By M. Scott Morris
OXFORD – Every year is a birthday year, but this one is special. The state of Mississippi will turn 200 years old on Dec. 10.
As 2017 progresses, bicentennial events will happen throughout the state, which was the 20th to join the United States of America. The J.D. Williams Library at the University of Mississippi kicked off its observance on Jan. 9 with the opening of a year-long exhibit, “Mississippi: 200 Years of Statehood.”
“It’s overwhelming to think about 200 years of history,” said Jennifer Ford, head of special collections and professor at Ole Miss. “We focused on themes, bringing out as many subjects as possible.”
A team of curators filled cases in the library’s Faulkner Room with early documents, maps, sheet music, photographs, textbooks, political signs, recordings and much more. The exhibit is a sampling of items from the school’s Department of Archives and Special Collections.
Ford said it was hard to pick favorites, but she’s drawn to the maps, especially one by Johann Baptist Homann, imperial cartographer to Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. It dates back to 1763.
“This map is known as ‘The Buffalo Map.’ It features a buffalo and a pelican in the same inset. Of course, buffalos and pelicans have no connection,” she said. “It was created before the Mississippi Territory was declared.”
The map was made to capitalize on curiosity about the New World, and people bought it even though it was wildly inaccurate.
“This sold. This was profitable,” Ford said.
Far more accurate maps from before and after the Civil War document the state’s evolution as big counties were broken up into smaller ones.
“It was an attempt during Reconstruction to create more fair representation in the Legislature,” Ford said.
Not far away, a case is dedicated to folklife. Arthur Palmer Hudson from Attala County spent his life collecting threads in the state’s proverbial tapestry.
From a Saltillo woman named Theodosia Bonnett Long, he transcribed the music for the song “Barbara Allen.”
“It dates back to the 17th century,” Ford said. “It shows where some of Mississippi’s music was coming from.”
The classical music case includes Leontyne Price, a leading star at the Metropolitan Opera. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield was born a slave and became well known as a singer. Her nickname was the “Black Swan,” and a record company took the name as its own in her honor.
“Our country and rock case focuses on Elvis, but it also focuses on Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride and Jimmie Rodgers,” Ford said.
There’s also a songwriting notebook from Pontotoc’s own Jim Weatherly, who gave the world “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
The state politics case has one of Gov. Haley Barbour’s campaign signs and a Gov. Cliff Finch tie featuring an image of the lunchbox he carried around with him. The display also has this reminder: “You’ll be the winner when you vote for William Winter.”
Visitors will see Oxford’s own William Faulkner because his portrait is affixed to the wall of the Faulkner Room, but he’s not featured in the exhibit. Fans don’t need to fret because some of his manuscripts are on display in a neighboring room.
Effectively, Ole Miss has been amassing these items since its founding. The pieces usually are not available to the public. Researchers work with the staff to get access to the materials they want to study.
“It’s like working in a treasure chest every day,” Ford said. “You’re always being reminded about gems in the collection.”
The archives keep growing as people donate their precious pieces of history so they’ll be protected in the university’s light-, temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. Staff members have crawled through dusty attics to gather some materials, though many collections are well organized when they arrive.
“We’re constantly getting new materials,” Ford said. “We prepare it. We make it accessible. We display it and let people know about what we have.”
“Mississippi: 200 Years of Statehood” has been a chance for Ford and collaborators Greg Johnson, Leigh McWhite and Lauren Rogers to take their own dives through the collections to uncover rarities with stories to tell.
“We all have a long history with exhibits, so we know how to do it and support the materials so it doesn’t damage them,” Ford said. “Preservation is a key component. We want to make sure that in another 100 years they’ll still be here.”
Each month, a team member will release a video that highlights items from one of the cases. Johnson’s first video covers the Mississippi blues.
“They’re no more than five minutes each,” Ford said. “They’re teasers to interest folks to come see in more detail.”
In addition, a series of brown bag lectures will be hosted in the Faulkner Room throughout the year. “Blues from Argentina” will be the topic at noon Feb. 3, followed by “Women of the Blues: A Tribute to Memphis Minnie and Beverly ‘Guitar’ Watkins” at noon Feb. 21.
Some of the lectures and videos will be celebrations of Mississippi and its people, while others will cover troubling topics. The curators wanted to give a wide survey of the state’s noble and ignoble history.
“There are so many aspects of Mississippi,” Ford said. “It’s such a complicated place.”
Native Americans were removed from the territory and that provided cheap land for settlers. The population went from 9,000 in 1798 to 220,000 in 1820.
“Some came with slaves, some did not,” Ford said.
A letter from 1813 deals with the treatment of runaway slaves, while a selection of Mississippi textbooks testifies to a time when inconvenient facts were ignored.
“The textbooks talking about enslavement and African-American history were written in the latter part of the 20th century,” Ford said.
One case is dedicated to social justice, including the civil rights struggle, the state’s history of child labor and the women’s suffrage movement.
Curators wrote descriptions to go with the displays to invite visitors to take their own dives into the past.
“We try to make it grab you,” Ford said.
The Department of Archives and Special Collections at J.D. Williams Library is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, except for university holidays. “Mississippi: 200 Years of Statehood” is free and open to the public, but Ford would appreciate a call at (662) 915-7408 to schedule large groups.
“We hope it gets people excited, so they can learn more about what they see here,” Ford said. “We hope it inspires people to learn more.”