Blogs > Jim Loewen > They Thought He Was Black, so They Claimed the Inn Was Full.

Apr 11, 2018

They Thought He Was Black, so They Claimed the Inn Was Full.

tags: racism,Mississippi Delta

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

            Donald Trump and family are building, or at least branding, two new motels in the Mississippi Delta. in Bolivar County.[1]

            The Mississippi Delta is not the delta of the Mississippi River. It is the primordial flood plain between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers. Its most famous description is by writer David Cohn, who lived in Greenville, in the heart of the Delta: "The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg." Cohn encapsulated not only its geographic extent but also the racial and socioeconomic divide for which the Delta is so infamous. 

            Back in 1970 when I lived in Bolivar County, the next county north of Greenville, it had just two motels, both in Cleveland, its main county seat.[2] The Colonial Inn was larger and boasted an outdoor pool, along with four white columns in front, referencing antebellum plantation architecture.[3] The Holiday Inn Express was more utilitarian. It had no pool. 

            I had a grant from the Ford Foundation to engage several students and fellow faculty members from Tougaloo College to do a community study of Mound Bayou, often called the nation's oldest all-black town. For the students, I had rented the large brick home built by Isaiah T. Montgomery, the founder of the town. Montgomery had been born enslaved, on Joseph Davis's plantation at Davis Bend in southwest Mississippi, in 1847. His father Ben, a brilliant man who had made several inventions while a slave, taught him to read. He then became Joseph Davis's private secretary. The Davis families (Joseph and Jefferson) fled the area when Grant's forces came near, en route to taking Jackson and then Vicksburg during the Civil War. They left the Montgomerys in charge of their plantation. Isaiah later served as a cabin boy in the Union navy during the battles of Grand Gulf and Vicksburg. 

            From 1866 through 1878, the Montgomerys ran the former Davis plantations, which they had bought. In 1873, Montgomery & Sons was the third largest cotton producer in the South. But in 1878, Jefferson Davis sued his own relatives and won back control of the plantations. 

            Nine years later, Isaiah Montgomery led several of the Davis Bend settlers to land he had bought in Bolivar County. They founded Mound Bayou, which claims to be the South's first all-black town, although it often was not quite all black. Certainly it wasn't while I was living there. 

            By 1970, the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a black self-help and fraternal/sororal organization, owned Montgomery's home. They also owned and ran the hospital, which for decades had been the only hospital serving African Americans in Bolivar County and adjoining counties. On its grounds was a modern mobile home. My wife and two-month-old son and I lived in the mobile home for the summer. 

            My then wife was then Catholic. Hence, in a few weeks it came time for my son's christening at the Catholic Church in Mound Bayou. My parents decided to come down for the ceremony. We had no room for them in our mobile home, and students occupied each bedroom in Montgomery's mansion, so I needed to reserve a room for them. 

            I phoned the Colonial Inn and made the reservation. Then I thought about the pool. I knew my students had never been in a swimming pool before, since Mississippi cities had closed their public pools rather than allow African Americans to use them. Since they were not staying there, however, the motel might legitimately deny them the pool, and I did not want to expose them to such embarrassment. So I called back to ask if my students might use the pool. 

            "I don't think so," the clerk replied. "You know how things are down here." I realized she had noticed my Northern accent. 

            The next morning, my wife awakened with a problem: a clogged milk duct. Luckily, Mound Bayou had an almost-new medical facility, the Tufts Delta Health Center, founded by Dr. H. Jack Geiger in 1965. All three of us – mother, father, and baby – drove over to the clinic. While my wife waited to be seen, an announcement came over the intercom: "Telephone call for James Loewen. Will James Loewen please come to the front desk." 

Tufts Delta Health Center today, with plaque about its founding.

            I was astounded. How did anyone know I was at the Health Center? I had only been there one other time in my life! Twenty minutes earlier, we had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive over. Professors at Tougaloo knew some of us were being watched by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, but I didn't think they were this efficient. Drones were not even on drawing boards, after all. I walked to the front desk, was handed a phone, and said a hesitant "Hello? This is Jim Loewen." 

            "This is the manager at the Colonial Inn," a man replied. He had surmised I must work at Tufts Delta Health Center. Where else might a professional-sounding black Northerner work in Mound Bayou? "I'm sorry to report to you that our clerk made an error, the other day. You wanted a reservation for Friday, June 12, right?" 

            "I did," I replied, "for my parents, and I was given one."

            "Well, that's the thing," he replied. "You see, my clerk took down your reservation on the wrong day, and on the right day, we're all full up!"

            "Really!" I replied, knowing immediately what had happened. Living up to its name, the Colonial Inn wanted to head off any use of its pool by black folks. I could not argue with him, of course, because he could see his reservation sheet and I could not, so I hung up courteously. 

            Back home later that morning, I reserved my folks a room at the Holiday Inn Express. 

The Colonial Inn c.1970, its swimming pool in the center, its four columns visible to the left.

            Friday June 12th arrived. So did my folks and my sister, who was going to sleep in our mobile home. I showed them the way to the Holiday Inn and then drove my sister to the Colonial Inn. We both walked in, unannounced of course. "My folks are in the car," I said to the desk clerk, "and they need a room for tonight. Do you have any rooms?" 

            "Yes, of course," she replied. "What do you need?" She proceeded to list the various options and prices. I asked her to write down the rate for a two-bed double. "My father never thinks I get it right," I offered as an excuse for getting her to do the writing. Of course, I was collecting evidence. That's also why my sister was at my side, as a witness. The clerk complied. 

            Once outside, we drove off, no longer needing the room. We enjoyed the weekend with my folks, including the christening in Mound Bayou. I knew the priest; he was also the Catholic chaplain at Tougaloo. After the ritual, we all adjourned to our mobile home for refreshments, including the Tougaloo students. 

            On our next trip to Jackson, the state capital, I conferred with my friend Frank Parker, a peerless civil rights lawyer who would in 1980 help us win Loewen v. Turnipseed, our lawsuit on behalf of a new textbook in Mississippi history that the state had rejected. Parker threw cold water on my plan to turn my Colonial brush-off over to the FBI. "You haven't got a case," he said.

            "Why not?" I inquired. "Clearly the game they played was racial." 

            "Of course it was," Frank replied. "But here's the problem. Imagine that you are the wife of a really awful plutocrat. Everyone hates him – his employees, his associates, and especially you, his wife. Finally, one night, you have had enough. You go out to the mall and buy a pistol. Returning, you tiptoe up to the master bedroom, find your husband lying asleep in bed, and fill him full of lead.

            "However, unbeknownst to you, earlier that evening a work associate, also fed up with him, had come to your home, found the door unlocked, sneaked upstairs to the bedroom, and shot your husband. 

            "Are you guilty of murder?" 

Frank Parker in 1996 (Wikipedia, courtesy Anne Lawver)

            I didn't get a chance to answer before Frank plunged ahead. “You're not! You tried to murder your husband, but all you did was shoot a corpse, because he was not alive. Similarly, the Colonial Inn tried to commit racial discrimination, but they failed, because you are not black!" 

            I had to admit Frank's logic but decided to persevere anyway. I wrote up an account of the episode and sent it to the local FBI office, along with a photocopy of the clerk's statement of room availability and price on the day in question. The problem was hardly unique to the Colonial Inn, after all. According to a civil rights case decision, "blacks who travel the country, though entitled by law to the facilities for sleeping and dining that are offered all tourists, may well learn that the "vacancy" sign does not mean what it says, especially if the motel has a swimming pool."[4]

            The FBI did take my complaint seriously. Even though Parker was doubtless correct about the law, still, as a bureaucracy, the FBI wanted to satisfy me, so they send an agent to talk with me. They also visited the Colonial Inn and talked with its manager. Then they reported back to me that the manager would like to meet me and make an apology. 

            I went to see the manager. He did not admit that his whole charade was racially motivated. He vowed that the Colonial Inn was open to all races. "We have one boy, he stays with us every month on his route," he assured me, unaware that his use of "boy" for a salesman who was undoubtedly twenty and probably forty undercut his denial of racism. 

            "Does he use the pool?" I asked. 

            "Well, no," he admitted. "But he could." 

            I could accomplish no more, but it did seem as if the experience had chastened the manager, at least a little. Six years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act had become law, it was having some effect. 

            That fall, I was teaching a sociology course at Tougaloo and somehow found myself recounting the episode. My students found it riveting. At the end, wound up, I found myself exclaiming, "I've had just about enough of being discriminated against because I'm black!" The room erupted in laughter. 

            I have no doubt that Trump's motels in Cleveland will be racially integrated. Bolivar County, however, is not. Until last fall, there were three high schools in Cleveland: Cleveland High School, East Side High School, and Bayou Academy, the segregated all-white private school founded in 1964. Bayou Academy doubled in size when the public schools desegregated in January, 1970. Its student population swelled again in September, 2017, when Cleveland and East Side high schools finally had to integrate.[5] Today it claims to be not racist: 

            "Bayou Academy School admits students of any race, color, national or ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color national or ethnic origin [sic] in the administration of its educational policies, admission policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic or other school administered programs."

   Meanwhile, its promotional video shows only white people. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Bayou had one Asian student, four black students, seven Hispanic students, and 343 white students last fall. It was 98.9% non-black. The chance of drawing a student body that white from an underlying population that was less than 33.5% non-black is infinitesimal, unless race or characteristics tightly associated with race influenced admission. For readers who understand statistics, the "Difference of Two Proportions Test" yields a "t-value." When t = 1.96, a difference as great or greater would happen 5 times in 100 trials, called "the 5% confidence level." When t = 2.55, a difference that great would happen 1 time in 100 casaes, "the 1% confidence level." T = 3.3 indicates an occurrence so extreme that it might happen 1 time in 1,000 trials. Higher confidence levels are rarely reported, because they rarely occur. Bayou Academy's whiteness generated a t = 24.67! The chance that a student body so white occurred by chance is less than the likelihood that the sun will not rise tomorrow morning! The hypocrisy of the academy's nondiscriminatory statement is truly breathtaking. 

            Just as Bayou Academy declares formal nonracism while race still determines who attends, so Bolivar County now claims to be formally nonracist, while race still determines life chances. The median per capita income of African Americans in the county in c.2015 was $15,901, almost $10,000 below the national black average. Meanwhile, the white median was $31,711, slightly more than the national white average. One in four African American would-be workers in the county was unemployed, compared with one in seventeen whites. In longevity, the situation was even worse: "The rural Mississippi Delta may be the first place in the United States where health stopped improving," according to a 2005 conference held in Bolivar County.[6] Data on U.S. life expectancy in 2010 published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show that males in Bolivar County could expect to live just 65.0 years, the second shortest for any county in the United States. The figure for African American males would be considerably lower.[7] To avoid these bleak statistics, people, especially African Americans, have been leaving the county for decades. Bolivar County's total population has fallen to about 33,000, about two-thirds what it was when I lived there. 

            So why build new motels? Of course, Trump will "receive city and county tax breaks" for at least the next seven years, to minimize the family's risk. As well, Bolivar County has two draws: Delta State University, a modest attraction, and tourism, mostly tied to the blues. Indeed, the Washington Post titled its story about the new Trump motels, "Trump's Sons See Green in the Blues."[8] Just down the street from one of the motels is the new Mississippi branch of Los Angeles's Grammy Museum, which exceeded attendance expectations in its first year. 

            The irony that mainly whites will benefit from a mainly black cultural tradition is not lost on African American leaders in the Delta. One of the two new motels was originally intended to repeat the plantation architecture pioneered in Cleveland by the Colonial, but local Indian American motel partners are now questioning that concept. 

            The Post story questions whether African Americans will choose to stay at Trump hotels regardless of their design. But if the management lets them use the pool, probably they will. I would have. 

    [1]Jonathan O'Connell, Trump's sons see green in the blues," Washington Post, 10/23/2017. 

    [2]Several Mississippi counties are cursed with two county seats. Rosedale, a dying town on the Mississippi River, is also a county seat of Bolivar. 

    [3]Unlike Natchez and Vicksburg, Bolivar County had no antebellum plantations, since its cotton fields were swampland until well after the Civil War. 

    [4]"Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States," 379 U. S. 241, quoted in "Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.," 392 US 409 © Supreme Court 1968. 

    [5]Edwin Rios, "A Mississippi Town Finally Desegregated Its Schools, 60 Years Late," Mother Jones, 11/2017,

    [6]Alan W. Barton, Proceedings from the Delta in Global Context Workshop, 5/27-28/2005 (Cleveland, MS: Delta state U, 2005), 

    [7]"Life Expectancy, Obesity, and Physical Activity". Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. 2010. 

    [8]Jonathan O'Connell, "Trump's Sons See Green in the Blues," Washington Post, 10/23/2017.  

Copyright James W. Loewen

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