Libraries and Life Plans

March 18, 2008

Our Thursday afternoon in Mississippi was spent in the college town of Oxford. Unlike the Oxford I was in this summer, it’s an ugly place. Like that other Oxford, it is full of history, albeit a much different kind.

Oxford is the home of the University of Mississippi, affectionately known as Ole Miss. Now this is Oxford’s only redeeming quality. The Ole Miss campus is amazing. Amazing. Both modern and very old Southern architecture buildings, with hundreds of old trees and huge open spaces. Hilly and spacious. Crowded yet peaceful. Trees upon trees upon trees. Beautiful.

Of course, Ole Miss is where the famous riots broke out when James Meredith tried to become the first black student at the university. The state had to be occupied by federal troops for more than a year in order to protect Meredith and keep relative peace. I say relative because, of course, there was talk of secession. The governor was blatantly pro-segregation and did everything in his power to prevent integration from ever reaching Mississippi. In response to his call, whites across the state fought tooth and nail against the federal government- to the point that the Ole Miss campus was turned into a battleground in an armed battle between angry Mississippians and federal troops.

It was an interesting moment for the United States. Ole Miss still struggles with its image as a “white school” that does not welcome minorities, and is still working on how it is going move forward from such dramatic events. Now, 14% of the students are black, and about 2% are other minorities. The state of Mississippi is almost 40% black, which is their eventual goal, enrollment wise.

On this particular afternoon we got a chance to look at the library’s archives, which focus on Southern history and literature. They have huge collections of blues recording not found anywhere else in the world! And also hundreds of thousands of letters, pamphlets, and ledgers read and written by Mississippians from the Civil War era through the civil rights era.

This includes everything from the records of slave-holding plantation owners to those of James Meredith, who donated his papers to the university. It also includes literature from the Klan and other extreme anti-integration groups, and letters from Southerners to their Northern family and friends explaining slavery and, eventually, segregation. Very eye-opening and educational, to read and hear these thoughts right from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

One of the most amazing pieces was a two-hour long home video from 1938, showing black sharecroppers working on a huge former plantation, and also scenes of two very young white children and their black nurse. The video was taken by the wife of the family, and is one of the earliest color home movies. It’s incredible to see it.

What struck me the most was the misuse of science and the Bible in the pamphlets defending segregation. Some claimed that blacks were not yet fully evolved from monkeys, others that inter-marriage created venereal disease. Others still quoted the Old Testament, where God sent everyone in different directions from the Tower of Babel, and where God creates everything to their own kind. These are things that people in Mississippi would actually wake up and find on their front step in the morning, throughout the 50’s , 60’s, and early 70’s.

I asked the archivist how she got into her field. She got an BA in English then went to “library school” where she got a masters in Library Studies and in History with an emphasis in Archiving. Wow. So, that is a potential life path as of right now. “Library school”, as she called it, does not sound like fun at all. But being an archivist and publishing books about the random cool things I discover, does. So does dealing first-hand with history. Touching it, seeing it as it really is. I mean, talk about going straight to the source. She recently edited and published a collection of the letters of a young Confederate soldier written before, during, and after the war. Very cool.

We returned to the campus for dinner, which was at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics. What a cool place! Very new and modern. Immediately upon walking in, there are about 8 or 10 TV screens. Every other TV is turned to a news station, and the others are very high quality scans of that morning’s major newspapers. On the 2nd floor, the walls were covered in prints by the political cartoonist Marlette.

We were there to talk to Curtis Wilkie, the Overby Fellow and a professor at Ole Miss. Now, this man has become one of my personal role models. He went to Ole Miss during the James Meredith situation, which he spoke about. But more than that, he spent his life as a journalist and 20 years as a White House correspondent for the Boston Globe.

He had so many funny stories about being in the White House press corps. Bill Clinton, he said, was “the single smartest guy I have ever dealt with”. The dumbest was Ronald Reagan. He was completely out of touch, Wilkie said. He didn’t have a clue what people wanted- “it was scary”. And he didn’t even know who was in his cabinet. Pretty hilarious. He told us about playing drinking game with Hunter S. Thompson (think: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) on Jimmy Carter’s campaign plane.

This man has had such a full life, and hasn’t wasted a minute. After 20 years of doing what he loves, he now gets to teach students what he has learned and do his own research on his own time. Not only does he have this great position at the university, but it seems like the natural continuation of his life’s work. Just hearing him speak made me want to be a journalist. Not that I haven’t always had some interest in that, but this just pulled at that little thought and made me really consider it. Something to think about as I try, yet again, to figure out my life goals.

Aside from all of that, the idea of studying Southern journalism and Southern politics intrigues me. I had no idea this was even a specialization. But there really is so much history, tradition, and culture in the South that is unique and has shaped the history of the country in such big ways (good and bad).

All in all, Thursday at Ole Miss was a truly worthwhile experience. I was exposed to two interesting career paths that I had not given serious though to before, and was able to speak to two people about what steps I could take should I wish to follow in their footsteps. I met a great man, a great historian. I touched amazing historical documents, and saw one-of-a-kind collections. The day was in every way useful and productive.

(middle picture: detail of plantation owner’s log, listing across the top the slave’s names- Peggy, Charity, Rose, Betty- and how much cotton they picked on each day from November 14-26, 1825)

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