A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City. The museum, which can only be experienced through a guide-led tour, immerses you in the tenement story. Through the lens of the building itself, this museum tells the story of thousands of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries by exploring sections of one particular building on the Lower East Side that was home to many different people since 1863.
The tour I went on focused on the bottom level of the building, where numerous shops have rested over the years. As my group walked down the steps into the building, we were transported to 1870, to a German lager saloon. We learned about the couple who owned the saloon, their hardships, adopted children, the organizations they were members of, and imagined their lives in the very space we were sitting. Next, we learned about the kosher grocery store, the kosher butcher shop, and the peddler’s store that resided in the same space that was once a saloon.
As we learned more about each shop that inhabited this space, I thought about how amazing it was that such varied stories existed there—a German lager saloon, a kosher butcher, a lingerie store. I imagined all the owners sitting down for dinner together, discussing the hardships of owning a business in New York City.
I felt similarly about an historic building in Jackson—The Fairview Inn.
The first time I went to the Fairview Inn, I met with members of the selection committee for Jewish Cinema Mississippi, the Jewish film festival that takes place each January in Jackson. As we were drinking gourmet cocktails named for Mississippi authors (the bar at the Fairview is called The Library Lounge), I listened to the history of the bed and breakfast. The previous owner, who turned the space into a bed and breakfast, was William Simmons.
Simmons was born in Utica, MS in 1916 and grew up in Jackson, MS. He founded the Citizens’ Council in Jackson, which was a part of a network of white supremacist organizations. The groups opposed racial integration in the 1950s and 60s, using intimidation, economic boycotts, propaganda, and violence. Simmons functioned as editor and publisher of The Citizen, Administrator of Citizens’ Councils of America, and President of Citizens’ Council Forum. As a Citizens’ Council representative, he appeared on television and spoke to audiences across the nation. Upon hearing this, I felt a bit nervous in the space. I imagined Council meetings taking place where I was sitting.
But this place is now an entirely different sort of space: In 2006, the Fairview was purchased from Simmons by Peter and Tamar Sharp—a Jewish couple.
There is now a mezuzah on the front door, and Jewish organizational meetings often take place inside. This place is not The Fairview Inn of the past. Walking through the building, you can still learn about its history—but it is an entirely different space today.
Since I moved to Mississippi in June, I’ve had the chance to learn about the complex and inspiring history of Jews in the South. There’s something about living here I haven’t quite been able to put into words. While spending a few days with the TENT tour last week, Dr. Eric Goldstein perfectly captured what I’ve been feeling—he said that there’s an incredible weight of history here. This weight lends a feeling of significance and sanctity to sites that might otherwise seem ordinary. Sitting at the Fairview Inn, I think about the role we play in repurposing spaces, that spaces are shaped by the people who inhabit them.
Do you know the history of the space you live or work in? Does this history impact the way you experience that space today? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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This post is from a new staff member, 2013-2015 ISJL Education Fellow Lex Rofes.
A few weeks ago, I listened intently as Beverly Wade Hogan, President of Tougaloo College, gave a truly inspirational speech. Entitled “The Responsibility of Privilege,” President Hogan discussed the importance of recognizing the advantages each of us may have in life, and taking from those advantages not a sense of entitlement but rather a sense of obligation to better the communities in which we live.
Tougaloo College is located in Jackson, Mississippi. I too am located in Jackson, now –so it might be logical to assume that I heard this speech at Tougaloo itself or somewhere else nearby. In fact, that is not the case. A few weeks ago, as I listened to President Hogan’s speech, I was sitting in a Baptist church not in Mississippi but in Providence, Rhode Island, at my college graduation ceremony.
It felt poetic, almost as if this gathering was specifically catered to my life. My classmates in Providence (my past community) listened intently as a leading figure in my future community (Jackson, Mississippi) provided some words of motivation as I transitioned from one to the next. As I sat in that church, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit special. Whereas just about every student in that room had no tangible way of connecting to our graduation speaker, I felt close to her because I knew I would be moving to the place that she calls home.
I felt like I knew Jackson, and I felt like I knew Mississippi. For two months, I had known I would be moving there to be an Education Fellow at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, and for two months I had done a little bit of Googling about my soon-to-be home. I knew the names of a few restaurants, I looked up the names of some of Mississippi’s leading political figures, and I even could tell you which area parks had facilities for me to play my beloved sport of disc golf. These surface level bits of information, in my head, were grounds for a real emotional connection to what would become my new home.
Since arriving down here, I already resent Two-Weeks-Ago-Lex. I would even say that Two-Weeks-Ago-Lex was incredibly presumptuous. If I had a time machine, I would go back and give him a piece of my mind. Basically, I was operating under one incredibly flawed assumption: that from my computer in New England, I could gain an understanding of a city a thousand miles away by reading a few books and running a few Googling searches. In reality, it takes time to understand the nature of a new place, and the only way to do so is by immersing yourself in it fully.
Now, more than ever, I am taking President Hogan’s advice to heart. Along with the other new ISJL Fellows, I am committed to more than living as passive recipients of the attractions Jackson has to offer. I am committed to engaging in the community where I now live, contributing to better our city and our region, and take responsibility.
Pictured: A peaceful spot on the Reservoir… a place best discovered when you meet Mississippi, in person.