Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Friday, November 7, 2008

"The Baddest White Man in Mississippi"

David "HoneyBoy" Edwards, well-known Delta blues musician from Shaw, Mississippi, mentions Tillman Branch in his 1997 autobiography "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing." One of the references to the man simply known as "Tillman" states that he owned a "whiskey store on Highway 61." This store was actually located on Highway 51 in Goodman, Mississippi, and during the 1950's and until Tillman's death in 1963, the Goodman, Mississippi business was known as "The Long Branch."

Tillman Branch's family had deep roots in Attala County, Mississippi. His ancestors were respected pioneers, descended from old, well-known colonial families of Virginia, but Tillman's business operations were quite different from those who came before him. His businesses existed in the form of "juke joints" located near Tchula in Holmes County and other outlying areas around Attala County. Tchula's location in the place where the "Hills" meet the "Delta" made it the perfect place for these clubs that became peformance venues for blues musicians, such as Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson, and HoneyBoy Edwards, who later became very well-known in their field. Some blues afficianados, such as Junior Dougherty who writes at, even believe that Tillman Branch played a crucial, even vital, role in the development of the music form that later became known as the "Mississippi Delta Blues."

Tillman's operation of "juke joints" or "night clubs" was the outgrowth of his alleged reputation as a fairly successful "bootlegger" during the days when local law enforcement seemed to be tolerant of that illegal activity. According to the book written by HoneyBoy Edwards, Tillman also had a reputation for being a womanizer and a "bad man.." and "...all the white folks was scared of him." Rumored reports of Tillman's relationships with women during those years indicate that he routinely ignored local society's racial boundaries that existed at that time and in that place, much to the chagrin of his legal wife and others who knew him.

Although label-bearing hard liquor was not legal in most counties in Mississippi until the late 1960's, it was still easy to find it for sale throughout the state if one knew where to look. And moonshine or "white lightning" was even more available, particularly behind the closed doors of the juke joints. Not only were Tillman's clubs frequented by many blacks who came to drink and to listen to the blues music that reflected events in their own lives, but they were also frequented by white locals who were seeking a lively Saturday night far away from the ever-vigilant eyes of their God-fearing neighbors. It goes without saying that Tillman's businesses existed outside mainstream society of either Attala County, Holmes County, or for that matter, anywhere in the State of Mississippi at that time.

But times were changing, although not favorably for Tillman and "juke joints" in general. And one of those changes involved cracking down on "liquor racketeers," according to an article that appeared in Time magazine. The voice of Hazel Brannon Smith, longtime editor of the Lexington Advertiser and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, became instrumental in forcing law enforcement to take a second look at illegal activities previously "overlooked" by local authorities. According to the article, sixty-four indictments were handed down in 1946 alone.

I have found no written proof that Tillman was among those indicted on charges of illegal activities involving liquor, but the end to an era of uncontrolled proliferation of juke joints and the illegal activities that went on inside their doors was coming to an end. Another period in Mississippi, however, was beginning, the era of desegretation, with events, changes, and even human casualties that would alter the course of history in the state and in the country. Tillman Branch, the man called by some as "The Baddest White Man in Mississippi" would become one of those casualties, perhaps even a casualty of his own making, when he was died in 1963 from a gunshot allegedly fired by a black man who reportedly disagreed with his actions toward a woman they both knew.

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