"I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”
We’ve grown some fine stands of cotton in the Black Prairie soil of the Mississippi Hills. Our sweet potato harvest has always been second to none. Dairy cows grow fat feasting on our red clover, and our pine forests spread like a lush blanket over the gentle undulations of our warm, moist earth. Still, it isn’t just our trees or our agricultural gifts that we’re known for. No, what’s made us famous around the world is that year after year, in the cities and towns and tiny hamlets of our area, it’s always been a bumper crop in the Mississippi Hills when it comes to growing genius.
Just a partial roll-call would include not only Nobel laureate William Faulkner, but Tennessee Williams, America’s premiere playwright; Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll and arguably the father of modern American popular culture; blues great Howlin’ Wolf; the First Lady of Country Music Tammy Wynette; best-selling phenomenon John Grisham; and the woman who can create a best-seller with a single word, the woman who’s known around the globe by a single name—Oprah.
That’s to name only a few, and only the cultural icons. Our social and political leaders have been equally impressive: Ida B. Wells, the courageous civil rights leader who battled lynching in the deep South, and whose portrait now hangs in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; L.Q.C. Lamar, Mississippi politician and U.S. Supreme Court Justice so admired by John F. Kennedy that he included him in his Profiles in Courage; Hiram Revels, the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate; and James Meredith, the first African American to enroll in the University of Mississippi.
We made history, in civil rights and in the Civil War, as the Crossroads of the Confederacy and as the site of one of the largest sieges ever conducted in the Western Hemisphere. We’re home to the nation’s first public university for women, Mississippi University for Women, and the second university founded for African Americans, Rust College. The Chickasaw and the Choctaw made their home here; Nathan Bedford Forrest made his name here. Eudora Welty went to school here; Davy Crockett raised horses here, and Andrew Jackson marched his army down the Natchez Trace. It was down our tracks Casey Jones drove his fateful train, and from our clouds Roscoe Turner flew his barnstorming plane into the pages of history.
And all of it happened right here, on a little patch of land, a “postage stamp of soil” hardly more 100 miles wide. Incredible but true. But how? you may very well ask.
Conflict lies at the heart of every great story, and the story of the Mississippi Hills is no different. Two separate worlds intersect and collide in the Mississippi Hills. On the one side, the Mississippi Delta, the land as flat and soft as the social hierarchies are rigid and steep. On the other side, the Southern Appalachians, where stony peaks frame the landscape and the rocky soil breeds hardy individualism. And in the middle, the Mississippi Hills absorb the impact as these two great social and geographic forces meld. The landscape crumples into gentle hills; friction from the encounter ignites sparks to the culture.
In literature, the oral traditions of Appalachian storytelling have met head-on with the grand myth of the chivalric South and the cruel reality of the plantation system. The plantation system also gave rise to the blues, themselves grown out of the field hollers, the ancient call of a rich African culture that made its way north to the Mississippi Hills. Down from the Southern Appalachians came gospel and blue grass, sprung from the fiddles of Ireland and Scotland and the hymn-singing British. And they would all converge in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the soul of a boy named Elvis who had known sorrow and hardship since birth.
For that, too, is the conflict of the Mississippi Hills: man against nature, in an agrarian state where privation has often been intense, where war ravaged the land, turning it into a “Belt of Desolation” and where a plantation economy ravenous for a low-wage work force helped to codify man’s worst impulses… which leads to our last great conflict: man
against himself, and the black-white divide that Elvis may have intuitively leaped, but that stretched like a chasm during dark periods of our history. Yet that conflict has also produced the sparks that lit the fires within some of the nation’s most inspiring civil rights leaders, like Ida B. Wells and James Meredith.
Crucible, cradle: it all comes together in the Mississippi Hills, and what we have made of it has changed the world. To imagine a world without our citizens and without our history is to imagine a world impoverished indeed.
We are, we admit, a land of contradictions: Confederate generals beat their swords not into plowshares but into pens--Stephen D. Lee
headed up Mississippi State University and Mark Perrin Lowrey
founded Blue Mountain College for the education of young women. On the other hand, the first Christian marriage ceremony in America was performed here, but the bride was an Indian captive of Hernando DeSoto’s. The first law in the nation allowing women to own property outright was enacted here, but it arose from litigation involving property that happened to be a slave.
Sometimes we have been America at its worst; frequently we have been America at its best, but in any and all events, our heritage is the American heritage through and through.
Now, we invite you to share that heritage with us, in history-rich towns vibrant with life, in beautifully preserved homes, churches, battlefields (both Civil War and Civil Rights), museums and many other cultural, historical and recreational venues.
Understand that history and culture in the Mississippi Hills are far more than structures and scaffolding; rather they are a living, breathing, captivating experience. In the early 1990s a record company was formed here in the Hills for the express purpose of recording blues artists like R.L. Burnside
, Junior Kimbrough
and Mississippi Fred McDowell
, whose raw driving “dirty blues” style owed as much to their own rough and tumble Hills experiences as to the fife and drum beat of Otha Turner
, whose celebrated music was also a highlight of the soundtrack
to Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York
. Today, while those blues greats have passed away, their children carry on their traditions every year at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic
in Marshall County.
In Oxford, the legacy of Faulkner has begat a writing community of legends in their own right: Willie Morris
, Larry Brown
, Barry Hannah
, Donna Tartt
, Ace Atkins
and many others in the John and Renee Grisham visiting writers series. In Taylor, an artist colony thrives, and all around the campus at the University of Mississippi you’ll find scholars at work preserving and amplifying the genius that is the American South, from the University's Center for the Study of Southern Culture
to its Blues Archive
, where you’ll find B.B. King’s
musical papers housed in the world’s largest repository of blues recordings and other blues materials.
So, come experience this extraordinary region, this "postage stamp" of genius that has shaped so much of America. But come soon, you wouldn't want to miss anything...if the past is any guide, you just never know what's liable to crop up next in the Mississippi Hills.