“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. "

 PHILADELPHIA, MISSISSIPPI

 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

 unlimited supply.

 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

 troubles. "

 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

 integration.

 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

 people.

 " 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

 protective tone.

 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. "  
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© 2016 Art Carey. All rights reserved.