HELENA-WEST HELENA LAYOVER
I woke up Saturday morning to the smell of coffee, but as I creeped downstairs in Shannon and Todd’s “project house” I must have missed my opportunity. Todd had to be out the door by 7am for Saturday school at the KIPP Elementary school he runs, and the coffee pot was washed and dried in the sink as if coffee had never existed! I attempted to take it upon myself to make a pot, but soon learned as I wandered back upstairs, that the coffee pot is only good for grinding, not for brewing. Shannon thankfully saved the day, securing the now made grinds and brewing them up in a pour over method. We can awaken!
After coffee and a banana, Tom and I set out to meet with our first voice of the day, Raymond Willie—Assistant Director of the historic Pillow-Thompson House managed by Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas. Raymond has been with the house for 22 years, since it opened, originally managing the hospitality program out of the college through the house, preparing young students for work in the Casino Industry and other hospitality fields. However, eventually those industries started hiring people without training, so the program at the college changed and the house became more of a historic home, rented out for events and opened once a week for public lunches.
When he started, Raymond didn’t know anything about the history of the house—he would tell people it was a “self guided tour.” But when people would ask questions, and he wouldn’t know the answers, being embarrassed one too many times, Raymond started doing his own research. Now he’s the foremost expert on the house, I would say! Peppering our entire 2 hour conversation about many topics with various bits of detailed history about hats, dogs, plates and china, relatives of Mrs. Josephine, etc. etc.
Raymond is not just a scholar of the Pillow Thompson house, though. Through his time and opportunity to dig into the past of Helena and West Helena, he has uncovered a great wealth of history in the race relations of this community. Raymond grew up in West Helena, Arkansas himself, still lives there, and talks about becoming a “track star” when getting dropped off the bus, trying to get across the railroad tracks home because the kids on the white side of town were throwing rocks. Now perhaps we’ve come a ways since the race tensions of the 70’s, but Raymond still gets called “boy” from time to time by white people who think they have charge of him. He just asks them who they are talking to. His name is Raymond.
Raymond talks about when he first went to school, the first desegregated schools. The buses would come to unload and they would take the older white kids off first, and they would shout out “that word”—and he whispers it to me—but he was a kid, he says, and you know what he would do? And at this point, Raymond smiles a big smile and gestures a big wave. He says he didn’t know any better. Laughing, saying, he had already heard that word in his culture, and as a kid he didn’t know it was a derogatory word. Hatred starts young, he says. Kids don’t know, but they engage. And that’s a lesson for the 1970’s and the 2000’s…
Spending time with Raymond this morning was transformational, really, and there is a lot more to say. He’s honest and forthright and has experienced so much of what’s happening in the Delta today—from the Civil Rights era to Black Lives Matter. I feel like I made a friend that I don’t deserve, but I hope through this work, I’ll find a way…
Leaving Raymond, Tom and I drove out along the bypass to meet up with a local resident by the name of Joe St. Columbia. He runs a food truck of a sorts called Pasquale’s Tamales, despite getting on in years. Joe grew up in downtown Helena, Arkansas at Elm and Chestnut. His family were Italian immigrants, gradually making their way into the community, and his parents owned a grocery store and other businesses. His dad couldn’t read, but was a good businessman. His father died when he was 18, making Joe grow up fast. He had to return from college in Memphis to take care of the family and the business interests.
Joe’s family came from Cefalù, Sicily. His grandfather came to New Orleans to work in the sugar cane industry, and he eventually came up the Mississippi River and got off in Helena. Here he found an immigrant community—Greek, Lebanese, Italian, French. Joe’s dad wouldn’t teach him Italian when growing up. He wanted Joe to be American. While his dad was named Joseph as well, he took the name Sam, like the “Uncle Sam” he saw in posters for the war. His dad also befriended Mexican immigrants and shared culinary traditions, learning the art of the tamale. Eventually he formulated his own tamale recipe and formed a partnership with a young black couple who wanted to open a soul food kitchen. He leased them the space for the kitchen, with the condition that they would sell his tamales there—at The Elm Street Tamale Shop.
His parents made a lot of money downtown with their businesses. They got into motor parts, real estate, groceries, farming and restaurants. His dad also had a taxi service. One story that Joe tells is how his dad refused to let his taxis go to Elaine in 1919 during the Massacre. The taxi business also served as a partnership with a funeral home, transporting bodies. In one case, his father picked up a body, propped it upright in the back seat, and put a hat on its head. He didn’t want folks associating his taxi service with a hearse. Joe got into the beer distribution business as well, which was profitable. At one time his brother in law had the Anheuser Busch distribution and he had everything else.
Joe operates his tamale stand, now known as Pasquales Tamales after his fathers real name, at the King Biscuit Blues Festival, employing four “girls” who prepare the food while he works the window. He has also served 28 years on the Helena City Council, where he’s had a few run ins but he’s still holding on. Some folks have accused him of being racist, but he talked about a black friend who was raised in his family. Tommy was his name. Tommy said his name was Thomas St. Columbia, but his real name was Thomas Williams. Tommy was raised in the St. Columbia household and sent to Catholic School by Joe’s family. Joe says that there are still a lot of racial problems around here, but it’s getting better with younger generations. “It takes time,” he says. Plantations, slavery—it’s behind us. You have to learn to hate.
After enjoying some tamales and a mufaletta ourselves, we rode down the bypass back to downtown to meet up with Paula Oliver at the Southbound Tavern. The Arkansas vs Texas A&M game was just getting going, and the place was full with televisions blaring. We weren’t sure this was the best space for a conversation, but as soon as Paula arrived, our perspective changed. It was clear as Paula sat down that her attention was focused on the Arkansas Razorbacks game, the hogs being in the midst of making it a close one. Up against Texas A&M, a ranked team, the Razorbacks were coming off a bad loss to San Jose State, who they should have defeated handily. The second string QB was in and the teams exchanged leads throughout the second half. Victoria and I became Arkansas fans as this thrilling drama played out on the big screens around us.
Along the way, we did learn a bit about Paula’s life as well. She lived for 11 years in central Arkansas and moved back here to Helena in the mid-80s. She was working for public TV during those eleven years in Conway, Arkansas, but she came back home because of family. She’s putting her passion into a “comeback” for Helena. She’s partial to downtown, and doesn’t want to blame the decline entirely on Walmart. She thinks small mom and pop businesses need to adapt.
The river is now important to her as well, although as a child she really didn’t care about it much. But Paula’s biggest passion might just be neither human nor nature, instead it’s dogs. She works very intensely as a humane society volunteer, sending dogs from the Delta where they might be wanted, even shuttling them by plane. She also has a sister with a disability (who was home watching the game), and dedicates much of her life and time to caring for her. Quite the dedicated community citizen.
We all watched the sad conclusion of the game together, with A&M winning out, and Tom and I left to get dressed and drive over to the reception for the Elaine Massacre Memorial unveiling. I ran into Raymond there, working the event, and we saw Shannon, Todd and Macy as well. It seemed a nice gathering, but we took an early leave to rest up for the next day heading to Clarksdale, Mississippi, wanting to get an early glimpse of the Memorial on our way out of town. A very special and solemn time for this small town in the Arkansas Delta.