Greek Revival time machine – Old Capitol overflows with Mississippi history

By M. Scott Morris/Daily Journal




You’ll find three floors filled with Mississippi history at the intersection of Capitol and South State streets.
The Old Capitol Museum in Jackson is a 173-year-old Greek Revival time machine. In its chambers, universities were created, and civil rights abuses were written into law.
“How did Mississippi get to where it is today?” said Clay Williams, museum director. “This building can explain that.”
The “new” Capitol opened in 1903. That’s where the modern-day business of Mississippi government happens.
But you’ll find that some of today’s controversial issues are continuations of debates that took place at the Old Capitol from 1839 to 1903.
“Mississippians did not begin funding public education until 1868. Until then, you had the county schools, or you had to have a private tutor,” Williams said. “Obviously, we’re still dealing with how to educate our children. They’re debating that now.”
Winds of change
The Old Capitol has operated as a museum since 1961. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina made a direct impact on the building and its mission. Heavy winds blew the copper roof off and caused other damage. That created an opportunity.
“After the hurricane, we decided to focus on the building and on the building’s history,” Williams said.
The House Chamber got period carpeting, and each window has a set of three arrows at the top of the drapes. A reporter mentioned the arrows in his coverage of the 1861 debate over secession, when Mississippi left the United States.
“We tried to recreate it as best we could,” Williams said. “Obviously, there aren’t many pictures of the inside of the building.”
He said the House Chamber is his favorite room because so many far-reaching decisions were made there.
“All of the colleges and universities that you know of, the legislation forming them came out of this room,” he said.
Some of Mississippi’s troubles grew out of the same room. There were 142,000 black registered voters in 1890. The number was down to 8,615 in 1896. The drop is directly attributable to the poll tax and literacy test in the 1890 Constitution, which was hammered out in the House Chamber.
“If you were a black person and you read the literacy test perfectly and explained it, the registrar could still say ‘Nah,’” Williams said. “If you were a sharecropper in Mississippi and you had to pay $2 to vote and you made $88 a year, you might say, ‘I won’t vote.’”
The effect on black voters was devastating, and poor whites also were affected. There were 110,000 registered white voters in 1890. The number was 68,117 in 1892.
“We’re not glossing over anything,” Williams said. “We’re telling the truth here. We’re telling the truth about where we’ve been and where we’re going.”
Showplace
In addition to being a storehouse of state history, the Old Capitol Museum is a monument to what human beings can accomplish.
It’s an impressive structure with its elegant rotunda and dome, as well as Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns. Rosettes decorate the Governor’s Office and the House Chamber. Builders and craftsmen dedicated themselves to turning the building into something special.
In the 19th century, there were calls to move the capital to Vicksburg or Clinton. The building opened in 1839, and that probably cemented Jackson as the state capital, Williams said.
“Back then, this would have been amazing compared to the other shacks and cabins in Jackson,” he said. “They weren’t going to abandon this building.”
It was originally brick and covered in stucco that was scored to resemble stone. The stucco didn’t make it through a renovation in the 1960s, but it returned during the Katrina-inspired changes. The stucco isn’t on the back of the building, which used to face a Pearl River swamp.
“When it was originally built, no one would have approached it from the back, so they didn’t put stucco on that part,” Williams said. “We didn’t either.”
A set of displays detail the many renovations and changes over the years. One case is filled with items that were discarded in the most recent update.
“There’s a little bit of everything in there, from an 1840s brick to a 1960s kitchen sink,” Williams said.
Y’all come
The Old Capitol Museum regularly hosts visitors from Mississippi and other states, as well as people from Europe and Asia who come to see the state’s many blues sites and maybe check out the Elvis Presley Birthplace.
“They’ll kind of hit us in the middle,” Williams said.
School children once roamed the halls in large numbers, but that’s changed. School budget cuts in recent years have reduced field trips, and Williams called that a shame.
The doors are open every day but Monday for anyone interested in visiting the National Historic Landmark, which also happens to be Mississippi’s own Greek Revival time machine.
“This is Mississippi history. This is our culture,” Williams said. “This is an important place. We want people to understand that.”
scott.morris@journalinc.com