The Riverside Hotel, Clarksdale, Mississippi

During the summer of 1992, I traveled outside of New England with my friend and blues musician, Shirley Sherwood.  That spring Shirley had made arrangements, through another blues musician, to stay at a historic property that had once been a hospital for African Americans in the heart of the Delta, Clarksdale, Mississippi.  This piece of prose was written during that trip and finalized this summer.  As a child growing up in the suburbs of Boston, in a blue collar, working class town, I heard many unkind words referring to African Americans in my home. I am not proud of this truth, but it is this truth that pushes me every day to face my own racist patterns, to shed them with every tear and become a better human being.

The Riverside Hotel, June 1992

 

In the middle of a driving rain

we drove across the Delta in the dark,

to the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

We had a reservation for traveling musicians with Ms. Hill.

“I choose very carefully

who I let stay here,” said Ms. Momma Hill.

 

In May of 1992,

one week after racial riots exploded across the United States,

fires still burning in Los Angeles,

we left Boston for two months.

We performed 19 concerts in 16 states in 8 weeks.

It was our first time performing away from home and we were scared.

 

We were taught

to be scared.

Fear followed us

to every town.

Fear crept behind our car

and into our hearts.

 

We stopped at a highway truck stop on our way to Clarksdale

for something to eat before we made the last hour drive

to the heart of the Delta.

Miss Momma Hill, a little ‘ole black lady with a big heart

was waiting for us to arrive.

It was almost midnight.

 

The Riverside Hotel was once a hospital,

The GT Thomas Afro American Hospital.

Like housing, hospitals were segregated in the south, prior to the 1970s.

Sonny Boy Williams II and Ike Turner lived there.

Robert Johnson stayed there and Bessie Smith died there in 1937.

Did I tell you we were scared?

 

Driving into town we stopped for gas.

The juke joints were getting out.

People were pouring into the streets.

The man pumping gas next to me looked in my eyes, sayin’

‘Girl, what are you doing here?’

We filled our tank and found our way to 615 Sunflower Avenue, Clarksdale, Mississippi.

 

We were traveling musicians and we were home.

‘Welcome Home,’ said Ms. Momma Hill, waiting at the door.

She invited us inside and asked if we were hungry.

Then she led us down a long, dark corridor

by small rooms with screen doors.

TV screens flashed the only light in the narrow hallway.

 

Around a corner, she opened the door to our room

helping us get settled.

We set our gear down and sat on the beds.

Wallpaper peeling, a poster of Bessie Smith hung above Shirley’s bed.

After she left, I slipped inside the sheets, sandy and damp and then sat up.

Bolted up out of my sleepy state and said, ‘I cannot stay, I do not feel safe.’

 

All the words

I heard my father say,

                                            Those black people,

they ruined Dorchester.

                                           Those negroes,

those…

 

 His voice tore at my heart,

told me to flee and run for my life

get back in my car and drive.

But sweet Momma Hill,

she would do us no wrong.

We were safe here.

 

I was taught to be afraid

by someone I loved.

He only knew

what his mother and father taught him.

Immigrants, who lived in a melting pot

that turned into a ghetto in the 1960s.

 

Shirley was so sad and disappointed.

She was unsure, but not as scared

as I felt.

We got dressed, grabbed our guitars

and apologized

to Miss Momma Hill.

 

She assured us,

“I do not let

just anybody stay

at the Riverside Hotel.

I choose very carefully

who I let stay here.”

 

But I was taught

to fear.

I was taught

to be afraid

when I was

just a child.

 

We drove another hour back east,

across the Delta in the pouring rain

away from the heart of Clarksdale, Mississippi,

away from Miss Momma Hill.

We drove to a Quality Inn

at the truck stop on the highway.

 

We were loading our belongings into the motel room

when a red pick-up truck spun out in the parking lot.

A white man hollered and hooted,

asking us to get in and go for a ride!

We got inside, locked the door, sat on the bed looking at each other

And said, “Where were we safer? Where are we safe?”

 

I am trying to undo what I have learned

by telling the truth.

I am so sorry Miss Momma Hill.

I will always regret not having stayed at the Riverside Hotel.

I will always pray for your forgiveness.

I was taught to be afraid.

 

We were safe

at the Riverside Hotel.

It is sad that I was not taught

that I could be safe

at a place

like the Riverside Hotel.