By Esther Ferington
“I came to work here the next day after graduating from college,” says Mississippi Humanities Council fiscal administrator Brenda Gray, who has been on the MHC staff for more than three decades. “The first time I heard of Fannie Lou Hamer was at this office. Why had I not heard of her before? I’m from a rural county, Smith County, in Mississippi; there were seventy-five students in my senior class, sixteen of them black.” Gray is African American. “I never heard of Fannie Lou Hamer.”
Mississippi civil rights history is more commonly taught now—including the story of Hamer, a major figure in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. But civil rights and racial reconciliation are still current topics as well. “Civil rights is absolutely integral to everything we do,” says Barbara Carpenter, executive director of MHC. “This was a major, ongoing, historical movement. It was enormously influential on our council. In our state, it is a continuing issue, an emotional, highly political, foundational issue.”
The creation of the humanities council in 1972 broke new ground, says Carpenter, bringing together leaders from the University of Mississippi and Jackson State University, which is historically black. “JSU and Ole Miss had never had much contact before,” Carpenter says. The council’s first executive director, Cora Norman, worked to integrate every aspect of the organization’s work as much as possible. “I learned a lot about racial relationships, starting under Dr. Cora Norman,” says Gray. “It was refreshing to see all people be a part.”
MHC programs on civil rights can still stir powerful emotions. “By our very mission, the humanities council is required to explore subjects from a variety of perspectives,” says Carol Andersen, MHC ’s assistant director. “I’ve seen people cry at our programs. I’ve seen people getting passionately angry, but the setting makes it a safe place to do that.”
One example that comes to mind, she says, was an Emmett Till program of talks and tours in the summer of 2005. Till, a black fourteen-year-old from Chicago, was visiting his Mississippi relatives in 1955, when he is said to have whistled at a white woman in a store. He was kidnapped, brutally killed, and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. His death and the open-casket funeral in Chicago drew nationwide attention—as did the trial at which an all-white jury rapidly acquitted the two white men charged with his death. The case became a watershed moment in the civil rights movement.
“I remember sitting in the courtroom where the trial took place,” the city of Sumner, says Andersen. “There was a cousin of Emmett Till, the current mayor and former mayor, both African American. The program talked about what it was like during the trial: There was no air conditioning . . . African Americans could only be in the balcony.” In the audience, Anderson recalled, there “were tears and there was anger, but a controlled anger. Not at anyone there, but at what had happened.”
MHC ’s involvement with the Emmett Till project began in 2004, with a $2000 oral history mini-grant to Delta State University. It was carried out by Henry Outlaw, chairman emeritus of physical sciences, who was then at the university ’s Delta Center for Culture and Learning. In 2007, the project inspired an MHC-supported panel exhibition that has since traveled to more than thirty cities and towns across the country and has been seen by more than sixteen thousand visitors. “There were several subsequent grants,” says Carpenter, “but it all began with that original mini-grant.”
While MHC has helped support many projects—films, publications, websites, teacher institutes, public programs, and more—on many subjects, oral history remains essential for capturing memories of Mississippi’s past, including the civil rights movement. Funding for MHC ’s oral history projects comes through the state Archives and History Department. The legislature typically suggests areas of emphasis, almost always including civil rights, says Andersen. “It’s what the legislature and the community want us to do.”
In addition to oral history mini-grants like the one Outlaw received, MHC provides major support for the Mississippi Oral History Project, an archive within the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage. The archive also lends recording equipment, provides training in oral history methods, and produces Mississippi Moments, four-and-a-half-minute radio features that weave together oral history clips, often on civil rights, attracting fifty thousand listeners a week. “We get more phone calls and questions about those than any other program,” says Carpenter.
Linda VanZandt, managing editor and special projects director for the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, considers an oral history of Lounett Gore, born in 1909, one of the archive’s “most poignant and rich” records. “My father was born a slave,” says Gore in a segment used in Mississippi Moments, “But he was not old enough to serve as a slave; they were freed when he was quite a child.” She then recounts her family’s history and explains the share-cropping system of the time.
In February 2009, a few weeks before her one hundredth birthday, Lounett Gore made the long trip from her home in southern Mississippi to the state capital of Jackson, where she was recognized at the Capitol Building Rotunda as part of the tenth anniversary of the Mississippi Oral History Project. That occasion was a long way, too, from her youth in a log cabin built by her father—just one part of the past that MHC helps Mississippians preserve and explore.