Losing Landmarks of Historically All-Black Towns Deprives Us of Our True History

In Avalon, Mississippi, on February 21, 2024, a fire burned down the Mississippi John Hurt Museum, hours after it received landmark status. The museum honors country blues singer and guitarist John Hurt, and was one of the last sites marking the town’s history as a formerly all-Black community.

On the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation website, you can find a beautifully atmospheric description of the museum that once was intact. “Just down the road from the Valley Store, a short distance from the new St. James Church, one can find the Mississippi John Hurt Museum; a museum dedicated to the life and music of the gentle songster who enraptured the world during the 1960s Folk Revival with his syncopated fingerpicked rhythms and kindly voice.”

Neda Ulaby from NPR interviewed Hurt’s granddaughter Mary Frances Hurt after the fire, which destroyed the sharecropper structure and all of Hurt’s furniture and possessions.

Ulaby reported: “Avalon was immortalized in this Mississippi John Hurt song called ‘Avalon Blues.’ Recently, his granddaughter says, a local Black cemetery was encroached upon when the county widened a road. Now that the museum has burned down, she says, a church is the only thing left marking Avalon’s history as a formerly all-African American town.”

In February 2022, Diane Regas President and CEO of the Trust for Public Land wrote that of the 95,000 sites listed on the Historic National Registry, only 3% are dedicated to the experience of Black Americans. “This deprives us of a true understanding of our history.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation states: “When all Americans have the opportunity to learn from African American historic places—from the people who lived and died there, and from the stories these places still embody—they encounter a more diverse and inclusive narrative that advances our understanding of ourselves as a nation.”

At the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, we are amplifying the stories of Black freedom-seekers, abolitionists, and literary activists who formed the constellation of voices Stowe listened to, learned from, was inspired by, and borrowed from to create her impactful novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A list of the people whose work she used, as well as excerpts from those works, can be found in her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book which Lincoln took out of the library while preparing the Emancipation Proclamation. By sharing these stories, we hope to tell a truer, fuller, more inspiring story of how a large group of people working both independently and in community were able to shift an entrenched culture for the better.

Even as the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center adds diverse voices to our tours and programs, we do not represent the homes, historic sites, or tangible life and living histories of the huge number of Black peoples who have shaped our country. We support the preservation of Black historic sites and encourage all to support them as well.

We mourn the loss of John Hurt’s home and invite you to join us in sending your sympathy and support to the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation.

As his Foundation states: “Through the music of John Hurt, fans of all ages are exposed to the rich oral, musical, and literary traditions of the Mississippi Delta and the surrounding area. With his gentle demeanor and intricate style of fingerpicking, Mississippi John Hurt is an ideal ambassador for early African American music and culture.”

Please listen to Hurt sing Avalon Blues.

Avalon Blues by Mississippi John Hurt

Got to New York this mornin’, just about half-past nine
Got to New York this mornin’, just about half-past nine
Hollerin’ one mornin’ in Avalon, couldn’t hardly keep from cryin’

Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind
Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind
Pretty mama’s in Avalon, want me there all the time

When the train left Avalon, throwin’ kisses and wavin’ at me
When the train left Avalon, throwin’ kisses and wavin’ at me
Says, “Come back, daddy, stay right here with me”

Avalon’s a small town, have no great big range
Avalon’s a small town, have no great big range
Pretty mama’s in Avalon, they sure will spin your chain

New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine
New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine
Goin’ back to Avalon, near where I have a pretty mama all the time

Recommended Reading

Mississippi John Hurt Museum

Trust for Public Land, Stories: Conserving Black History Sites Should Be a Priority for Us All

National Trust for Historic Preservation: Projects of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund

The New York Times: 8 Places Across the U.S. That Illuminate Black History

White woman, grey hairKaren Fisk is the Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center where we believe in telling a fuller, truer, richer history than has previously been told. Telling that history requires research, partnerships, and funds. Please support bringing the past to the present for a stronger future.