This Piece of Roadside Art Is Collapsing, but One Woman Is Fighting to Save It
The life and death 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 the 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,” said Altman, who had just moved to Mississippi. “I just fell in love immediately.”
Little did she know, 20 years later, that she would be the primary caretaker of this one-of-a-kind piece of roadside Americana, which is now in danger of crumbling due to the decay of time. Or that she would hold its fate in her hands... all because of a promise.
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 and 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 have 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 told 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. 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 came for impassioned sermons delivered by Preacher inside a bus filled with dazzling mosaics. Others just stopped by to admire its pastel colors and unique signage and, like Altman, fell in love.
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, 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.’"
Once again, Altman promised she would.
In 2012, a thief wrapped a chain around the 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 decay.
“It can never be opened up and functional again,” Altman said. “Maybe if it was maintained privately it could be, but to ... have it be 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 re-created, with all the original ephemera.
“That’s a viable option,” Altman said. A promise, after all, is a promise.
By the time Preacher died, Altman had already reached out to the local arts commission and to Cool Springs Baptist Church (located right behind the grocery, where Margaret had been a member for over 60 years and had taught women to read before it was fashionable) to help save Margaret’s Grocery. In 2012 she formed the Mississippi Folk Art Foundation, which now owns the store.
Altman, who has no background in preservation work, has tarped the roof, fixed the concrete, and mowed the grass. Along with the bus, she has moved most of the Preacher’s treasures to storage, including signs like the iconic roof-mounted one reading “JEWS AND GENTILES COME ONE COME ALL.”
“They look fabulous,” Altman said. “The wood has stopped rotting.”
Still, the site is vulnerable. Altman is currently looking into larger preservation grants and maintains a GoFundMe. 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 brought back.
"The city of Vicksburg is very supportive, the mayor’s very supportive. We’re gonna get this done one way or the other,” Altman said. "The place really needs to be saved -- for the state, and for the whole world.”