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By STEVEN NALLEY
For the past year, Charles Evans has been working to bring history out of hiding.
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said in a meeting of the Starkville Board of Aldermen that Evansâ€™ work began with a program the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum conducted on Evansâ€™ home community of Needmore in February 2012. Today, the areaâ€™s landmarks include George Evans Park â€” named for Charles Evansâ€™ father â€” the E.E. Cooley Building, the Cotton Crossing Shopping Center and the Heritage Museum itself. But, the presentation showed a different set of landmarks: The Blue Goose Cafe, Corhernâ€™s Grocery, the Starkville Cotton Oil Company and more.
â€śIt was an enlightening experience to learn the history of a community that did not have the same identity by the time I was born,â€ť Wiseman said. â€śIt sparked an interest for Mr. Charles Evans, who grew up in the Needmore community and still lives (there), to figure out what we can do to reclaim that historical identity. Mr. Evans has worked tirelessly, and others have worked tirelessly along with him. As a mayor, as a Starkvillian, I have been honored to watch him.â€ť
Evansâ€™ efforts are coming to fruition through the renaming of the Gillespie Center as the Needmore Center, a historical marker telling Needmoreâ€™s story in George Evans Park and a road sign ceremonially designating a portion of Spring Street as Needmore Place.
The planned historical marker describes Needmore as Starkvilleâ€™s first African-American community, a place where settlers came to work on the local railroad and at Mississippi State University, then known as Mississippi A&M College. Evans said much of the Needmore he knew disappeared during urban renewal in the early 1970s, but three of its churches remain: First Church of Christ Holiness, Church of the Living God, and Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, each of which he said was more than 100 years old.
â€śSo many people worked on the railroad (and at) Mississippi State, and Needmore was (within) walking distance for people on their way back from work,â€ť Evans said. â€śPeople migrated from everywhere to live in Needmore.â€ť
Ruth Morgan, a member of the heritage museumâ€™s board of trustees, said Needmore came into being at a time when Starkvilleâ€™s borders were not flush with Mississippi A&Mâ€™s borders. For instance, she said, Starkvilleâ€™s border once stopped at the current location of Hardeeâ€™s, leaving Needmore between the college and the town.
â€śIt was like they had their own business district here, kind of like Main Street,â€ť Morgan said. â€śI would have called that the first business district of this area. Our first industry in Starkville was over here (in Needmore.)â€ť
That industry, Morgan said, was the Cotton Oil Company, established in 1900. The John M. Stone Cotton Mill, now known as the E.E. Cooley Building, launched in 1902, she said, and it was followed by the Co-Op Creamery in 1912. A fourth anchor within the city limits, the Starkville Borden Condensed Milk Plant, came in 1926, she said.
â€śThose four industries were within a mileâ€™s radius of each other,â€ť Morgan said. â€śThe mill, I think, employed 450 people. People came from within a 60-mile radius to work there.â€ť
Evans was born in 1933, so he said the Great Depression shaped much of the Needmore he grew up in â€” but not necessarily for the worse.
â€śEverybody knew everybody, and everybody was everybodyâ€™s mom or dad. It was a well-disciplined community,â€ť Evans said. â€śIt was just a community of beauty, a community of love. We were all poor people, didnâ€™t have nothing, didnâ€™t know it. At that time, I guess you could say the story of Needmore was all about love, a caring, loving community that lived on hard times.â€ť
Evans said Needmoreâ€™s influence on the local business community stretched beyond its borders. He said Needmore natives who established businesses downtown included his own father George Evans, who established the George Evans Shoe Shine Parlor, and Wilson Ashford, who founded Ashford and Sons Garage.
Most importantly, Charles Evans said, several Needmore citizens were the first African-Americans to hold certain positions within Starkville. These include Starkvilleâ€™s first African-American police officer William Fields, its first African-American alderman Harold Williams, its first African American high school principal Fenton Peters, and dozens more.
Charles himself was Starkvilleâ€™s first African-American letter carrier.
As such, Charles said he had hoped to dedicate the historical marker, the street, and the renamed Needmore Center in a single ceremony during February, during Black History Month, but it is likelier to happen in March. The marker is still in the making, he said, but once that is ready, a celebration date and time will be set. Charles said he is grateful for help from the city of Starkville, the Greater Starkville Development Partnership, and a committee of citizens with Needmore ties who have helped make the commemoration possible: Fenton Peters, Carolyn Evans, Betty Evans, Carol Washington, James Smith, Aaron Jones and Walter Williams.
â€śWeâ€™re going to make this as big as we can,â€ť Charles said. â€śIf you ever lived in Needmore, that makes you a Needmorian. Weâ€™re proud to say youâ€™re a Needmorian if you ever passed through. Thatâ€™s how proud of it we are.â€ť