Farish Street in Jackson is the heart of one of the country’s oldest African American communities, founded before the end of the Civil War. The neighborhood was home to the city’s small black middle class, which developed after Reconstruction and survived until desegregation. Farish Street’s identity as a hub of black life emerged from the migration of freed slaves searching for a more favorable social environment and the reality of enforced segregation.
The Farish Street neighborhood embodied the dreams, ideas, and values of these freed blacks, serving as their social, political, business, and cultural center. The district was home to a black-run hospital, funeral homes, churches, theaters, and schools. By 1908 one-third of the district was owned by blacks, and half of its black families owned their homes. From 1890 to the 1960s residents of the district could proudly claim self-sufficiency and basic freedom from white domination.
The area features numerous African American vernacular building types from ca. 1860 through the 1940s. Many of these structures were built by black carpenters, plasterers, and brick masons who were first- and second-generation freed slaves. Famous buildings in the Farish neighborhood include the Alamo Theatre and the Crystal Palace, venues for the most popular African American performers who came through Jackson.
Many early African American political leaders found a safe haven for their work in the Farish Street neighborhood. In the early twentieth century the Black and Tan Party, which consisted of the few blacks who “qualified” to vote, conducted business on Farish Street. From 1930 until his death in 1970, Dr. A. H. McCoy practiced general dentistry and dental surgery at the corner of Capitol and Farish Streets. McCoy was also passionate about equal rights and social justice. He was state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for many years, enduring threats, thrown bricks, and firebombs. During McCoy’s tenure as NAACP president, the organization held its meetings on Farish Street, always changing the location for security reasons. Medgar Evers became the organization’s state field secretary in 1954 and worked from an office at 507 North Farish Street. After his 1963 murder, most of the attendees at his funeral marched to Collins Funeral Home on North Farish Street in a mass civil rights demonstration.
For music fans, Farish Street is probably most remembered for the work of H. C. Speir and Lillian McMurry, two white furniture store owners who discovered and promoted local blues musicians. During the 1920s Speir’s Furniture store at 225 North Farish Street sold phonographs and records. Noting the heavy demand for so-called race records as well as the wealth of talent literally just outside his door, Speir basically became a freelance talent scout. He would locate, audition, rehearse, and sometimes record local blues musicians. Some of the musicians he recorded or discovered include Ishman Bracey, Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, and the Mississippi Sheiks. McMurry’s furniture store opened in 1949 at 309 North Farish Street, and a year later she went into the record business. Between 1951 and 1955 McMurry’s Trumpet Records label recorded some of the most important local blues musicians, among them Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Jerry McCain.
Farish Street has been compared to Rampart Street in New Orleans, South Parkway in Chicago, 18th and Vine in Kansas City, and Beale Street in Memphis. These streets were all hubs of black cultural life that lost their sense of neighborhood significance because of urban renewal or, ironically, because of desegregation. In 1980 the area was designated the Farish Street District and added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1995 it was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of Most Endangered Places as a consequence of neglect and of the demolition of two hundred of the area’s nine hundred buildings. In 2002 the city of Jackson signed a forty-five-year lease with Performa Entertainment Real Estate for development and management of the Farish Street Entertainment District, located on the two blocks of Farish between Amite and Hamilton Streets. However, the project has been dormant since 2014 after the US Department of Housing and Urban Development found that federal funds for the project had been misspent, and the City of Jackson no longer considers it a priority.
- Scott Barretta, Living Blues (July–August 2005)
- Adam Ganucheau, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (28 January 2015)
- Alferteen Harrison, ed., The Farish Street Historic District: Memories, Perceptions, and Developmental Alternatives (1984)
- National Trust for Historic Preservation website, www.preservationnation.org
- Jim O’Neal, Living Blues 67 (1986)
- Marc W. Ryan, Trumpet Records: Diamonds on Farish Street (2004)