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They Serve Fried Catfish in Glory

by Carrie Allen Tipton

Ever since the advent of text messaging several years ago, my mother faithfully sends a peculiar annual dispatch, a yearly version of the phrase “I’m headed to Glory tonight,” hurtling through the ether from her phone in northwest Mississippi. More alarming are the variants that read “Went to Glory last night — had a great time!” or, worse yet, “On the way to Glory right now — pictures to come!” Admittedly she does occupy Southern Baptist circles, a group of folks that tends to conceptualize the space-time continuum in terms of the very tail-end of it. But her text messages are not metaphorical apocalyptic references; they are quite literal. A family in her church has owned for many years a piece of country property upon which sits squarely a dogtrot cabin. They named the property Glory, and, fittingly, host an annual Sunday School picnic in this blessed locale.

Some names that appropriate religious terminology overpromise and underdeliver: the Promised Land brand of milk (although it is organic, it has not transported me to Canaan); the schoolchild mom once taught named Messiah (he was not). But Glory delivers. A flat clearing in the north Mississippi forest surrounds a long wooden cabin with sagging sides, not far from a fishing pond and of course garnished with a porch swing. It delivers even in the dead of winter, which is when I finally saw the place. Home from a difficult semester of graduate school, I asked dramatically to be taken to Glory. My father warned that it was enclosed by a locked fence and that we might not be able to get in. I hoped this was not because of my Presbyterianism. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this association should have gotten me a VIP pass through the narrow gate. Presbyterian missionaries were the first white settlers in the county, appearing in 1819 to proselytize this part of Choctaw territory, and establishing a mission on the very same dusty Robinson Road that runs by Glory.

Ironically, it was only due to continued cessions of land by Choctaw and Creek tribes that Mississippi had been able to claim statehood in the first place in 1817. By the early 1900s, after decades of change in governmental relations between white folks and Indians, an Indian agency had been erected on Robinson Road; according to a 1909 county map, it sat about 300 yards from the edge of Glory. The road itself, the first public one in Oktibbeha County, was officially funded in the 1820s, the decade of the Presbyterian Invasion. Contemporary with and frustrating to the missionizing efforts, Robinson saw the erection of another, decidedly un-Presbyterian structure: Folsom Inn, “known for its heavy drinkers and nightly brawls,” according to James Cole’s photographic compendium Oktibbeha County. Baptists did not formally get cranked up in the county until 1839, so they can rightfully be considered interlopers in Glory.

It was a grey-brown winter day when we went, the kind that in northern Mississippi sees the sky and land united in a relentless quest for colorlessness. We bundled into the car and drove miles into the undulating and amorphous winterscape, turning at last onto Robinson Road. If the mission or Folsom Inn or Indian agency were still standing, we didn’t see them. The road’s deep muddy ruts, banked by steep undergrowth, testified to its age. Long ago this little road connected such exotic places as Nashville, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi, threading its way into the county at the magically-named Artesia and stretching southeast to the Noxubee River. The current owner of Glory, Dr. Jack Denson, has been told that at one time, five stagecoaches a day rumbled back and forth in the road’s ruts. At the time the road was built in the 1820s, there were few whites and perhaps no African Americans in the county, but things change fast. Forty years later, the 1860 census recorded the county’s population as 5,171 whites, 7,631 slaves, 18 free blacks and 157 Indians.

Local lore has it that the lane was further deepened by the feet of Civil War soldiers. Perhaps they were part of Grierson’s Raid, which ripped through the county in 1863. We turned off of Robinson Road into Glory on our own little raid and found the fence surrounding it padlocked to Baptists and Presbyterians alike. The sagging cabin was visible in the clearing, its gently fading white exterior and dark screen door exactly as I had imagined it (it was the sort of place one might have memories of without having been there). Unlike the wooden shacks of the Mississippi Delta, exposed to all eyes and announcing their presence mile upon flat mile in advance, this one was hidden by still-dense foliage. Although Dr. Denson is uncertain about the cabin’s precise building date, he quotes local residents as saying it was built “during the war” (they mean the Civil War). He has found architectural and structural details that confirm this.

I tried to picture it as it would look in a few short months, with folding chairs full of laughing Baptists and gas cookers full of sizzling catfish while a spring sun’s shadows lengthened to match the equally-long front and back porches. According to mom, that catfish, ordered from a local farmer, constitutes the picnic’s “main attraction,” although “the friers also do for hush puppies and fried potatoes. After that, most folks prefer banana pudding. Or caramel cake.” I am impressed that most folks still have room after the first two courses. Photos of Glory, glanced at later to refresh that perhaps-it-was-the-first-time memory, fill in the gaps of detail, although they too are devoid of people. (I have still never seen Glory, in image or in life, populated.) Empty metal chairs are ranged expectantly along the porch, a few with weathered striped cushions, waiting for pious behinds to warm them come picnic-time. Six wooden stalks support the warped tin roof; scrutiny shows some of them to rest upon modestly turned pediments —perhaps a poorer cousin’s nod to the Greek revival columns that festoon two-story mansions across the state.

Several years later I finally visited Glory in the summertime. Mom called the owners to ask if anybody would shoot at us if we happened to go out to the property. No shooting to worry about, they told us; and further, we ought to take a picnic lunch. We didn’t pack lunch; had it been the 1940s, we could have bought produce at the little fruit stand that operated there, and in a pinch we could have snitched some muscadines or scuppernongs that still flourish in the small arbor. When we arrived, the cattlegate (more of a humangate in this instance) was locked, and I am sorry to report that my mother contemplated the thought of scaling the fence with much glee. I found a more respectable way, a gap between barbed wire and trees, so we scrambled through the undergrowth and popped out in the clearing.

We wandered the land, crowing over long, pale, thin carp weaving in and out of the shadows of a murky pond, admiring peacock-colored dragonflies, and ringing the heavy dinnerbell hanging outside the cabin. The bell is native to the county, if not to the property; it once belonged to a large plantation a few miles away. Of course the trip was captured on our iPhones, and we dispatched videos and photos right there from Glory, along with a few uploads to Facebook and Instagram for good measure. It was not the first time Glory had been on the cutting edge of technology: a century and a half earlier, the county’s first telegraph line was installed on Robinson Road.

My grandfather, also a Baptist minister and a Southerner, had the habit of asking, after dinnertime, what appeared to be an existential question with profound cosmological consequences: “Is there any Hereafter?” He was inquiring about dessert, which he referred to as “the Hereafter.” As in the naming of Glory, he did what many Southerners have been compelled to do — draw on religious terminology to describe mundane experiences so sublime that they cannot be rendered in ordinary speech. (And like the picnics at Glory, he also conflated food and heaven.) In this same vein, by some mystical process, Biblical cartography has been mapped onto the terrain of the U.S. South, sprinkling the map liberally with places like Manassas, Macedonia, Carthage, Corinth, Sardis, Eden, Damascus. And Hope and Glory. Perhaps a region so often poor and wrong and belittled and neglected has scraped together some shards of dignity by conferring names of epic cosmological proportions on shabby cabins in clearings in the woods. Or perhaps, if you were to see it, you would know it really is Glory.

There is also a less mystical process at work by which many things have not been named in the South. The 1860 census from Oktibbeha County, for instance, did not record the actual names of any slaves — only their ages and genders. They were meant to be faceless. A slow creeping motion toward restoring those faces could be felt a few years later, when starting in 1866, their names were finally recorded in black county marriage indexes, even if some entries were marked with the sad reminder that many of them couldn’t understand what those letters represented on paper. (“Can Not Read” was a common designation in postbellum Southern marriage indexes for both blacks and whites.) One hundred and fifty years later, if we are honest about it, the South is still learning to name, and write, and read its own past. And a quiet old property half-hidden on a dusty old Mississippi road will tell you the story of that past as well as any history book will, if you just know how to read it.

Photos courtesy of Monica Allen Photography.

Carrie Allen Tipton lives in Houston and writes and lectures about classical music, American popular music, religion and Southern culture. Most recently, she has lectured on black gospel music history in Texas at the Houston Ebony Opera Guild’s annual summer concert. She holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Georgia, as well as degrees in Music Education and Piano Performance. She has taught university classes on topics ranging from African American music to sacred music in the United States and classical music. Her work has appeared inPop Matters, the Equals Record, Curator MagazineReligion Dispatches, Black Grooves and the Journal of the Society for American Music, among other places. New work is upcoming in Texas Heritage Magazine and the new Grove Dictionary of American Music. This essay is based on a small piece of property in Mississippi occupied by an antebellum cabin and indeed named Glory. 

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