I often mention my old neighborhood in the columns I pen for The PineBelt NEWS. I grew up on Hattiesburg's east side, northeast of Bouie Street and Highway 11. (In the old days, before Interstate 59, Highway 11 was the highway to Laurel, Meridian and points north.)
One of the oldest neighborhoods in Hattiesburg, we had a nickname for my part of town. We called it the “Goula.” There was another nickname associated with us, too. We were sometimes called “The Bottom.” I believe we were called that because of our location, sitting at the northeast tip of Hattiesburg, the last neighborhood before the Leaf River. I never liked “The Bottom” ... sounds too negative.
I always preferred the Goula and honestly don't know its origins. But the name still sticks to this day. (I’ll talk more about that later.)
For now, though, let me provide a little geography lesson on the Goula.
Bouie Street defined our neck of the woods. You wouldn't know from looking at it today but, when I was growing up, Bouie Street was alive with energy, unlike the anemic commercial strip it has morphed into these days. Sadly, many of its old landmarks have long since been reduced to rubble.
Bouie Street begins at the southeast end of downtown near Pine Street. In the old days, Highway Express and the Polk Cadillac dealership were its anchors. Traveling north from there, you'd pass Briarfield Apartments, which at the time was government housing for white families only.
Next stop was the Rice’s potato chip plant, Hattiesburg’s homemade, hometown brand. You could tell when they were frying up a fresh batch. The aroma of frying potato chips would fill the air as you walked by; the smell was delightful. Once you passed Rice’s, you were headed for the heart of the Goula. The old Mississippi Central Railroad yard marked the start of our neighborhood.
Virtually all traces of the old rail yards are gone, including its cavernous service buildings. We called it, simply, Central Shop.
Long before I was born, the facility hummed with activity, serving as a maintenance plant for the old Mississippi Central rail line. As dangerous as the vacant Central Shop was, during the summer months, we mischievous kids had such fun playing on the abandoned railroad equipment, all of which had sat unused for decades.
Adjacent to Central Shop at 6th Street was Shemper’s Steel, then owned by the Shemper family. Today, you’ll know it as SA Recycling Center. When I was a boy, to us, Shemper’s was “the junkyard.” Its most notable “contribution” to our neighborhood were the deeply piled rows of junked cars that bordered 6th Street.
A real eyesore, they were also home to assorted vermin and God knows what else. The piles of rusted cars provided an unpleasant view from front yards of the many homes lining 6th Street, including my cousin's. Sadly, junkyards and railroad tracks were often located adjacent to neighborhoods where the majority of residents were African American. We learned to live with it but, hey, what choice did we have?
A block from Shemper’s at 7th and Bouie stood the long-since demolished Lamar Elementary School, a stately, neoclassic two-story building. In the early ‘60s, the school was for white students only. And even though it was located in the Goula, black children, including myself, had to walk past Lamar School on our way to Eureka Elementary three blocks away.
Across from Lamar School, there was a fast food restaurant, and I may test your memories with that one.
It was called Dairy Dream, a popular spot in the Goula. A tasty cone of soft-serve vanilla ice cream was yours for only a nickel. They made the best hot dogs on the east side, too.
Walk another block to 8th Street and you’d be at the ice house; the building is no longer there. I’m sure the business had a proper name but to us, it was just that: the ice house. I used to love watching them crush huge blocks of ice before selling it to customers. I can still hear the rumble of that machine in my head.
One more block and, at 9th Street and Bouie, was a very busy laundromat; we called it the “washateria.” Back then, in-home washers and dryers were much more a luxury item than they are today.
Next door was a small store we called the curb market. There, in addition to groceries, you’d find plenty of locally grown, fresh produce.
Further down the street, where Bouie Street and Highway 11 joined the Highway 42 bypass, was Lovitt Equipment. The lot would be filled with shiny new John Deere tractors and other farm machines. Plenty of other businesses, including a furniture store, gas stations and small grocery stores, led all the way up to the Leaf River bridge, which took you over into Petal.
All of the residential neighborhood north and east of Bouie, bordered by the Leaf River ... that was my ‘hood, the Goula. And we loved it!
Now, here comes the other part I was telling you about. I’ve asked lots of people from the old neighborhood how we got our nickname and have yet to get a definitive answer. I had my own idea about the name ... probably incorrect, but here goes.
Since the Leaf is a tributary of the Pascagoula River, I thought there might be a connection. Could we have borrowed from the bigger river's name? Now, keep in mind, the Pascagoula were also a small tribe of Native Americans indigenous to south Mississippi living along the banks of the mighty Pascagoula River. That would be colorful connection to our nickname for sure. But how would a mostly black neighborhood end up with a name associated with the tribe? But, wait ... I was given a more interesting consideration.
A friend of mine from Facebook has seen me question the origins of my neighborhood's nickname, and she sent me information on another possibility: Gullah. It’s a different spelling, but it sure sounds like the same pronunciation, right?
The Gullah people are descendants of various ethnic groups from west and central Africa. They were among the first brought to America during the transatlantic slave trade. Upon arrival in the United States, they were forced to work on the plantations of Atlantic coastal states like Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas.
I like that idea, but a link to the Gullah tribe would make a lot more sense if they had a more direct connection to our area. I have not been able to find any. Still, my research did reveal some interesting facts about the Gullah people. Theirs is a rich and colorful history.
Living along the Atlantic coastline, cut off from many of the other slaves brought to America, the Gullah developed their own language, living a lifestyle that combined their African roots with American culture. Their cuisine greatly influenced what we now call soul food and, I should add, rubbed off on southern cooking, period. In fact, some of their foods now mingle with the Creole cooking style so popular in Louisiana and south Mississippi. (Hey, maybe I’m getting closer to making a connection.)
The Gullah are sometimes known as Geechee, a name with origins born out of the Ogeechee River, which flows through southeast Georgia near the Atlantic. This is where the Gullah, or Geechee, peoples settled. Those who lived on the mainland, near the river, were called Freshwater Geechee, with Saltwater Geechee referring to those living on the coastal islands of the Atlantic Ocean.
Of course, the islands along Georgia’s coast have risen greatly in value as numerous upscale resorts now dot the lands once called home by the Gullah tribe. You may have even visited some of those pricey resorts on Hilton Head Island. (It began as home to the Gullah.)
Bought up my corporations with deep pockets, the Gullah people have been slowly pushed off family land they’ve lived on for centuries.
A little good news here: the United States National Park Service and representatives of the Gullah people are now responsible for managing the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which extends along the Atlantic coastline. Stretching from the northern tip of Florida to North Carolina, its goal is to help preserve the historic culture of the tribe.
So, I end this column as I started, still not sure how my old Hattiesburg neighborhood got its nickname. But oh what fun it’s been learning about the Gullah/Geechee people of the Atlantic south. The contributions they’ve made to southern culture and cuisine cannot be overlooked. Since our part of Mississippi is so closely related to the Creole cooking of Louisiana, maybe my old ‘hood, the Goula, has a connection to the Gullah/Geechee tribe after all?
I’ll think about that the next time I’m enjoying a plate of jambalaya!
Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of both Hattiesburg High School and the University of Southern Mississippi. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.