Dr. Hilliard Lackey
Higgins High School of Clarksdale served for years as top venue for concerts by famous recording artists including native stars from the Clarksdale area: Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Ike and Tina Turner, the Staple Singers and the like.
I ventured inside historic Higgins Academy for the Arts and International Studies for the first time in 60 years Feb. 6, 2017. Yes, it has been six decades since I saw Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers before he launched his solo popular music career. The place has changed. Times have changed…. The original Higgins High School opened on 1749 Chestnut Street in Clarksdale for the 1951-52 academic year. It was named for Wallace A. Higgins a 1930 graduate of Jackson College now Jackson State University.
Higgins was a bigger than life college educated administrator in a time when Mississippi had a white school system and a “colored” school system. Colored teachers were not required to be college educated. They could only teach colored students. The Higgins High School building itself had an anomaly; an indoor gymnasium. It was the second indoor facility for basketball at a colored high school in the state, with Alexander High of Brookhaven being the first. Colored basketball teams played outdoors usually on packed earth courts, occasionally on cement but never on parquet. A.A. Alexander and Wallace A. Higgins, two school principals who were once Jackson College football teammates, were the first to figure out how colored schools could build gyms.
Others followed their lead across the state. However, in a 50 mile radius, Higgins High had “the” indoor venue for colored concerts in the 1950s. Eventually, adjacent Georgia Oliver School would be constructed with a more suitable auditorium. The concerts moved next door until integration allowed use of the Clarksdale City Auditorium. There were 20,000 residents in Clarksdale as recently as 1960. The surrounding plantations and smaller towns, villages, hamlets, etc. had another 20,000. At least 80 percent were black. Thus, on a given Saturday night, Issaquena Avenue and Fourth Street in Clarksdale was the epicenter of blackness. That epicenter moved to the gym-turned auditorium of Higgins High School for chitlin circuit gospel and rhythm and blues concerts during the harvest season or early cotton chopping season.
Twice per year, blacks had expendable money: in spring and fall. Twice per year, there were big time chitlin circuit concerts at Higgins. Nowadays, inside the auditorium, visitors’ bleachers have replaced the stage. The upstairs or balcony seats are still intact. Basketball goals still hang at each end of the refurbished gym floor. Students taking gym classes are seemingly unaware of the holy ground upon which they tread. Their teachers, likewise are oblivious to the rich history underfoot. Did anybody know? Did anybody care? Sitting where I used to sit for concerts, I could almost hear Mavis Staples’ deep baritone rendition of “An Uncloudy Day,” Sam Cooke’s “Be With Me Jesus,” and Ike and Tina’s “Proud Mary.” Yes, the Soul Man, Early Wright, a popular DJ of WROX radio, was as always the consummate emcee.
This was the spot. A visit with the current building principal was revealing. She is white, fixated on raising test scores and according to observers, is doing a fantastic job. Yet, one wonders if she is in the least way aware of the auditorium’s rich history. Probably not.
In March 2016, I arranged for a reception honoring the 2015-2016 Miss Jackson State University to be held at the school. Her name is Charence Higgins, the granddaughter of the man for whom the school is named. Wallace A. Higgins (the husband of Mayne Pendleton Higgins). Charence was well-received but there was something eerily omnipresent, a lack of true appreciation, a lack of true understanding. That same feeling pervaded as I tried futilely to share my passionate obsession and reverence for Higgins with gym teachers and two custodians who had time to listen. Everybody else was too busy teaching, coordinating or accommodating students. Surely, that’s the way it should be and I was impressed. Yet, I wanted to reminisce…. I left the building feeling violated, unfulfilled. This is where I once dreamed of being. This is where I saw the most influential school motto “Today the difficult, tomorrow the impossible.”
This is where countless cotton field singers, small group singers and star wannabes yearned to be opening acts for the real stars. Now, it’s just a gym, an auditorium, a ubiquitous relic relegated to fading memories. Shame, shame, shame!