From pig ears to vegan food, Jackson’s oldest black business district finds 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 in the 1930s, is still one of the most popular venues on the Farish Street Historic Downtown.

To this day, lunchtime draws a long line of customers eagerly awaiting mustard beef sliders, greasy smoked sausages and the famous chewy pig’s ear sandwiches. But despite its popularity, the surroundings of this establishment have been dark for decades.

Shalina Chatlani/Gulf States Newsroom

/

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 major black-owned business center, community and cultural in the Deep South. After segregation ended in the 1960s, nearly all of the stores, theaters, and other services surrounding Big Apple Inn closed. Buildings collapsed and were overgrown with grass and dirt.

For so long, many in the community viewed Farish Street as a bankrupt 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 isn’t just a relic of the past.

83 years of smoked pig’s ears

Big Apple Inn is an example of black history that the owners of the historic district are working to preserve for the community.

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

Farish Street Pig Ears

Shalina Chatlani/Gulf States Newsroom

/

Geno Lee, fourth-generation owner of the Big Apple Inn, holds two tasty pig ears, June 10, 2022.

Back then, 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, affordable meal. Famous organizer and leader Medgar Evers — the NAACP’s first field agent in Mississippi — rented an office above the restaurant. The restaurant was also surrounded by black-owned furniture stores, music venues and a movie theater.

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

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

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

“We are a niche market without competition… Could we make more money in the suburbs? There’s no doubt,” Lee said. “[But] it’s not just a street, it’s a historic district.

Renovating the old charm of Farish Stree

Farish Street being so historically significant to Mississippi’s black community not only convinced businesses to stay, but also attracted a new generation of entrepreneurs. John Tierre is a businessman who has proven that it is possible to start a new establishment down the street and make a profit by renovating existing historic buildings.

Earth has opened Johnny T’s Bistro and Blues about seven years ago as a restaurant during the day, a concert hall at night and a nightclub at the weekend.

Farish John Tierre Street

Shalina Chatlani/Gulf States Newsroom

/

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

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

Tierre said that over time the building’s reputation declined. But since he took over, his business has helped her bounce back.

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

Prior to the opening, Tierre spent two years repairing the building. The ground floor, unused by the previous owner, has become a bistro – serving seared tilapia and salmon croquettes with its walls adorned with murals of famous black musicians and chefs. The floor turned into 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 liquor, and sleek lounge furniture completes its sophisticated look.

“Sometimes it’s also a shock,” said Tierre. “For someone who drives down the street and then he walks in. They find out you had this wide range of minds. I mean, we have bottles that cost [as much as] $6,000.

Rue Farish Johnny T's

Shalina Chatlani/Gulf States Newsroom

/

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

New companies with unique stories

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

Tierre said his business is not so easy to replicate because it costs a lot of money to prepare these old buildings. But there are others who are willing to take that chance.

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

The family bought a building in 2020 and opened herbal blessings, a health food store and a vegan cafe. It’s not fatty comfort food, it’s beetroot burgers, turnip greens and anti-inflammatory tea.

Farish Street Herbal Blessings

Shalina Chatlani/Gulf States Newsroom

/

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

Collins admits to being skeptical when they opened because the concept isn’t the type of business people expect to see in a predominantly black community.

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

Gabriel Collins now believes the 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 Farish Street lacks and is largely missing in downtown Jackson.

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

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