Out of bondage into brilliance: Let your eyes see the glory on a journey to freedom and greatness.
If American civil rights was a journey of a thousand steps, those first steps were taken here by some remarkable people. People like Ida B. Wells, who was born a slave and became a hero to millions as a crusading journalist and activist; and James Meredith, an Air Force veteran who’d answered his country’s call with honor and saw no reason for America to give a deferment to his own dream.
Following in the footsteps of leaders like these takes you through historic cities and welcoming communities proud of their African American heritage and pleased to share it with you. And it is a journey that offers not only a revealing glimpse of the past, but also a hopeful view of the future in a nation now led by President Barack Obama, who in a sense added the last word to the Lincoln-Douglas debate with his own superior performance here in the 2008 Presidential debate.
While there are other notable African American stories in the Hills—including Oprah in Koscuisko, diva and Rust College alumnus Ruby Elzy in Pontotoc, Howlin’ Wolf in West Point (where the city hosts the renowned annual Howlin’ Blues Festival)—this is a trek that promises a wealth of information for your own inspiration, and it begins, appropriately enough, at a crossroads:
DAY ONE — CORINTH:
A lot of roads led to Corinth during the Civil War, and on those roads came escaped slaves by the thousands. Not yet legally free, they were declared “contraband” by the Union army to prevent their seizure by Southern planters. These “contraband” humans were put into a camp, but like a rose in the desert, the camp bloomed, miraculously, into a model community, self-sustaining in every sense.
Today, what you’ll find blooming in Corinth is a communal spirit and a pride of place that turns an ordinary visit into a sociable event, with a menu that includes plenty of friendly people and maybe an old-fashioned cherry soda and a slugburger or two. ( Don’t worry, they’re named for the nickel—the so-called slug—they used to cost.) While the slugburgers cost a lot more than a nickel these days, the smiles are free and plentiful at these inspiring stops:
Corinth Contraband Camp
North Parkway St.* 800.748.9048
City upon a hill: It was an astonishing achievement in 1862, when 6,000 escaped slaves took their 600-acre camp and created a utopia, complete with a successful working farm, church, commissary, hospital, school and tidy houses. Today, the 21-acre site with pedestrian promenade offers visitors an opportunity to walk and dream that dream once more.
More Sites of Interest:
Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center
501 W. Linden * 731.689.5696
Big subjects, small wonder: The broad scope of the Interpretive Center’s exhibits covers African-American history and heritage, among other topics. Of particular interest, a scale model of the Contraband Camp.
Black History Museum of Corinth
1109 Meigg St. * 866.539.8500
Thou shalt learn: Focusing on religion and education, two cornerstones of African American culture, the museum’s collection includes a wide range of memorabilia and artifacts.
DAY ONE – HOLLY SPRINGS:
There are plenty of grand historic mansions in Holly Springs, but it was the humble house parties and picnics of the Holly Springs area that nurtured the music of blues greats like Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner. World-class accomplishment, whether in music, civil rights or education, is a Holly Springs hallmark. And what a highlight to see how some of the greats made their mark, at these fascinating sites:
150 Rust Ave. * 662.252.2491
The art of learning: Established in 1866 on the former site of slave auctions, on the spot where U.S. Grant once camped his troops, Rust College blazed a trail from its beginning as only the second college for African Americans in the nation. Over the years, Rust has turned out national leaders like Ida B. Wells, and if you walk the halls here today, you’ll see a brilliant future now being forged by a striving student body. The walls here are amazing, too: The college is home to Rust College Center, which houses more than 400 pieces of African art, sculptures and masks in the Ronald Trojcak African Art Collection of tribal arts and fabrics.
Ida B. Wells Barnett Museum
220 N. Randolph St. * 662.252.3232
Freedom writer: Before she went on to become a valiant civil rights crusader and journalist, Ida Wells was born a slave in the historic Spires Bolling home, and today the home houses Wells Barnett family heirlooms and artifacts as well as a premier collection of African and African-American art.
More Sites of Interest:
Roy Wilkins Collection
150 E. Rust Ave. * 662.252.2491
Mighty memories: Peruse the papers, awards, memorabilia, civil rights material and other items of belonging to the pioneering NAACP secretary born in Marshall County.
Ida B. Wells Barnett Week
Third week in February
662.252.3232 * www.idabwells.org
Passion play: One of the highlights of this year’s annual celebration of the pioneering journalist, activist and crusader will include Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice, a documentary film by William Greaves.
DAY TWO – OXFORD:
The world will and should long remember both the courage and carnage of those groundbreaking days at the University of Mississippi in 1963, but you may want to forget all the preconceived notions you may have about the “ole” in Ole Miss and Oxford, which today is a progressive university community thriving in its 21st century paradoxes. It was really only fitting that Barack Obama make history here in the 2008 presidential debate. Oxford today is a place where Southern culture is a deep and all-inclusive experience and where historic homes share the stage with happening clubs and restaurants.
So stop and shop or stop and shimmy; just don’t miss these extraordinary sites:
Lyceum at the University of Mississippi
Circle Loop * 662-915-7211
A dream not deferred: They have been called the last shots of the last battle of the Civil War, and today, those bullet holes from the bloody 1962 riot over James Meredith’s admission have been preserved in the elegant Ionic columns of the Lyceum, which is now part of the Civil Rights Monument, dedicated in 2006, that includes a statue of Meredith standing proudly on the lawn between the Lyceum and the J.D.Williams Library.
Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts
University Avenue and Old Taylor Road
662-915-2787 * www.olemiss.edu/fordcenter
Presidential performance: Did Barack Obama clinch his election with his performance against John McCain here in the fall of 2008? That’s arguable, but what’s not debatable is that history was made that night in this state-of-the-art facility that is both majestic and ultra modern.
More Sites of Interest:
Center for the Study of Southern Culture
University of Mississippi Campus * 662.915.5993
Deeper South: This preeminent research center takes a broad and deep approach to its study of Southern music, history, folklore, literature and culture, all of it housed and headquartered in a restored antebellum observatory.
J.D. Williams Library
Monster blues: Talk about chart-topping numbers. Housing one of the world’s largest collections of blues recordings, publications and memorabilia, the Blues Archive boasts more than 60,000 sound recordings, 20,000 photographs, 1,000 videos, 6,000 books, periodicals and newsletters and numerous manuscripts and ephemera.
ADD A DAY FEATURE--COLUMBUS:
Although it doesn’t boast as many firsts as other areas in the Mississippi Hills, Columbus made its own special strides in creating a rich and vibrant African American community from the earliest days of settlement. Today, while the bustling mecca of Catfish Alley exists only as marked memories, several historic homes and some of the churches that began life as brush arbors still stand to inspire
Sites of Interest:
1.800.920.3533 * www.columbus-ms.org
Built in the 1830s by “free men of color,” brothers Isaac and Thomas Williams, this historic cottage-style residence was made with hand-made bricks. The prosperous Williams brothers (Isaac was a laborer and Thomas a blacksmith) owned a busy blacksmith shop that once sat at the edge of the property.
Churches of Interest:
Concorde CME Church
113 Concord Rd. * 1.800.327.2686 * www.columbus-ms.org
Missionary Union Baptist Church
1207 5th Ave. North * 1.800.327.2686 * www.columbus-ms.org
Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church
110 2nd Ave. North * 1.800.327.2686 * www.columbus-ms.org
MLK Dream 365
1.800.920.3533 * www.columbus-ms.org
Kingdome come: One of Mississippi’s most progressive MLK events, this annual festival draws thousands to the area for a joyful celebration and insightful exploration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
If you have a day to spare, an excursion following the Blue Trail Markers in the Hills Area will put a song in your heart. A sampling of the posts: Memphis Minnie, Walls; Big Walter Horton, Horn Lake; Hill Country Blues, Holly Springs; Mosley & Johnson, New Albany; Elvis Presley & Shake Rag, Tupelo; Documenting the Blues, Oxford; Magic Sam, Grenada; Howlin’ Wolf, West Point; Big Joe Williams, Crawford; Catfish Alley Blues, Columbus.