Stovall House Installation
The majority of the Mississippi Delta was developed after the Civil War in the late 19th Century and early 20th century, with sharecropping becoming the dominant economic system that replaced chattel slavery. While sharecropping was often only marginally better than slavery for it’s tendency toward trapping renters into cycles of debt, the possibility of profits made possible by the fertile alluvial soil of the Delta drew tenants from around the South to these newly cleared lands and plantation owners built thousands of humble shotgun-style shacks to house these new tenants. At one time, the Mississippi Delta region claimed the largest number of African Americans living in the South. That all changed when the great migration of the mid-20th century emptied much of the Delta for destinations in the North, as mechanical cotton pickers replaced human labor. Today, those many thousands of shacks now number in the dozens, as time and neglect have taken their toll on the few remaining structures.
Until August of 2023, the front of this shack stood for over 100 years on the Stovall plantation just outside Clarksdale, MS in Coahoma Co., less than a mile from where Muddy Waters was living on the place when he was first recorded by Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress in 1942. The tenant for this particular house was Joe Willie Hollins, who was born in Yazoo City in 1906 and moved into this house in the mid-1940’s where he worked on Stovall as a farmer, mechanic, tractor driver and truck driver to transport cotton pickers. Hollins was a master Mason, Baptist Deacon and deeply respected man in his community. He died in 2018 at the age of 112 yrs. old. Having been abandoned since his death, the house had fallen into serious disrepair and was slated for razing in the fall of 2023. I was allowed by the Stovall family to salvage what I could to create this display. Most of this installation came from the original location, including the rocking chair, turkey-feather duster, horseshoe, curtains, window and wood structure. The exceptions are noted as follows:
The front door, mailbox and guitar came from the home of Joe Cole on the Young plantation in Bobo, MS, also in Coahoma Co. Joe Cole was a mechanic that lived on his former employer’s farm in the same small home with no plumbing for almost 50 years. Cole, an accomplished musician who never recorded or played his music beyond Coahoma Co., preferred to spend his time gardening and working on his truck. Twice weekly Cole collected fresh water for himself and his wife from a spigot one mile away and hauled it home for cooking and bathing.
The house number and washboard came from the home of Willie Coffee of Lake Cormorant, MS. When Coffee was a young boy growing up on the Commerce Plantation, he learned guitar from a slightly older boy named Robert Johnson who later became the greatest of all Delta blues men. Coffee spent years as an accompanist to other guitarists in the region such as Whiskey Red and Will Lovinhart. He often attended house parties where the featured entertainment would be Charlie Patton, Son House or Willie Brown, the original creators of Delta blues.
The broken mirrors flanking the door came from the old Summers hotel in Jackson, MS, the first black-owned hotel in the state capital. It became the primary hotel for traveling musicians, including James Brown, Hank Ballard, Nat King Cole and countless others. With the placement of these mirror pieces near the threshold, they serve as “ghost mirrors.” A Southern folk belief with origins in African religion holds that evil spirits are repelled by their own reflection. African fetish figures often have pieces of mirror embedded into their chests for protection. Similarly, the hanging of "ghost mirrors" on either side of the threshold of a home is believed to be one of the most powerful ways to keep out evil spirits.
The bottles mounted on the porch represent a spiritual practice that dates back to the 9th century in the Kongo, where colorful bottles were hung on huts to trap evil spirits. This practice was brought to the American South through the slave trade, where bottle trees became a common site in rural communities. The belief is that an evil spirit, attracted to beauty, would become mesmerized by the sunlight shining through the colored glass and would enter the bottle and not be able to escape. Evidence of their presence could be heard with the whistling of the wind that sounded like spirits howling and moaning within the bottles.
The water dipper, heating bucket and homemade checkerboard where recovered from various abandoned shacks in the Delta in the 1990’s.