The recognition of one of Tupelo’s major historically black communities with a permanent marker sends a strong message that our community treasures its past while still keeping an eye on its future.
Last week, city and community leaders gathered to unveil a historic marker recognizing Shake Rag, a vibrant community that produced some of the best blues, jazz and gospel music in the area. The music that flowed from the community influenced many over the years, including Elvis Presley, Tupelo’s native son who went on to change the face of music and American culture.
The community, which was east of the GM&O railroad and north of the current Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau, was leveled in 1962 as part of an urban renewal project.
Shake Rag allegedly got its name from people “shakin’ their rags” while fleeing a fight, according to the Mississippi Blues Trail, which also has placed a marker there.
The term also was used to describe African American musical gatherings in the 1800s and early 1900s and may be related to Shake Rag’s location next to the railway tracks; prior to regular timetables, passengers would signal for the engineer to stop a train by shaking a rag.
The community has its roots following the Civil War. After emancipation, freed slaves moved into the shanties, with communities like Shake Rag coming to life.
It was home to many churches and businesses, but the area also was notorious for gambling and bootlegging.
But former residents describe Shake Rag as a truly “unique place” with people focused on betterment even while living in less-than-ideal conditions.
The marker unveiled last week was placed at the southwest corner of the BancorpSouth Arena, which is located in what had been part of Shake Rag.
It’s the 13th marker the Tupelo CVB has unveiled as part of the Heritage Trails Enrichment Program in the city.
The program was created to identify and interpret historical Chickasaw, Civil Rights and African-American Heritage and Civil War sites in Tupelo and Lee County.
Other markers placed throughout the community as part of the program recognize historical sites such as the locations of the Battle of King’s Creek (part of the Civil War Trail) and the Battle of Ackia (part of the Chickasaw Trail).
Remembering the vibrant history of our community and sharing that knowledge with residents and visitors alike is the best way we can make sure future generations understand where our community came from in order to get to where it is now.