Visiting The 100 Men Hall On The Mississippi Blues Trail
A rare gem of the Mississippi Blues Trail is proudly located at 303 Union Street in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
About 90 km by car from New Orleans, Bay St. Louis was home to some of the most outstanding blues artists on the Mississippi Blues Trail. The performers played small venues along the coast known as the “Chitlin Circuit” after World War II. The Circuit was a network of African American clubs with full New Orleans acts, and The 100 Men Hall was one of those places.
It almost did not survive when Hurricane Katrina, previously a Category 3 storm, crashed on the Mississippi Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. The building suffered incredible damage and was about to be destroyed. Fortunately, two middle-class people, Kerry White and Jesse Loya, bought the structure in 2006.
Note: I visited Bay St. Louis as a guest from Coastal Mississippi. All opinions are my own.
As you head onto Union Street, you can see the marker, erected in 2011, proudly proclaiming its Mississippi Blues Trail status. The plaque declares, “It was a longstanding center of social life for African American people in 1922.” Over the years, the 100 Men Hall has hosted events for members. Weddings, baby showers, dances and funerals took place in the historic walls. The hall managers rented it out to music sponsors, collected money at the door for the acts, and received something in return for the organization. Then the big ones stepped through the doors.
It began as a fraternal organization in 1894. Twelve men raised their money to “make friends” themselves and their families through illness, funerals and. According to their charter, they could have a party or picnic to raise funds to replenish the treasury. There was no building, but when land on the railroad tracks was put up for sale in 1921, Joseph Curry bought the property at 303 Union Street on behalf of the hall. First they built a simple picnic pavilion, a roof that provides shade and protection from the weather. The foundation stone was laid in 1922 with pooled resources and workers, and the building was inaugurated in 1923.
In 2018 Rachel Dangermond bought the hall from the Loyas together with her son Constantin (Tin). She was the perfect next guard, calling Tin the 101st Man. The award-winning journalist and community activist, who writes on race and parenting, worked with community leaders in New Orleans and the Obama White House policing program. She held writing workshops before entering the building. She bought it, moved in, and immediately wrote a scholarship to collect information to create a history of the hall from local residents called the “100 Men Hall People Project”.
Dangermond and her son Constantin (Photo credit: Jeanine Consoli)
Their mission was to turn the 100 Men Hall into a nonprofit community center for all. She immediately threw her first event, “A Honky Tonkin Afternoon,” a celebration that included food, music and the visual arts. Unfortunately, the pandemic brought many of their other plans to a halt, and Hurricane Zeta damaged the hall and shed in October 2020. But the church stepped in to help. The building, rooted in the history of American blues, cannot be missing. Here are some reasons to visit the 100 Men Hall.
1. Visit a shrine on the Mississippi Blues Trail
The Blues Trail marker on the front door of 100 Men Hall and the colorful mural on 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 Heritage Coast National Heritage Area. The mural contains resemblances to local musician Harry Fairconnetue, Guitar Bo, Etta James, and others.
It’s the story of the hall. One step in and you feel it. A board lists all of the performers who graced the stage, including BB King, Chuck Berry, Etta James, James Brown, Ray Charles, and others. Although the structure has been restored since Katrina, the simple space looks very much like it did when the Chitlin Circuit musicians played. Posters by musicians adorn the walls. In the back there is a prep kitchen for parties, in front a bar, and the simple stage waits for Etta to pull out the first two words of her famous song “At Last”.
2. Enjoy an event in the historic venue
During the pandemic, some outdoor shows were held on the huge lawn that runs next to the building. The events were great and well attended. Tables on the property and food from local chefs provided great dishes for attendees. The ticket sales supported the hall and the performers as before. Hosting public gatherings was part of Rachel’s appeal to buy the property in the first place.
“I liked the idea of promoting music or exchanging ideas, and wanted to convert the shed on the property into a green space, a space for artists in dormitories,” 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 lecture or a musical performance on the deck or go into the historic 4,500 square meter hall and perform on the stage. Indoor programs won’t take place until this year’s annual Labor Day Booker Fest. (James Booker, known as the piano wizard of New Orleans, lived with his aunt in Bay St. Louis, where he started playing the piano early in his childhood.)
Some events will kick off an incredible summer outdoors, with more to come. Since the mission is to support the community, there are always multicultural events, writing workshops and other festivals taking place in the city around the holidays, with gatherings in the hall. Rachel works with artists to celebrate the hall’s 100th birthday.
3. Hire a piece of history for your special day
If you love the blues or love historical places, you might want to host a party or special event at 100 Men Hall. People planned their weddings at the venue because the sound system works with either a live band or a DJ and people have been floating on the boards of the dance floor for 100 years. The lawn is big 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 in the 100 Men Hall are legendary – in the truest sense of the word. It’s just the vibe of the place that makes it so special. Check the website for details.
Standing on the porch this spring, I noticed the Bay St. Louis Historic Train Depot two blocks away. I remembered that no train had pulled in since the devastating hurricane in 2005. I also thought of all the storms that the building and the people of Bay St. Louis have endured over the years. But Amtrak plans to resume rail services from New Orleans to Mobile with a stop in Bay St. Louis (and other coastal stops) from 2022. With Rachel Dangermond as the new custodian of this precious landmark, excitement grows as the community programmed sequel will follow.
The pandemic has halted many events but the future looks bright as concerts will resume soon. Everyone agrees that the famous interior has been silent for too long.
Bay St. Louis is charming and well worth spending a few days exploring. It gets hot in summer, with July and August being the hottest times of the year. If you go, stay at the Pearl Hotel, a lovely boutique hotel right on Beach Boulevard. There are fantastic shops and great restaurants in town.