Based on interviews, research and reporting by young journalists in Clarksdale, “Beautiful Agitators” is an original play that will explore the history of Vera Mae Pigee’s activism and the legacy that her work left behind.
The Delta Center at Delta State and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area partnered with Visit Mississippi to promote cultural heritage tourism to the region and state at the 2018 Chicago Blues Festival.
A couple of months ago, while searching for materials for our summer 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities “Most Southern Place on Earth” workshops, Lee Aylward, The Delta Center’s resident maven of marvelous storytelling, happened upon a mysterious white box tucked away in the corner of our storage room in Ewing Hall.
“Though I did not recall seeing it there before, it looked oddly familiar to me,” said Lee, in her signature honeyed Southern drawl. “Something told me to pick it up and bring it downstairs to the office.”
Lee and I soon discovered why the box looked so familiar to her: inside was a treasure trove of compact discs (you know, those shiny silver round plastic things that were once considered cutting-edge audio and data storage devices) from the early 2000’s, around the time that Lee started volunteering with The Delta Center as an oral history transcriber. The discs contain a plethora of Mississippi Delta voices waiting to be uploaded and shared with a brave new online world. Among those voices is a particularly iconic one: the late Willie Seaberry, better known as Po’ Monkey, proud proprietor of the legendary jook joint Po’ Monkey’s Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi.
Willie Seaberry passed away in July 2016 on a Thursday night, known as “Family Night,” a special time when locals and tourists from around the country and the world would gather at the storied establishment. As is tradition, that particular Thursday, we were taking a group of NEH “Most Southern” workshop participants and Robertson Scholars from Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill to experience the heart and soul of America’s last known rural jook house. The Delta Blues scene has not been quite the same since his unexpected passing.
Below is a transcript of a January 2003 interview with Willie Seaberry conducted by Dr. Luther Brown, the retired Founding Director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning, and his colleague, the late Dr. Henry Outlaw who passed away in February 2015. Lee, who has been with The Delta Center nearly as long as it has been in existence, often tells visiting groups that The Delta Center was started in the year 2000 to “give the people of the Delta back their heritage.”
In keeping with that fundamental value, it made perfect sense to assign the task of transcribing the interview to Keith Johnson, a Mississippi Delta native who is the grand-nephew of Muddy Waters and also is a rising young Blues musician in his own right, being a recent winner of the Vicksburg Blues Challenge. Keith is a graduate assistant with the International Delta Blues Project which is housed in The Delta Center. Will Jacks, a visionary Mississippi Delta native photographer and Delta State University faculty member, also advised on the transcription process, as Keith wanted to create a video synopsis of the interview that could appeal to fellow Millennials. Will’s book on Po’ Monkey’s is being published by University of Mississippi Press soon – be sure to check out his photo essay published in Mississippi Arts Commission’s Mississippi Folklife about it.
As the old saying goes, no one works alone. That was the case with The Delta Center then as it is now. Dr. Brown worked with Willie Seaberry and Dr. Outlaw on this interview. He also engaged photographer Kathleen Robbins, a faculty member in Delta State’s art department at the time, and Suli Yi, a journalist at Voice for America, to capture images and video before the interview was conducted. Kathleen and Suli’s artful contributions are featured in Dr. Brown’s essay “Inside Poor Monkey’s” published by the journal Southern Spaces in 2006.
I shared the interview transcript with Dr. Brown before it was posted here. This was his response:
I had forgotten that Monkey was so talkative this time. We tried interviewing him a couple of other times and he just wouldn’t talk to the tape recorder. Several things did come out of this interview, but we never completed the multi-author article. I believe Kathleen left DSU [Delta State University] and took another job shortly after the interview, and we just never got back to the project. I wrote an article for Southern Spaces – better check the date though because I don’t remember if it was before or after the interview. We did produce the posters featuring Kathleen’s photos. Those photos are talked about in the interview, and it sounds like they were taken just prior.
We also succeeded in getting a Blues Trail historic marker for [Po’] Monkey’s, and the planning for that would have begun around the interview time, although installation might have been later. In any case, that marker was one of the first set of markers, so it was installed not too long after this interview. We also got 2003 declared the Year of the Blues in Mississippi, by Governor Musgrove, who is also mentioned in the interview. I think we took him to Monkey’s after he came over to our house for dinner, when we discussed him proclaiming the Year of the Blues.
Another consequence of this interview is that the Bolivar County Supervisors did change the name of the road to “Po’ Monkey’s Road.” They also then paved a bit of the road on the west side of Monkey’s so that tour buses could come (many bus companies refused to drive on unpaved roads). There were once road signs, but so many of them were stolen that the County stopped putting them up. The [Delta] Center produced metal road signs and sold them to visitors at one time.
Dr. Brown also shared with me that this recording was not meant to be treated as an oral history. He said it is “more like a fact finding interview that we were using in preparation for writing and talking about Monkey and his Lounge.”
It is in this spirit that The Delta Center makes this rare recording available to the general public, particularly for researchers, writers, Blues enthusiasts, students, music and cultural critics, fans of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, and anyone else who may be searching for something that might have seemed lost but was there all along, waiting to be discovered and shared.
Yes, this is for you – for all of you: the found voice of Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry.
- Dr. Rolando Herts, Director, The Delta Center for Culture and Learning
Monday, May 22, 2017
Editor’s Note: How the Smithsonian, National Park Service, and National Heritage Areas tell stories together
During the Alliance of National Heritage Areas (ANHA) Annual Meeting in February 2017, I had the honor of working with Brandi Roberts, Executive Director of Great Basin National Heritage Area (Nevada) Sara Capen, Executive Director of Niagara Falls National Heritage Area (New York) to organize a special ANHA tour of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. The tour was arranged in collaboration with Smithsonian Ambassador Mossi Tull and the museum's education division.
National Heritage Areas are cultural heritage partnerships with the National Park Service. The Smithsonian NMAAHC features exhibits that relate to many National Heritage Area stories, including the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area and the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which spans Lowcountry coastal communities shared by four states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
The following is a powerful reflective essay written by Dr. Emily Moore who experienced the tour with her husband, Dr. Herman Blake, Executive Director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Dr. Moore’s personal account poignantly illustrates the enduring historical and cultural significance of a 1955 Mississippi Delta story that still resonates with 21st century America: the lynching of African American teenager Emmett Till, an international tragedy widely cited as the “spark that lit the fuse” of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
- Rolando Herts, Ph.D., The Delta Center for Culture and Learning and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area
We were thrilled when NPR's Melissa Block contacted us recently to help with stories she was creating for her Our Land series. She wanted to find stories in the Delta that weren't the typical fare. It was an honor to assist her in finding those topics.
Melissa visited the region at during early March, and the series aired not long after. If you haven't had a chance to listen yet, please visit the links below. We think you'll enjoy what she created.
The Legacy Of The Mississippi Delta Chinese
A Night At Red's Juke Joint in The Mississippi Delta Is A True Blues Experience
Here's What's Become Of A Historic All-Black Town In the Mississippi Delta
River Guide Wants People To Paddle The Mighty Mississippi, Not Fear It
Delta State University is proud to announce the creation of the International Blues Scholars Program, a global online certificate program that is part of the International Delta Blues Project housed in the Delta Center for Culture and Learning. This multi-disciplinary approach to the study of the Blues includes not only in-depth examination of the musical form, but also a scholarly lens on its influence in art, literature, history, and economic development.
Registration for the program is currently open and will last until April 15. Tuition assistance is available for qualifying students.
The International Blues Scholars Program is an online academic certificate program available to students all over the world. Students may register for up to 12 hours of graduate or undergraduate level courses. Those completing all 12 hours will receive a Certificate of Completion from Delta State University.
Courses offered this summer include Sociology of the Blues, taught by acclaimed Blues scholar Scott Barretta who was recently awarded the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts for Mississippi Heritage, and Psychology of Hip Hop and the Blues, lead by Delta State professor Temika Simmons, a recent recipient of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning's Award for Excellence in Diversity. Additional courses are History of Rock n Roll, Blues Literature, and Modern American History: History of the 20th Century South.
By special invitation, Dr. Rolando Herts, director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State, recently attended “In Pursuit of the Creative Life: The Future of Arts and Creativity in America.” The event was hosted by the National Endowment for the Arts and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.
Over 200 artists, industry leaders, educators, scientists, and civic leaders from across the country attended the day-long convening at The Kennedy Center. Participants developed ideas and strategies to enhance America’s creative infrastructure for the future toward making the arts and creative opportunities more accessible to all Americans.
“This event provided opportunities for interdisciplinary idea exchanges in strategic issue areas like economics, technology, and cultivating creative talent,” said Herts. “Our discussions will enhance The Delta Center’s community-engaged programs like the International Delta Blues Project and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area that connect arts, culture, the creative economy, and people in our region.”
The convening featured keynote speaker Questlove, GRAMMY Award-winning founding member of The Roots and musical director for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” in a moderated discussion with National Public Radio media critic, Eric Deggans. Facilitated working group discussions were framed by expert panel sessions on how to help creative people and communities thrive now and in the future.
Support for the event was provided by the Ford Foundation, Heinz Endowments, The Henry Luce Foundation, McKnight Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and Walton Family Foundation.
Travel supplements for invited entities like The Delta Center were provided by South Arts. South Arts is a nine-state regional arts organization based in Atlanta that provides grants, programs and services to artists and arts organizations in the southern United States.
At the invitation of the Mississippi Humanities Council, The Delta Center at Delta State University hosted National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman William “Bro” Adams during his recent visit to the Mississippi Delta region. The Delta Center is the home of “The Most Southern Place on Earth” workshops for K-12 educators from throughout the U.S. The “Most Southern” workshops are funded by the NEH.
This was Chairman Adams’ first time ever visiting the Mississippi Delta and the state of Mississippi.
"It's really very powerful being here," said Chairman Adams. "Seeing all of the young people in Ruleville celebrating the birthday of Fannie Lou Hamer, that was extremely impactful and shows how much this kind of work matters."
“We are honored that the Mississippi Humanities Council brought Chairman Adams to The Delta Center so that he could learn more about our ‘Most Southern’ workshops and our region,” said Dr. Rolando Herts, director of The Delta Center. “This was an excellent opportunity for him, us, and our community stakeholders to participate in an educational exchange about the historical and cultural significance of the Mississippi Delta.”
Chairman Adams started his morning at The Delta Center speaking with Dr. Herts and Lee Aylward about the “Most Southern” workshops of The Delta Center and how they have created an alumni network of over 500 K-12 educators across the country. These Mississippi Delta ambassadors educate their students, colleagues, family members, and friends about the culture and history of the Mississippi Delta. They also have returned to the region as education and cultural heritage tourists.
Chairman Adams also learned about The Delta Center’s other partnership programs, including the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area and the International Delta Blues Project.
After visiting The Delta Center, Chairman Adams was taken to various educational landmarks and cultural attractions that are featured in the NEH workshops. Stops included Dockery Farms, widely considered to be the birthplace of the Blues; the Taborian Hospital and IT Montgomery Home in the historic black town of Mound Bayou; and Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Park in Ruleville, where community members celebrated the 99th birthday of the legendary voting rights activist.
“We thank The Delta Center for taking the Chairman around the Delta on a Saturday morning,” said Dr. Stuart Rockoff, Executive Director of the Mississippi Humanities Council. “Bro had an incredible day and was very inspired by what he experienced. The Delta Center provided a perfect start to a memorable day in the Delta. We are lucky to have such wonderful guides to the ‘Most Southern Place on Earth!’”
The morning wrapped up with an authentic Delta soul food experience at The Senator’s Place in Cleveland. The traveling group was joined by President Bill LaForge and Provost Charles McAdams of Delta State, as well as Mayor Darryl Johnson of Mound Bayou and Senator Willie Simmons, owner of The Senator’s Place.
"Having the Chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities visit this morning is a wonderful experience for the Delta and for Delta State, particularly considering all of the wonderful cultural activities that are occurring in the region, " said Delta State President Bill LaForge. "We appreciate his coming to take a first hand look at all the work taking place in the Mississippi Delta."
The Chairman spent the afternoon and evening visiting other nationally significant Mississippi Delta landmarks, including Emmitt Till civil rights sites in Tallahatchie County and Blues establishments in Clarksdale.
Dr. Rolando Herts, director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State, recently presented at the “Blues Got A Soul” Technology Conference sponsored by the Jus’ Blues Music Foundation.
This is the tenth year the conference has been held, and this is the second year that Herts has represented The Delta Center at the conference.
The event brought industry professionals and aficionados together to discuss cultural heritage preservation and legal issues pertaining to blues music. The conference was held at Horseshoe Casino’s Bluesville event venue in Tunica, Mississippi.
Herts’ presentation focused on blues heritage partnerships in the Mississippi Delta led by The Delta Center. He spoke about the International Delta Blues Project, including the upcoming International Conference on the Blues, a public screening of the film “Take Me To The River” at GRAMMY Museum® Mississippi, and Delta State’s new International Blues Scholars Program, an online blues studies certificate.
The conference also featured GRAMMY-nominated blues legend Bobby Rush and Atlanta based entertainment attorney Jonathan Mason. The event was moderated by Charles Mitchell, CEO and founder of the Jus’ Blues Music Foundation.
“For a second year, I invited Dr. Herts to present at the conference,” said Mitchell. “The Delta Center and Delta State University are continuing to provide great leadership in blues education and awareness of the importance of blues culture. We were excited to learn more about the good work that these organizations are doing here in the Mississippi Delta to preserve blues traditions.”
The conference was held in conjunction with the 16th annual Jus’ Blues Music Awards. The awards honored various music professionals who have contributed much of their lives to advancing and promoting blues music and culture.
This year’s honorees included Sly Johnson, Ruby Andrews, Zac Harmon, Queen Ann Hines, King Edward, Chick Rodgers, Billy Branch, Big Bill Morganfield, Mud Morganfield, Eddie Cotton, Jr., and Clarksdale native L.C. Cooke, brother of soul legend, Sam Cooke. In addition, a special presentation was made to R&B legend Millie Jackson, the inaugural Millie Jackson Award.
In its 50th anniversary year, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) recently announced $79 million in grants for 290 humanities projects and programs across the United States. The grants will be awarded in 14 humanities fields or areas, and also include $42.8 million in annual operating support for the national network of state and local humanities councils.
The grants will support a wide range of efforts in the humanities, with institutions, scholars and humanities organizations in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories receiving NEH support. Complete state-by-state listings of grants are available through the NEH website.
“NEH grants help bring humanities experiences to Americans across the country,” said chairman William D. Adams. “Our funding supports museums, libraries and cultural institutions, and the local state councils that create and sustain humanities programs in their communities. Through films, original research and new intellectual insights, our grants strengthen the nation’s cultural fabric and identity.”
For the eighth year, The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University has been awarded a NEH grant for “The Most Southern Place on Earth: Music, History, and Culture of the Mississippi Delta” workshop. The workshop is one of several Landmarks of American History and Culture: Workshops for School Teachers that NEH funds across the country. The purpose of this grant category is to support a series of one-week workshops for K-12 educators that address central themes and topics in American history, government, literature, art history and other humanities fields related to historic landmarks.
“We are pleased that the National Endowment for the Humanities once again is funding the ‘Most Southern Place on Earth’ workshops,” said Dr. Rolando Herts, director of The Delta Center and co-director of the workshop. “This is one of the longest running NEH Landmarks workshops. We are excited to have the opportunity to offer it once again to K-12 educators who have a passion for learning and teaching about the rich culture and history of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, identified by the National Park Service as ‘the cradle of American culture.'”
Over the years, the NEH “Most Southern” workshops have built a dedicated network of over 500 alumni scholars who serve as educational and cultural ambassadors for the MDNHA and for Delta State University. The workshops use an experiential learning approach, engaging participants directly with historically and culturally significant people and places in the MDNHA.
Workshop participants take what they have learned back to their schools and communities, sharing stories and lessons from the MDNHA with students, colleagues, family and friends, nationally and globally. Many past participants have made return visits to the region, bringing students, colleagues, family and friends with them, which has broadened the “Most Southern” workshops’ educational and economic impact.
“Participants from as far away as Alaska, California and New Hampshire remain connected to The Delta Center, Delta State and the Delta region because of this workshop,” said Lee Alyward, program associate for education and community outreach at The Delta Center and workshop co-director. “In fact, several of them completed the International Blues Scholars Program this summer, our online Blues Studies certificate. We look forward to working with another group of educators in summer 2017 who are passionate about the Delta.”
The MDNHA is a partnership between the people of the Mississippi Delta and the National Park Service. The MDNHA was designated by U.S. Congress in 2009 and is governed by a board of directors representing agencies and organizations defined in the congressional legislation. More information about the MDNHA, including the complete approved management plan, is available at http://www.msdeltaheritage.com.