“We said from the start they pimpin’ the blues. They making money off the blues [and] that’s not fair. They’re not distributing money in the black neighborhood. None whatsoever… It was supposed to enrich the neighborhood and teach the history of the blues…but it didn’t work out that way. It went to the people that didn’t know anything about the blues. They just took it over.”
The Vehemence of White Fragility
Back when I was an MA candidate in public history at Middle Tennessee State University in 2010, I worked with the descendants of 1920s blues artist Tommy Johnson to conduct the necessary research and file a lawsuit against two white landowners who had denied access to a historic African American burial ground, Warm Springs CME Church Cemetery. The dispute over access began in 2001, when Johnson’s descendants received funds from Grammy award winning recording artist Bonnie Raitt to work with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund (MZMF), a Mississippi non-profit dedicated to historic preservation in rural African American communities. The MZMF had worked with the families of eleven different artists to design and install memorials that transformed abandoned cultural resources into international tourist destinations, but the complex social dynamic of racism stalled their twelfth initiative to promote historic preservation and blues tourism.
My work on the project eventually secured Johnson’s descendants permanent access to the historic site. It also earned me the trust of the organization, which appointed me executive director in 2014. I had recognized the promise of Mississippi blues tourism in the work of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, and I wanted to leverage my privilege for reparative justice. Though I understood the shameful distortions of history that marked the larger tourist landscape, I was unprepared for the vehemence of white fragility, which holds racism in place.
Public history is problematic in Mississippi. Transparency and inclusive practice are not common, and political divisions have generated a lack of trust. Public historians will find it particularly difficult to work in blues tourism due to the phenomenon of white fragility—the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially. In my early days with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, I was taken aback by how angry and defensive so many brokers of blues tourism became at the mere suggestion that whites needed to reassess their practice of public history. The very idea that private institutions, such as the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, and state-sponsored tourism groups, such as the Mississippi Blues Commission, should embrace a self-conscious, deliberately inclusive approach to professional practice outraged them. They stood up and walked out of symposiums angry and subsequently made that feeling clear by ignoring emails, expelling me from Facebook groups, blocking me on social media, and refusing to acknowledge the existence of the MZMF.
I did not understand the resentment. I did not understand the lack of interest in correcting the problems with blues tourism. Their reactions were especially bewildering considering that so few people of color held authoritative positions in the blues superstructure. The lack of diversity suggested that important perspectives were missing. At the very least, it revealed a poor understanding of best practices due to a lack of cross-racial collaboration. Yet, even progressive white blues enthusiasts seemed to have very little interest in learning more about the complex social dynamic of racism.
Blues as an African American Cultural Tradition
These reactions held me back for several years. Intimidated, I remained careful and quiet. Over time, however, I started to see beneath the passive aggression, the anger, the resistance to openly discussing race and listening to people of color. For example, many white blues enthusiasts who grew up in northern suburbs—and had no long-term relationships with people of color—believed they held no racial prejudice or animosity. Other blues enthusiasts equated racism with being a bad person. Some got defensive at the mere suggestion of white privilege, arguing that whites are the more oppressed group today, and some rejected affirmative action, or any deliberate effort to include people of color in the decision-making process.
Most of them, moreover, lacked a fundamental understanding of the blues as a cultural tradition that emerged in African American communities during the 1890s, when the state of Mississippi disfranchised Black men in the state constitution, the Supreme Court codified racial segregation into federal law in the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the errant theory of social Darwinism inspired a discourse on the extinction of “primitive” races, and the exacerbation of racial stereotypes justified the increased lynching of Black men and women.
In 2020, I published an article in the Public Historian highlighting the highly problematic practice of public history on the Mississippi Blues Commission (MBC). By carefully guarding and controlling every element of the production process—research, writing, fabrication, placement, and promotion—the MBC erected a blues trail marker in Moorhead that promotes racial division by silencing the lived experiences of African Americans. The Black men and women who built the Yazoo Delta railroad had coined the term “Yellow Dog” in the 1890s, but this information is wholly absent from the blues trail marker. Instead, it prioritizes an arbitrary debate about the origins of the “Yellow Dog Blues,” apparently to keep from confronting white blues tourists with an uncomfortable truth about the state’s dark racial past.
The brokers of blues tourism originally touted the blues trail’s significant potential to promote racial reconciliation, a concept grounded in reaching a consensus about the past. It had the potential to reap huge economic benefits and redress the legacy of racial segregation (resource hoarding) by promoting economic development in impoverished African American communities. It also promised to preserve historic resources in African American communities. The blues trail, moreover, held the power to improve the state’s image as an intransigent racist backwater that had progressed very little since the 1960s. As Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves revealed in March 2022, however, when he signed a bill into law to squelch honest discussion about the harmful effects of racism, the state has not changed too much. It certainly has very little invested in the historic preservation of African American communities, and the work of the MBC demonstrates very little interest in racial reconciliation.
The Problematic Role of the Mississippi Blues Commission
I started this text with a quote from Sylvester Hoover, an African American blues promoter who gives tours and operates a blues museum in Greenwood, Mississippi’s Baptist Town neighborhood. He offered his remarks after Mississippi state auditor Shad White recommended the MBC be abolished. Though White found “no evidence of embezzlement, fraud, or any other criminal violations,” he charged that the MBC “improperly designated a number of sole source providers, meaning it didn’t have to put out work for bids.” The MBC signed sole source agreements with a white-owned ad agency, Hammons & Associates, which received about one million dollars as the project’s coordinator, and two white music scholars, Jim O’Neal and Scott Barretta, who received in sum almost $200,000. By claiming that white vendors were sole source providers for the content and fabrication of the historic markers, the MBC denied Black-owned businesses the opportunity to benefit financially from promoting the music that originated in the African American community.
The unethical financial practice of the MBC developed out of the privileged culture of the Mississippi GOP, which historian Chris Danielson described as “lily white and hard right.” In 2004, Republican Governor Haley Barbour signed a bill into law that created the MBC. The lead author of the bill was Democratic Senator David Jordan, who, in collaboration with a predominantly African American delegation, had first pitched the idea of a blues commission while Democrat Ronnie Musgrove was still governor. After Barbour won the 2003 election, however, the predominantly African American delegation lost control of the commission, and the MBC took a decidedly different turn once it began its work in 2006.
Hoover and White were not the only ones displeased with the MBC. Mary Francis Hurt, of the Mississippi John Hurt Blues Foundation, worked with the MBC to erect a marker for her grandfather, Mississippi John Hurt. Though she advised that the MBC install the marker near St. James MB Church Cemetery, which holds great significance to the African American community of Avalon, the blues trail decided to install the marker next to the dilapidated and defunct Valley Store, a once-racially segregated business that refused to cater to African Americans. The failure of the MBC to place markers in line with the wishes of descendant communities is common, and it promotes the erasure of historic sites in African American communities.
I could go on listing the problems with various aspects of production at the MBC, but I do not believe that the commission cares about responsible public history practice. According to MBC chairman J. Kempf Poole, the commission has been mostly in “maintenance mode” since the release of the critical performance audit. Despite the state auditor’s recommendation that other vendors and organizations take over the duties of the MBC, Hammons & Associates has worked with O’Neal and Barretta to install six additional markers, making the total 212.
Implications of Mississippi Blues tourism for Public History
The MBC’s “well-established practice of blues commemoration” has been lauded as “a massively successful experiment in tourism and economic development.” It has inspired the creation of several heritage trails, including the Country Music Trail, the Gospel Music Trail, and the Mississippi Freedom Trail (MFT). Much like the curriculum on civil rights history that legislators in the 2000s made mandatory in Mississippi high schools, the historic markers on the MFT assert self-congratulatory and enlightened bona fides that place inspirational stories of overcoming racial inequality squarely in the nation’s past, obscuring any connection to contemporary injustice.
The iconization of the movement on the MFT politely suggests that Americans, specifically people of color today, lack the same grit and virtue of these civil rights heroes and heroines. It’s also careful, of course, not to rankle the nation’s fragile white populace or upset the racial status quo.
- DiAngelo, Robin J. White fragility: why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.
- Theoharis, Jeanne. A more beautiful and terrible history: the uses and misuses of civil rights history. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.
- Yow, Ruth Carbonette. Students of the dream: resegregation in a Southern city. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017.
- “Searching for Nathan Beauregard: Memphis Blues, Race, and the Myth of Southern Redemption Through a Love of Black Music” – https://tdewaynemoore.com/snowball/searching-for-nathan-beauregard/ (last accessed 15 May 2023).
- The Mt. Zion Memorial Fund for Blues, Music, and Justice website – https://mtzionmemorialfund.com/ (last accessed 15 May 2023).
 Tim Kalich, “Vendor Selection Disappoints Jordan,” Greenwood (MS) Commonwealth, Sept 17, 2019.
 T. DeWayne Moore, “‘I Asked for Water and She Gave Me Gasoline’: Unnecessary Roadblocks, Religious Syncretism, and the Headstone Blues in Copiah County, MS,” Association for Gravestone Studies Quarterly 42:2 (Summer 2018): 7-13.
 Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018), 1-4.
 Bridging the Blues claims to serve as a bridge between the various tourist brokers in Mississippi, but in fact it promotes a select number of venues and events on its website and social media pages, appropriates the projects and memorials of other organizations and uses them in their promotional materials. It also excludes certain organizations from its promotional campaigns. The Delta Center for Culture and Learning’s website Mississippi Delta Top 40 is a similar program; this page uses a memorial erected in 1991 by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, an organization not listed on its website, to promote Bridging the Blues. See http://msdeltatop40.com/bridging-the-blues (last accessed 15 May 2023).
 T. DeWayne Moore, “Ripped Spike, Tie and Rail from its Moorings’: Racial Reconciliation, Public History, and the ‘Yellow Dog’ of the Mississippi Blues Trail,” The Public Historian 42:2 (May 2020): 56-77.
 Emily Wagster Pettus, “Gov. Tate Reeves signs law limiting race in lessons in classrooms, Jackson (MS) Clarion Ledger, March 22, 2022.
 Luke Ramseth, “Audit: Blues Commission Failed to Document Spending,” Hattiesburg (MS) American, Sep 15, 2019, p.A8.
 Chris Danielson, “‘Lily White and Hard Right’: The Mississippi Republican Party and Black Voting, 1965-1980.” The Journal of Southern History 75:1 (February 2009).
 Tim Kalich, “Chairman Agrees with State Auditor,” Greenwood (MS) Commonwealth, Sep 14, 2019, p.A1.
 Dave Tell, “Remembering Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi,” Places Journal, April 2019, https://placesjournal.org/article/remembering-emmett-till/ (last accessed 15 May 2023).
Faded MBT marker: Before making his pitch to the MBC, Hammons & Associates President Allan Hammons designed and cast a prototype marker in 2006, which included the concept of using a printed vinyl insert on the back to allow for illustrations as well as more text. The printed vinyl inserts have proven to be a poor concept in the long-term, as many of the initial markers have since faded and peeled away in the scorching hot sun of the Mississippi Delta. © T. DeWayne Moore, 2020.
DeWayne Moore, Tyler: Blues Tourism and the Erasure of African American History. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 4, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21499.
Copyright © 2023 by De Gruyter Oldenbourg and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact the editor-in-chief (see here). All articles are reliably referenced via a DOI, which includes all comments that are considered an integral part of the publication.
The assessments in this article reflect only the perspective of the author. PHW considers itself as a pluralistic debate journal, contributions to discussions are very welcome. Please note our commentary guidelines (https://public-history-weekly.degruyter.com/contribute/).