This Piece of Roadside Art Is Collapsing, but One Woman Is Fighting to Save It
The life, death, and potential resurrection of the most extraordinary grocery store in Mississippi.
When photographer Suzi Altman first visited Margaret’s Grocery in 2000, she found Margaret’s husband, Reverend H.D. “Preacher” Dennis, standing outside wearing Mardi Gras beads and seersucker pants. Behind him was the roadside store, a multicolored monolith of hand-scrawled spirituality.
A fixture of famous Highway 61 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the grocery was blanketed in mosaics of pink, red, white, and yellow. Little shrines were everywhere: double-headed eagles, elaborate masonry, enormous flower bouquets, and signs bearing hand-painted Bible verses and various religious messages of indeterminate denomination.
“I had never seen anything quite like their place, never met anybody quite like them,” says Altman, who had recently to Mississippi. “I just fell in love immediately.”
Little did she know that 20 years later, she'd be the primary caretaker of this one-of-a-kind piece of roadside Americana, now in danger of fading away due to the effects of time, weather, and vandalism. Or that she would hold the landmark's fate in her hands... all because of a promise.
The birth of an icon
Margaret Rogers was born in 1906 in King's Community, Mississippi. Now incorporated into Vicksburg, the town in its heyday had its own police department, firehouse, and general store: Margaret’s Grocery & Market.
Between 1959 and 1979, it was the only grocery store owned and operated by a Black woman anywhere along Highway 61, the route known as “blue highway” that runs from New Orleans up through the Mississippi Delta and all the way to Minnesota.
Margaret’s Grocery sold kerosene, hogshead cheese, toilet paper, and other essentials of daily life. In pictures from the '60s and '70s, it’s just a regular-looking grocery store, though it did house a jukebox and a slot machine.
In the late 1970s, Margaret’s first husband was shot and killed in the store during a robbery. About five years later, she met Preacher.
“His promise to her was, ‘If you marry me, I promise to build you a castle to our love,’” Altman tells Thrillist. When they married, she got rid of the jukebox and slots, stopped selling beer, and Preacher got to building.
“He was out there every day turning it into what it was," Altman continues. "He said he built it that way, all multicolored, just the way God created the world, like a bouquet of flowers.”
Margaret's became a beacon of roadside folk art, a magnet for the curious and the faithful alike. The latter flocked to the property for impassioned sermons delivered by Preacher inside a bus filled with dazzling mosaics. Others stopped by to admire its pastel colors and unique signage and, like Altman, fell in love.
A promise is a promise
After her first visit, Altman became a regular visitor and a friend to the aging couple. Before Margaret passed away in 2009, she asked Altman to look after Preacher. Altman promised she would. She moved Preacher from one nursing home to another as he, too, eventually fell ill.
“One day, he was screaming at me—he couldn’t hear very well—'Suzi, promise me, promise me Suzi, promise me you’ll protect my property,’" recalls the photographer.
Once again, Altman promised she would.
In 2012, a thief wrapped a chain around the shop's burglar bars and ripped out the entire front entrance with a truck, stealing the store’s meat counter. Altman spent three days and more than $1,000 to hermetically seal every conceivable entrance. Preacher died later that year, at age 96. The store has been closed ever since, gradually succumbing to the elements.
“It can never be opened up and functional again,” Altman said. “Maybe if it was maintained privately it could be, but to [make it] ADA-compliant would be at least $1 million.”
But to fix the roof? To repaint the brick and refabricate some of the signs? That would be more like $100,000 to $150,000. With that kind of funding, Altman could also create an interpretive center down the road where the interior of the original store could be reimagined with all the original ephemera.
“That’s a viable option,” Altman said. A promise, after all, is a promise.
Looking to the future
By the time Preacher died, Altman had reached out to the local arts commission and to neighboring Cool Springs Baptist Church, where Margaret had been a member for over 60 years and had taught women to read before it was fashionable. In 2012, Altman formed the Mississippi Folk Art Foundation, which now owns the store.
Altman, who had no prior background in preservation work, has taken it upon herself to tarp the roof, fix the concrete, and mow the grass. Along with the bus, she moved most of Preacher’s treasures to storage, including signs like the roof-mounted greeting “JEWS AND GENTILES COME ONE COME ALL.”
“They look fabulous,” Altman says. “The wood has stopped rotting.”
Still, the site remains very vulnerable. Altman is currently looking into larger preservation grants and maintains a GoFundMe dedicated to the project. In 2011, the year before Preacher died, the city declared the last week of March “Preservation Week” in his honor. Altman would like to see that attention revived.
"The city of Vicksburg is very supportive, the mayor’s very supportive. We’re gonna get this done one way or the other,” Altman adds. "The place really needs to be saved—for the state, and for the whole world.”