WATER VALLEY, Miss.—As Calvin Hawkins stood in the ruins of the Davidson School in Water Valley, Miss., on Saturday, May 21, 2022, he pointed to the houses across the street as a passing motorist waved at him.
“I went door-to-door,” Hawkins recounted. “I would ask anyone I could find about who they knew and their family’s story.”
Hawkins paused to wipe away the sweat running down his face as he stood in what was once the hallway of the burnt school. The fire stripped the building to its concrete base, leaving only the slab and concrete walls with openings where the classroom doors once were. Instead of desks and blackboards inside, rubble littered the floors.
“I went to school in this building until the fourth grade,” Hawkins said.
The Davidson School was an African American school in Water Valley. When it closed in 1970 following federally forced integration, the building became home to the newly named Water Valley Elementary School. The building has been closed since 1982 when the elementary school moved to a new location. The school building caught fire in August 2021, but the exact details of what started the flame are still unknown. Hawkins speculated that it was arson.
Since 2016, Hawkins has chased the history of places like the Davidson School and the people who inhabited them. Hawkins grew up in Water Valley. His father worked at the local factory, Borg-Warner, now called Solero Technologies.
“He made a good living,” Hawkins said of his father. However, the son wanted out of Water Valley, thinking he could find better opportunities in a bigger town.
After high school, Hawkins enrolled at Mississippi State University, majoring in educational psychology. He later worked for the admissions office at the University of Mississippi and eventually got a job in banking in Birmingham, Ala., but he moved back to Yalobusha County around 1997 to work in the educational-disabilities section of the Head Start program in Coffeeville.
In 2016, Hawkins, who serves as the pastor of the United Missionary Baptist Church in Coffeeville and is a member of the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, spoke at a Black History Month program at Pleasant Grove M.B. Church in Coffeeville in February 2017. Each year, speakers are invited to the church to present on a topic in Black history. Hawkins often heard presentations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, but he focused on local leaders during his presentation. As he spoke, he realized many in the community were unaware of the contributions of Black trailblazers within Yalobusha County.
“When was the first Black church in the county established? Who was the first slave sold in Water Valley?” Hawkins remembered wondering. “A lot of questions that nobody had answers to. We always hear about important figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but I wanted to know about the heroes here in Yalobusha County.”
Hawkins’ first stop was the Blackmur Memorial Library in Water Valley, Miss., where he currently serves as president. There, he opened a large, black volume entitled “The History of Yalobusha County.” The nearly six-pound book traces the county’s history from the forced removal of Native Americans in the territory to the local high schools operating within the county at the time of its publication in 1982. For Hawkins’ purpose, though, it was not useful.
“There wasn’t much Black history in that thing,” Hawkins said. Immediately, he knew he needed to act. “I decided to rewrite the history of Yalobusha County for the African American community,” he said.
He initially focused exclusively on Water Valley, but he expanded his research to the entirety of Yalobusha County after he gave a presentation on his historical research in February 2017.
Work-Life Balance and Making Ends Meet
Hawkins wanted his story to focus on the firsts of the Black community in the county, so he began visiting the Yalobusha Chancery Clerk’s Office in Water Valley and the Yalobusha County Courthouse in Coffeeville daily during his free time to write down the names and places of any land records referencing Black people.
His work schedule, however, was not conducive to the hours of the chancery clerk’s office.
“I would go to the courthouse at 4 (p.m.) when school ended and take photos of everything I could find until they closed at 5 (p.m.),” Hawkins said. “Then I would sit at home that night and dissect all the pictures I took on my iPhone, zooming in as far as I could.”
When Hawkins could make time to go during his lunch, the courthouse staff would lock him in the records room while taking their lunch breaks. When he was not hunting for physical records in the courthouse, he sought out verbal stories door-to-door and attempted to find the locations of places not found in official documents. He would also purchase ads in the newspaper seeking information and post call-outs on Facebook.
“I started locating Black cemeteries you couldn’t find on Google,” Hawkins said. “I walked (through) each cemetery and wrote down the information on each tombstone.”
In 2017, Hawkins realized the workload was too much. He had to give up something: his research or his job. So, after more than 16 years in education, he left his position as Mississippi Action For Progress Head Start regional director and did not return to the educational field for five months, when he accepted a position with the Coffeeville School District as coordinator of student services.
“I have a wife and two kids, and they thought I was crazy,” Hawkins said.
Finding Joy in History
Black Yalobusha County residents were victims of persistent race-violence from the settlement of the county in the early 19th century to after the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century. In 1876, the Redshirts, a white-supremacist group founded in Mississippi, marched with signs reading “White Man’s County, White Man’s Rule.” In 1866, Klan members in the county ambushed and murdered 77 members of the Loyal League, an organization of Black southerners committed to securing freedom for the enslaved.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the KKK was openly active in the county, vowing to maintain white rule by whatever means necessary. Its white members hung both enslaved and free Black people, burned down Black businesses and churches and installed Klan members into local and state governments. The violence persisted during and after the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century.
Hawkins wanted to focus on the successes of the Black community in Yalobusha despite the obstacles they faced for the color of their skin . The book emphasizes specific Black Yalobusha figures, such as Jack Riddick, who was the first African American law officer in the county.
The educator-turned-historian has completed the first volume of his historical project, an encyclopedic-style book of the information he gathered entitled “Under the Dusty Sand.” He let his research process inspire the title.
“All the information I found was in attics, closets or hidden under dust,” Hawkins said. Beyond simply creating literature, Hawkins used his authorship as a tool to educate the community as the project grew, speaking on local panels and at historical societies across Yalobusha County.
“I was able to take these materials someone had in their house and bring that person’s story back to life,” Hawkins said. “They would think, “Oh, that’s just some old man, and that’s where he was buried.’”
“But then I could tell them through my research that, no, this person was important to our community.”
Hawkins’ primary goal with his book is to make the history of the Black community in Yalobusha County accessible. He wants the names of Henry Vann, the first African American town supervisor, and Tom Spearman, the first Black tax collector, to be household names within Yalobusha County.
“If this information was easy to find, we would already know their names,” Hawkins said. “These stories need to be heard.”
As an educator and member of the 100 Black Men of Grenada County, an organization founded with the goal to educate and empower Black youth, Hawkins hopes to see “Under the Dusty Sand” in classrooms, where students and teachers can easily access the materials.
“They will be able to take this book and educate students, both Black and white, that there were prominent Black people in Yalobusha County for centuries,” Hawkins said. “It won’t sit untouched on a shelf. I am confident of that.”
Hawkins, now 49 years old, fell into his historical research due to a sense of duty and exploration. Although he grew up in Water Valley around many community veterans, he has had no specific training in the unearthing of hidden history.
Opening Doors and Digitizing the Past
Only one mile away from the neighborhood surrounding the Davidson School where Hawkins went door-to-door asking for information, Grant Thompson, a 28-year-old firefighter, sits in front of an array of scanners and computers. He is digitizing and unearthing the visual and written history of the town in an attempt to achieve the same goal.
“I’m completely self-taught,” Thompson said.
Much like Hawkins, the Water Valley native began a historical practice from a feeling of responsibility. His family has been in the town for over a century, amassing a wealth of physical materials and knowledge about the area.
Growing up, Thompson traversed the woods around Water Valley relentlessly until the routes were ingrained into his memory. He spent much of his time hopping between downtown businesses, as his father owned and developed several properties on Main Street. The town is the only home he knows, and he shares his knowledge of its places and people by digitizing physical records, such as photographs and newspapers, and sharing them on his Facebook page.
Most of the places and stories he shares are from the past. The people are long dead. The buildings have either been torn down or repurposed—except for one main historical site. The old Yalobusha County Jail is an abandoned two-story brick building in front of the Yalobusha Chancery Clerk’s Office, where Hawkins spent all his hours photographing land deeds.
“You might have to kick it in,” Carolyn Drake, a photographer working in Water Valley, told Thompson as they stood at the door to the second floor of the jail in May of this year.
Thompson, a Water Valley native and firefighter in Batesville, Miss., paused for a moment before making his decision. Thompson has the training to kick down doors to enter fiery buildings to save people inside. However, he had never kicked down an entry to see history that has long eluded him.
He pushed his shoulder into the door, and it fell open, pouring sunlight onto the dusty staircase that led into the cells where writing from former inmates still decorated the walls.
“I have never gotten to see this in person,” Thompson said, “I have seen the jail in thousands of photographs and films, but this is my first time inside it.”
He envisions this closed jail might one day serve as a civil-rights museum with a law-enforcement component.
“If they would ever let me have it,” Thompson said.
The firefighter shined his flashlight across the walls as he carefully navigated the dark corridors. This type of historical record was new to him. He typically works in his office, which is nestled away in the corner of a building housing a gym and a physical-therapy clinic. The hums of the scanners fight the squeaks and thumps of treadmills.
Thompson can trace back his family’s Water Valley roots to the mid-1800s when the burgeoning town was expanding quickly due to the Illinois Central Railroad. From 1860 to 1920, Water Valley grew from a population of 300 to 4,315, which would be its peak. In 1927, the railroad moved its train-repair yard to Kentucky and then moved its headquarters to Tennessee 18 years later.
“There’s hardly anyone in this town who is not the descendent of someone who worked on the railroad,” Jack Gurner, an employee at the Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum, said. Thompson often jogs across the street from his office to the museum, where he helps digitize and catalog material for collections and exhibitions. Gurner hopes that one day the museum will be under Thompson’s eye, he said.
“I started with my family’s materials,” Thompson said, “I have scanned over 700,000 things from newspapers to films of theirs.” After six months of digitizing his family’s collections, Thompson realized the photographs, films and documents had historical significance. He approached the museum to offer his services, and now he shares and helps scan materials for their exhibitions.
Thompson now runs his scanning operation as a business, offering local families a digitization service for paper documents like newspapers or visual records like photographs or aging 8-millimeter film reels. If the materials have any connection to Water Valley history—such as footage of downtown or town gatherings or land history—Thompson will digitize them for free.
During Thompson’s days off from the Batesville Fire Department, he follows a strict procedure to scan as efficiently as possible for five to six hours at a time. He first puts an 8-millimeter film reel into a machine that reads the film frame-by-frame by pulling the tape across a small backlit piece of glass under a lens.
A four-minute reel takes 30 minutes to digitize, and an eight-minute reel takes two hours. While the machine runs, Thompson monitors its output on a television screen while he scans photographic slides and negatives on a flatbed scanner, removing the dust and other imperfections from the photographs in computer software. Each picture might take anywhere from one to five minutes to complete.
Thompson’s patience with the process initially came from his fascination with how busy Water Valley once was. “I would look at these films from the early to middle 1900s and think, ‘What happened?’” Thompson said.
But as he has brought these old memories back to life during the last decade, Water Valley has entered a period of revitalization. Due to the bustling nature of nearby Oxford, Miss., University of Mississippi students and professors are moving to the small town, and new businesses, such as Violet Valley Books, an LGTBQ+ focused bookstore, have opened downtown to cater to a younger population. Everest, the first Mississippi rural innovation and education hub, opened a space for Basecamp, a free coding academy for high school graduates, a couple of blocks away from the heart of town.
“Now I look at the footage and think that it doesn’t look so different,” Thompson said.
As Water Valley Grows, History Settles
Hawkins and Thompson emphasize that cataloging this history is a race against the clock. For Thompson, it is a technological dilemma. As film reels, VHS tapes and old photographs continue to age, their quality degrades, making it tougher to recover usable information.
Thompson reached out to Mississippi State University for help digitizing the city’s historical records.
“They have a bulk scanner,” Thompson said. “It could speed things up dramatically.”
With their current backlogs, though, MSU told him it would likely be years before they could get to Water Valley records. So, Thompson is building a bulk scanner by himself in a garage his family owns off Main Street. Outdoor equipment and vehicles currently fill the building, but Thompson hopes to mount a camera above a table near the center of the dirt-covered floor and take photos of documents as he slides them across the lit surface.
For Hawkins, it is a struggle of age and location. As time passes, people who have firsthand memories of people and events die, and the physical records are buried under more dust, in trash cans, or get lost in the shuffle of property.
“I feel that, as African Americans, if we haven’t started documenting our history, we have to start today,” Hawkins said. While he works on volume two, he hopes the first volume of “Under the Dusty Sands” can catalyze research for other people of the Black Yalobusha County community:
“This should have been documented 40 years ago, but, instead, it’s up to us,” Hawkins concluded.