories.
It’s built for earbud nation. But it’s the teenagers who conclude by telling you “it is the people who make this place special — so put your phone down, go out, and meet them.”
FOX13 Memphis on USA Today's open voting for Most Historic Small Town in America
Why share all this with you now? Because this USA Today voting business, and this VoiceMap experience, highlights for me how we speak often and easily of Delta blues history — but there are so many histories woven through our tiny town.
Because we’re now sharing these stories; changing them; and creating new stories, together.
This isn’t the kind of voting I’ve been thinking about in the USA, today.
Sure, it’s kinda internet-silly. Those other towns probably have nuanced histories and poignant stories, too; I don’t know them. But I do know Clarksdale — and in connecting its histories, have come to better understand our country’s.
Whether you’ve toured or shared your own history through VoiceMap, shared your experience, or been living and shaping our history daily: thanks for sharing Clarksdale with the world.
UPDATE: We won, I guess? Clarksdale was voted the 4th Most Historic Small Town in America.