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Celebrating the Bicentennial

The year 2017 marks the 200th Anniversary of Mississippi’s statehood. It’s a time to look back at her continuum of memories, moving like the river that shaped Mississippi’s history. It is also a time to look ahead. Although the state’s path eddies, cuts back, and sometimes loops over itself, ultimately it moves forward, like the Mississippi river’s inevitable downward route to the Gulf of Mexico. Hard fought progress achieved after war, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and beyond, now means the state’s minorities have rights that most Mississippians would have found unthinkable 200 years ago. Moving forward means acknowledging the darkest parts of the state’s past while remembering the things about Mississippi that unite us –  the incredible music, writing and art that Mississippians have given the world.



The state plans to open two new museums in Jackson in 2017 (one documenting general history and another the civil rights movement), as well as the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience in Meridian. These spaces will allow the world to access Mississippi’s unparalleled creative culture in unprecedented ways, as well as educate visitors about the sometimes difficult history that inspired the state’s wonderful art. Join us as we move forward, by remembering what has come before.

Mississippi's Early Beginnings            


        Mississippi got its name in 1798, when Britain ceded control of the area to the United States following the American Revolution. The territory developed along its major rivers: the Mississippi, the Pearl, the Tombigbee and the Alabama (From west to east. The territory included present-day Alabama and part of Florida). The area’s largest settlement was Natchez, where traders plied their wares, floated down the Mississippi River and walked back home via the Natchez Trace. The Trace’s travelers illustrate the variety of people present in the territory. Vagabonds and thieves lurked to rob and sometimes murder passersby, while proselytizing Methodist preachers, trading Native Americans and migrating Europeans also used the route. It was the only road connecting trading posts along the river to the Eastern states. It took an average of ten days to travel the Trace from Natchez to Nashville, and some parts were too rough for wagons, so people used pack horses.

        European settlers increasingly entered the Mississippi territory following the turn of the century. Piedmont lands were used up, and yeoman farmers headed west for a fresh start. They settled in rural areas, often on the outskirts of plantations, which typically expanded onto hundreds and sometimes thousands of acres from the banks of the territory’s navigable waterways. The invention of the cotton gin at the turn of the century also spurred the growth of plantations, as well as the expansion of the slave trade. Slaves cleared land, then built roads, homes, and administrative buildings, creating the territory’s first towns.

        This growth meant less space for Mississippi’s remaining Native Americans, and the war of 1812 further exacerbated tension between tribes and the United States. War with the Creeks and treaties with the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Cherokee removed the majority of Native Americans from the region by 1830. A substantial population of Choctaw (as well as a small number of Chickasaw and Creek) remained in Mississippi in and around present day Neshoba County, where about 10,000 live today as a federally recognized tribe.




        When Mississippi applied for statehood, much of its territory remained rural backwoods, uncleared until after Reconstruction. Cotton was becoming king, and as a result, land and slaves were becoming the principally valued commodities of the region. Steamboats moved goods and people up and down the river, but otherwise travel was difficult. Some residents already worried that statehood meant an overreach of federal authority, particularly those living in rural communities extending east from the Pearl River. When the federal government decided to separate the territory into Mississippi and Alabama as a condition of statehood, rural Mississippians felt their voice further minimized in comparison to Natchez’ planter class society. This led to arguments at the state’s constitutional convention, and an eventual agreement to move the capital to Jackson, considered neutral territory.

        Mississippi became the 20th state to enter the Union in December of 1817. The state’s population hovered around 200,000 prior to Native American removal, but the number of European settlers and slaves exploded after 1830. Back then, the government offered few public services. Wealthy families hired private tutors, and rural families had few educational opportunities. Slaves had none, but they sometimes managed to educate themselves informally. Several public schools opened during the 1840s in larger cities like Jackson, Natchez, Columbus and Vicksburg.

        Mid-19th century Mississippians lived dramatically different lives based largely on race and class. Wealthy planters traveled to the coast and mineral springs for vacations and enjoyed horse racing, hunting, fishing, dancing, singing, theater and boating. They imported the finest goods from Europe to decorate Natchez mansions, styled with elements of Greek and Roman architecture. They also ate foods unavailable to the rest of the state’s residents – importing culinary staples from the East Coast and sometimes abroad. Between 1830 and 1860 their wealth exponentially accumulated, as did the number of slaves in the region and their estimated value. In 1830, there were 75,000 slaves in Mississippi. In 1860, there were 465,000. There were 354,000 white Europeans in the state.

        The majority of the state’s people were poor. They farmed or participated in one of the region’s few industries. Lumbering and grain milling were most common. Mississippians were also silversmiths, leather workers, metal workers, cotton ginners and carriage makers. (Slaves were also often trained and highly skilled in these industries). In their leisure time, poor whites sang sacred harp and played folk music. Men hunted and fished, and often participated in lodges and clubs. Most families had access to cornmeal and seasonal vegetables that they grew, as well as limited amounts of protein.

        Slaves had little recreational time and few available foodstuffs. Depending on what part of the state they lived in, some had access to hunting and fishing in their limited leisure time. Slaves’ diets depended on their owner. Most had one meal a day. Some had personal gardens near slaves’ quarters to supplement the minimum owners provided. Most slaves didn’t work on Sundays, but there were exceptions. When allowed, African Americans congregated to worship together, sing and have fellowship. Because some whites feared black fellowship, concerned it represented resistance to white authority, laws limited the ability of black Mississippians to travel and congregate. There were a small number of free people of color in the state, but the state’s 1832 constitution banned manumission, and laws passed in the 1820s presumed all black people in the state to be slaves, strongly discouraging any free person of color from entering the state. 


The War and its Aftermath


        When Mississippians met to debate secession, the crisis had been brewing for decades. The bulk of the state’s wealth was tied to slaves and cotton, and planter’s controlled the state government. Despite pockets of yeoman resistance, the majority of poor whites also favored secession and rejected the authority of the federal government. The Civil War meant the end of slavery, as well as a new, brief era in black rights. African Americans controlled the Republican Party in the South after the war, registering to vote and being elected to public office for the first time. Black participation in Mississippi civic life was short lived, though. Riots in 1875 left black officials lynched, more than 150 African Americans murdered across the state’s major cities and white Democrats back in control of the government. A new constitution passed in 1890 firmly disenfranchised the state’s African Americans, and ushered in an era of white populist reform and Lost Cause ideology.

        Late 19th and early 20th century governors advocated for poor whites, ushering in an era of investment in education, public health and infrastructure. The state began working to eradicate yellow fever and malaria, particularly after devastating outbreaks in the late 1870s. Railroad hubs like Corinth and Meridian boomed; the latter was the largest city in the state between 1890 and 1930, with 44 trains arriving and departing daily. Biloxi and Bay St. Louis residents began to shrimp and oyster, and a fishing industry thrived. While poor whites began to see political and economic gains for the first time, black Mississippians began leaving the state in record numbers.


1917 – Mississippi’s Centennial


        As Mississippi prepared to celebrate its centennial, Jim Crow laws firmly dictated social interaction in the South and a record number of African Americans had left the state for northern cities in the first Great Migration. A large population of African Americans remained, often working as tenant farmers or sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. Some moved to cities like Jackson for more economic opportunity. Governor Theodore Bilbo planned a centennial fair in Gulfport, but World War I’s beginning in 1914 led to the buildings being converted into a naval training base. A shipbuilding yard was built in Pascagoula during the war, and troops also trained at Camp Shelby near Hattiesburg.

        During this time the Corps of Engineers also began constructing locks and dams on the upper parts of the Mississippi River and attempting to control its flow. They began a 9-foot channelization project in the 1920s, assuming that removing the river’s back channels and cut offs would naturally deepen the main channel. In 1927, the Delta experienced catastrophic flooding, and the Corps was subsequently federally mandated to build levees along the river. The combination of the Great Flood and the Great Depression precipitated a second Great Migration of African Americans out of the state beginning in the 1930s. Forty-two percent of Mississippians were African American, while previously they had remained the state’s majority.

        As Mississippi entered the mid-20th century, many of its citizens were disenfranchised and schools needed improvement. There was some industry, but jobs were mostly limited to whites. Black Mississippians returned from WWII and wanted voting rights no African Americans had enjoyed in the state since the late 19th century. People were organizing and challenging Mississippi’s Jim Crow laws in court (as well as segregation laws in other parts of the South).


The Civil Rights Movement


        Visitors at the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in Jackson begin their tour experiencing what it was like for James Meredith to enroll and attend the University of Mississippi. A conversation between then Governor Ross Barnett and the Kennedys plays on loop in a room filled with letters written to Meredith in the 1960s.

        The University of Mississippi opened in 1848 and began admitting women in 1882. The United States Supreme Court handed down their Brown V. Board of Education ruling, requiring integrated schools in 1954, but several years passed before Meredith integrated Ole Miss after winning a court ruling in September 1962. Governor Barnett attempted to block Meredith’s admission. After he was held in contempt of court federal marshals escorted Meredith onto the campus, and a riot ensued during which two people died.

        The exhibit focuses less on what happens when Meredith initially begins attending the University, and more on the feelings he, his supporters, and his detractors experience. One letter congratulates Meredith and encourages him to stay strong. Another next to it reads: “Dear Nigger, I hope someone kills you.” The exhibit exudes the loneliness he felt, recreating Meredith’s experience in class, sitting alone in a nearly empty room.

        A group of five or six women reading the letters written to Meredith express shock. “I don’t know how people can be so hateful” says Patrice Newman. “But it also shows you how much things have changed.”

        “Everything hasn’t changed! People are still in the Klan,” says her friend, April Simmons. Everyone nods, silently.

        The museum also highlights the life of Medgar Evers, as well as African American contemporary and folk art. Ever’s home, where he was assassinated by Byron de la Beckwith in 1963, also contains a museum that offers tours by appointment. Also in Jackson, on campus at Jackson State University, COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) has a museum with information about the Civil Rights Movement as well as programming to educate youth and address current policy issues.

        Ever’s home, the COFO office, and dozens of other important civil rights sites around the state – such as Meridian's two-hour, self-guided Civil Rights Trail – make up the Mississippi Freedom Trail, which commemorates people, places, and events associated with the movement. In October, Emmett Till’s marker in Tallahatchie County was found full of bullet holes. The 1955 murder of 14-year-old Till for allegedly whistling at a white woman galvanized the movement across the country. Patrick Weems, who runs the Delta Interpretive Center in nearby Indianola, is raising money to replace the sign, and says, “It’s sad that acts of racism like this still exist. It’s not good enough to not be racist. We have to actively counteract hateful people and groups.”

        In conjunction with the Bicentennial, the state will open two additional museums in Jackson adjacent to the Department of Archives and History. One will be dedicated to civil rights. “Mississippi’s civil rights story is inspirational and should be shared worldwide,” says Jacqueline Dace, project manager for the Civil Rights Museum and the Mississippi History Museum. “Veterans of the movement want this history shared inter-generationally, nationally and internationally. And we don’t just want visitors to come to these museums. We want people to visit Fannie Lou Hamer’s exhibit in Ruleville, or the B.B. King Museum, or the exhibit dedicated to Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in Philadelphia.”

        James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner registered African American voters as part of Freedom Summer in 1964 and were murdered by white supremacists near Philadelphia at the direction of reputed Klansman Edger Ray Killen. Killen, like many other men involved in murder and intimidation during the civil rights movement, escaped prosecution until 2005.

        White juries almost always acquitted anyone indicted after attacks against African Americans during the movement and prior. In the 1990s a reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Jerry Mitchell, began investigating cold civil rights cases, eventually aiding authorities in the conviction of Killen, who is still in prison, as well as Beckwith, Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, who ordered the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer, and Bobby Cherry, who bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

        Concurrent with the pain and difficulty of those fighting for African American rights experienced in the South, was a strong community supporting the movement and producing music, art and literature reflecting the struggle for equality and the black experience. Beginning with spirituals and work songs prior to Emancipation, the black community used song and other forms of creative expression to tell their story, and this continued throughout the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.


Mississippi’s Creative Culture


        It’s impossible to list the number of musicians, artists, writers and creators who have produced work in and about Mississippi. The state birthed the blues, country music and rock 'n' roll. Mississippi also enjoys an impressive art and literary tradition praised internationally.

        “Mississippi has birthed a wealth of talent that has transformed lives inside and outside the state,” says Marty Gamblin, Executive Director of Meridian's MAEX – Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience – scheduled to open late 2017. “We are creating the MAEX to show the world the best of that talent. This museum is a state-of-the-art experience that people can only have in our state. It’s about seeing the impact that Mississippians have had across the world in an interactive way.”

        The state also offers a blues trail and a country music trail allowing travelers to learn about luminaries like Elvis, Robert Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards, Jimmie Rodgers and B.B. King, who has his own museum at Indianola's Delta Interpretive Center.

        “My firm belief is that traditional art has always been at the forefront of Mississippi’s identity,” says Jennifer Jameson, director of Folk and Traditional Arts at the Mississippi Arts Commission. “It helps us articulate what’s unique and special about our state. When you think of the Hill Country you think of Hill Country Blues, and when you think of the Delta you think of Delta blues and hot tamales. These are the things that tell us about everyday life for Mississippians and help communicate our history.”

        The MAC provides grants to people and organizations, helping to further traditional art across the state. “For me it’s also about artists who use their craft to improve their communities and bring about social change,” says Jameson. “I think good examples of that are the Mississippi Cultural Crossroads in Port Gibson as well as the Tutwiler quilters.”

        The Mississippi Cultural Crossroads began developing youth programs in the late 1970s to connect southwest Mississippians to their vibrant cultural history, taking high-schoolers on field trips to state museums and blues festivals as well as bringing local quilters and musicians to the fore and supporting their work through artist in residency programs. The organization also focuses on documentation – producing films and photography celebrating social life as well as dramatizing 20th century history in locally staged plays.

        The Tutwiler quilters also represent a thriving African American art tradition in Mississippi, through which women pass down designs generation after generation. “This is art that builds inter-generational dialogue and presents community-based economic wellness. It’s a living and breathing creativity, which is why it resonates across the world,” Jameson says. Both groups have work on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art, which features a permanent “Mississippi Story” exhibit highlighting some of the state’s great artists.

        Jameson also points to artists like Coulter Fussell and musicians like Sharde Thomas as keepers of a dynamic arts tradition in the Mississippi Hill Country. “Coulter is a third generation quilter with a studio in Water Valley. She’s maintaining this tradition that’s a part of the South but she’s also bringing in media from across the country, like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, to experience Mississippi art.”                    Yalo Studio’s current exhibit features quilts from Ethel Lea Benson, a Water Valley woman born in 1923 whose grandson collected more than a dozen of her quilts which now make up the show, five of which Ethel constructed from her husband’s denim work clothes in the '50s and '60s.

        Sharde Thomas carries on the area’s fife playing tradition her grandfather, Otha Turner, helped make famous with the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. “It’s cultural sustainability, as she’s the granddaughter of two black direct descendants of the fife playing tradition. It’s beautiful to see her taking ownership of the yearly picnic and other surrounding events and programs, having conversations with different artists and bringing different perspectives and genres into that, but ultimately maintaining a hyperlocal tradition,” says Jameson.

        It’s about an hour’s drive west from the Otha Turner picnic in Senatobia to Red’s in Clarksdale, where locals and visitors come to hear Delta blues, one of the country’s oldest forms of music. The blues came out of the Delta more than a century ago, when African American men and women turned their experiences into songs that have touched people across the world. At juke joints like Red’s, lifelong Clarksdale residents mingle with tourists from Sweden, who come to the Delta to hear its music in real life and to see the Big River. “Red’s is the real deal,” says Mark "River" Peoples, who lives next door and takes tourists as well as groups of local youth on trips up and (mostly) down the river on giant wooden canoes with the Quapaw Canoe Company. “We send people there or to Bluesberry Café for music before trips.”

        The Mississippi Blues Trail marks places like Red’s, as well as other important spots in blues history, all across the state. Birthplaces, churches, graves, museums, venues, and even foods, are all marked. In Rosedale one marker celebrates the hot tamale reflective of the Delta’s cultural diversity and memorialized in Robert Johnson’s 1936 song, “They’re Red Hot.”

        The state also participates in the Southern Literary Trail, which includes authors in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Mississippi’s writers include William Faulkner and Richard Wright and Eudora Welty, among several others. At Welty’s home in Jackson visitors see glimpses into the depth of Mississippi’s literary tradition through Eudora’s extensive collection of letters. She wrote Willie Morris, Ellen Douglas, Elizabeth Spencer, Walker Percy, Richard Ford and many others. The home also includes translations of Welty’s work; copies of her short stories and novels that exist all over the world in dozens of languages. She is particularly loved in France.

        “Eudora knew Mississippi was a special kind of place. She understood the people and the places so deeply, and she captured so many different emotions through them – loss, meanness, suffering, love, happiness, and above all, the importance of place,” says Cindy Lyons, docent at Eudora Welty’s home. “She addressed all aspects of the human condition in her work.”


Celebrating the Bicentennial and Looking Ahead


        At the Old Capitol Museum in downtown Jackson, an exhibit looking at the state’s future offers visitors an opportunity to leave suggestions for Mississippi legislators. Curators have arranged handwritten cards above the suggestion box, and they illustrate that Mississippi continues to be a state with a variety of opinions and people. One person says, “Ban the confederate flag,” while a card nearby reads, “Keep the state flag.” Another Mississippian wants to “repeal gay marriage,” in contrast to a nearby message reading, “Allow gay marriage.”

        The state’s bicentennial comes at a time of political divide that reaches across the country and immediately follows an election that pitted people against each other far more often than it brought them together. But now is a time to remember the things about Mississippi that unite us.

        “At MAC the bicentennial presents an opportunity to look at the state’s incredible artistic accomplishments as well as celebrate what’s happening now,” says Jameson. “We are working with the Mississippi Museum of Art to develop a K-12 arts integrated curriculum in partnership with the bicentennial exhibition. We are also developing programing that showcases documentary work for the bicentennial folk life survey. It’s new fieldwork documenting the traditions of our state.”

        The state’s tourism and development offices also have events planned year round, culminating with a concert celebration in Jackson December 9 coinciding with the opening of the two new museums. “We are shaping a year-long calendar of Bicentennial events happening in all 82 counties,” says Craig Ray, director of Visit Mississippi. “There will be a South Mississippi concert April 1 in Gulfport and a North Mississippi concert June 24 in Oxford, which we are planning in close collaboration with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History as well as the Mississippi Tourism Association and the Governor’s Office.”

        As we come together to celebrate 200 years of statehood, it’s important to remember everything that makes Mississippi the place that it is. People from around the world visit Mississippi, falling in love with our vibrant, unique culture. The bicentennial means celebrating everything that made that culture, without reservation.

        “Every day Mississippians are ambassadors of food, art, film, literature, music and business,” says Glenn McCullough, Jr., executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority. “The bicentennial is a time to honor our unique history and look forward to a future of promise. We invite people around the world to have their own Mississippi experience.”

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