Delta Preservationist inspires Vicksburg Guild
Bill Luckett has made a mark on his Delta home, and if he has a say in it, he hopes to inspire others to do the same in their cities and towns so likewise rich in history and music.
Luckett is an attorney, former mayor of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and best friend and business partner to celebrity actor and Clarksdale native, Morgan Freeman. He is also an investor in historic properties that need a lift. By restoring them, he saves old buildings that once housed the culture and music that sprang from the Delta. In doing so, he's had a hand in shaping our wider American culture.
Luckett’s most notable project is the Ground Zero Blues Club, considered by many to be the epicenter of the Delta blues scene. Outside, its friendly couches invite visitors to sit a spell and inside, the thousands of autographs left by visitors on walls and doors, tables and chairs, is a testament of how many have visited over the 15 years since its opening. The old brick building has honored the music of the small city, encouraged its culture and revived its architecture. It paved the path for other investors to buy and renovate in the sleepy Delta town, creating hotels and eateries that wouldn't have otherwise existed.
It’s not only the club, though, that Luckett and Freeman might brag about. There’s also the renovation to a building that used to house the pair's restaurant, Madidi, which brought fine dining to Clarksdale for almost ten years.
Both properties were examples of how saving historic structures can inject new life into a local economy.
Luckett has done more. The Bank of Lyon building went from a vine-covered eyesore to a crisp, tony structure. His projects include the Bank of Clarksdale building, the Hotel Clarksdale and the McWilliams Building.
Across the state and down the river, preservation groups like Vicksburg's Heritage Guild, strive to save the buildings that gave the region its original character and that are in danger of modern architectural homogenization and push for newness. Now emerging with their own preservation efforts in a city that survived the Civil War, The Heritage Guild of Vicksburg and Warren County has turned to Luckett for advice and inspiration.
“I said to capitalize on what you’ve got,” Luckett says, of the advice he gave the fledgling organization.
“Vickburg’s got a kind of double-whammy to offer,” Luckett says, citing the tourist attraction of the Civil War battlefield, plus the historically interesting properties located downtown.
“I am especially attracted to the downtown,” he adds. “Vicksburg has a fabulous downtown in terms of architectural look. It’s a great mixture of architecture going back to the 18th century.”
Luckett visited the group this summer. His primary goal was to inspire the 80-member organization. In return, he might have been inspired as well.
“I was very impressed to see that group of ladies and gentlemen who have taken such an interest in their hometown,” he says.
Luckett says Vicksburg is a gem among Mississippi cities, and while Clarksdale heralds its share of blues musicians, Vicksburg has just as many. Historic preservation of brick and mortar, and preserving musical heritage, goes hand in hand, he says.
In the case of Vicksburg, blues musician Willie Dixon is the perfect example. Dixon is still so relevant, Luckett says, that the newest Rolling Stones album “wraps up with a Willie Dixon cover song. Willie Dixon was one of the most prolific blues singers of all time, and it’s great [for Vicksburg] to be able to claim him.”
Joyce Clingan, owner of Vicksburg’s Walnut Hills Restaurant, is president of the Heritage Guild and serves home cooked Southern food in her restaurant which, as could be expected, is housed in a historic building.
While the group hasn't yet undertaken a building rehabilitation, they have received a 501C status as a charitable orgainization and have begun fund raising. Several smaller projects are underway, and the groundwork is being laid for larger preservation work.
“This is huge to me,” Clingan said proudly – and rightfully – in a recent newsletter to members. “We are now in control of any donations, and your donations are tax-deductible.”
The group has been working to preserve McAllister House on Main Street, designated as a Mississippi landmark, in hopes of converting it into a learning center. They’re also working with the public school system to improve the Bowmar School, including landscaping plans and the addition of a historic marker.
Also in the works – in conjunction with the Main Street Association – is the addition of another historic marker on the north side of the Cherry Street Railroad Bridge, which is also a Mississippi landmark. It’s a prime example of the synergy that exists among organizations with similar preservation goals.
The group has also helped out fellow preservationists in a concrete way. Guild members are assisting with the renovation of the Fleckenstein Grocery Store on Openwood Street and are supporting a group looking to place a historic marker at the Magnolia School.
As the Guild grows and its funds and local profile increase, its dedication to historical preservation could match or exceed that of Luckett's.
For Clingan and her group, it's about dedication to community. “What we’re trying to do is serve our culture, our buildings, and our history.”