For years, a colorful pink and yellow art installation in front of a home served as a popular roadside attraction on “Blues Highway” 61 outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The brightly painted former grocery store beckoned travelers from all over the globe who were captivated by the famed double-headed eagle and chimney-like stacks atop the structure. But over the past decade, the site has fallen into disrepair, and now a major restoration project is underway to save it.
Margaret Rogers, who grew up near Vicksburg, first opened the grocery store in the 1950s with her first husband, Abie Lee Rogers, to provide essentials to the surrounding, historically Black, Kings Community. When he was killed during a robbery at the store, Margaret was left to run the place, making her one of the first Black female business owners in the state.
She later met the Reverend Herman D. Dennis, who was born in Mississippi but spent his formative years in Georgia. It was there he was ordained as a minister, earning him the nickname “Preacher.” Margaret and Preacher fell in love, and he promised to build her a castle if she agreed to marry him. And he did just that. After the pair tied the knot in 1984, Preacher started work on what became the folk art site known as Margaret’s Grocery, painting it in every shade of the rainbow.
Before long, curious travelers started to detour to investigate the eye-catching building. The sign-in book still bears signatures from Russia, Germany, Italy, and beyond. Artists, including the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and Mary Ann Pettway, one of the famed Gee’s Bend quilters from Alabama, created work inspired by the site as well.
When visitors stopped by, Preacher would share his message of kindness, often saying quotes such as, “Treat everyone with love and respect, they’d treat you the same way,” and “God ain’t got no Black church. He ain’t got a white church. He just has one church where we’re all welcome.”
In 2001, the photographer Suzi Altman was working nearby and was told about the landmark. “I rolled up on this very colorful sight, and there’s a gentleman standing outside with seersucker pants, with red paint spotted on the bottom, and Mardi Gras beads and a button-down shirt,” Altman recalls. “He was preaching to me before I got out of my car. And out totters Margaret from the grocery, and they were just beautiful. I fell in love with them and their message.”
From then on, Altman visited the couple as often as she could, driving over from her home near Jackson. She struck up a friendship with them, taking countless photos of the pair in their “castle.” When Margaret’s health took a turn a few years later, Altman went to visit her in the hospital. “She made me promise to look after Preacher,” Altman says. “And I said, ‘Oh yes, ma’am. No problem.’ Not really knowing what I was promising.” But after Margaret passed away in 2009, Altman kept her word, until Preacher followed his wife in 2012.
In the years after their deaths, the site began to deteriorate as Altman figured out a plan to save the grocery, in recognition of its significant contribution to the folk-art culture of the South. She formed the Mississippi Folk Art Foundation and began seeking out arts organizations to help. As of earlier this year, the nonprofit was finally able to purchase the land from the Cool Spring Church next door and has started raising funds for the massive restoration efforts.
The first steps, Altman says, will be to clean and clear the site, as well as to preserve the remaining artwork inside. Altman and her crew are being assisted by volunteers and preservationists, but it’s a long road ahead before Margaret’s Grocery will be back open to visitors.
“We are committed to making this a roadside attraction again,” Altman says, “and making it more beautiful for the Kings Community, and so people from around the world again will be happy to have a place to stop. That’s my whole thing, is to honor Margaret and Dennis. They were a huge part of that community, and what they have done needs to be remembered.”