Historic Preservation of Alonzo Chatmon’s Juke
Mt. Zion Memorial Fund executive director and Assistant Professor of History at Prairie View A&M University Dr. DeWayne Moore conceived this project in January 2022, when he worked with Greenville attorney Stan Perkins to conduct the deed trace for the Glen Allan property, which contains the juke joint and store originally built by Alonzo Chatmon, the fiddler who fronted the famous 1930s recording artists, the Mississippi Sheiks. In consultation with the current owner, Ollie Morganfield, Dr. Moore contacted Dr. Carroll Van West, a well-respected Historic Preservationist at Middle Tennessee State University, who agreed to conduct a historic preservation assessment of the property as an in-kind donation. Dr. Moore also secured the support of public historians with expertise in African American History, Milo Reed and Dr. Brian Mitchell, as well as the in-kind donation of documentary film expert, Dr. Augusta Palmer, the daughter of world-renowned music critic and blues scholar, Robert Palmer.
None of the Mississippi Sheiks worked as a full-time professional musician. Even though the Sheiks were arguably the most successful African American recording artists prior to World War II, as Sam Chatmon explained to Michael Beebie in the early 1970s, “ain’t none of them…made their living by music.”
Indeed, all the recording sessions and the paid performances at theatres, resorts, and frolics was not enough to keep them from working as farmers for most of their adult lives. Alonzo Chatmon was the only member of the Sheiks who managed to avoid the hard work of a tenant farmer, but his income came primarily from operating cafes and juke joints. “Lonnie always run the café,” his brother Sam explained, “He’d just play whenever he’d have a job to play…He’d play a night and he’d hardly play until next week sometimes. Along about once maybe twice a week…so we was all farming except Lonnie. Lonnie would run a café or a jook house.”
Lonnie’s extramarital affairs and bad habits took a toll on not only his finances, but also his marriage to Clementine Chatmon. At some point during the 1930s, the couple split up, and Alonzo married a widow from Bolton named Phyllis Neely, with whom he moved to the tiny Delta hamlet of Glen Allan in Washington County—the central heart of the Delta.
The small hamlet of Glen Allan was brought to life in the novel, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, in which Clifton Taulbert discusses African American life during the racially-segregated 1940s and 50s. Most folks, including Taulbert’s family, were mired in poverty, but he emphasizes the values instilled upon him by his grandparents, aunts, and mother, who became a school teacher. He wanted his children to know about racial segregation as well as the warmth of their lives alongside the cotton, the intensity and bloodlust of hogkillings, the characters and comedy of the tent shows, and the warm sounds of the blues in the barrelhouses of mid-Delta. Taulbert came up a bit late to have visited the store of Alonzo Chatmon, who owned a café and jook house in Glen Allan in the 1940s. Yet, Taulbert still wrote about “uptown,” the downtown cafes, and how the blues was born out of the Black experience. That experience, as terrible and as beautiful as Taulbert describes, included disfranchisement and the codification of racial segregation into the law, which served as the crucible of a new form of protest that blossomed through musical expression in African American communities in the Delta.
In 1940, one census enumerator found a 52-year-old Alonzo Chatmon working as a “cashier” in a “café” and living with his new wife in Beat 1 of Washington County. He owned a home worth $500. According to the same enumerator, he lived on a “narrow gravel road leading to the farms E&W” and the houses are not numbered.” In 1942, he received a homestead exemption on his property taxes of fifty dollars.