Do yourself a favor and bring some friends on a Hub City tour

Well, it happened again. I got to see Hattiesburg through the eyes of new visitors who happen to be my dear friends. Seeing my hometown through their eyes helps me better appreciate the city I call home.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles Metro husband and wife team Alita and Jim Sevin came to visit. But, before sharing our Hub City adventure, I must share a bit of my story with Alita.

In 1982, a kid who grew up in Hattiesburg worked hard and lost nearly 300 pounds. It would be me. Fitness guru, Richard Simmons was still in his prime and I became a fan watching his “Richard Simmons Show” on WKRG-TV. Richard’s show inspired me to keep fighting to achieve my weight loss goal. When I did, I wrote him a fan letter telling him of my success.

At the time, Alita’s last name was Lishness and she was in charge of the show’s viewer relations. I got a letter from her in Hollywood telling me how impressed Richard was with my story. After speaking with one of the show’s producers, I was flown to Los Angeles to be a guest on the show. I fell in love with Los Angeles and decided I wanted to live there. Back home, I quit my job and moved to Los Angeles to start my new life.

During my first week there, I was hired as a receptionist and in charge of booking studio audiences for Richard’s TV show. Alita was working down the hall from me. We became colleagues and best friends – more like siblings. We have been for 40 years and our family grew when she married Jim Sevin. He’s a retired video engineer who’s worked on many TV shows you’ve probably watched. Every time I visit LA it is necessary to visit them.

This year, Alita and Jim check off one of their to-do list items. After buying a huge motorhome, they set off on a three-month tour of Canada and the United States. Once back in the United States, their journey included the Great River Road along the Mississippi River from Minnesota south to Magnolia State. After a number of stops along the way, including Memphis to see Graceland and sample Memphis’ famous barbecue, Hattiesburg was next on the itinerary.

They had heard me talk about Hattiesburg for decades, but now they would have a chance to see it for themselves. After visiting so many cities on the way, I was a bit nervous. What would they think of our small town, especially considering how many times I bragged about my hometown? Well, I’m happy to report that Hattiesburg lived up to their reputation and their expectations.

The Sevins joined me for their first dinner in town at Hattiesburg’s Crescent City Grill. With its New Orleans style menu, it was fun to watch them learn to pronounce words like “Plaquemine’s”, for the catfish on the menu. Luckily our server, a lovely young person from Louisiana, was able to help with those Creole pronunciations. Robert St. John’s original restaurant in Hattiesburg got high marks. Alita particularly loved the corn and crab bisque, my favorite.

Sunday would include a driving tour of Hattiesburg, seeing the places that played an important role in my childhood. But first we had to refuel – lunch. I had never dined at Blu Jazz Cafe downtown so this was a first for me. What took me so long? Another restaurant in Hattiesburg knocked one out of the park for my visitors and for me. We were all thrilled but couldn’t resist sharing a slice of Blu Jazz’s incredible cheesecake.

Alita and Jim’s pets joined them on their cross-country trip. Gertie, their cat, was content to stay in the RV, but their newest member of the family, a poodle-dachshund mix, Shecky, named after the great comic, spent the day with us. He was such a good boy, resting in the car while we had dinner, winning an award for his good driving.

So off we went to Town Square Park downtown. Alita and I sat on a park bench to chat, while Jim and Shecky took a long walk across the Gordon’s Creek pedestrian bridge to the historic Crawford House.

Once Shecky brought Jim back, the three of us walked some more, admiring the public art displayed in Town Square Park. Both were already impressed, commenting on Hattiesburg’s dedication to the arts, especially the many murals our town has become famous for. The Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art has done a wonderful job of making our town a home for the arts.

In fact, the online edition of Travel and Leisure magazine listed Hattiesburg as one of the 11 best places in the world – thank you – to admire public art, putting us in the company of world-class cities such as New York and Paris.

After Town Square Park, we began our driving tour, admiring the century-old homes of the Hattiesburg Historic District. I pointed out that Hattiesburg was born decades after the antebellum era, so don’t expect the pre-Civil War mansions that make Mississippi towns like Columbus and Natchez famous. Hattiesburg’s historic homes feature more of the Victorian-style architecture popular in the early 1900s.

No trip to Hattiesburg is complete without a visit to the neighborhood where I grew up, the east side of Hattiesburg. Unfortunately, Alita and Jim arrived a day late for the annual Historic Mobile Street Renaissance Festival, which celebrates the history of what was once the heart of a vibrant African-American business community in Hattiesburg.

We did, however, drive down Mobile Street, and as we approached the lovingly restored Smith Drug Co., I shared with them the role it played in Hattiesburg’s civil rights movement. Smith Drugs was an important meeting place for groups working to ensure equal rights for black citizens of Hattiesburg. Jim loved the story and asked me to stop the car so he could take a picture for his travelogue.

Just around the corner from Sixth Street is Eureka Elementary School, one of the first brick schools built for black students in Mississippi. It has also been beautifully restored, now serving as a civil rights museum and special events venue. Since Alita had met my mother, Della Ruth, in the 1980s, I made sure to point out the windows of the classroom where she taught me in third grade. After that, it’s off to La Goula, the neighborhood I grew up in just east of rue Bouie.

Along the way, at the corner of Seventh and Mobile streets, I noticed the historic Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Born out of Shady Grove Baptist Church in the Kelly Settlement community, it was the first black congregation established in the city of Hattiesburg. Mount Carmel is also where my family worshiped and I was baptized. The building is now home to a new congregation since my childhood church moved to the former property of the Main Street Baptist Church. But, to me, Mount Carmel Baptist Church on Mobile Street is the only one I know.

The Goula of my youth, unfortunately, is no longer as crowded as it once was. Some houses have been destroyed or have given way to nature. On Fairley Street is the land where my childhood home once stood. The home, along with others in the neighborhood, fell victim to the 2013 F4 tornado which caused extensive damage in East Hattiesburg. The Goula may be dotted with vacant lots today, but don’t count my old neighborhood yet. I had to swing Alita and Jim through beautiful tree-filled Chain Park, where many family events take place, adding a new spark of life to my old neighborhood.

Jim had observed how blessed we were to live in such a green and natural setting. When I lived in Southern California, I know how much I missed our abundant collection of trees, especially those elegant longleaf pines that define the Pine Belt.

On the way back downtown, I showed them the Forrest County Courthouse and the statue honoring the Confederate States of America. They were a little taken aback by the memorial but loved how it’s balanced by a statue honoring the late Vernon Dahmer, who gave his life fighting for the right to vote for black residents of Forrest County.

Jim had heard of the Pocket Museum downtown so we had to stop in for a visit. The museum occupies the driveway that runs along the Saenger Theater between Main and Forrest streets. And what a delight it is. The theme changes regularly and we were there just in time for Halloween. The whole aisle was decorated with giant spider webs and a fun and scary collection of skeletons. But take a good look. You don’t want to miss any of the clever thumbnail displays scattered everywhere. If you haven’t been, visit the Hattiesburg Pocket Museum. The kids will love it, and you will too.

Whew! We very much packed Alita and Jim’s three day visit to Hattiesburg. On their last morning, we said goodbye, no, make it our “see you later” breakfast at one of the city’s unique Hattiesburg restaurants, Midtowner on Hardy Street. Hey, couldn’t let them leave town without a bowl of Mississippi oatmeal for breakfast, could I?

From Los Angeles to New York, I’ve had guests visit me in Hattiesburg from all over the country. We’re not a bustling metropolis like, say, Atlanta, although Jim noted how prosperous and forward-thinking our city is. More than that, Hattiesburg has something special that many cities large and small simply don’t have. It is our personality. Here in Central City you will find some of the most polite, friendly and welcoming people in America.

Thanks for proving me right again, Hattiesburg. I’m sure Alita and Jim will agree, we always make our visitors feel at home.

Elijah Jones is a proud Hattiesburg native who loves to write. Email him at [email protected]

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