A rare gem of the Mississippi Blues Trail sits proudly at 303 Union Street in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
About 58 miles from New Orleans by car, Bay St. Louis hosted some of the most outstanding blues performers as they traveled along the Mississippi Blues Trail. The performers played small venues known as the “Chitlin Circuit” up and down the coast after World War II. The Circuit was a network of African American clubs with acts booked out of New Orleans, and The 100 Men Hall was one of those places.
It almost didn’t survive when Hurricane Katrina, by then a category 3 storm, bore down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. The building sustained incredible damage and was scheduled to be razed. Thankfully, two civic-minded people, Kerry White and Jesse Loya, stepped in to purchase the structure in 2006.
Note: I visited Bay St. Louis as a guest of Coastal Mississippi; all opinions are my own.
As you drive onto Union Street, you can see the marker erected in 2011 proudly proclaiming its Mississippi Blues Trail status. The plaque explains, “It was a long time center of African American social life in 1922.” Over the years, the 100 Men Hall held events for members. There were weddings, baby showers, dances, and funerals held inside the historic walls. Hall leaders rented it out to music promoters, collecting money at the door for the acts and receiving some in return for the organization. That’s when the greats stepped through the doors.
It started as a fraternal organization in 1894. Twelve men pooled their money to help each other and their families with sickness, burials, and to “knit friendship.” According to their charter, they might host a party or a picnic to raise funds to replenish the treasury. There was no building, but when land by the railroad tracks came up for sale in 1921, Joseph Curry purchased the plot at 303 Union Street on behalf of the Hall. At first, they put up a simple picnic pavilion, a roof to offer shade and protection from the weather. In 1922, with pooled resources and labor, the cornerstone was laid, and the building’s dedication occurred in 1923.
In 2018 Rachel Dangermond, along with her son Constantin (Tin), bought the Hall from the Loyas. She was the perfect next guardian, and she named Tin the 101st man. The award-winning journalist and community activist who writes about race and parenting worked with community leaders in New Orleans and the Obama White House program on policing. She hosted writing workshops before she stepped into the building. She bought it, moved in, and immediately wrote a grant to gather information to create a history of the Hall from local residents called the “100 Men Hall People Project.”
Her mission was to make the 100 Men Hall a nonprofit community center for everyone. She immediately threw her first event, “A Honky Tonkin Afternoon,” a celebration that included food, music, and visual arts. Unfortunately, the pandemic stalled many of her other plans, and hurricane Zeta damaged the Hall and shed in October of 2020. But the community stepped in to help. The building, steeped in American Blues history, is a can’t-miss. Here are some reasons to check out the 100 Men Hall.
1. Visit A Mississippi Blues Trail Shrine
The Blues Trail marker by the front door of the 100 Men Hall and the colorful mural along the outside of the building tell the story. The musicians and singers who played here were part of the African American resilience on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Visual artists Wendo and JoLean created the visual storyboard with grants from the Puffin Foundation and the Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area. The mural includes likenesses of local musician Harry Fairconnetue, Guitar Bo, Etta James, and others.
It’s the Hall’s history. One step inside, and you feel it. A blackboard lists all the performers who graced the stage, including BB King, Chuck Berry, Etta James, James Brown, Ray Charles, and more. Even though the structure’s been restored since Katrina, the simple room looks a lot like it did back when the Chitlin Circuit musicians played. Posters of musicians adorn the walls. There’s a prep kitchen in the back for parties, a bar up front, and the simple stage is set up just waiting for Etta to belt out the iconic first two words of her famous song, “At Last.”
2. Enjoy An Event In The Historic Venue
During the pandemic, a few shows took place outdoors on the vast lawn that runs alongside the building. The events were terrific and well-attended. Tables on the property and food catered by local chefs offered great eats to attendees. Ticket sales supported the Hall and the performers, just like the old days. Hosting gatherings for the public was part of the appeal for Rachel to purchase the property in the first place.
“I loved the idea of fostering music or idea exchanges and wanted to convert the shed on the property to make it a green room, a space for artists in residence,” she says. The idea of the Tin Shed Project was born.
The shed was converted into a comfortable living space where a musician or speaker could relax. And then give a talk or musical performance on the deck or head into the historic 4,500-square-foot hall and perform onstage. Indoor programs won’t occur until the annual Labor Day Booker Fest this year. (James Booker, known as the piano wizard of New Orleans, lived with his aunt in Bay St. Louis, where he started to play piano early in his childhood.)
A few events will kick off an incredible summer outside, with more to come. Since the mission is to support the community, there are always multi-cultural events around the holidays, writing workshops, and other festivals in town, where the Hall will host gatherings. Rachel is collaborating with artists to celebrate the Hall’s 100th birthday.
3. Rent A Piece Of History For Your Special Day
If you love blues or adore historical places, you might want to have a party or special event at the 100 Men Hall. People have planned their weddings at the venue because the sound system works with either a live band or DJ, and 100 years of people who floated along the dance floor’s boards. The lawn is large, and the Tin Shed is a great place to get ready or have a ceremony on the deck or on the historic stage. Rachel Dangermond is also an ordained minister who officiates weddings. The parties at the 100 Men Hall are legendary — literally. It’s just the vibe of the place that makes it extra special. Check the website for details.
As I stood on the front porch this spring, I noticed the Bay St. Louis Historic Train Depot two blocks away. I couldn’t help thinking that a train hadn’t pulled in since the devastating hurricane in 2005. I also thought about all the storms the building and the people of Bay St. Louis endured over the years. But Amtrak plans to resume rail service from New Orleans to Mobile with a stop in Bay St. Louis (and other stops on the coast) starting in 2022. With Rachel Dangermond as the new guardian of this precious landmark, excitement is growing because community programming will continue.
The pandemic halted many events, but the future looks bright, as concerts are poised to resume. Everyone agrees the famed interior has been silent for too long.
Bay St. Louis is charming and worth staying for a few days to explore. It gets hot during the summer, with July and August being the hottest time of the year. When you go, stay at the Pearl Hotel, a lovely boutique property right on Beach Boulevard. There are fantastic shops and great restaurants in town.