John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Train ride gives glimpse of flood, history’s mark

Amtrak resumed operation between Carbondale, Illinois and Memphis Saturday after floodwaters from the Mississippi River receded along the line between Cairo, Illinois and Memphis.

The southbound Amtrak I boarded at Memphis Saturday morning was the last scheduled to make the temporarily abbreviated trip from New Orleans to Memphis and back. The next southbound Amtrak to pass through Memphis was to have departed Chicago at 8 p.m. Saturday and travel all the way to New Orleans.

There were several reasons that I went to Memphis instead of my usual boarding station at Greenwood. I don’t have to have someone pick up my car at Memphis. In Greenwood, the parking area is not secure. I once returned to find my van’s window broken and its contents missing. So paltry were the pickings that a few days later I received by mail a note of apology from the car burglar stating that if he had known how worthless would be the stuff he stole, he would not have bothered. I made that last sentence up. The rest is true.

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At Memphis, I left my van parked right next to the tracks in a lot shared with a police precinct substation. It felt secure. On my return tonight (Tuesday), I’ll learn whether my confidence was justified.

Other reasons for boarding at Memphis: To see if it offered a view of Mississippi River flooding. It offered a few, mainly where the tracks passed McKellar Lake south of Memphis. There was also water lapping at the edge of the bluff south of Yazoo City, but I would have seen that if I had boarded at Greenwood.

Then there was the old store building at Money, Mississippi where Emmett Till had the encounter that ended with his brutal murder. I had thought I had spotted it during an earlier trip, but when I learned last week that a Civil Rights Trail marker had been placed there, I was watching again over the countryside as the train traveled in southern Tallahatchie County.

I asked several nearby passengers to help me look for the store. I knew that if we spotted the newly-placed marker it would confirm our alignment. Kit, a Hernando native traveling with her Canadian husband, and another Canadian whom they had met by chance on the train, were quite eager to help.

We crossed the Tallahatchie River at Phillip and then, just over the county line in Leflore County, we saw the new marker in front of the now-ramshackle store building. The dirt at the base of the marker was still fresh from its recent placement. We felt like we had glimpsed a little-known landmark of history, now placed to remind future generations of its significance.

Placement of the marker at Money will be followed by placement in other locations throughout the state in a program to establish a Civil Rights Trail sponsored by the Mississippi Development Authority.

In Panola County, the Panola Partnership has worked with MDA to identify significant landmarks that will record brief descriptions of the significant role this county played as black people established their right to vote. We await word of their placement.