Despite what you may have heard, Vicksburg doesn’t have a Catfish Row

Published 9:17 pm Saturday, July 22, 2017

There is no “Catfish Row” in Vicksburg. Nor has there ever been.

The children’s Art Park down on Levee Street is called that though. And the area that it occupies, on and around Mulberry Street, was the site early in the 20th century of a bustling black entrepreneurial economy that locals called “Down on the ’Berry” (after Mulberry Street).

It was never named or referred to as “Catfish Row.”

So where to start?

First, “Catfish Row” is a piece of music. It was written by the American composer George Gershwin as part of a now iconic black folk opera called “Porgy and Bess” – one whose lead role the great black folk and calypso singer, Harry Belafonte, turned down, and was subsequently played by Sidney Poitier, who subsequently regretted that he did.

Belafonte said the “Porgy and Bess” movie depictions were demeaning and de-humanizing to black people. Even so, other black actors and actresses readily took part including Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey and Brock Peters.

But earlier, in 1948, writer/historian David Cohn declared in an essay about where he was born and raised “the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg…”

Except that there isn’t now and wasn’t then any “Catfish Row” in Vicksburg.

However authentic it is as autobiography, it is now simply a marketing brand; a way to gently elicit all the familiar images of blacks that are the most marketable: watermelons, rivers and “nothin’s plenty for me.”

Tourists, we think, seem to like that, and will pay for any “Catfish Row.”

But however lyrical and engaging the name is for a children’s park, it isn’t named for anything here.

What we had here was a thriving, hardworking community of black-owned businesses: barber shops, joints, ironing places and the like that were located here.

And then to add insult to injury, there was never even a “Catfish Row” in Charleston, South Carolina, where the story upon which the movie is based was supposed to have taken place. There is (or was) a “Cabbage Row” there that Gershwin then changed to “Catfish…”

So now we have a name for it here that never existed there.

I don’t want the name of the park changed. I just want it in context. Our history has been too mistreated as it is: contorted, eliminated, reconfigured. Now Black History is a moneymaker. It is a tour commodity. Many visitors to The Jacqueline House tell us they’ve done antebellum and Confederacy tours all over the South. But now they want some sense and history of black life as it was.

When preferred culture and memory replace the actual history and deeds of a people, then whom can we trust? That mix of culture and history is always a dangerous interplay for everybody and for every side. It is also edifying and inspiring because there were real people there.

It just was never called that.
Yolande Robbins is a community correspondent for The Vicksburg Post. You may reach her at yolanderobbins@fastmail.com.