Profile 2020: Charlotte Buchanan: A Delta Treasure

By BY MARK H. STOWERS FOR THE E-T,

Born on Christmas Day, Charlotte Buchanan was the perfect Christmas gift to her family. But every other day of the year, she’s a gift and treasure to those around her. The county was blessed with her arrival as her family moved here in November of 1949 after her father had passed away. It was not great timing for the rising senior who had a happy life in Leland and was set for her final year of high school there.

“It was mid my senior year in high school and I was not a happy camper,” she said. “I had been named Feature Editor of the Leland Hi-Times and loved the school.”

But Leland’s loss was Indianola’s gain as she graduated and despite a scholarship to attend Mississippi State College for Women (MSCW – now MUW) she chose to attend Sunflower Junior College (now Mississippi Delta Community College) so she could work and help her mom who still had four children at home. She took on jobs at the Sunflower Tocsin (one of two local Indianola papers that would be bought by the Indianola Enterprise in 1951 and merged into the Enterprise Tocsin) and as a nurse at Hull Brothers Clinic.

Her writing career actually began while in high school and her father got to see a glimpse of what his daughter would achieve and become before his passing.

“The first time I ever received money for writing was the year my dad died in 1949. I won some type of essay contest. I let my aunt read my essay and showed her my check, which I think was $50, a fortune in those days,” Mrs. Charlotte recalled. “She told me I had to send it back that my dad would not approve. I was heartbroken and when he came in from the farm, I showed it to him. I noticed the grimacing on his face and thought my aunt was right. When he finished, he said, ‘Honey I don’t agree with a word of this, but I love you and you are a smart young lady, of course, you may keep your prize.’ Mind you this was in the 40’s and the Delta was the stronghold of segregation. The title of my essay was ‘Why Minorities Should Have the Right to Vote.’”

At age 18, she married William Buchanan and their first child came by age 19. Adding wife and mother to her list of titles didn’t deter her education and career as she took night classes.

“Back then they were called correspondence courses,” she said. “I knew I wanted to work in the legal field so I concentrated on becoming a certified courtroom reporter. I successfully completed and through the years worked as a freelance court reporter in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana.”

She also worked for the Cooper and Allen Law Firm in Indianola while in night school. When she first approached Forrest Cooper about an after-school job, he tested her.

The lawyer presented to her a land deed to type to see if she had the skills to work at his law office in Indianola. She had typed documents at her father’s commissary before he died. When Charlotte completed the typing of the deed, Mr. Cooper hired her on the spot.

Her legal and courtroom acumen garnered the attention of Circuit Judge Arthur Clark who asked her to become his court reporter for the Fourth Circuit Court District that covered Sunflower, Leflore, Washington, Humphreys and Holmes Counties. That district is now split with several judges and court reporters according to Mrs. Charlotte. But this was also 1960, long before any female held any jobs such as judge, trial attorney, juror or bailiff. Long before the Equal Rights Movement. According to her son, Bill, “She witnessed Robert Kennedy and John Doar appear in Judge Clark’s courtroom during the time of the civil rights struggle during the early 1960s.”

“It was just the two of us when I started and I worked for about 20 years. After that, I worked as a freelance reporter for the Northern Federal Court District and did depositions for individual attorneys in several states. At the age of 38, I had my last child and decided to be at home more. I helped my husband William in his accounting office,” she said.

But her talents didn’t stay at home very long. A visit to her husband’s home office by the local radio station owner soon charted her a new career course.

“Eddie Fritts, owner of WNLA, who later became president of the National Association of Broadcasters walked into our office and announced that he wanted me to do a community noon news program for him,” she said. “Thus, Newsbeat was born and I continued this for the next 20 or so years.”

With a nose for news and talent for writing and presenting it to the public, she kept up her writing at the Enterprise Tocsin writing features as well as other assignments. Her bylines run the gamut from Delta Magazine, Delta Business Journal, The Leland Progress and plenty more. Former Enterprise Tocsin editor and owner, Jim Abbott had the wherewithal to give her plenty of space in his weekly paper covering Sunflower County.

“I always wanted a full-page feature story in the ‘B’ section,” Abbott said. “And she was, Wow! She wrote literally hundreds of them.”

Her stories ran from human interest to people with unique hobbies – the full gamut – with plenty of cooking articles sprinkled in. And all the while she used a unique talent that she had honed in her court reporting.

“Her shorthand, which was amazing,” Abbott said. “She’d take a reporter’s notebook or a stenographer’s notebook and she could sit there and interview somebody, looking at them in the eye and never look at her piece of paper. And get every word and be flipping pages. I was quite envious. I wish I knew how to do that.”

Her newspaper and radio work then ignited another interest for her – city government.

“I covered meetings so I decided to run for the post of alderman. There were no wards in those days everybody ran at large. Of course, women in politics was not exactly popular,” she said.

According to the late Marie Hemphill’s “Fevers, Floods and Faith” book of Sunflower County history, Indianola had not had a woman in an elected position since 1930 when Mrs. DeLyle Chandler won a position. In 1974, some of the men in city politics thought having Mrs. Charlotte in the mix would be “beneficial.”

“I was so honored they thought I would represent the city well, so I qualified.

“My brother-in-law, the late Joe Buchanan who was an attorney and active in politics came to me and said, ‘You know why they want you to run? Another woman has qualified and they believe if you run, your votes will split and neither of you will be elected.’ I was mortified and more than a little angry so I proceeded to ask them about it. They were honest, told me I would be doing the city a favor because we were not ready for women to serve. I listened and then told them that I was not only going to win but I was going to come in first. I was told I would be disappointed. The night the votes were counted I lead the ticket over 18 men and the other woman.”

She would serve nearly four terms all the while still writing and court reporting. Her career in politics wasn’t over as the Justice Court Judge position for the Southern District came open and she ran, won and served three terms.

Those coming before her still tried and failed to take advantage of her being a female. Her daughter, Pam Eifling, recalled one such story.

“Mom was having coffee and sitting next to two men that had hunting violations that were to appear in her courtroom that morning. She overheard them talking about the lady judge they were to see, and how they were going to fool her with their ‘version’ of what happened because she didn't know anything about hunting. Imagine their faces when Mom walked in the courtroom with robe on and gavel in hand,” Pam said.

In all of her news gathering and reporting, the stories are countless but big names sat in front of her to be “grilled” from time to time. Mississippi Senators John Stennis and James O. Eastland, Roslyn Carter (wife to former President Jimmy Carter) sat down with her to campaign for her husband, she also had interesting chats with Sargent Shriver (who married into the Kennedy family and is father to Maria Shriver) when he ran for President. She even interviewed Muhammed Ali in 1978 when he came to town to campaign for Charles Evers for Senator.

“I had never seen that many people for any other event. People were shoulder to shoulder on the courthouse lawn,” she said. “He held a press conference in the office of (the late) Carver Randle which was on Front Street then. It was supposed to be for news media but Carver’s office was packed to the rafters. I would have never gotten in without my friend Carver’s help. My tape is long gone as the radio station has changed hands several times.”

Another story of her on-air adventures was with a sit down with Senator Stennis but she couldn’t find enough chairs. The quick-thinking Mrs. Charlotte scanned the tiny booth for a substitute chair as the seconds ticked down. She slid over her substitute “chair” to the Senator, just before the station “cut” to her interview. For the next several minutes the senior senator from Mississippi John C. Stennis talked about foreign policy, domestic affairs and other topics with the radio station’s listening audience, while seated on an upright wooden Coca Cola box.

Not one to “call in favors” for herself, Mrs. Charlotte would do anything to help the well-being of her family. When her son Bill was in the military and stationed overseas, she once called in a favor on his behalf.

As her son, Bill tells the story, “Having a son and daughter in military service can be a trying time. The not knowing of a son or daughters’ well-being for a tour of duty can be very tough, especially on a mother.” Mrs. Charlotte, being in the media, read the wire services reports about bombings in the Middle East where her oldest son was stationed. This was before CNN, cell phones and the internet. She had not heard from him in months. This was at the height of the ‘Cold War’ when in certain parts of the world that war could get ‘hot’. As the reports of violence rose against our men and women in uniform in that region rose, Mrs. Charlotte called on Senator James Eastland to find out about her son’s well-being. The Senator listened and said he would see what he could do. Mrs. Charlotte arrived home later that night and the phone rang. She picked up and heard the overseas operator say, “go ahead.” Her oldest son started the conversation first. “The commanding officer told me that Senator Eastland had directed him to provide me with a way to get in touch with Mrs. Charlotte, right away. ‘What’s wrong, Mom?’” 

Her features for The ET ran the gamut of everything imaginable but her favorite was one of a Greenwood native who had been planted deep in Sunflower County soil.

“I have written hundreds of features and articles over the years but one is at the top of my list as one of my all-time favorites. [The late] Jimmy Lear, native of Greenwood and later lived in Indianola, the star Ole Miss quarterback. I was asking about when he became interested in football. He said something like this, ‘I went out my first year of high school in Greenwood and I hated it, so I quit. I went home that day and told my mother that I quit. She replied, ‘Jimmy, Lears don’t quit, you don’t have to go out next year, but you will finish what you started.’ The rest is Ole Miss All American history. I also enjoyed writing about Charles McLaurin for the Delta Business Journal who came to Indianola as a Civil Rights worker, married a local lady, and a few years ago retired as a department head for the City of Indianola.” Some of her favorite personal stories working in the courthouse are from the civil rights era.

“Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer was bringing people daily to the courthouse to get them registered. There had been turmoil in the Circuit Clerk’s office, but fortunately Sam Ely had taken over as Circuit Clerk. I was there filing something for Circuit Court and Mrs. Hamer walked in with the people she brought. Sam looked up from his wheelchair and said, ‘Good morning Mrs. Hamer, how may we help you this morning?’ A look of disbelief crossed her face that he had called her by a courtesy title. He invited the group to sit down while each one was registered without fanfare. After a few weeks, I was in the office again when she came in and there was congeniality and they called each Sam and Fannie Lou. I firmly believe that Sam Ely, Circuit Judge Arthur Clark and Chancery Clerk Jack Harper kept turmoil at bay in our county. Of course, there was some craziness but I never saw or heard about the first person mistreated in the courthouse.”

She also has a favorite story regarding long-time Sunflower County Sheriff Jack Sessums and her employer, Judge Clark.

“A special venire had been called for a murder trial. I think about 150 people had been summoned. Jack had been called on an emergency in the north end of the county and sent deputies to call the jurors and seat them. Unfortunately, it was chaos and Judge Clark was not pleased. He was peering over his spectacles and chomping down on his cigar (smoking was allowed in those days.) When Jack arrived, he knew Judge was unhappy. The next morning the trial was to begin and Jack appeared at the door of the Judge’s office where he was dictating a court order to me. Jack wore one of those big trooper hats. He stood in the doorway and said, ‘I thought I would come in early and throw my hat in first to see if you are still upset with me.’ With that he threw the hat by judge’s desk. Without a word, Judge Clark never quit puffing on his cigar, got up, stomped on the hat and threw it into the hallway. The rest of that court term went off without a hitch.”

The “famous” Sunflower County and Delta legend did meet another Mississippi legend in the late 1940s long before he was known only by his first name – Elvis.

“I was much more interested in playing ball with my brother and his friends and riding horses than I was boys,” she said. “I was skinny, freckled and wore my hair in one long braid down my back, Chinese style, not exactly a catch, I was probably 14. I was visiting my sister in Tutwiler and walked to town to get something for her. These two boys both close to my age were sitting on the tailgate of a truck. When I walked by, they yelled something like ‘Hey baby, want to go to the movie?’ I was unfamiliar with flirting but paused and they introduced themselves. I had never heard of anybody named ‘Elvis’ and I think that is the only reason I remembered the incident. To be honest, he looked okay but had a head full of hair-tonic hair in the pompadour style of the day. I was not really impressed. I told my sister about the boys and she instructed me to not speak to them again, that she had seen them downtown and they were ‘tacky’. Years later when I looked up and heard Ed Sullivan introduce the fabulous new star Elvis Presley, I called my sister and kidded her for making me  miss out on a famous person. End of story.”

These days, Mrs. Charlotte works and lives in Leland where she mans the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum. She was the innkeeper at the Thompson House before that. She keeps her busy schedule going with writing and greeting visitors at the museum and her hobbies over the years have been just as active or more so than her “day jobs.”

“I have always enjoyed tennis and the card game of bridge. I was 82 the last year I competed in tennis,” she said. “I was on two teams that went to state championships and one went to Southern Sectionals in Hilton Head. My partner at that time, Sarah Tapley from Shaw and I were the oldest on the team and the only team that won a match there.”

Her athletic prowess was also known in her Indianola neighborhood according to her children. The first-born son has a sports memory that he holds dear.

“My mother has never ceased to make me proud, and one of my earliest recollections of this pride occurred when I was about twelve years old, on the little baseball diamond in our backyard,” Bill said. “Once, when we young Delta hooligans had picked uneven teams, my mother had volunteered to play, to make the teams even. At first, I was somewhat embarrassed about her playing, wrongly thinking that girls and women simply didn’t have the physical skills to do the game justice. But then on the very first pitch thrown to her, my mother smacked the ball so hard – we young Delta hooligans rubbernecking at its trajectory ‒ that it landed in our neighbor’s backyard, a homerun. It’s an aged but vivid memory, my mother joyously rounding the bases, and me proudly uttering, ‘That’s my mom.’”

Her social life rivals nearly anyone’s as she’s always in demand – especially on the dance floor at Lillo’s in Leland.

“One of her favorite restaurants is Lillo's because she likes the atmosphere and the music. She loves the Lillo's family, their food, and loves to dance and she can be seen there almost every Thursday and Sunday because that is when the music is,” Pam said. “My older brother, Bill, was home several years ago at Christmas. He didn't realize that Mom was quite the dancer. Before she could even finish her meal, she was asked to dance almost every dance that night. My other brothers and I were laughing at Bill because of his facial expressions of the different men that were asking her to dance. He was saying, ‘Hey, hey, what's going on?’  Of course, he was doing it in jest.”

Her life has blessed many through her talents and abilities and she even enjoys sharing her birthday as the world celebrates Jesus’ birth each year.

“It’s wonderful. When I was growing up, my brother was creative,” she said. “He would give me knee socks with ‘Happy Birthday’ on one and ‘Merry Christmas’ on the other. As old as I am, my daughter always sees to it that I have a birthday cake with extra presents.”

Her life has spanned many historical events and people that have affected her.

“My father had the greatest influence in my life,” she said. “During my lifetime there are several people that I have and have had the utmost respect for. Circuit Judge Arthur Clark, Sam Ely, Eddie Fritts, Jim Abbott, Marie and “Dub” Hemphill, David Rushing, Rev. Giulianna Gray, Walton Gresham to name a few.”

Over the years, she has found time to be a Red Cross volunteer, work with the American Cancer Society, and even be the emcee for the Miss Sunflower County Pageants. But she will be the first to tell anyone that all of these achievements and activities pale in comparison to her being the devoted wife to her husband, mother to her daughter and three sons and grandmother to four grandchildren. When asked what would she say to the younger generation these days, she had a most remarkable yet simple answer.

“The best advice I can give to young people is to stay true to thine self. It matters not what others are doing or if you don’t feel you are in a select group, just be yourself, study and work hard, and never forget to say your prayers and be grateful for what you have.”

Mrs. Charlotte Buchanan – A Delta Treasure.

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