“The Philadelphia Stories”
A visit to other Philadelphia’s – in Mississippi, Missouri and New Mexico -- reveals a lot about America.
Today, The Inquirer Magazine
October 11, 1981
By Art Carey
One Saturday afternoon in July, an Easterner climbed the tortuous, rocky path to the summit of Mount Taylor, an extinct volcano that offers an airline pilot's view of some of New Mexico's most dramatic terrain. The sun was bright and the day was hot, but the mountaintop was cool to the point of chilliness as strong gusts swept through the towering evergreens garbing the peak's stony shoulders.
For more than an hour, he was alone on top of the mountain, wondering about this timeless relic of some ancient geological uproar and trying to imagine the mighty forces that had produced it. Then his reveries were interrupted by the sight of two men plodding up the steep slope of a grassy meadow below. Several minutes later, when the two had reached the summit, the Easterner
learned that they were foreigners studying on fellowships at the University of New Mexico. One was a Pakistani, a slight, courteous man with an obliging smile. The other was a German, robust and well built, whose goatee and Byronic head of unruly hair gave him the look of an intellectual.
The Easterner told them he had just visited a random sample of America's small towns. The foreigners were fascinated, and soon all three were involved
in animated conversation about America and Americans. The German observed:
" Americans don't realize how magnificent their country is. " For example, he
said, many of the people living in the valley below had presumably moved to
New Mexico because of the wide-open spaces and rugged scenery. Yet, on this
gorgeous day, Mount Taylor was practically deserted, save for two foreigners
and a visiting Easterner.
The local residents, the German suggested, were probably sitting in their
dark living rooms watching television. " You Americans don't appreciate your
wonderful country," he said.
He was right, the Easterner thought to himself. Indeed, during his short
odyssey, he had been surprised time and time again by unexpected marvels of
place and people. He had conceived the trip because he wanted to visit small-
town America, to escape the decay, the neurotic frenzy and the self-
conscious sophistication of the coast, to see how life is going in
communities that are still manageable , communities that are still, in fact,
communities. More specifically, his plan - irresistible to all who heard it
- was to see what was happening in some of the small towns across the nation
that are named after Philadelphia.
An hour or so with a big, thick atlas disclosed that altogether there are 13
communities named Philadelphia across the United States: one each in Illinois,
Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Virginia and, of course,
Pennsylvania, two in Arkansas and three, for some reason, in Tennessee. He
decided to visit three Philadelphias - one in the South, one in the Midwest
and one in the West. At the outset the only thing he knew about them was that
they shared a name.
But after driving over the kudzu-covered red-clay hills of Mississippi,
after riding in a combine over the Missouri prairie, after scaling a mesa with
a Pueblo Indian, he learned that each town, no matter how small, had a
special character - its own strength of soul - that derived in part from
quiet, ordinary struggles to survive. In one Philadelphia, it was the strength
of working to overcome the past, and putting to rest a legacy of hate and
violence; in another, it was the strength of dealing with the present, and
preserving an old-time and precious way of life; and finally, in the third, it
was the strength of facing the future, and building a new tradition of
progress on a rich and ancient heritage.
And so, in the end, when thinking of America's magnificence, the Easterner
would think not so much of spectacular landscapes, or the sound of a passing
freight at 3 a.m. in a Southern town, or the feel of freshly harvested wheat
grain pouring through his fingers, or the utter silence of an eerie Western
canyon at dusk, but of her people - the other Phil- adelphians, like Lil
Jones in Mississippi and Hank Rhodes in Missouri and the Luther clan in New
Mexico - hard- working, honest, simple people richly imbued with what F.
Scott Fitzgerald once called " a sense of the fundamental decencies. "
The region is called East Central Mississippi, and it is not the Mississippi
of cotton plantations and pillared, moss-covered mansions. This is the
Mississippi of rolling, rust-colored, red-clay hills, of undulating, two-lane
blacktop highways bordered by wildly pullulating kudzu vines, lush green
pasturelands and thick forests of pine and sassafras and oak. It is the
Mississippi of metal-roofed wooden shacks, of tired mobile homes with
fenderless car bodies in the front yards, of tidy, unadorned brick ranchhouses
with snazzy late-model pickup trucks parked in the driveways.
This is the Mississippi of subsistence farmers, sturdy, sinewy men with sun-
wizened necks, soft Southern faces and suspicious eyes, men who toil long
hours in work boots, baggy jeans, plaid shirts and tractor caps. Many of them
are descendants of pioneer emigrants from Alabama, the Carolinas and Georgia
who began settling this frontier area in the early 19th century. For several
generations, the settlers were dirt poor, and most of the food they grew they
ate themselves. In the 1930s, an author with the Federal Writers Project
described the region as " a neighborhood of earth- rooted individuals who
know and understand one another and who collectively face an industrial
revolution with hoes grasped tightly in their clay-stained hands. "
In the heart of this region is a modest, almost perfectly square county
called Neshoba, which is the Choctaw Indian word for wolf. The county was
created after the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830 had forced thousands
of Choctaws to leave their native land for Oklahoma. In the center of the
county is its largest town and the seat of county government, Philadelphia.
With a population of 6,434, Philadelphia, Miss., is the second largest
Philadelphia in the United States. Although its 40-page phone book is filled
with short, blunt Anglo-Saxon names, it is not a homogeneous community.
Actually, it is a tri-racial town. About 28 percent of the city's population
is black, and 4,300 Choctaws live in the vicinity, with 1,500 residing on a
reservation on the outskirts of town.
Philadelphia was established as the Neshoba County seat in 1838 and was
named after our city - by whom and for what reasons are not known.
Interestingly, the county seat was moved to Philadelphia from a town about two
miles away called Camden, ostensibly because of a better water supply but
more likely because it profited a group of land speculators. Like the Camden
across the Delaware, the Mississippi Camden has not fared well. Today, all
that remains of it is an excavation said to have been dug for the county jail.
From a distance, the skyline of Philadelphia, which sits on a rise, is
dominated by two water towers, which give the town a gritty, industrial air.
The center of Philadelphia is Courthouse Square, which takes its name from
the building that occupies it, a massive, no-nonsense brick structure with a
statue of a Confederate soldier out front. Surrounding the courthouse are
numerous shops and stores, blockish, faded buildings with facades of brick,
cement block and metal siding. On one side of the square, the curb is elevated
about two feet, a reminder of the days when farmers would back up their wagons
to load feed and seed and other supplies.
Bisecting the town on a north-south axis is the Illinois Central Gulf
Railroad line. Its busy diesels pound the tracks throughout the day and night,
and the horns of passing freights reverberate across Philadelphia in lonely
counterpoint to the whistles from the lumber mills. Over half the county's
land is in forests, and companies such as Weyerhaeuser and Molpus ship more
than 72 million board feet of lumber annually. High interest rates and a soft
housing market have hurt the lumber industry, but in Philadelphia there have
been only a few brief layoffs.
While agriculture has long been an important part of the local economy
- specifically the raising of beef and dairy cattle and the growing of corn,
cotton and soybeans - Philadelphia, like many small Sunbelt towns, has
managed to attract several large factories and plants, including U.S.
Electrical Motors, the Wells Lamont Corp., which is the world's largest cotton
glove factory, and plants that produce sportswear and battery parts. Industry
has been drawn to Philadelphia by the warm climate and relatively cheap labor
(the post office and the telephone company are the only enterprises that
are unionized). In the future, the area's economy could burgeon dramatically
if Tenneco proceeds with plans for a huge lignite-processing plant in the
northeastern part of the county.
Many executives of the companies that have recently moved into Philadelphia
make their homes in luxurious, sprawling ranchers in new subdivisions on the
edge of town. Philadelphia's " old money," the descendants of the town's
mercantile class, live along quiet, leafy streets in ornate, multi-story,
wood-frame houses whose wide, encircling porches are furnished with rocking
chairs and swings. Out back, often, is a smaller, unprepossessing house where
the household servants once lived. Most of the town's population, however,
inhabit modest brick ranchhouses and bungalows.
Across the railroad tracks, in the town's northwest corner, is an area
called Independence Quarters, where most of Philadelphia's 1,832 black
citizens reside, in housing ranging from dilapidated shacks to modern,
federally subsidized ranchers that are as attractive as most of the homes in
the white community. The focus of the black community is a spacious park that
features illuminated ballfields and a recreation building and swimming pool
built with the help of federal funds. (Ironically, the public park where most
whites congregate does not have a pool. )
About eight miles west of Philadelphia is the Pearl River Indian
Reservation, where the Choctaws have built a modern high school, hospital and
community center. Under their chief, Phillip Martin, a savvy man devoted to
the goal of economic self-determination, the Choctaws have developed an
industrial park that now includes a construction company and plants for
manufacturing automobile wiring harnesses and finishing greeting cards. The
Choctaws display their economic progress and share their culture during an
annual fair in July. A featured attraction is the world championship of
stickball, a traditional Choctaw game similar to modern lacrosse.
To an outsider, the most salient characteristic of the citizens of
Philadelphia is their courtesy and friendliness. It is a town where nearly
everybody waves at everybody else (including strangers), where drivers often
pause at stoplights to engage in conversation, where a two- block trip to the
post office sometimes takes a half hour because of all the friends and
acquaintances one meets. The sense of community is strong.
" This is a town that works together," boasts Courtney Tannehill, director
of the Philadelphia-Neshoba County Free Library, a glassy, airy modern edifice
next to a new downtown park that features winding pathways, a waterfall and a
gazebo. " When there's a project to be done, we all pitch in and do it. "
Philadelphia has its share of crime, to be sure, but most of it is of the
minor, breaking-and-entering variety. Many citizens still feel comfortable not
locking their doors. At Peggy's Restaurant, a private home where hearty
buffet lunches are served, patrons pay for their meals on the honor system,
placing the right amount of cash in a basket and making their own change.
Recently a newcomer to town was surprised when, after making a deposit at a
local bank, she wasn't given a receipt. When she inquired, the teller told her
that people rarely ask for one.
Sometimes, the town seems so close, so familial that one is tempted to
wonder whether everyone is somehow related. Actually, the notion is not that
farfetched. Neshoba County's population has been fairly stable since the
Civil War. Those families that resisted the 19th century's push westward and
stayed in the Philadelphia area tended to intermarry. With their roots
entwined, they developed a strong sense of custom and social ritual while
retaining the frontier ethic of " doing things our way. "
Philadelphia's peculiar character has spawned some peculiar institutions.
For one, there's the bootlegger. Neshoba County is totally dry, and until a
few years ago so was Philadelphia. Then, in 1977, the city fathers passed an
ordinance permitting the sale of 4 percent beer in specially licensed stores.
But for something with more kick, Philadelphians must either go out of the
county or buy gallon jugs of corn liquor from bootleggers. Some city
officials will claim, somewhat ingenuously, that they wouldn't know where to
get moonshine, but most teenagers in town have ready access to a seemingly
Another peculiar Philadelphia tradition is the Neshoba County Fair, which
takes place during early August but which seems to dominate the talk of the
town all summer.
Organized in 1889 by a group of farmers, the Neshoba County Fair is one of
the few remaining campground fairs in the United States and is often called
" Mississippi's giant house party. " During fair week, 12,000 people from all
over the state and country flood the fairgrounds, spending nights in more than
500 wooden two-story cabins erected over the years. Entertainment consists of
round-the-clock eating and drinking, concerts by Grand Ole Opry stars and
gospel musicians, livestock shows, horse and harness racing, a rodeo, a
midway, a flea market, an art show, an antique car parade, talent and beauty
contests, prayer services and all-night disco, ballroom and square dancing.
As one frequent fairgoer said, " Sleeping is cheating. "
The hub of the fair is Founders' Square, a sawdust-carpeted grove of ancient
oaks surrounded by some of the first cabins built. In the center of the square
is a huge timber pavilion with a quilted metal roof that covers a stage and
rows of wooden benches. When some country-western star is not wailing about a
lost love, the pavilion becomes the scene of what Mississippians call
" political speakings. " Every candidate for just about every conceivable
public office, from dogcatcher to governor, takes the podium at some point to
puff up his record, lambaste his opponents and generally fill the air with
bluster. Last year, after he was nominated, Ronald Reagan stopped at the
Neshoba County Fair to launch his presidential campaign.
The residents of Neshoba County, most of whom are birthright Democrats, take
their politics seriously, and most have a keen ear for a well-crafted
harangue. Today the speeches are far less vitriolic and incendiary than in
days of yore, when a candidate was rated not on his intelligence but on his
ability to string together invective adjectives. One candidate once called his
opponent " a willful, obstinate, unsavory, obnoxious, pusillanimous,
pestilential, pernicious and perversable liar" without pausing for breath, and
even his enemies removed their hats and applauded.
Philadelphians are intensely proud of the fair, which they view as the
town's main claim to national fame. Many residents were pleased when the fair
was the subject of a splashy photo feature in National Geographic magazine in
June 1980. What made the townsfolk especially grateful was that a story about
Philadelphia had appeared in a national publication without mentioning " the
The " troubles" is the term that is usually used. Sometimes, it's " the
problems. " The reference is to the murders of three civil-rights workers
during the summer of 1964. This bad memory, this dark stain on the town's
collective conscience, inevitably comes up in conversation with an out-of-town
visitor. For the events of that summer changed Philadelphia from a sleepy
country town to a national symbol of Southern racism and resistance to
The summer of 1964 was " freedom summer. " Hundreds of idealistic Northern
college students invaded the South to encourage blacks to register to vote and
to exercise their civil rights. On June 21, 1964, Michael Schwerner, 23, a
Brooklyn social worker who had been active in civil-rights work in Mississippi
for several months, Andrew Goodman, 20, a Queens College student who had
arrived in the state just the day before, and James Earl Chaney, 21, a black
plasterer from Meridian, Miss., and a member of the Congress of Racial
Equality, drove to the site of a torched black church about 12 miles east of
Philadelphia. That afternoon, as the three were returning to Meridian, they
were arrested by Cecil Price, the Neshoba County deputy sheriff, on a speeding
charge and imprisoned in the county jail in Philadelphia. Later that night,
the three were released after paying a fine. They never reached Meridian.
Three days later, the charred wreckage of their blue Ford station wagon was
found in a swamp. At the direction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, an
extensive search was organized that eventually covered 10 counties and
involved 400 sailors, 100 FBI agents, 100 state highway patrolmen, eight
helicopters and a military photo-reconnaissance plane. Forty-four days later,
on Aug. 4, FBI agents discovered the bodies of the three men buried 20 feet
deep in a freshly constructed earthen farm-pond dam in a thickly wooded area
about six miles southwest of Philadelphia. Schwerner and Goodman each had been
shot once. Chaney, the black, had been shot three times after suffering what
one medical examiner described as an " inhuman beating. "
Three years later, 18 men, including county Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey and
Deputy Sheriff Price, were tried on federal conspiracy charges. The FBI
contended that there had been a Ku Klux Klan plot to kill Michael Schwerner
and that Rainey and Price had been part of it. Specifically, the government
alleged, Price, after releasing the three men from jail on June 21, had
intercepted them again outside of town and delivered them into the hands of a
waiting lynch mob, which had taken the civil-rights workers down a lonely
country road and summarily executed them. Ultimately, Rainey was acquitted,
but Price and six others were convicted and sentenced to terms of from three
to 10 years in federal prison.
Today, Philadelphians will shake their heads in dismay and disgust when
recalling those ugly events. " Most of the people, they were sick about it,
" said Jack Byars, 58, a convivial, white-haired former state welfare
commissioner who now runs an ice cream parlor with his wife across from the
courthouse. " It just didn't reflect the majority. It just wasn't condoned by
our people. "
Yet there is also an element of defensiveness, a feeling of having been
unjustly persecuted by the " outside press" for an incident that could have
happened anywhere. A visitor is reminded that most of the 18 men indicted for
the crime were not from Philadelphia. It was a different time then, and the
civil-rights workers, well, they seemed to go out of their way to antagonize
" Common courtesy is the term we use around here," said Polly Cumberland,
the starchy director of the Neshoba County Welfare Department. " Honest to
goodness, they ( the civil-rights workers ) gave off an odor. Their hair was
dirty and stringy and they presented themselves as the lowest type of people.
Appearance, of course, doesn't justify what happened. "
Sheriff Rainey left Philadelphia years ago, and the word around town is that
he's been traveling through the South, an itinerant security guard dogged by
his past. Cecil Price still lives in Philadelphia. For a while, he worked as
a truck driver for a local oil company. Today, according to acquaintances, he
is involved in a business that is leasing oil and mineral rights. Price's
phone number is unlisted, and his wife, politely but firmly, rebuffed a
reporter who came to the door of their house one evening last July.
The attitude toward Price today is one of sympathy. " Cecil Price did his
time like a man," said Byars. " He's trying to take care of his family and
rebuild his life," said Courtney Tannehill, the library director, in a
Generally, Philadelphians are sick and tired of having the town's reputation
besmirched, of being probed and pilloried for past racial transgressions by
clever reporters from big-city Northern newspapers. Philadelphia has changed,
they say, and the past is past. " Why is it," asked one deeply rooted
Philadelphian, " whenever anything is written about this place, with all the
good things we have here, they always have to bring that up? "
Florence Mars, 58, is a short, feisty blond woman from an old Philadelphia
family who, during the civil-rights turmoil of the '60s, took a firm stand
against the Klan. As a result, the Klan boycotted her cattle and stockyard
business, she was regarded in the community as a " Communist agitator," and
she was ostracized by her church congregation. Afterward, she spent 11 years
writing a controversial, well-documented book about the slayings and their
impact on her home town.
" I learned . . . how Nazi Germany is possible in a 'law-abiding Christian
society,' " she wrote in the preface to Witness in Philadelphia . " And I
learned, too, that society will act against its own best interest to protect
itself from the truth. "
Today, Miss Mars has softened some of her earlier harsh judgments about her
home town. " It turns out that we really don't have a corner on prejudice, but
that's not what was selling newspapers, and still isn't. People have a way of
not looking at themselves. I think there's more truth to what people say, that
folks up North are just as prejudiced as we are. When these murders happened,
the Northern cities had not burned. Later, it didn't get to seem a big deal
that the police were involved in this sort of thing. I guess originally there
was a lot of naivete. "
Several blocks from Miss Mars' stately wood-frame house, in the offices of
the weekly Neshoba Democrat, its editor and publisher, Stanley Dearman, 48, a
soft- spoken, thoughtful man, paused from the hectic preparation of a
special centennial edition.
" Philadelphia, Mississippi, is a symbol - I don't know what of - but it
certainly involves self-righteousness," he said. " Pointing the finger at us
makes everybody feel better, I suppose, but what happened in '64 would have
happened somewhere else sooner or later. In my opinion, there had to be a
tragedy of this kind to make it clear to certain elements in our society that
they couldn't use force any more.
" I think race relations are better today than they've ever been. There
haven't been any incidents or demonstrations. The reason, I'd say, is the
congenial relationship that exists between the black leaders and white
leaders here. That's not to say that everything's perfect, but for the amount
of trouble this town has had, and in view of where it's been, I think things
have moved along very smoothly. One of the big hurdles was school integration
in 1970. It came off without any incident whatsoever, and there was almost a
tangible sense of relief that this had finally come about.
" The Klan is more active in Illinois, probably Pennsylvania, Texas and
California, than it is here. I don't know of a single incident. Every three or
four years, someone will paint 'KKK' in white letters on the road, but that
usually happens in other counties, not here, and I think it's just pranksters.
. . . "
Today, the Neshoba Democrat covers the county NAACP annual meeting, and city
officials usually attend. " People outside the area may not put much
significance in that, but I do," said Dearman. " Back in the '60s, the NAACP
was the worst thing anyone had ever heard of. "
On a steamy July afternoon, in the comfort of his air-conditioned office at
the auto-parts business he runs, Allan King, 55, an avuncular man with close-
cropped, curly white hair, reflected on his recently concluded 12-year tenure
as mayor of Philadelphia. He is proud, he said, that the city is solvent, that
it has enough money to pay off its bond issues. He spoke of the new water-
treatment plant, the extension of the airport runway, and plans for a vo-
tech school. He also spoke about racial progress.
" We integrated before you did. People thought we'd have a heckuva time, but
we didn't. One private school was started, but it went out of business. We
have three blacks on the police force, three blacks on the fire department,
and one was recently made shift commander. There are blacks on the utilities
board, the park commission and the school board. A great percentage of black
people own their own houses and take care of them. We don't have dirt
streets. Everyone, white, black and Indian, gets the same services - garbage
collection, street lights, police protection. " Continue