The banner wishing David Solomon a happy 100th birthday stretched across the street that hot July Saturday near the banks of the Mississippi River in Helena.
Solomon long has been one of Arkansas’ most respected attorneys. He’s a Helena native and a stalwart of the Jewish community, which once thrived on both sides of the lower Mississppi River from St. Louis to New Orleans.
They came from across the Delta that Saturday. By late that afternoon, hundreds of people had made their way to the block of old buildings in downtown Helena known as Biscuit Row. Sam Elardo, who began restoring properties in the area in 1974, bought five buildings on what’s now Biscuit Row several years ago and began renovations. In a stuffy, crowded room, Solomon sat for more than two hours, greeting a steady stream of visitors.
Before we get to David Solomon, a bit more about Biscuit Row as downtown Helena tries to bounce back.
“The project started with the five historic buildings that I purchased from Morris Gist,” Elardo said in a 2013 interview with Melissa Martinez. “Back then, there were a number of things there ranging from juke joints and restaurants to liquor stores and gambling joints. … I used to be a merchant in the area so I understand the ins and outs of small businesses.”
In front of the buildings is a marker from the Mississippi Blues Trail celebrating the accomplishments of Sonny Boy Williamson.
That’s right: The Mississippi Blues Trail.
The trail was established in 2006 by the Mississippi Blues Commission. Interpretive markers were placed across the state. Later, those behind the trail’s establishment decided to reach out to surrounding states in places where the blues had been important — places such as Memphis and Helena.
The marker reads: “Helena was home to a flourishing blues scene that inspired Sonny Boy Williamson and other legendary musicians from Mississippi, including Robert Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, James “Peck” Curtis and Honeyboy Edwards, to take up residence here in the 1930s and 1940s. They and many others performed at a famous juke joint at this site called the Hole in the Wall. Williamson’s rise to fame began in Helena as the star of KFFA radio’s ‘King Biscuit Time.’
“Sonny Boy Williamson was born and laid to rest in Mississippi, and lived in Chicago, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit and numerous other locales. But Helena was the town he came to regard as home. He established himself as one of the premier blues performers in the Delta (on both the Arkansas and Mississippi sides) through his live appearances in cafes and clubs and his broadcasts on KFFA and other stations. His recordings, including the chart hits ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’, ‘Keep It To Yourself’ and “Help Me’, brought him national recognition.
“In the 1960s, he played a key role in popularizing the blues in Europe and inspiring a host of British blues-rock musicians. In Europe, Williamson confounded eager fans and reporters who besieged him with questions about his life. As he told fellow bluesman Willie Dixon, ‘It ain’t none of their business. They don’t even know me.’
“Genealogical research and family sources point to a likely birthdate of Dec. 5, 1912, under the name Alex Miller. But he also called himself Rice Miller, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, Reverend Blue and Willie Williams, among other monikers, and he gave birthdates as early as 1893. When he eventually took his stage name from another popular bluesman, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson, in the blues lexicon he became Sonny Boy No. 2.”
There are few, if any, towns in Arkansas with as colorful a past as Helena.
As we left the Solomon reception, I thought back to a far quieter day in July 2010. I spent the better part of a Friday at the home of Solomon and his wife, Miriam, who died the next year. It was a civilized affair with David mixing drinks before lunch and Miriam making sure everyone was comfortable. Lobster shipped in from Maine was served for lunch. Their Helena home was filled with books and art, symbols of a cultured life lived well.
The Solomons had been married 68 years at the time. They were born in Helena. Miriam was three years younger.
Jewish culture once thrived on either side of the river from St. Louis to New Orleans.
At the time of my visit, David Solomon would still put on a suit and tie each morning and head to his office on Cherry Street, which once had been among the busiest commercial streets in Arkansas. In recent decades, Cherry Street has seen its buildings empty out and begin to crumble. With Temple Beth El closed by the time of my 2010 visit, the area’s remaining Jews had begun gathering in the Solomon home for Friday night services.
Beth El was built in 1916. The building has its original organ, purchased for $4,000 by the congregation’s Ladies Benevolent Association. It was a regional congregation, serving Jews not only from Helena but also from smaller farm-oriented communities such as Marvell and Marianna. In 2006, with fewer than 20 members remaining, the synagogue closed and the temple was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center to be used as an assembly hall. The loss of thousands of sharecroppers due to the widespread mechanization of agriculture following World War II had led to the loss of the once ubiquitous Jewish merchants up and down the river.
“There are only about six or seven of us,” David Solomon said on that Friday in 2010 when I asked him about the Friday night services. “One lady drives over from Marvell. Another comes from Holly Grove. There was just no way to maintain the temple. There were too few of us left. And we certainly weren’t going to give it to another religion.”
He smiled at me as he said that. His wit is as much a part of his persona as his bow tie.
The Delta is like many parts of rural America, a place that in some ways never made the transition from the agricultural age to the industrial age, much less the technological era.
Those sharecroppers moved from the cotton fields of the South to the steel mills and automobile factories of the Upper Midwest. They deserted places like Helena on the Arkansas side of the river and Greenville on the Mississippi side in droves for the promise of better jobs in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Gary.
It’s still common during the holidays each December to see visitors in rural east Arkansas whose automobiles sport license plates from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. There are counties in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana that had half or less the population in the 2010 census that they had in 1950.
The first Jews arrived in Helena in the 1840s. A Torah was borrowed from a congregation in Cincinnati in 1846 to use for the high holidays.
In 1867, 65 Jews formed Congregation Beth El. Now, almost 150 years later, the era of Jews living and thriving in the lower Mississippi River Delta is nearing its conclusion.
David Solomon, who received his bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis and his law degree from Harvard, expresses no longing for the past and no sadness at the decline of the Delta’s Jewish population. In his own stoic manner, he simply views it as things having come full circle. The Delta Jews, after all, met in private homes in the 1800s. By the 21st century, they were meeting in private homes once again.
“I relate everything back to economics,” Solomon once told me. “It’s not just the Jewish population that’s being affected in the Delta. All of the mainline Protestant religions are feeling the effect. It’s simple. People are going to go where the jobs are.”
The three Solomon sons, all highly successful, are a case in point. None of them stayed in Helena.
David P. Solomon went on to become the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.
Rayman Solomon was the dean of the Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., for 16 years and now serves as dean emeritus.
Lafe Solomon is an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., and served as the NLRB’s acting general counsel from June 2010 until November 2013.
For the elder David Solomon, the equation was simple. Jews came to the Delta in the 1800s when cotton was king because there were jobs. They left in the late 1900s because those jobs had disappeared.
The Delta long was known for its diversity. Blacks came in bondage as slaves and stayed on as sharecroppers. The Irish, Italians, Chinese, Syrians, Greeks and Lebanese were other groups who came up the river from New Orleans or down the river from St. Louis, settling in communities along the way.
The Delta was perhaps the greatest American melting pot outside a major city.
In an effort to preserve the state’s Jewish heritage, David P. Solomon (the son) established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment helped create a home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Arkansas Jews. The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”
The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls the book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. … Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”
David Solomon’s grandfather arrived from Germany shortly before the Civil War and had eight children — six boys and two girls. That second generation later would own a department store, shoe store, wholesale dry goods operation and cotton farms.
Miriam Solomon’s father, Charles Rayman, operated Helena Wholesale Co.
David Solomon started the first grade at a Catholic School known as Sacred Heart, which was operated by the Sisters of Nazareth. The nuns quickly moved him from the first grade to the fourth grade due to his native intelligence. He likes to joke that his mother finally pulled him out of the Catholic school when he kept coming home with crucifixes and tiny vials of holy water.
After his graduation from Harvard Law School, he applied to be a tax lawyer at a large firm in Memphis. He wasn’t chosen and came home to Helena to practice law.
He married Miriam in September 1942, traveling back to Helena from Camp Carson in Colorado Springs where he was stationed in the U.S. Army. Miriam had been working as an occupational therapist at a Chicago hospital. The wedding was in Miriam’s family home.
In December 2009, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service at the Solomon home. Ben Harris wrote: “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”
Harris went on to write that Miriam and David Solomon’s “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Phillips County derived “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”
At that lunch in 2010, Miriam Solomon told me: “I had made up my mind that we were not going to have the temple standing there with weeds growing out of the gutter. That wasn’t going to happen on my watch. In my mind, I gave it three years. If we hadn’t found a use for it by then, we were going to have it torn down.”
I’m glad I was there for David Solomon’s 100th birthday party. He’s one of the last of the Delta Jews.