Nearly three decades ago, most of the once-bustling businesses in downtown Laurel, Miss., had shuttered their windows, and the brick streets that criss-crossed the Pine Belt town’s center were void of pedestrians and drivers alike.
A city renewal project in the mid-1970s in the wake of federal prohibitions against segregated commerce, had closed Central Avenue for almost two years, removing all possibility of storefront parking and discouraging any would-be shoppers from patronizing the historic commerce district. The advent of the Sawmill Square Mall in 1979 further crippled downtown businesses, and shop owners who survived the low years of the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s agree that for the ensuing three decades, the downtown was effectively “dead.”
Today, downtown Laurel is enjoying a resurgence thanks to locals and outside assistance. As always throughout its history, like that of other Mississippi towns, it’s complicated.
Coming of Age During the Dry Years
The dry years made Laurel a hard place to be a teenager, a fact Chad Knight remembers well. “When I was a teenager hanging out in downtown, there was nothing there. There were busted streets and buildings, and nothing was going on,” Knight recalled. The teenagers decided to create their own fun, though, organizing a music festival called “Laurelpalooza” that showcased the talents of Jones County artists. The first set played in 1994, and the festival rolled full-speed ahead for the next eight years.
“We were in band in high school, so we always looked forward to it,” Knight said. A few rowdy party-goers spoiled the yearly event in 2006, leading the mayor to shut down the festival following reports of underage drinking at the Magnolia Center, the metal building at the south Mississippi fairgrounds where the teenagers hosted the local musicians.
Discouraged but determined to push forward, Knight decided to employ his recently finished meat-processing certificate from Jones County Junior College, now Jones College, in Seattle, Wash., while continuing to develop his musical career.
“I played music, and I wanted to get a taste of big-city life,” Knight admitted. “They had cool, independent butcher shops, and I was out there for four years doing that and playing gigs on weeknights and weekends.”
In 2015, Knight reflected on his career’s trajectory and realized that despite the dry years of his youth, he wanted to come back home. That year, Knight and his wife, Terri, returned to his hometown and opened The Knight Butcher.
“If I was going to do it permanently,” Knight said, “I was going to do it in my hometown.”
A year later, Knight used the storefront to bring back the music festival of his teenage years, an act he hopes will bear fruit for the next generation of high-school hopefuls. “In the mid-2000s, we were wide open, but we’re in the digital age, and it’s different now,” Knight said. “There (were) only two acts (in this year’s festival) who are right out of high school or still in high school.”
Every act from this year’s two-stage Nov. 6 festival was homegrown, though, as featured artists either hail from Jones County or are transplants who now call the Pine Belt town home.
‘The New Laurel’: Locals and Transplants
The “transplant” title is true for a growing number of Laurel residents, as the popularity of the HGTV series “Hometown,” which debuted in 2016, led to a widespread resurgence of interest in and a revitalization of the once-stagnant downtown. Local stars Ben and Erin Napier renovated historic homes and frequented local businesses while they were at it, all on-camera, making the small town a more attractive place to settle.
Rod Rowell, the owner of Lott Furniture Company, said that the true spark that ignited the flame that has seen almost 30 businesses open in the downtown area in the last eight years came prior to the television show, though.
“(Business owners) were working themselves to death for free for years before the show came here,” Rowell claimed. “They were finding facade grants and finding banners to cover up ugly buildings. It set the scene for ‘Hometown.’ People think that ‘Hometown’ brought (Laurel) back, but I think if people weren’t doing the work, (the show) wouldn’t have come here.”
The business owner is well-acquainted with the years of labor that were required to bring downtown Laurel into the new age. His mother, Nellie Rowell, began working at Lott Furniture as a recent high-school graduate in the years following World War II. Nellie would never have another job, as she worked her way up through the ranks and into management before eventually purchasing all of the stock in the Laurel store in the mid-1990s.
“On the last day she lived, she worked,” Rowell remembered. “She liked to talk about how strong women had a lot to do with Laurel’s great success. Laurel has a history of strong women. They go beyond the call of duty.”
Rowell’s daughter, Keri, reinforced her father’s ideas of strong women when she left college to return to the family business, despite her initial misgivings. “I grew up downtown with my parents,” she remarked. “Once I got to be in high school, I said I wasn’t going to stay. I went to college for a little while, and I moved home after one semester. I didn’t choose to stay until a couple of years after that.”
The downtown area’s revitalization was central to Keri Rowell’s eventual decision to join the family business, but she and her father acknowledged that the initial influx of tourists was hard for their small business to manage at first.
“It was terrifying,” the elder Rowell admitted. “Our older, committed customer base was moving to rentals, and when ‘Hometown’ premiered, we started seeing more affluent customers.”
The Rowells’ commitment to low-cost furniture just wasn’t what the new downtown shoppers were looking for, and Rod Rowell said that it took him and his family four or five years to adapt to what he calls “the new Laurel.”
‘A Facade of Laurel’: ‘A City Beautiful’?
Despite this emergence of a reinvigorated Laurel that has beckoned visitors from as far away as Poland, New Zealand and Australia, some Laurel residents find themselves skeptical of the HGTV show’s local ramifications.
“I think there’s a lot of gentrification going on,” Chera Sherman-Breland, who served as the general manager of a Laurel restaurant for over a decade, said. “When you see an episode (of “Hometown”) and you see a house they’re redoing, you know that if they’d pan the camera to the left or the right, you’d see people living in poverty.”
Thirty-one percent of Laurel residents do live at or below the poverty line, and Sherman-Breland points out that many such families are Black or Brown, as the city currently hovers around 69% Black or Latino. “(The show) is driving up housing prices for people who actually live in Laurel,” Sherman-Breland, a white woman whose children are Black, observed. “(Real-estate developers) buy at low prices, but then they drive prices up for people that can’t afford it.”
“I don’t think that’s their intention,” Sherman-Breland said of the showrunners. “I think that they have done a great job at trying to be inclusive. They’ve had people of color and gay couples on the show, and I appreciate that because it’s important, but it’s still frustrating for people who live in the area and aren’t getting any of the benefit from (the show) whatsoever.”
The city itself, however, has benefitted from the resurgence of interest in downtown Laurel, as an uptick in revenue and patronage in the downtown area resulted in a $20,000 lighting project designed solely to provide “nostalgic lighting” that would be reminiscent of 1930s Laurel.
“They need to try to harness some of that revenue and put it back into the actual community,” Sherman-Breland asserted. “The whole town gets behind the Laurel High School football team, but (the City’s) weight and money is not put behind them to be successful academically.”
Laurel High School has less than 4% white students in a town that is about one-third white. Local schools have suffered race-based segregation/resegregation patterns like many other Mississippi public schools.
Sherman-Breland attributes the failure of affluent Laurel families who have prospered alongside the city for this neglect of its public school system, whose proficiency ratings in math and reading currently hover around 25%.
“If they’d put their kids in the local high schools and put their money and weight behind that, Laurel could really grow, and things could get better for the entire community,” Sherman-Breland said of the white-flight drain to private schools and to predominantly white public schools out in the county. “So much more could have come out of this than a facade of Laurel.”
‘When Evil Lived in Laurel’
This veneer of Laurel has long concealed a lingering ugliness that lurked just beneath its surface, even as the boom of the Eastman, Gardiner and Co. Sawmill at the turn of the 20th century caused Laurel’s economy to soar. When its owners sold the mill on the heels of the Great Depression in the late 1930s, Laurel had no economic buoy to bolster the swarm of working-class families who had come into the city during its prosperous years, and it began its long decline, which Laurel’s staunch segregation and deep racial unrest further complicated.
In 1942, Black Laurel resident Howard Wash was arrested for killing his white boss in self-defense after the man attacked him when he showed up late for work, but as he awaited trial at the local jail, a white mob dragged him from his cell and lynched him, hanging him from Welborn’s Bridge, where Time Magazine reported that he hanged “limp like a broken crow, his slack toes pointed down at the drying creek.”
The federal grand jury that convened the following year handed down a pair of indictments in the lynching, charging four private citizens and then-Deputy Luther Holder, marking the first time ever that a law enforcement officer would face charges for his neglect of a Black prisoner and only the second time that a federal indictment had been mounted against white citizens for the lynching of a Black man.
Despite this early example of Black justice in the face of white vigilante crime, the Ku Klux Klan would rise to power in Jones County during the mid-20th century, as grand wizard Samuel Bowers made his home there out in the country.
Bowers was what the dialect of south Mississippi would have termed a “no-account,” as he spent his days cobbling together coins from the many pinball machines he owned and spent his nights holding court at John’s Restaurant and Lounge in downtown Laurel, catty-corner from the first hospital in Laurel.
In 1964, local and national authorities suspected that Bowers was involved in planning the murders of civil-rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Neshoba County, Miss. Two years later, Bowers ordered the firebombing of civil-rights activist Vernon Dahmer’s home in neighboring Forrest County. Dahmer would later die of the injuries and smoke inhalation he suffered during the burning of his family home.
Tom Landrum, an informant who had infiltrated the KKK at the behest of the FBI, wrote to the government about Bowers’ murderous orders, but the grand wizard evaded imprisonment after a pair of hung juries in 1968 and 1969.
Landrum’s pleas for the FBI to intervene in Laurel fell on deaf ears, and he became increasingly scared for his life, reporting that he feared an assailant may shoot him every time he turned his back toward his kitchen window to wash his hands or a dish at the sunken sink in his galley-style kitchen.
These growing concerns persisted for another 29 years, as a Forrest County court did not convict Bowers for the assassination of Dahmer until 1998, on the heels of a mere six-year sentence for the triple-homicide in Neshoba County. Landrum would later tell his story to Curtis Wilkie, who included those accounts in his 2021 book “When Evil Lived in Laurel.”
Other Dreams for Laurel, Still
Pearl Campbell, who owns “Pearl’s Diner,” a downtown Laurel restaurant that has been prominently featured on “Hometown,” does not remember much of Samuel Bowers’ reign of terror in Jones County, but she does remember attending Oak Park Vocational School, the state’s first vocational and agricultural school for Black students, modelled on the Tuskegee Institute.
“Oak Park was segregated, but it was one of the best schools I’ve ever read about or known about,” Campbell remarked. At the time Campbell attended, the school’s success stories were already well-known, as Ralph Boston, the Olympic gold medalist who was the first to break the 27-foot threshold in the long jump, ran track with Campbell’s great aunt.
“I had a good upbringing,” Campbell said. “Even though it was segregated, we had Black business, Black doctors, Black lawyers. It’s always worried me that back in the day when my mom was coming up, we had so many Black businesses. Now, there are very few Black businesses in Laurel, and that bothers me.”
Campbell missed many of those years of attrition, as she left Mississippi after her first year as a teacher to pursue better-paying jobs in education in another state. After 34 years away, Campbell’s father, now 95, persuaded her to come home.
“Why don’t you come home? You’re not married, and you don’t have any babies. Come home so we can enjoy each other,” Campbell’s dad told her.
She obliged, returning to Laurel in 2015 to spend time with her father and her only sister, but she said that Laurel didn’t feel so much like the place she had once left. “I didn’t see anything that was there for me,” Campbell lamented. “But I started thinking, and I realized that I loved cooking and that I’m very good with people.”
Pearl’s Diner opened two years later, and Campbell said that her grandmother’s recipes made a name for the Magnolia Street eatery long before it was ever featured on “Hometown.”
“I’ve never worked that hard in my life,” Campbell said with a laugh regarding her early days at the diner. “Up until about a year ago, I went in every day. The first two years, I was building the business. I had to make sure everything was right, and I had to train up young people who had never had jobs.”
The young people who learned customer service at Campbell’s knee think of her as a grandmotherly figure, which Campbell said she loves, especially when her customers feel the same way. “My fans are so important to me,” she enthused. “I like to take pictures with them and have them love on me.”
Campbell said that that popularity helped her stay afloat during the pandemic, remarking, “The restaurant is the best way for me to explain to anybody that if you trust God, he will do far more than you ever dreamed he would do.” Campbell, though, has other dreams still for Laurel.
“My hope for Laurel is for Black and white people to be part of each other’s businesses,” Campbell reflects. “I’m not going to complain; everyone is struggling to make a living. But right now, if a customer comes in and I have time, I’ll show them the other businesses and tell them about the oldest business and things like that. I’d like to see everybody do that. I don’t want to put a negative view on it, because Laurel’s come a long way. But I believe it can get there.”
“After all, I was born and raised here, and Laurel means a lot to me,” Campbell concludes.
“This is my ‘hometown,’ too.”