St. James Baptist Church was once the center of Avalon, a beautiful and bustling Mississippi community. Now it is in danger of being demolished. Mary Frances Hurt, John's granddaughter and president of the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, is spearheading the effort to save this historic Church. This is the second building to bear the St. James name. It is now the last unpreserved link to the over 700 families that once called Avalon home.
The many fans who visit the Mississippi John Hurt Museum also visit the blues man's final resting place in St. James Cemetery. Often, they ask why a cemetery would be placed so far from the church that bears its name. These fans do not realize that the now overgrown St. James Road, cresting the hill to the cemetery, was once the location of rows of houses belonging to Avalon's black families. The original St. James Church stood right across the road from the cemetery.
During the week, this building also functioned as St. James School. This was the only black school in the area, its student body drawn from the children of Avalon and nearby Teoc. It was here at St. James that John Hurt attended school until the fifth grade, when he quit to help provide for his family. Gertrude Cole, who would become John's first wife, attended St. James School through ninth grade and recalled John driving a mule drawn buggy filled with students the five miles to and from St. James School each day.
Time was not kind to this structure, however, and a new church was constructed in the early 1900s. This church stands at the bottom of the hill, just a mile or two down the road, tucked off to the side of Avalon's primary thoroughfare. The "new" St. James Baptist Church, with its humble white plywood and concrete block construction, inherited all of the functions of the original church. It served as a house of worship, a community center, and even a one-room schoolhouse.
This little church at the bottom of the hill represents a 200 year old institution-one that was born through the faith and sweat of emancipated slaves, including Mississippi John Hurt's ancestors. Mary Frances Hurt reiterates this, remarking that "the church was a vital part of the lives of the entire Avalon community, including six generations of my family".
In 1900, when John was an eight year old boy, census reports cite Avalon as having a population numbering well over 1300. The majority of Avalon's African-American population toiled as farmers or worked in the gravel pit north of St. James road. Fundamentalist religions such as the Baptist Christian faith practiced at St. James provided an outlet not just for worship but for embracing one's innate human dignity, particularly important for marginalized groups such as Avalon's black sharecroppers and laborers.
William Henry Carson, a local guitar player who was the primary influence on John's musical development, would come through town often, engaging in a long courtship with a St. James schoolteacher. Through Carson's influence, young John quickly became an accomplished guitarist and would frequently return to the new St. James Church to play for gatherings and parties even after he had quit his schooling.
On Sunday mornings, the building resumed function as a house of worship, hosting not just weekly services but monthly potluck suppers for the Avalon community. Visiting St. James now, one can peer inside the windows and feel the spirits of those who depended on the sense of community and faith the church fostered. For instance, the original pulpit still stands, a silent witness to countless sermons, baptisms, and funerals, including Mississippi John Hurt's.
Like other Delta towns, the population began to dwindle as the mechanization of agriculture led to the rapid departure of many black families, seeking job opportunities up North. Avalon was a much different town before this migration. Due to the grazing of livestock and the clearance of forest to make way for farms, homes, and buildings, Avalon was a well-organized community with St. James Church as its heartbeat. Unfortunately and ironically, many of the "shotgun shacks" and other buildings representing turn of the century African-American life began to be demolished in the 1960's, around the time Mississippi John Hurt was rediscovered. At this time, Avalon was no longer incorporated as a town, with St. James Church, the Valley Store, and Mississippi John Hurt's home representing practically all that was left of the once bustling town.
St. James Church is now the last unpreserved vestige of a town that is almost completely a faded memory. If the Mississippi John Hurt Museum represents the sound of Avalon, St. James Baptist Church represents the soul. Organizations such as The Mississippi Blues Trail have assisted us in making great strides with the preservation of Mississippi John Hurt's legacy. But what about the people and town John Hurt cared for so much that he wrote a song about them both? St. James is all that remains of those lives well lived.
Mary Frances Hurt laments that should the church be torn down, she "can't imagine how many souls will forever be misplaced."
Thank you for your interest and kind help, and thank you to Mary Frances Hurt for her inspiration and invaluable contributions to this cause. Please help us save this forgotten piece of African-American history. Click below if you'd like to make a secure donation through PayPal.
The Mississippi John Hurt Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. If you are a resident of the United States, your donation is tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.