While visiting the Triangle Area of St. Catherine Street in Natchez, this unpretentious masonry block building–seemingly out of place amongst the historic buildings in the area–caught my interest. It carries a Streamline Art Moderne appearance with the rounded corner. Close inspection reveals windows and/or doors along the side elevation that have been closed. Of the building itself, what little I can find is the following:
commercial building; 4 St. Catherine Street; c. 1955
One-story masonry commercial building. After 1946Mississippi Department of Archives & History/HRI and Mary Warren Miller, 1979, NRHP nomination for Natchez-on-top-of-the-hill Historic District
The Google map identifies the building as Marsaw’s Cafe, but I cannot find any verification of that. Delta Computer for property appraisal indicates the row of buildings from the corner of MLK/St. Catherine on this leg of the MLK Triangle were constructed 1930 and identifies them as stores, which fits with the commercial block.
Marsaw’s Cafe (home of the “famous Marsaw biscuits”) was on MLK and Google maps 2018 street views shows a building with Marsaw’s Cafe sign on the corner of MLK and Franklin . However, Levi Marsaw III, who died in 2010 at the age of 81, owned several businesses and restaurants in the city over the years, and he well could have owned the building on the short leg of St. Catherine Street. It was finding Mr. Marsaw III’s obituary that became of more interest than just this building.
Stephen Marsaw was born February 1830 in Mississippi, and census records indicate his father was born in Africa. This seems to indicate Stephen was probably born into slavery. Stephen’s mother was born in Maryland, which might indicate she was one of the enslaved who walked the “Slave Trail of Tears” on the route from Baltimore. A coffle [line of animals or slaves fastened together or driven along together; from Arabic qafila, ‘caravan’] route to Natchez had a number of origins and routes to end in Natchez. The Baltimore route indicates travel by ship to Norfolk and from there, two direct overland routes to Natchez.
Levi Marsaw was estimated to have been born in 1888, son of Stephen and Susana. Levi was 12 at the 1900 census. However, other census records give dates of birth as early as 1884 and as late as 1890. Levi identified as born 1887 and who lived in Pine Ridge (Adams County) registered for the draft 1917-1918. A newspaper article from 1918 indicates he was classed, but no other information as to service. He was still in Pine Ridge in the 1940 census, occupation of farmer, and his spouse was Elizabeth. The elder Mr. Marsaw died in 1967 at the age of 80.
Levi Marsaw, Jr.
Levi and Elizabeth’s son, Levi, Jr., was born 1908 or 1909. He married Alberta, and he was 31 at the 1940 census. Levi, Jr. and his wife Alberta had Levi III in 1929, so III would have been 10 or 11 at the 1940 census.. Levi, Jr. died in 1998 at the age of 89.
Levi Marsaw III
Levi III was born June 13, 1929. He served in the US Army from 1949-1951 and returned to Natchez and married. He was honored with a living ceremony in 2007 to recognize his contributions to the community, his church, family, and the cause of civil rights.
As a civil rights activist, he was there the night Wharlest Jackson, Sr., was bombed after leaving his job at the tire plant. He was one of the individuals who helped to pick up the body of the late Mr. Jackson. Due to the condition of the body, rope had to be used to keep what remained of his flesh together in order for him to be transported to the local funeral home, Williams and Williams.Prayer Tower to honor Levi Marsaw, The Natchez Democrat, May 18, 2007.
According to the above article, this experience led Mr. Marsaw to become active in the movement in Natchez. I found myself–as I often have since moving here–thinking about that moment and trying to think about that moment, for Mr. Jackson’s son, his wife, the neighbors who responded, and for the aftermath in the community as people came to terms with what cannot be rectified.
I thought about it today in class, when we were talking about structural racism, and how we fail to consider what opportunities were available to someone when we evaluate their “fitness” for some arbitrary standard. I see the looks on the faces of the students–those who are pained, those who are angry, those who are unsure what to do or feel. It reminded me of a conversation with a colleague who worries about further wounding students, and then the conversation with a student who said, “But that shuts down the conversation.” Yes, it does, but is it fair to have the burden of the conversation always be unequal?
I do not have an answer for that, but I do know that for the week+ I have tried to write this post, it stays in the forefront of my conscious thinking.
Levi Marsaw III died in October 2010 at the age of 81.
Among his many business ventures included the Savoy Grill, Club Delisa, Texaco Station, Cab Company, Afro Lounge, Hayes Cafe, and Marsaw Cafe.The Natchez Democrat. October 22, 2010.