What’s in a name?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 24, 2008

The names of presidents and national leaders fill street signs across America, but it’s the local leaders, activists and heroes that make Miss-Lou roadways special.

A funeral home director, a civil-war orator, a former mayor of Vidalia and a prisoner of war may not have a lot in common on the surface, but in the Miss-Lou they all share one thing streets named in their honor.

George F. West Sr. Boulevard

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George F. West Sr. Boulevard — known by local kids as “the Boully” — is named after the man who operated a funeral home that has serviced the community for years.

But West’s main business was not funerals — it was freedom.

In 1965, after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, West set up voting machines in his flower shop to allow blacks who had recently been given the right to vote the opportunity to do so.

“My father was very instrumental in teaching people how to vote,” George F. West Jr. said.

The late West also testified before the Equal Rights Commission about the state of race relations in Mississippi, and took an active role in civil rights at a local level.

“One time he signed 1,000 bonds to get people from Natchez out of Parchman (penitentiary),” West said. “They had been fighting for civil rights and were taken there.”

The elder West was eventually elected the first black alderman in Natchez. He was a businessman and the president of the local NAACP.

For his son sharing his name with a local street — he lives not far from it — is an honor.

“My father was very involved in the local community,” West said, “He did a lot of important things.”

Seargent S. Prentiss Drive

At first glance, when someone from outside the Miss-Lou turns onto Seargent S. Prentiss Drive, they might assume that sign makers in Natchez are illiterate.

But “Seargent” is not a misspelled military title — it is a name.

Born in 1808, Seargent Smith Prentiss was a northerner who moved to the south. Reportedly a skilled orator, he was eventually elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives.

Considered a skilled orator in his day, Prentiss debated the then future President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis on the day of his election to the Mississippi House, and won the election.

According to the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1838-1839 after he successfully contested the election of John F.H. Claiborne.

When he was unsuccessful in a bid for the U.S. Senate, Prentiss moved to Vicksburg, on to Natchez and later to New Orleans, though he returned to Natchez at the end of his days.

In an 1851 publication of The American Whig Review, T.B. Thorpe, wrote that Prentiss would long be remembered — though Thorpe did not likely think Prentiss’ memory would be enshrined in with a street sign — for his ability to captivate an audience.

“Who will ever forget the spending of a social hour with him, when his health was high and his mind at ease?” Thorpe wrote. “Who [else was] so creative?”

Prentiss died near Natchez on July 1, 1850, and is buried in a private cemetery near Longwood.

Col. John Pitchford Parkway

Between U.S. 61 South and Lower Woodville Road, where Alcorn-Natchez and Copiah-Lincoln Community College students drive every day, is a strip of roadway testifying to one man’s time spent in service to his country.

U.S. Air Force Col. John Pitchford was a long-time prisoner of war in Vietnam, shot down in 1965 and detained until 1973.

He dislocated his shoulder and was shot after ejecting from his plane but managed to live. The man he was shot down with was killed by their captors.

Pitchford flew Air Force fighter planes for 20 years, and spent a total of 32 years in the armed services, he said.

Pitchford was awarded the rank of colonel in 1976.

Having the parkway named after him was a great honor, Pitchford said.

“The people were very kind,” he said.

John Dale Drive

Born in 1918, John Dale III moved to Vidalia when he was 1 year old, but it was when he was 30 that his Vidalia legacy began to take shape.

Dale was elected to the board of aldermen in 1948, and he served as mayor from 1950 to 1960.

During that time, the population of Vidalia grew by nearly 3,000.

It only made sense to name the former Fifth Street after John Dale, Mayor Hyram Copeland said, because streets are generally named after statesmen and political forefathers.

Though Dale’s political career ended before Copeland’s began, Copeland said the effects of Dale’s work were long lasting.

“He was a good person and civic leader, and as a mayor he did an outstanding job,” Copeland said.