From pig ears to vegan food, Jackson’s oldest African-American business district is finding new life

The meaty, buttery smell emanating from Jackson, Mississippi’s oldest restaurant, is hard to miss — and for many here — hard to resist. Big Apple Innwhich opened its doors in the 1930s, is still one of the most popular sites in the the historic Farish street in the city center.

To this day, lunchtime invites a long line of patrons to eagerly await the mustard beef sliders, the fatty smoked sausage, and the famous chewy pig’s ear sandwiches. But despite its popularity, the surroundings of this establishment have been gloomy for decades.

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The Big Apple Inn has been a Farish Street staple for more than eight decades, June 10, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi.

The neighborhood was once known as a a major center of black business, community and culture in the deep south. After segregation ended in the 1960s, nearly all of the stores, theaters, and other services around the Big Apple Inn were closed. The buildings collapsed and were covered with grass and dirt.

For so long, many in the community have seen Farish Street as a failed business district. But now black business owners are trying to change that narrative by investing in this street and proving that this historic center of commerce is not just a relic of the past.

83 years of smoked pig ears

The Big Apple Inn is an example of a black history that owners in the historic district strive to preserve for the community.

“We’re still going strong with the same five items on our menu that we started with 83 years ago,” said owner Gino Lee. He can be found doing prep work in the back of the restaurant, which involves a lot of pressure cooking and cutting pig ears.

Pig ears from Farish Street

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Gino Lee, fourth generation owner of the Big Apple Inn, holds two delicious pig ears, June 10, 2022.

Back in the day, the Big Apple Inn was where people organized during the civil rights movement and where everyone from low-wage workers to lawyers of color could gather for a hearty meal at an affordable price. A famous organizer and leader Medgar Evers — the first NAACP field officer in Mississippi — rented an office above the restaurant. The restaurant was also surrounded by black-owned furniture stores, live music venues and a movie theater.

But this street, built and maintained by the concentration of Jackson’s limited black wealth, began to decline when segregation ended. White flight from the city played a role in this decline, but so did competition from white-owned businesses.

“Integration was great for the black race, but it was terrible for the black businessman,” Lee said. “When we were allowed to go to white establishments to eat and trade, we stopped going alone.”

Despite the difficulties, the Big Apple Inn decided to stay.

“We’re a niche market with no competition… Can we make more money in the suburbs? No doubt about it,” Lee said. “[But] it’s not just a street, it’s a historic district.”

A renewal of the old charm of Farish Stree

The fact that Farish Street is so historically important to Mississippi’s black community not only convinced the business to stay, but also attracted a new generation of entrepreneurs. John Thier is one businessman who has proven that it is possible to start a new establishment on the street and turn a profit by redeveloping existing historic buildings.

Thierry opened the door Johnny T’s Bistro and Blues about seven years ago as a restaurant by day, a music venue by night and a nightclub on the weekends.

Farish Street John Tier

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John Tierre opened Johnny T’s Blues And Bistro about seven years ago on Farish Street June 10, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi.

The two-story building has a history as an iconic club once known as the Crystal Palace, which attracted talent such as Sammy Davis Jr. and comedian Red Foxx in the 1950s. Thier came to the club while a student at Jackson State University, but it was not known as a safe area of ​​the city.

Thier said the building’s reputation has declined over time. But since he took over, the business has helped him recover.

“I’ll let you in on a secret. This building here, before me, probably had the worst stigma in the city,” Thier said. “I had a vision … even during COVID when people went out of business, every year our numbers grew.”

Before opening, Tierre spent two years renovating the building. The downstairs, unused by the previous owner, became a bistro — serving seared tilapia and salmon croquettes with walls decorated with murals of famous black musicians and leaders. The upper floor became the renaissance room — a venue for comedy shows, fundraisers and dance parties on Friday and Saturday nights. Shelves behind the bar are well-stocked with alcohol, and elegant lounge furniture complements its sophisticated look.

“Sometimes it’s a shock, too,” Thier said. “For someone who drives down the street and then goes inside. They find that you had this wide range of spirits. I mean we have bottles that cost [as much as] 6000 dollars.

Farish Street Johnny T's

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Johnny T’s Blues and Bistro turns into a nightclub on Saturday night, June 10, 2022.

New businesses with unique stories

Despite Tierrie’s success with Johnny T’s, Farish Street is still relatively underdeveloped. The south side of the street is lined with clapboard buildings and broken windows. Collapsed walls reveal interiors reclaimed from weeds. And while the north end has seen more development, many of its buildings remain neglected.

Thier said his business isn’t as easy to replicate because it costs a lot of money to get these old buildings ready. But there are others who are willing to take that chance.

Yasmin Gabriel Collins and her husband, Eric Collins, located their business here because they believe the community appreciates them investing in the present and future of this street.

The family purchased a building in 2020 and opened Herbal Blessings, health food store and vegan cafe. This isn’t greasy comfort food, it’s beetroot burgers, turnip greens and anti-inflammatory tea.

Farish Street Herbal Blessings

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Yasmin and Eric Collins are pictured in the back of their store, Herbal Blessings, on Farish Street, June 10, 2022 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Collins admits he was skeptical when they first opened because the concept wasn’t the kind of business people expected to see in a predominantly black community.

“We’re changing that narrative that this space is only for rich, white people who can eat healthy,” said Gabriel Collins. “Our ancestors took care of them for a long time when they were enslaved. We have forgotten this narrative.

Gabriel Collins now believes that a vegan cafe and health food store makes sense on Farish Street because there is a sense of divine spirituality here. She and her husband are also working to build on their success by opening a grocery store, something lacking on Farish Street and largely lacking in downtown Jackson.

“Three years later, two kids later, a whole other restaurant and we’re expanding very, very quickly,” she said.

This story was produced by Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama and WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.

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