Experience the Remarkable Spirit of Jackson, Mississippi

Mississippi’s capital celebrates its bicentennial with a year-long party welcoming expats home and introducing visitors to Jackson’s remarkable spirit.

Sonic Boom of the South marching band
Around 300 college students make up the award-winning Sonic Boom of the South marching band. Photo: Cedric Angeles

In its 200th year, Mississippi's capital city is inviting everyone to drop in, and the timing couldn't be any better. Over the past two years, Jackson has made quite the splash, largely thanks to Jackson State University (JSU). First, former NFL pro Deion Sanders signed on as head football coach at the HBCU (historically Black college or university). The following season, he led the team to its first championship in 14 years. Then, the class of 2022's No. 1 football recruit spurned both the University of Georgia and Florida State University to sign with JSU. In March, former NBA All-Star and Jackson native Mo Williams became the school's men's head basketball coach.

Even the Sonic Boom of the South, the school's acclaimed marching band, entered the national stage with performances in a Pepsi commercial and at the 2021 Presidential inauguration. For faculty and staff, the recognition was long overdue but wholly welcomed.

"It's launched a new appreciation for what the school has always been," says university president and Jackson native Thomas Hudson. "There's just something about this place, and I hear that over and over again from people."

Downtown murals depict Mississippi greats like Eudora Welty, Medgar Evers, Thalia Mara, and David Banner. Cedric Angeles

It's not just JSU keeping Jackson in the news but also the chefs, musicians, artists, and small-business owners. It's people like Nick Wallace, who climbed the service industry ranks and is now a celebrity chef and unofficial ambassador for the city and state. This year, he finished fifth on Top Chef, as the first contestant in 19 seasons to hail from the Magnolia State.

When he and his group of culinary interns from Hinds Community College catered the city's bicentennial party (with pimiento cheese fritters plus tarts featuring turnip tops and ham hock marmalade), it was a full-circle moment. The fact that the event was hosted at the Smith Robertson Museum & Cultural Center (which highlights Black history) wasn't lost on Wallace, who issued a call to action to his peers, saying, "Mississippi has a voice, and it needs to be heard. Let's get the word out. Regardless of whether it's through food or standing up at the legislature, we need to do it with a purpose."

Fondren district
The revitalized Fondren district is known for its retro atmosphere. Cedric Angeles

Stay For a Spell

Getting lost in the crowd isn't easy to do in Jackson. Though it's Mississippi's most populous city, it is in some ways more akin to fictional towns like Mayberry and Stars Hollow than similarly sized Southern hubs. This is the kind of place where a polite smile or wave doesn't always cut it and where the rare traffic jam is usually caused by someone stopping in the middle of the street to catch up with a friend.

If one neighborhood best reflects Jackson's patchwork of people and personalities, it's the historic Belhaven district. Belhaven was founded in the early 1900s with a smattering of Colonial and Neoclassical Revival mansions. Over the next century, a medley of ivy-covered bungalows as well as cute Craftsman, ornate Queen Anne, and dreamy Italianate houses filled in the gaps. A stroll through the picturesque neighborhood's shaded streets gives a look back at decades of history and a glimpse into the character of those who now call this thriving part of Jackson home.

Fairview Inn garden
Fairview Inn features a formal garden out back. Cedric Angeles

For out-of-towners, lodging options in Belhaven begin and end with the Fairview Inn, a Colonial Revival mansion that was built in 1908 and designed by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright. Years later, the single-family home became a bed-and-breakfast, and in 2006, current owners Tamar and Peter Sharp took over. Today, the boutique hotel includes 18 immaculately appointed rooms and suites, many featuring soaking tubs and fireplaces. The Library Lounge serves craft cocktails inspired by Mississippi literary legends like Alice Walker, Richard Wright, and William Faulkner. In warmer months, the Fairview Inn's giant magnolia trees, brilliant seasonal blooms, and expansive deck provide a romantic backdrop for weddings and events.

Setting the Table

A simple rule of thumb when dining in Jackson is to follow the history. If a spot has been open for several decades, it's probably great. When it's kept a loyal following for 80-some years, you're guaranteed a meal to remember.

At the Big Apple Inn, try a near-extinct Southern delicacy. Fourth-generation owner Geno Lee dishes out smoked sausage ("smokes") and pig ear ("ears") sliders plus tamales. He uses recipes passed down from his Mexican great-grandfather, who started the business with a pushcart after immigrating in the early 1930s. Outside of offering tasty and exceedingly affordable food (sliders are just $1.90 each), the Big Apple Inn is also significant for its role in the Civil Rights Movement. NAACP field officer Medgar Evers once worked above the restaurant. As the movement grew and activists spilled out of his doors, they relocated to the Big Apple Inn's dining room to plan and strategize over meals.

“Smokes” sliders
The fire red “smokes” sliders at Big Apple Inn are made with Red Rose brand sausage. Cedric Angeles

Not much has changed at the Mayflower Café since it opened in 1935; you'll find an assortment of seafood, steak, and Greek dinners on the menu. Order the fresh redfish, and try the comeback sauce, a Mississippi-famous all-purpose condiment that's served with everything from salad to fried green tomatoes.

Fast-forward around 50 years, and you reach the inception of two more Jackson institutions. Though a little off the beaten path, Bully's Restaurant is a standout for soul food—barbecue ribs, smothered oxtails, and neck bones included. The restaurant earned a James Beard America's Classics Award in 2016. But locals already knew: Any place that serves delicious down-home greens daily is the real deal.

Fried chicken and spicy collard greens
The fried chicken and spicy collard greens come highly recommended at Bully’s Restaurant. Cedric Angeles

Malcolm White fulfilled a lifelong dream when he opened Hal & Mal's with his brother Hal in a former freight station in 1985. The lively spot dishes out some of the best gumbo, po'boys, and catfish you can find anywhere, but for Malcolm, Hal & Mal's was never just about the food. "We have a courtyard, two apartments, two recording studios, a painter, and a couple of concert halls. We've always had built-in roommates. The idea was that this would help revitalize the area," he says.

Plate of food from Hal & Mal’s
Hal & Mal’s is known for its Louisiana and Mississippi Delta cuisine. Cedric Angeles

Whether it's through onion rings, live music, or a fundraising event, Malcolm's mission is to bring the community together. If you visit in March, you may be lucky enough to experience one of his biggest contributions to Jackson, the Hal's St. Paddy's Day Parade & Festival, which rivals celebrations in much larger cities.

At Elvie's, chef Hunter Evans marries old and new as well as French and Southern in an elegant but warm all-day cafe dedicated to his grandmother May Elvieretta Good (Elvie). Evans' talent shines the best in an ever-changing tasting menu, where the Jackson native pays homage to Mississippi through dishes inspired by the state's rich culinary and agricultural histories. Once, for an inventive play on shrimp and grits, Evans folded Gulf shrimp into a cornmeal-encrusted grit cake and served it with bacon-confit tomatoes and a barbecue reduction.

Redfish amandine
Order the redfish amandine at Elvie’s. Cedric Angeles

Where Old Meets New

Meshing past and present is a common theme in Jackson. In Fondren, an eclectic arts district with more than two dozen locally owned eateries, boutiques, bars, and cafes, what's historic can always be made modern. Renowned music venue Duling Hall, for example, is housed in the Auditorium of a former elementary school that dates back to 1928. The Capri Theatre was restored to its 1939 glory and reintroduced as a state-of-the-art dine-in movie theater earlier this year. Next door, Highball Lanes (a 10-lane bowling alley, restaurant, arcade, and watering hole) and The Pearl (the city's only Polynesian-inspired bar) offer more throwback fun.

The retro vibes continue at Brent's Drugs, a 1946 soda fountain and pharmacy that now fills stomachs instead of prescriptions. Brent's old-school charm, complete with turquoise tabletops and vinyl booths, earned it significant screen time in the 2011 movie The Help. Stop in for hand-cut fries and a milkshake, or head to The Apothecary, a speakeasy-style bar that's tucked into the back storage room, for creative cocktails and late-night bites.

Ice cream sundae
The ice cream sundae at Brent’s Drugs is too good to miss. Cedric Angeles

A Storied City

To truly understand this town, look to the books. "Often as Jacksonians and even as Mississippians, we deeply feel that our story is told by others in pieces—fragments of who we are that lack an understanding of what it means to be from here," says Ebony Lumumba, a professor of English at JSU and wife of Jackson mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. "I believe that it's through our literary heroes that we're told in whole—not in parts."

Perhaps no one told the tale of Jackson better than Eudora Welty. More than 20 years after the accomplished writer and photographer's death, her influence is still felt so acutely by the community that her regular grocery store has a giant portrait of her painted on its facade. At the Eudora Welty House & Garden, get a behind-the-scenes look into the place that the Pulitzer Prize winner called home for 76 years. Find her works at Lemuria Books, another Fondren darling that regularly hosts readings by authors from around the South and beyond.

Lemuria Books
Lemuria Books has comfortable reading nooks. Cedric Angeles

Jackson has the distinct walk and talk of a small town. Resources and talents are shared here, and everyone contributes to its success. In 2017, after 17 years as manager of the Smith Robertson Museum & Cultural Center, JSU alumna Pamela D.C. Junior was contemplating retirement. At around the same time, the state was set to unveil Two Mississippi Museums, a joint campus for the brand-new Museum of Mississippi History and the long-awaited Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Junior went in to inquire about docent positions. She left as the civil rights museum's new director. "This is what God told me to do," she says.

Today, Junior leads both museums and has introduced almost half a million people to the state, its history, and—most importantly—its citizens. "These were just ordinary people doing phenomenal things to bring about change," she says. "When you come out of the museums, you have a real sense of community and a better understanding of Mississippi."

Interactive glowing sculpture
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum’s central gallery, This Little Light of Mine, honors activists and features an interactive glowing sculpture. Cedric Angeles
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