Hunting up story ideas for this issue and its focus on the Delta and River Cities, I decided to go to the Web and type in “Greenville, Mississippi.” I was looking for an obscure reference to my hometown, so I went to page 20 and started surfing.
I found nothing of particular note until I came to a photographer’s site — www.dgorton.com. Among the thumbnailed photographs, one picture caught my eye. I knew it immediately to be St. James Episcopal Church. Clicking to enlarge the picture, I found an image that nearly brought tears to my eyes.
The year was 1969, and the “Yellows” had just finished a peewee football game. One father is carrying his son off the field. Another father has an arm across his son’s shoulder, perhaps consoling him after a defeat. Teammates loiter on the field as their parents wait for them in now vintage cars.
For years, peewee football games were played on the large field at St. James. In fact, I played there as a “Yellow” circa 1971, wearing the same uniform and helmet.
But my memories of that field run much deeper than just football. The spot from which the picture was taken was the center of my childhood universe from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. If the photographer had turned around and walked about 100 yards, he would have been in my front yard. Odds are, I was lurking somewhere just out of camera range.
The old neighborhood — Gamwyn Park — was simply idyllic. All the homes were neat and inviting. The noise of kids at play was about the only sound heard. It was like growing up in the 1950s.
Of course, it wasn’t the 1950s. It was the 1960s, not exactly a time of peace and tranquility. Violence, fed by extreme social unrest, rocked the nation, particularly the South. Yet, it never quite reached Gamwyn Park.
Strife did lap at our shores, though. One day sitting under the tree in the extreme left of the photograph, I watched a military funeral being conducted in Greenville Cemetery, which is across Main Street from St. James. When the rifle team fired its salute, it terrified me and seemed so out of place in my world.
Sometime later and about two blocks from St. James, I found a duffel bag that had been tossed into the bushes. I didn’t understand why my mother called the police when I told her about the bag — and that it contained several identification cards that had been burned on the edges. I did understand what “AWOL” meant, however.
The Vietnam War, hippies and drugs, riots and demonstrations — they were talked about in my neighborhood, unpleasant squatters, but they never were invited to stay. The place remained unsullied. And it still is.
Today, Gamwyn Park is still a beautiful neighborhood. The houses remain neat and inviting. The streets are quiet and serene.
And therein lies the irony. The photograph of the peewee football players at St. James is included in an exhibition titled “Decline and Fall of the White South: Fall/Winter/Spring 1969/1971.” The project was a collaborative one between photojournalists D. Gorton and Jeff Nightbyrd, an Ole Miss graduate, and was intended as a book that was never punished. (Interestingly, Gorton explains that part of the reason it wasn’t published is because Nightbyrd was involved in rioting charges stemming from the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and his activities with his friend Abbie Hoffman.) If Gorton and Nightbyrd stood in that same spot today, they would see a landscape that has changed little if any in more than 30 years. And they would not have seen something they didn’t see in 1969 — black faces.
That could be interpreted two ways. One could say Gamwyn Park is proof that the South hasn’t changed, that blacks remain on the outside looking in. The “White South” still has at least one enclave.
But I would argue that Gamwyn Park is a positive symbol. The neighborhood could never have been termed part of the “White South.” In all my days in Gamwyn Park, I never heard one prejudice word, no hatred, no ignorance. In fact, some of the most liberal-minded people I’ve ever met — affluent whites who joined the civil rights movement though it offered little direct benefit to them — lived, and still live, in Gamwyn Park. They took a stand and got involved in the fight, made their statement without burning cars and grappling with the National Guard, then went home and mowed their grass. Gamwyn Park earned its immunity.
The question, “What is the ‘White South?’” begs the question, “What is the ‘Black South?’” In the end, it’s all just the South. In our rush to affect change, I think it’s important to remember that some of the components of Southern life — whether deemed “white” or “black” — that existed before the civil rights movement weren’t all bad. To destroy the Gamwyn Parks of Mississippi in the name of change would be a travesty. There should always be room for neighborhoods like this.
And as always, go “Yellows.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.