Yesterday was the unveiling of Mississippi’s newest Blues Trail marker. Rand and I made the journey to Itta Bena on a hot Delta day to acknowledge Ralph Lembo and his contributions to his adopted community of Itta Bena from his home in Sicily, Italy, and the work he did in scouting, recording, and connecting local blues talent with venues.
Although I knew the unveiling was planned for May 27, I could find nothing anywhere as to the time, until finally Monday when I turned up an item in the Greenwood newspaper, however, it was not accessible beyond the first snippet that confirmed it was set for Thursday. I tried the City of Itta Bena official webpages, the Mississippi Blues Trail organization, and every other option I could ferret out, all to no avail. For some intuitive reason, I rationalized it would be in the afternoon, around 2 p.m., because you know, that is the hottest time in the Mississippi Delta and appreciating the Delta blues requires sweating sometimes.
When we arrived about 1:30 (which was really more about when we left home than anything else), we drove downtown to the former store. I saw no marker, no crowd of people, and that the store has been painted a bright school bus orange with purple doors. (Turns out a local fraternity is using the store as a meeting space.) My heart sank. I had Rand circle around to the other side of the street across the tracks and there stood a few people under a shade tree with a cloaked marker.
We parked and walked across the park and I asked “when is the unveiling?” They told us to be here at 1:30. We are the family. Introductions followed and I explained why I was there. We chatted with the family, including one grandson who had gone to pharmacy school at the University of Mississippi and who knew some of the people Rand had worked with. Slowly folks started trickling in and sweat continued to trickle down. There were shade trees at least, and a gentle breeze to help a little. Finally, someone showed up with programs and began passing them out, and Kamel King from Visit Mississippi advised they were waiting just a few more minutes for some important people to the unveiling to have time to arrive. Indeed, I had already spoken to folks who looked “important” to me: the Dean of Students from Mississippi Valley State University, housed at Itta Bena, Alderman Freeman, all the family members, and a gentleman I would later learn was the Mississippi House Representative for the district, the Honorable Willie Bailey.
Nonetheless, finally they started the program. I truly appreciated what those people who were present had to say: about Ralph Lembo and his work for his community, the importance of the culture of the Mississippi Delta and the Delta blues, the importance of community and continuing to work for the betterment of the community. Although like many small rural towns across America, Itta Bena has lost much of the vibrancy that helped build it. Depending on who you ask, people will opine different reasons, and there are usually many complex factors and not one “simple” answer.
The Honorable Mr. Bailey was inspiring to me as he talked about the importance of the blues culture. The Mississippi Blues are considered the birthplace of American music, which led to other forms including gospel, country & western, rock and roll. Certainly music is a language we can all understand even if we do not know the language.
Alderman Reginald Freeman spoke about the importance of the blues tourism to Mississippi and the Mississippi Delta, and the need to continue to work to improve the communities that gave rise to this cultural asset. Mr. Freeman is a candidate for mayor of Itta Bena, and I appreciated his inspiring vision of what the community can accomplish with working together.
I think it is symbolically appropriate that this picture of Dr. Jones reflects stars in her eyes! I enjoyed talking with her about the people we knew in common from Valley. She is an enthusiastic supporter of the Delta as a Delta native, and enthusiastic educator. She was one of the people who ardently worked to secure the Lembo marker.
I first learned of Ralph Lembo in 2018 with a stop in Itta Bena to photograph the 1940 school constructed by the National Youth Administration. I discovered Ralph Lembo and his work in recording Delta blues musicians while researching the historic downtown buildings. That led to someone contacting me about additional research on the efforts to place a Mississippi Blues Trail marker in Itta Bena. The project listed me as a research contributor on the marker, and being there to see it uncovered was important to me.
The original plan was for Rand to take my photograph standing next to the marker, but have I mentioned it was a hot 90+ day in the Delta? We had already been there for hours, and people were still congregated in front of the marker. Since it was really not about me, we opted that water and food were what we needed at the time, and that the marker will stand for a photograph another day.