Mississippi, 1946


by Morgan Holmes, dramaturg for Marie and Rosetta

When Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight became an act in 1946 and set off on tour, the separate but equal doctrine of Jim Crow law was in full force. And it would be nearly a decade before Jet magazine published the funeral photos of Emmett Till, whose grotesque 1955 lynching in Mississippi was a flash point for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. While the explicit image of “white only” signs define the doctrine in the American consciousness, Jim Crow would play out in more complicated ways for Tharpe, as she worked to make a name for herself on the road.


“The rules that defined a group’s supremacy were so tightly wound as to put pressure on everyone trying to stay within the narrow confines of acceptability.”
– from Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

It’s impossible to overstate how every aspect of white and black society was regulated under Jim Crow, from 1860s Reconstruction to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Separate but equal facilities (i.e. entrances, waiting rooms, elevators) and institutions (i.e. hospitals, schools), hampered black social mobility and dignity, as well as literal mobility across the United States. Though growing access to the automobile in the 20s and 30s offered them independence from segregated buses and train cars, African-American travelers could find themselves on the road without a gas station, diner, hotel, or even bathroom at which to stop permissively and safely, especially in sundown towns, where imposed curfews and intimidating residents drove non-whites from the public sphere after dark. For the limited white-black interactions allowed, perceived disrespect was a capital offense. In Mississippi alone, white mobs, riled up with economic anxiety over the loss of black workforce to the Great Migration, and fear of job and social competition with those who remained, lynched 15 of the 33 total lynching victims on record for 1940-1949 in the U.S.

Jamecia Bennett, left, as Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Rajané Katurah Brown as Marie Knight. Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma.


“We always had to stay at someone’s house. Or you lived on that bus.”

-Singer Ruth Brown, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

While Jim Crow worked to make the world impossible for African-Americans to navigate, the proliferation of the black church provided a sanctuary for community gathering. By the 1940s, there were over 3,000 black churches in Mississippi serving about 500,000 congregants, or 50% of the state’s African-American population. Each denomination developed a unique relationship to the secular world, from the Baptists’ political organization around civil rights, to the Church of God in Christ’s evangelical missionary work that birthed a circuit of churches and revival events across the nation. The circuit provided a stage, a built-in audience, and most importantly, easily attainable meal and board for a generation of singers who could not find commercial success in the secular, segregated music industry. Tharpe received her first radio plays from Sunday broadcasts of services at Miami Temple in Florida, attracting white audiences to the unusually integrated COGIC church and the gospel sound.


“It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”

– Victor H. Green, introduction to the 1949 edition of The Negro Motorist’s Green-Book

In spite of the dangers and difficulties, African-Americans persisted in travel, subverting the status quo by packing their own meals, hiring white drivers to assist them and consulting national travel guides to plan their stops. Harlem letter carrier and activist Victor H. Green collected the classifieds of businesses nationwide that were proven safe for black travelers, and published them annually in the most popular guide, The Negro Motorist’s Green-Book, from 1936 to 1967. Mississippi’s listings expanded from only a few hotels and bed & breakfast-like “tourist homes” in 1940, to include restaurants, service stations, nightclubs, funeral homes, beauty parlors, barbershops, and a Jackson skating rink by 1949.

In a move befitting the gospel rock star, Tharpe gained further independence in the 1950s, after buying a tour bus to refurbish as a dressing room and place to sleep for her and her backup singers, The Rosettes. While Tharpe’s music may oscillate from obscurity to popularity to forgotten again, it is her own resilience – on the road and through the music industry – that allowed her story to survive.

Coming Next: Rosetta, Marie and Mahalia


Morgan Holmes is an all-around theatermaker – writing, directing, dramaturging and administrating across the Twin Cities. She is most interested in identity, ritual, intimacy, and internet culture, which she explores as co-creator of Perspectives Theater Company.

Marie and Rosetta is on stage now through Dec 30, starring Jamecia Bennett and Rajané Katurah Brown. Tickets available at parksquaretheatre.org or 651.291.7005.


The box office is currently closed. Please email tickets@parksquaretheatre.org with any questions.

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