For more than 60 years,
a publication centered on life in Mississippi.
Today is May 23, 2022

Mississippi Seen

The Oakes Home: A Yazoo City landmark wirth preserving

By Walt Grayson

The Oakes Home: A Yazoo City landmark wirth preserving

We watched Willie Morris’ “My Dog Skip” on Netfl ix the other night. Canton played the part of Yazoo City in the movie. Yazoo City is where the young Willie Morris came of age with the help of his pet, “Skipper.” One of the central events was staged in Jackson’s Greenwood Cemetery where young Willie must spend the night at the witch’s grave as initiation into the inner circle of his group of friends. To make the ordeal more frightening, one of the kids tells Willie how the witch was killed a century earlier and vowed revenge on Yazoo City, promising to come back in 20 years and burn the place to the ground.

Well, in May of 1904 Yazoo City did almost burn to the ground. To this day some people still blame the witch for the fire. Others say it was started by another youngster named “Willie” (not Morris — this Willie was way before his time) who played with matches. Yazoo City grew back better than ever because of the determination of the people who lived there.

One of those people was Augustus J. Oakes. He was the son of John and Mary Oakes who had moved to Yazoo City from South Carolina in the 1850s after John, who was born free, purchased his wife Mary and her two children from slavery. They settled in a small, wood-framed house on top of a hill that overlooked downtown.

Augustus (known at Gus, sometimes A.J.) early on saw the value of education and became the principal of two schools before opening a private school for African American children in Yazoo City.

By 1900, Oakes had changed careers from education to construction. He even opened a lumber yard. And then came the devastating fire of 1904. Much of the material used to rebuild Yazoo City was bought through the Oakes lumber yard.

In following years, the Oakes home was remodeled several times and grew from its humble beginnings into an elaborate, two-story structure. Oakes never forgot his commitment to education, however. And when Yazoo City issued bonds to build a school for African American children, Oakes bought them all.

The Oakes home stayed in the family until 1989 when descendants donated it to the Yazoo County Fair and Civic League. At that time, they refurbished the home and opened it for tours, and used it as a community center for many years. But now the old home needs help again. A grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History fixed some foundation problems. But interior restoration still needs to be done.

In honor of Black History Month, consider a donation to the Oakes Home in Yazoo City. It is a monument to a family buying their freedom, becoming an integral part of the community, establishing themselves in education and construction, and giving back to the community after the community had depended on them after the fire. This is history that transcends the ages and the races.

 

Walt Grayson is the host of “Mississippi Roads” on Mississippi Public Broadcasting television and the author of two “Looking Around Mississippi” books and “Oh! That Reminds Me: More Mississippi Homegrown Stories.” Walt is also a reporter and 4 p.m. news anchor at WJTV in Jackson. He lives in Brandon and is a Central Electric member. Contact him at walt@waltgrayson.com.

Site designed by Marketing Alliance, Inc.