It wasn’t my first assignment, but it came early in my days as a newspaper reporter when I was mostly writing obituaries and police news. It’s a chore I never assigned when I later became an editor, nor do I recommend it to today’s bosses.
“Dunagin, go across the river to Big Red’s and get a bottle of vodka,” my city editor George Harmon directed as he handed me enough money for said purchase.
It was a late Saturday evening. The Sunday paper was about to go to press, and George wanted liquid refreshments for the rest of the weekend. Rankin County was a popular place for Jacksonians to buy package liquor in those days. That’s not to say there were no bootleggers or night spots that served mixed drinks in Hinds County. There were.
But G.W. “Big Red” Hydrick conveniently operated a whiskey outlet not far from the State-Times building on South State Street. It wasn’t far from there, across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Rankin County to Big Red’s place.
Hydrick, who had repeated brushes with the law for various reasons over his colorful career, was one of the best known bootleggers in what was once called the Gold Coast. An article on the Mississippi Blues Trail website says an “area of Rankin County, formerly called East Jackson and later the Gold Coast, was a hotbed for gambling, bootleg liquor and live music for several decades up through the 1960s.”
I never went to any of the blues joints in Rankin County. Where I went for George, there was curb service behind a big wooden fence.
That old bridge I crossed has been replaced, and much water has flowed down the Pearl River since those days in the late 1950s and early l960s. The State-Times, which was one of three daily newspapers in Jackson, folded in 1962. Harmon and Big Red are now deceased.
Legalizing liquor sales in Mississippi on a local option basis in 1966 put a severe crimp in the bootlegging business.
Instead of the Gold Coast and bootleggers, Rankin County is now known for its vibrant economy, including shopping centers, a fine baseball stadium, the Jackson airport and affluent towns and neighborhoods. Top state political leaders, including Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, reside there, and the Republican stronghold gets more than its share of consideration when it comes to legislative matters.
Rankin and Madison counties are growing in population, as Jackson is shrinking. Some state facilities are being moved to Rankin County to the detriment of the state’s capital city. There obviously is a need to revitalize Jackson, and moving facilities like the state Department of Public Safety Headquarters to Rankin County isn’t helping.
Now officials are talking about moving the Jackson Zoo from where it has been for almost 100 years off West Capitol Street.
At least, so far, no one has suggested moving it to Rankin County. Reports are that the nonprofit Jackson Zoological Society Board is looking at the possibility of moving the zoo to LeFleurs Bluff State Park in Northeast Jackson, at a cost of about $50 million.
If that’s the best way to rejuvenate the zoo, which, just like West Jackson, has been in decline for years, so be it. But it’s a shame what was once a fine location for such a facility has to be abandoned primarily for security reasons.
There was a time when West Capitol Street was safe for both the animals in the zoo and the humans who visited the park where they are located.
Now the area has declined to the point that many humans are afraid to go there, and the caged animals have no choice.
Jackson wasn’t perfect when I lived there from 1957 to 1962. It wasn’t a good place to be African-American in a time of Jim Crow laws and rampant discrimination. But for the majority of its citizens, it was a more inviting place to live than the adjacent counties. Reversing the decline in Mississippi’s capital city and the exodus of people and businesses from it is a challenge that should be recognized throughout the state. The effort deserves and requires not only leadership in the city of Jackson but also from the state government.
Charlie Dunagin is editor and publisher emeritus of the McComb Enterprise-Journal. He lives in Oxford.