MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - We found a very special place just off Exit 56 on I-40 that gives “Simply The Best” lesson on life in rural West Tennessee. It also does much more than “Show Some Respect” to a living music legend.
The West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center is our latest 5 Star Story. It’s hidden behind service stations and fast food restaurants just off I-40 near Brownsville on Sunny Hill Cove in what was once a Western Sizzlin', and it’s truly a hidden gem.
According to executive director Sonia Outlaw-Clark, local leaders thought it was the perfect location for the center.
“And they just thought, with us sitting right on the interstate, how great would it be to have a tourist information center and to be able to share some of our rural culture,” said Outlaw-Clark.
Started in 1998, Outlaw-Clark said the center evolved over the years to include a whole complex with three regional museums in one building.
“We have a West Tennessee Cotton Museum that looks at the growth stages of cotton and the ginning process,” she said. “And then we also have a Hatchie River Room.”
Outlaw-Clark said the Hatchie River was designated as one of the 75 great places to save by the Nature Conservancy. And since it’s nearby, “It’s just two miles down the road, and we share the unique ecosystem and history of the Hatchie River and the land surrounding it,” said Outlaw-Clark.
There’s also a West Tennessee Music Museum that highlights the different genres and musicians from West Tennessee who Outlaw-Clark said made a tremendous impact on the music industry.
“You know the heritage that is in the West Tennessee area -- music related -- is phenomenal,” she said.
Outside the center is the two-room shotgun home of one of those artists -- “Sleepy” John Estes -- a blues pioneer in the early 1900s. Outlaw Clark said a lot of people may not know his name, but they know a lot of his songs.
“Bob Dylan does ‘Someday Baby Blues’ and that was a Sleepy John song,” said Outlaw-Clark. “Greg Allman did ‘Floating Bridge,’ again a Sleepy John song. Taj Mahal and Keb Mo just did a remake of Sleepy John’s ‘Diving Duck Blues.”
But the main attraction for most visitors to the Delta Heritage Center is a one-room school house that was once attended by probably the most famous person to ever come out of West Tennessee -- Anna Mae Bullock -- known to the rest of the world as Tina Turner, the Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll.
Born in 1939 at Nutbush, Tennessee -- just outside Brownsville -- Anna Mae as she was known back then attended the one-room, Blacks only Flagg Grove School all the way through eighth grade. The land where the school used to sit was sold for $25 by her great uncle, Benjamin Flagg, to a group of school trustees back in 1889.
“And so that group, including him, built this one-room school for that community,” said Outlaw-Clark. “It became part of the county school system in the early 1900s.”
The school closed in 1967 when integration began, and about 80 years after it was first built the school was sold for $100 to another farmer who used it as a barn. Surprisingly, Outlaw-Clark explained, the school house and all the contents inside were left in remarkably good shape.
“...Because he took the desks that were still in there, the chalkboard, benches from the original school were still in there, he slid ‘em into a corner. They were eventually covered over with straw because they’re using the school as a barn and that helped to preserve those items,” said Outlaw-Clark.
In 2012, the Delta Heritage Center had the Flagg Grove School moved from the Nutbush area. After a two-year restoration it re-opened as the Tina Turner Museum.
Inside you’ll not only experience what learning was like for Blacks in the 1940s through ’50s, you’ll also get an up close look at some of Tina Turner’s most memorable costumes, and other memorabilia -- even her high school yearbook -- all of which Outlaw-Clark said came specially delivered by the music icon herself.
“We have nine costumes from her last tour. She sent those. We have other memorabilia, pictures, gold records, all kinds of stuff. A replica of Wembly Stadium that’s not there anymore. Just lots of items from her personal collection that’s now part of the Tina Turner Museum,” she exclaimed.
Turner was unable to attend the museum dedication but recorded a video message that plays on a monitor inside the school house portion of the museum.
Though Turner now resides in Switzerland -- thousands of miles away from West Tennessee -- the Delta Heritage Center celebrates the her legacy as a part of the area’s own.
“We’ve got an international music icon who started out in a one-room school and who MADE it, and she did that through education.”
And Outlaw-Clark hopes people will visit the school and even Sleepy John’s home and see that someone who came from a very rural, poor start can become whatever they want to be.
“You don’t let where you’re at and what you came from define who you are.”
The West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center also hosts an array of events, many of which were canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s a list of planned events for 2021:
- Hatchie BirdFest: Experience birding at its best during the Hatchie BirdFest, held the last weekend of April. Unique outdoor adventures and over 200 species of birds await you on the Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge. Events include special speakers and demonstrations, hikes, and vendors. Perfect for seasoned birders or beginners.
- Exit 56 Blues Fest: Honoring the music of Blues pioneers Sleepy John Estes, Hammie Nixon and Yank Rachell -- the Brownsville Bluesmen. The event features live Blues from the porch of the Sleepy John Estes home, arts and crafts, food, Corvette car show and special exhibits. Located on Tennessee’s Music Highway (Interstate 40 at Exit 56) in Brownsville, Tenn. on the grounds of the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center and held each Memorial Day Weekend.
- Tina Turner Heritage Days: Join Tina Turner’s hometown as they celebrate the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll, featuring exhibits about Tina Turner, live music, tours of Nutbush, Tenn. and more. Most events are held at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center and Flagg Grove School, the childhood school of Tina Turner. Tina Days are held each fourth weekend of September. The 2020 event is virtual. Tina fans can join the fun online on the Tina Turner Heritage Days Facebook page.
- Holiday in Haywood: A holiday shopping mart held the second weekend of November. Specialty merchants and retailers set up inside the Delta Heritage Center to showcase their best gifts for the season.
- Songwriter Showcases and Open Mic Spoken Word events are held throughout the year. Details when an event is planned can be found on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/wtdeltaheritage/ or https://westtnheritage.com/.
Here are some of Sleepy John Estes’ recordings.
Here are some covers of of Sleepy John Estes’ songs.
While digging through our archives, we uncovered some old video of Tina Turner performing in Memphis at what was then the Rainbow Room at then-Hilton Airport Inn. We’re not sure of the exact date but it was likely in the late 1970s. Nancy Hart was the reporter. ENJOY!