For most of the 20th century, blacks were buying one-way tickets out of the Jim Crow South in hopes of a better life. Nearly 6 million African-Americans followed the railroads to places like Detroit and Chicago, never dreaming that their children and grandchildren would someday lead a return migration, chasing the American dream back down the Mississippi and straight across the Mason-Dixon line.
Death did not ride in with a thundering of horses’ hooves on a cloud of gun smoke, though no doubt Heaven is a bit more lively since Macedonia native Bessie Morton’s arrival April 27. After a lifetime of adventure, it must have seemed anti-climactic, but at 87, she had slowed down a little, so perhaps death took note and crept softly, so as not to awaken Noxubee County’s self-proclaimed honky-tonk angel.
She left her clothes on the back porch. She left her gold, Hunt High School Class of ’56 ring on the dresser. She left her baby, Gloria, in her sister Betsy’s arms. And then, on a hot summer day in 1960, Lyrian Wyvonne Barry boarded a Greyhound bus bound for St. Louis and disappeared behind a cloud of Mississippi dust.
It has become the benchmark by which all storms are measured. It has become the stark demarcation between life before and after, with Hurricane Katrina sitting squarely in the middle of coastal residents’ collective memory — as vivid today as the muddy water lines and red spray-paint which can still be seen on homes uninhabitable, abandoned.