How a former segregationist stronghold built a $15 million museum celebrating the life of a black man.
By CLANCY SMITH
INDIANOLA — It’s early afternoon, mid-September 2008, and the sparkling double-glass doors slide silently open. Soon, a large man shuffles through the doors before seating himself in a wheelchair. A hushed group of onlookers trails behind.
The wheelchair glides down the hallway, then abruptly stops. The man stares hard at the gleaming Gibson guitars, as though he can’t quite believe someone arranged them so neatly on the walls. He kindly greets them all with the same name: Lucille. Yes, there she is – his beloved Lucille.
He keeps going, stops again – stunned at half-century-old photo displays of all those Memphis friends and all those good times. He wheels down a high-gloss hallway, then stops on a dime.
Wait! Can that really be? A replica of the home music studio? The same carpet. The exact same piece of carpet?
The man in the wheelchair slowly turns away. Alone now in a hushed corner of the museum, he drops his head and begins to weep.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen B.B speechless,” said Jim Abbott, former editor of the Indianola Enterprise Tocsin and one of the museum’s founding members.
The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center opened in the small town of Indianola in 2008 after more than eight years of planning, plotting and producing. Six years later, visitors from all 50 states and 30 countries – including Denmark, Japan and South Africa – have made the pilgrimage to the 20,000 square-foot shrine to the native son-turned-international blues legend. The project ended up topping out at a cool $15 million.
And it’s not only outsiders who benefit. The museum has spun off afterschool programs for children and health and fitness programs for members of the community.
In fact, continued growth and support have transformed the Smithsonian-quality museum into one of Indianola’s prime economic engines – an engine that has also helped unify a once-splintered community. Since the blue ribbons were cut, two new restaurants have opened in the Delta community of 10,495, and a new motel is scheduled to break ground soon.
“The financial support and the support from the white community to make something happen that honored an African-American that played guitar is not something that would’ve happened a few decades ago,” said Bill McPherson, president of the B.B. King Museum Board.
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Truth be told, it almost didn’t happen. Not the lavish display cases. Not the state-of-the-art sound system. Not the posh auditorium. And not the afterschool program for the town’s children. None of it.
By the 1970s, B.B. King had become a global superstar. When he played San Francisco, he stayed at the Top of the Mark. When in New York, he stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. When in London, he gave private concerts for the queen.
But when he came home, he and his band couldn’t sleep in local motels, couldn’t eat in local restaurants.
“I came home to Indianola with my band, but we couldn’t stay at the motel out on (U.S.) 82, we couldn’t eat at the Cream Cup,” a disheartened King once told his friend Abbott.
So, in 1983, Abbott began searching for a way for the town to embrace its famous native son, encouraging the Indianola Chamber of Commerce Board to assist with King’s annual homecoming concert. But it didn’t go down with some of the board members, many of whom had the same problem: They couldn’t see past the color of Riley B. King’s skin.
“I said, ‘Well, you don’t even know the guy,’” Abbott told those who rejected the proposal. “’He’s the nicest guy. I mean, come on. He’s been received by the queen of England. He’s represented the United States in Moscow for the State Department. He is a true gentleman and he’s proud of this town.’”
But the board wouldn’t budge. Enter four white couples. They concocted a plan to host a party to bridge the racial divide. Of the 250 people invited, 125 were white, 125 were black. The garden party along the bayou on June 9, 1983, to which the media was not invited, was unlike any the guests could remember.
“We kind of had a list of some white people that we knew would be challenged to come to the party, but they would have to come – the movers and shakers and all,” said Abbott.
At one point during the evening, King asked guests to gather around the patio. He toasted the crowd. As he looked out at all the black and white faces, he almost began to cry.
“They got to see,” said Abbott, “what a great guy he is.”
A much older, increasingly feeble King, now 88, gave what was billed as his last annual concert in late May. For years, Indianola eagerly awaited those concerts. They saw it as a time to come together, to enjoy music by a man who made a difference in his hometown.
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It got serious over lunch one day in July 2000. The lunch group of five – banker, lawyer, restaurant owner, editor and bank teller – started brainstorming ways to turn their museum dream into reality.
Their goal was to pay tribute to the man who had put Indianola on the map. They wanted to convey a saga that included both civil rights and an American success story in the music industry.
“We were kind of like nomads in the wilderness,” recalled Randy Randall, a local banker and one of the museum’s founders. “We didn’t know really where we were going or how we were going to get there, but we were all determined to stay focused on our goal.”
So the group wrote King a letter, asking approval to use his name for the B.B. King Museum. After his go-ahead, they sought two things: location and money.
Auburn and Mississippi State architecture students squared off to find the best spot. Ironically, both groups chose a site with an old brick cotton gin near downtown. When they asked King’s approval, he gave a startling response: It was the same gin he had worked at as a young man helping grease the gin machinery.
“That gin was actually a part of his life,” said Evelyn Roughton, another founding member. “We didn’t have any clue about that.”
Fundraising quickly became another major concern. After speaking with museum experts, the initial $75,000 estimate morphed into the millions.
What to do? Enter Bill McPherson and Allan Hammons. McPherson, an Indianola native, put his career on hold to work on the project full-time. Hammons, owner of Hammons & Associates Advertising, used his business expertise to help jump-start the project.
“I became a little intrigued by the thing, so I guess I kind of tried to talk myself out of it and at the same time talk myself into it,” said Hammons, who was not initially ready to commit to the time-consuming project.
Eventually, in Indianola alone, the team raised over a million dollars to back the museum.
“Oh gosh, I can’t even tell you what, it was so generous,” said Roughton, owner of the Crown Restaurant downtown. “The people here in town were extremely generous and believed in its scale.”
Meanwhile, McPherson and Hammons relentlessly badgered the Legislature with a tax plan to help underwrite the costs. They also got help from Washington, D.C., after pitching the project to the feds with an assist from U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. Fundraising events became a frequent affair.
“It was shocking,” said Hammons. “Every time [the estimate] would go up, there were collective gasps from the board like, ‘We can’t do this. It’s not possible.’ But it was a fun project, and Bill and I literally worked coast to coast to make it happen.”
The museum also got $300,000 from Gibson, the guitar company B.B. King had remained loyal to throughout the years. The most generous individual donation came in a nondescript manila envelope. The $2.5 million check from former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale and his wife Donna almost got tossed in the trash with a pile of junk mail.
For six long years, McPherson and Hammons worked seven days a week to corral donations. As money piled up, the design team cranked up as well.
Gallagher & Associates rounded up items significant to King’s life. At one point, he allowed the team to slap sticky notes on anything in his home they wanted for the museum.
“If an institution can tell a powerful story, I really do think it affects the community and it draws tourists, first of all, because it’s authentic and it’s real and it shows people something that they didn’t expect to find there,” explained Cissy Foote Anklam, founder of Museum Concepts in Arlington, Va.
“Then it also revitalizes the community. Not only economically, which is great, but also just in terms of civic pride and understanding their story better.”
n the end, King left most of the museum’s creation to those spearheading the project.
“He was involved as little as he could be, but we wore him out,” McPherson said. “I mean, he was playing and busy, and we really worried him to death trying to tie him down and get him on film.”
Those museum video clips ultimately snagged a bronze medal in the Muse awards, an international awards ceremony that recognizes outstanding achievement in archives, libraries and museums.
Along the way, the bond the museum forged with the community became evident.
“It’s the first time I’d ever seen groups, black and white, work together on a common thing that both of them felt strongly about,” Roughton said.
Today museum visitors continue to stream in from all over the world. And everything inside those sparkling double-glass doors continues to provide the social glue for a community with a racially fragmented history.
Summed up Dion Brown, the museum’s executive director:
“I wasn’t raised that way, so to me everybody’s equal, and so that’s the way we go forward – making the museum all-inclusive for everybody.”