By Lloyd Gray
By Marie Chewe-Elliott
Special to the Daily Journal
I was not yet a year old when James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss, a mere 30-minute drive from my hometown of Pontotoc. Growing up in the shadow of Mr. Meredith’s historical enrollment was both a psychological springboard and an albatross for me.
On one hand he was legendary in our home. He was the one who integrated the University of Mississippi and lived to tell about it. He was the proverbial icon of progress and opportunity for Southern blacks in the ’60s. His admission meant the doors of public universities would never be open to “whites only” again. If he got in, the next generation could too.
On the other hand, his determination and fearlessness in the face of hate, death threats and the mobs that protested his admission meant that my generation had no excuse for not pursuing higher education. The character he demonstrated became the standard and measuring tool for those who dared follow. This was a weighty charge, even if it was mostly self-imposed. As is often the case, in the African-American community, one individual’s behavior is seen as representative (or indicative) of the entire race.
My dad, Thomas Chewe, was a 25-year-old carpenter for Gray Lumber Company in those days. He traveled with the construction crew from Pontotoc to Oxford each day as part of a residential building project. He witnessed the gargantuan presence of the National Guard in the tiny town. Worse yet, he endured the hateful and racist comments of his white colleagues. Fifty years later he can still recall their menacing tones as they declared that, “Nobody better NOT try that HERE.”
As a starry-eyed high school senior, I visited Farley Hall (the journalism building) and knew I was going to Ole Miss come hell or high water. My dad had identified an area community college that he and mom could afford; however, I had no intention of going to it.
I declared to them that I would stay home if I couldn’t go to Ole Miss. I’m not sure why they didn’t slap me senseless but I enrolled as a freshman journalism major that fall. I became one of approximately 800 African-American students on a campus of 10,000.
I think it was raw instinct and a desire to chart my own course that led me to Ole Miss initially. It was the responsibility of living up to the legacy of Mr. Meredith and the dreams of generations past that led me to stay. No mobs or death threats were blocking the schoolhouse door, and I felt compelled to build on the opportunity that had been bought with such a high cost – the blood, sweat and lives of others.
Until my firstborn left home I couldn’t fathom the fear that my parents and grandparents must have felt when I left home for Ole Miss. Did my dad recall the cautionary conversations of the construction workers as he sat through parents’ weekend? If he did, he didn’t say it aloud.
I was 17 years old, blindly navigating the university’s racial climate and culture, which included gigantic Confederate flags and car horns that honked “Dixie.” Oxford was also an occasional pit stop for the antics of the Ku Klux Klan.
My naivetampé led me to succeed in spite of myself. I worked on the student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian. I edited the short-lived Minority Affairs Newsletter and was selected to the homecoming court. I was also a Rebel Recruiter, an ambassador type group that assisted the athletic department in its recruitment efforts of student/athletes. More than one prospective African-American athlete said to me, “Sure, I’ll come to Ole Miss. I’ll come when ya’ll get rid of that @#* Confederate flag.”
In 2006, Ole Miss dedicated a bronze statue of Mr. Meredith and columns commemorating his historic journey. The inscriptions on the granite columns around the statute are, “opportunity, courage, knowledge and perseverance.” I hope that my modicum of success honors him and my community and reflects those words.
My relationship with Ole Miss is synchronous with my relationship with my home state. I love it and despise it at times. I have had some of my happiest moments there and experienced the pain of racist traditions meant to exclude me. Sometimes I didn’t know if I could stand to be there another day and other times I was compelled to return.
In the last 15 years or so, I have returned frequently to attend graduations, journalism events and alumni reunions.
Some of the controversial symbols that divided us are being replaced and the university is moving forward. My husband’s cousin, Lee Eric Smith, became the first African- American editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, in 1990. Rose Jackson Flenorl was named president of the alumni in 2008 and the current student body is represented by an African-American female, Kimbrely Dandridge. I am proud of the progress but long for the day when “firsts” no longer need to be noted.
Ole Miss is evolving and growing, and so am I.
In the years since 1962, my dad turned an entry-level carpenter job into a concrete contracting business that thrived for nearly 40 years and family members have now earned about a dozen Ole Miss degrees. Our 17-year old daughter is planning an official campus visit in October.
What a difference an open door makes.
Marie Chewe-Elliott, a Pontotoc native, now lives in the St. Louis area. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org