The following article was written by Billy Watkins and published on August 2, 2014 in The Clarion-Ledger.
(Photo: Greg Jenson/The Clarion-Ledger, Greg Jenson/The Clarion-Ledger)
John Evans was born in Jackson on Aug. 13, 1950, at the old Baptist Hospital.
He grew up here, has owned a business here — Lemuria Books — for 39 years and raised a family here.
“Only time I left was to go to college at Ole Miss,” Evans says, and then laughs. “I really haven’t been much of anywhere except Jackson and Oxford.”
That last statement is a slight stretch, of course. But Evans’ point is clear: He loves Jackson. His most precious childhood memories are sewn with its thread. It bothers him that the city often gets a bad rap, even if it’s often deserved.
“It’s a matter of what you focus on,” he says. “There are so many great, positive, beautiful things about Jackson that so many people seem to either take for granted or simply forget exist.”
He is attempting to awaken the grown-ups and educate the youngsters with a new coffee table photograph book, “Jackson.” It was published by Evans and Lemuria Books. It was Evans’ brainchild, literally a second job for the past two years. And now it is his mission to get the book into as many hands as possible. He would like to recoup his printing expenses, and he won’t weep if it makes a little money. But he says success will be measured by how many people give his book — and his hometown — an open-minded chance.
“I don’t think people can flip through the pages, really look closely at the wonderful things Jackson has to offer, and then tell me that this city doesn’t have potential,” he says. “That’s our brand for the book — ‘Let’s talk Jackson.’ Let’s talk about what’s good, what’s bad, what’s possible. And let’s really talk, honestly, about what Jackson can be. Because I think the possibilities are endless.”
He isn’t blind to Jackson’s problems.
“We’ve been hit with issues like a pie in the face,” he says. “Crime is bad. The streets are bad. The water problem is bad and has caused a tremendous waste in tax dollars, according to what I read in The Clarion-Ledger this week. There has been a lack of leadership, a lack of understanding the importance of small businesses. I totally acknowledge all that. I’ve lived it.
“But I still see the beauty.”
Jackson wasn’t Mayberry when Evans was a child, but there were similarities.
His parents had rural backgrounds. His dad, John, grew up in Lake, and his mom, Dot, was raised in the tiny Scott County community of Forkville.
Evans first lived with his parents in a house across the street from what is now Belhaven University. They soon moved to a house on Avondale Drive, in the Fondren area. He would ride his bicycle to Duling Elementary, and then after school across the parking lot to Brent’s, where he would order fries and “those great malted milkshakes made the old-fashioned way.”
Evans’ world was shaken at age 12, in November 1962, when his dad died of a heart attack while mowing the yard.
His mother went to work as the Hinds County home economist. He had to get used to an empty house when he arrived after school.
“But everybody around us in the neighborhood were our friends,” he says, “so it wasn’t like I had no one to go to if I needed anything. And I was over at my friends’ houses a lot.
“So many of the friends I had back then are still among my best friends today.”
One of them, Pat Hall, has worked at Lemuria on and off for the past 35 years. She grew up one street over from Evans.
“My medical doctor was a member of my 10-year-old baseball team,” Evans says. “I’ve had a pretty good life, being able to run a bookstore in my hometown and staying in close touch with so many of the people I grew up with.”
All of those things, from the milkshakes at Brent’s to playing on the same youth baseball fields on Lakeland as his son did 28 years later, keep Evans from giving up on Jackson. It motivates him to keep others from giving up, too.
The “Jackson” photos were taken by Ken Murphy, who has done other notable photographic work in Mississippi.
His pictures of the city are stunning. More than once, I had to do a double take. “Is that really in Jackson?” I would ask myself. And then read, yes, there is a place someone can sit and fish and be alone with nature. Crane Creek, in Evans’ old neighborhood.
Among Evans’ favorite photos: bull riding at the Mississippi Black Rodeo “because of the expressions on people’s faces”; the Cherokee restaurant; Eudora Welty’s home; and a lucky shot of former Gov. William Winter standing in front of his home. “He just happened to walk out as Ken was shooting pictures,” Evans explains. “Ken asked him if he would mind being photographed, and he said he would consider it an honor. Sort of meant to be.”
After looking at the collection of photos, I can see at least part of what Evans sees.
But there is something else to remember: While Jackson is home to 175,000, this is the capital city, the only one Mississippians have. It should matter to us all, whether you’re in Corinth or Clarksdale, Oxford or Starkville, Macon or Mendenhall, Laurel or Leakesville, Petal or Pascagoula.
Whether or not you like it, Jackson will always be the face of our state in many ways. Give it a chance.
Contact Billy Watkins at (769) 257-3079 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @BillyWatkins11 on Twitter.
Jackson: photographs by Ken Murphy is available now for purchase. To order a copy, call Lemuria Books at 601.366.7619 or visit us online at www.lemuriabooks.com.
Written by Lemuria