The state of Mississippi is not much of a tourist draw and it wasn't a place that I ever expected to spend much time visiting. There are a lot of problems with Mississippi ranging from poor education and internal infrastructure to a long history of discriminatory politics to a beastly climate that can feel like the seventh layer of hell in the summertime. Mississippi tends to rank as one of the worst states in the USA on a lengthy list of quality-of-life metrics and the people who live there are often the subject of caricatured stereotypes of ignorant southerners. I can't say that I was much better in this regard... and then it turned out that half of my wife's family grew up and still lived in Mississippi. Her family is full of doctors and lawyers and I was the one guilty of making foolish assumptions - whoops. That's not to say that Mississippi doesn't have a very real set of problems (poverty is rampant in the state) but it's never a good idea to make broad assumptions about a place. There's a lot of fascinating history to discover in Mississippi and the state can boast of some amazing music, culture, and cuisine that are more than worth experiencing.
We try to visit my wife's family in Mississippi at least every other year to see the people who live there even though it's a long haul from the Washington DC area. The shorter and more expensive route involves flying to Memphis and then renting a car to do the 90 minute drive to their homes in northeastern Mississippi. The longer and cheaper route involves making the 850 mile / 1350 kilometer drive by car which takes about 14 hours to complete. We've made the trip both by plane and by car, and of course Liz spent many summers making the long haul down to Mississippi and back while growing up. On this particular occassion in June 2021, we traveled by car so that we could bring our dog along with us (he handles the long trip extremely well). We didn't even have to take vacation time since we were able to work remotely in the post-pandemic telework environment. I typically Livestream on Fridays when I'm off work and I decided to use this time to explore a bit more of the state that I hadn't seen previously. I would be traveling to the Vicksburg battlefield along the banks of the Mississippi River, visiting the state capital in Jackson, and then stopping to see the state's largest public universities. While I wouldn't be getting all the way down to Biloxi on the Gulf Coast, I'd be seeing just about everything else of note in the state.
I was starting out from northeastern Mississippi, a bit beyond Tupelo where Liz's side of the family lives. That area was not especially close to Vicksburg and I would have to drive about 250 miles / 400 kilometers to reach the huge river that gave the state its name. I wanted to be back in time to join the rest of the family for dinner and as a result I woke up around 4:00 AM so that I could be down in Vicksburg by the time that everything opened for the day at 8:00 AM. The drive through the early morning darkness was uneventful aside from hitting a torrential downpour at one point, fortunately with essentially no other cars on the road to worry about. This was the first trip that I'd taken after getting fully vaccinated against COVID and it was a true delight to be out and seeing new things once again. Mississippi has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country but I would at least be protected even if others were making the poor decision not to do the same.
I arrived on time in Vicksburg to be greeted with a beautiful blue sky overhead. I'd been worried that the rain would follow me and turn this into a miserable day but it looked like I was having good weather luck for a change. My first stop was an overlook at the southern end of the town named Riverfront Park where I was able to gaze out across the Mississippi to the Louisiana shore on the other side. I should clarify for readers that the whole reason I was visiting Vicksburg was due to the fact that one of the most important battles of the American Civil War took place here, arguably the second most important battle after Gettysburg. Vicksburg held an extremely strong defensive position that guarded the lower Mississippi and Union soldiers couldn't gain control of the river until they were able to dislodge the Confederate defenders. An initial series of attacks in 1862 ended in defeat before a second attempt the following year in 1863 concluded in a successful siege. I had always wanted to see what the terrain looked like at Vicksburg to put the tactical maneuvering of this battle into context. These pictures were taken at the extreme southern end of the Confederate defenses, to the south of the town of Vicksburg itself.
From my initial stopping point, I drove a couple of miles north into the historic town center of Vicksburg. The modern town holds about 20,000 residents and had a sleepy feeling here in the early morning hours. There was a cobblestone street in the center of town with various small shops and restaurants lining its sides and I walked around for a few minutes enjoying the chance to stretch my legs. Vicksburg also had its share of old buildings that dated back to its 19th century heyday, houses in the Southern plantation style and official buildings like the Old Court House and the US Army Corp of Engineers local headquarters. Unfortunately everything had a bit of a rundown feel to it, the sense that Vicksburg's best days were behind it and time had passed this place by. Vicksburg's current population in 2021 was roughly the same as it had been a century early in 1921 and the town no longer holds the commercial and strategic importance that it once did. I noted as well that the local terrain was quite hilly and gained in elevation quickly when moving away from the riverside. This was an important factor in understanding the conflict that took place here during the Civil War.
I had started my drive so early in the nighttime in order to reach Vicksburg and walk around the town before the battlefield itself opened. This worked out perfectly and I was pulling into the parking lot at Vicksburg National Military Park at 8:29 AM just as the place was opening. (I literally saw people lined up outside the visitor's center entering the building as the doors unlocked while I was walking across the parking lot.) The National Park Service always does an amazing job at historic preservation and they had a small but highly helpful visitor's center at the entrance. I particularly liked the large battlefield maps that they had on display inside, both of the immediate town of the Vicksburg and then the larger campaign surrounding it. The second picture above illustrates why Vicksburg was such a strong defensive position: the Mississippi River bent in a "U" shape right next to the town such that any boats trying to pass would have to face attack multiple times from defending artillery. Meanwhile, the ground sloped upwards into a series of steep hills that circled the town in every direction. Anyone trying to attack the town by land would have to march uphill into entrenched rifle fire. The Confederate defenders fortified the ring of hills surrounding Vicksburg and the Union soldiers had a devil of a time trying to break through their lines. They never actually did break the Confederate defense and Vicksburg ended up being captured due to a successful siege; no amount of bravery will stop soldiers from starving to death without supplies.
Of course the real story of the Vicksburg campaign isn't the siege itself so much as the maneuvers that led to the siege being imposed on the town. This was probably the finest performance of General Grant in the Civil War and he put on a masterclass at the operations level to leave Vicksburg helpless to its fate. After failing in earlier attacks against the town's natural defenses in 1862, Grant marched his soldiers south of Vicksburg on the opposite (Louisiana) side of the river, made a daring river crossing to the Mississippi side, and seized control of the critical railroads needed to keep Vicksburg supplied. Then he attacked to the east all the way to the Mississippi capital city of Jackson, captured it and burned much of the city, which sent a Confederate army intended to reinforce Vicksburg scuttling back in defeat. Afterwards, Grant's forces moved back to Vicksburg and surrounded the town with a tight siege that prevented any supplies from entering. Union soldiers were unsuccessful in their direct attacks but after about 50 days the defenders were forced to surrender, coincidentally on July 4, 1863. I'll link to the Wikipedia article which has much more detail on the tactical maneuvering. It was some of the finest strategic decision-making of any commander in the Civil War and belies the later attacks against Grant's reputation that he was nothing more than a butcher and a drunkard.
Now it was time to enter the military park itself. I've included the map that the National Park Service hands out to visitors which should provide a sense of where I was heading. The military park largely comprises the hills to the north and east of Vicksburg where the Union and Confederate lines were located during the siege. There's a main road that runs through them and connects all of the various monuments and memorials; this turned out to be an extremely COVID-friendly place to visit since it's largely an attraction that visitors drive through in their own cars. (There were also quite a few local people using the park road for walking or jogging but the distance is too long to see much that way.) My drive would start out on the Union side of the lines and then return back on the Confederate side. I'll also note here that the map demonstrates an important fact: the Mississippi River has shifted in its course since the 1860s. This is a bit unfortunate because it makes it harder to visualize what conditions looked like during the fighting. I had to imagine the river flowing in that big bend right up against the town which it hasn't done for the last century.
These pictures were taken while driving north on the Union side of the siege lines to the east of Vicksburg. Much of the park road looks like the first image above, running through forested countryside with small monuments to individual regiments or battalions lining its path. In other places the trees dropped out to reveal more of the rough, hilly terrain. There wasn't a lot of flat ground on the ridgeline where the two sides faced off against one another. Along with the smaller monuments were occasionally much larger memorials which had been erected by a state to commemorate the soldiers which had fallen here. The domed structure pictured above was built by Illinois and it was the largest such monument that I came across. A much more recent monument recognized the black Mississippians who had fought on the Union side after escaping slavery (which was somehow not mentioned on the monument's text). The one disappointment of this part of the drive was the fact that the section containing Grant's Headquarters was closed due to heavy rains causing mudslides which made that part of the road unsafe. This was one area I wouldn't be able to visit on this trip.
Eventually the park road crossed over to the Confederate part of the lines and reached Fort Hill at their northwest edge. This was located right at the big "U" bend in the river and represented one of the strongest parts of the defenses. It's really too bad that the river has shifted over time because this would have been the spot where it bent back on itself in the other direction back in 1863. I love visiting historical battlefields because the actions that took place always make so much more sense when you can see the terrain for yourself. I'd read for many years about how Vicksburg was this strong natural fortress and walking around this spot at Fort Hill really put it into context for me. The uncreatively-named Fort Hill was *STEEP* in a way that the second picture above doesn't fully capture. The river would have run right up against the bottom of this hill and then it was a steep climb of about 200 feet / 60 meters up to the top where the Confederates would have been dug in with cannons ready to fire down on anyone approaching or any ships trying to pass. In a world that lacked aircraft, I definitely would not have wanted to try to capture this place. Everything that happened during the Vicksburg campaign made so much more sense after having seen the strength of the natural defenses for myself.
Nearby Fort Hill on the Union side of the lines was the most interesting artifact at Vicksburg National Military Park: the USS Cairo Museum. The Cairo was an ironclad riverboat which was built in 1862 as part of the Union war effort. Dozens of these ironclads were built in hasty fashion to gain control of the rivers in the western theatre of the conflict. The Cairo (named for Cairo, Illinois and not the city in Egypt) was unfortunate enough to hit a submerged mine near Vicksburg and sink in 1862, then was discovered and raised from the riverbed a century later to be turned into this museum. The spot where the boat hit the mine is visible in the third picture above, on the port (left) side of the ship where there's a visible chunk blown out of the wooden hull. There was no one else around when I arrived and that left me free to walk around the ironclad taking pictures at my leisure. I particularly liked seeing the inside of the boat, such as the huge steam-powered paddlewheels that moved the ironclad along the rivers.
I had never seen a Civil War era ironclad up close before and some of the features were surprising to me. I had never really internalized previously that these were still wooden boats with iron plating, not the later modern ships made entirely out of iron and steel. The ironclads are likely best understood as a temporary transitional stage between the wooden navies of the early 19th century and the modern dreadnoughts and battleships that came a few decades later. Most of the Cairo was still made out of wood and the boat's fate demonstrated how it fared poorly when hit below the waterline where it lacked armor. As for the iron plating itself, one of the informational signs pointed out that it was uneven throughout the boat and some of the plating was nothing more than railroad spans stuck onto the hull. This reflected the slapdash nature of the wartime construction; the Cairo was one of seven ironclads built over the course of 100 days by a single manufacturer. They were basically grabbing anything possible to use as a construction material and as a result the iron plating was far from uniform in its design. The sailors on board probably should have been glad that the thing floated at all!
Right next to the USS Cairo Museum sits Vicksburg National Cemetery which holds the final resting place of the Union soldiers who died during the campaign. (There's also a separate Confederate cemetery half a mile away which is not maintained by the National Part Service.) Congress passed a bill to establish this cemetery in 1867 and they certainly picked a lovely place for it, a shaded area overlooking the banks of where the Mississippi would have run at the time. The cemetery was small by the standards of the later world wars but still contained hundreds upon hundreds of individual graves. Some of them had full headstones with the name of the solider contained within. Others were just numbers with no other identifying features, perhaps because the individual couldn't be identified or perhaps because there wasn't funding for anything more elaborate. This was a peaceful, quiet place and I can't think of too many better spots to be buried.
Finally, I finished up my visit to Vicksburg National Military Park by driving through the southern end of the fortifications on the Confederate side of the lines. The tall monument was dedicated to the Mississippians who had died at Vicksburg while Texas had its own typically brash monument a little further down the road. The terrain here wasn't quite as hilly as further to the north but it was still rugged and wouldn't have been easy to attack. Several Union assaults were beaten off in this area before General Grant settled down for the full siege. The park road itself runs in a big loop and I eventually wound up back at the visitor's center where I had started. I enjoyed this visit enormously and I'd highly recommend Vicksburg to anyone with an interest in Civil War history. For those who don't find the subject that interesting, this is probably a place that can be skipped because there's not much here unconnected to the battle.
My next destination was Jackson, the capital city of Mississippi located less than an hour's drive to the east of Vicksburg. Jackson is the largest city in the state of Mississippi albeit still small in comparison to better-known urban destinations. It had an estimated population of around 160,000 at the time of my visist and was roughly the 150th largest city in the United States. Jackson is best known for holding all of the state government buildings for Mississippi as well as several excellent museums. The plantation-style house pictured above was the Governor's Mansion for the state; I had made sure to arrive at a time when the building was supposed to be open but the guards at the entrance told me that no visitors were being admitted that day. There might have been some kind of event taking place, I don't know for sure. I also would have liked to visit the Old Capitol Museum, the former state capitol building which now houses a series of historical exhibits, but it was undergoing construction and closed to the public. That building I had known would be closed ahead of time. I had to content myself with heading over to the attractions which were in fact open for the day.
With Jackson being the state capital city, the largest of these was naturally the Mississippi State Capitol building. Longtime readers of this website will know that I make a habit of stopping to see different legislative buildings and Mississippi's capitol building very much followed the standard design for an American state legislature. This structure was completed in 1903 to replace the smaller former capitol building located a few blocks to the south. The current Mississippi State Capitol had all the trademarks features that I'd seen in other states: Neoclassical architecture with a central dome and lots of columns along with two main wings that housed the two legislative chambers. This building originally housed the governor and the state supreme court but they've both moved into other nearby buildings over time so that the Mississippi State Capitol's limited space could be given over to the members of the legislature and their staff. The largest statue outside the building was dedicated to the "Confederate Women of Mississippi" and ironically placed next a replica of the Liberty Bell. Mississippi is a very conservative state and this was reflected in the choice of monuments appearing on the statehouse grounds.
The interior of the Mississippi State Capitol had the usual elegant furnishings of a state legislative building. The walls were largely constructed out of marble and I came across a sign stating that there were ten different kinds of marble used in the building's design. The central dome rose up overhead to a height of 180 feet / 55 meters with a vibrant array of colors painted on its underside. It was a striking sight even if the dome was a bit smaller than some of its peers in other states that I've visited. The ground floor of the building didn't have much of interest, just a bunch of portraits of former governors, but the second floor contained the old chambers of the Mississippi Supreme Court. Although this body no longer meets here, the room has been preserved for visitors to see where the state judges used to confer when deciding cases. There was a large "M" design included in the floor using hundreds of small tiles and I would see the same motif repeated elsewhere throughout the building. It was a distinctive way to write the letter "M", more like a letter "Y" with two adjoining lines on the ends.
More of the building's interior. There were a series of stained glass windows overlooking the wide staircases that connected the floors of the building although the lighting was darker there and I didn't get a great picture. From the vantage point of the third floor, I could look down through the oval cutout in the middle of the second floor and see all the way down to the ground level. The governor had a ceremonial office on the third floor but it wasn't used for actual state business any longer. This was the part of the state capitol where the two legislative chambers were located and I headed over to the wing with the House chamber first.
These pictures were taken from the Mississippi House of Representatives located on the northern side of the building. Visitors couldn't enter the floor of the chamber but were allowed into the galleries up on the top floor where they could look down at the surroundings. There was one really weird feature about the House chamber that I noticed immediately: both main entrances were located BEHIND the speaker's rostrum, in other words behind that clock in the first picture. This was the opposite from how American legislative chambers are typically designed; normally visitors enter from the side with the desks of the representatives and then walk towards the speaker's raised platform at the other end. This was precisely backwards and slightly disorienting. The chamber itself continued to feature different types of marble in its construction along with a light green coloring for most of its walls. Bizarrely, the leather seats for the representatives had a mustard-yellow color which did not look aesthetically pleasing to me at all. This felt like kind of an ugly setup and I can't imagine spending long hours in this chamber without coming off feeling a bit queasy. As Mississippi's lower house, this body has 122 members who are elected to four year terms.
The other end of the building held the Mississippi Senate chamber which looked similar to its larger brethren. The Mississippi Senate contains only 52 members and their seats had notably more space than the rather cramped conditions in the Mississippi House. This was another chamber where visitors entered from what felt like the back of the room and unfortunately it featured the same discolored seats for its members. I guess the designers were going for earthtones but a legislative chamber that resembled pea soup wasn't a great look. The Senate chamber had marble columns that the House chamber had lacked, and they were a bit wild in terms of their design with a bunch of different hues ranging from light to dark. The roof of the chamber also featured some beautiful stained glass with some kind of floral designs on them (I'm guessing magnolias since the magnolia is the state flower). Anyway, these were certainly unique legislative chambers and I couldn't recall previously seeing any other bodies that used this color palette.
While walking to my next destination, I snapped this picture overlooking the Mississippi Livestock Auction yards and the Mississippi Coliseum (the domed structure in the background). I'm including this image only to mention that the city of Jackson is located on top of an extinct volcano situated about 3000 feet / 900 meters underground. As it turns out, the Mississippi Coliseum is directly above the buried peak of the volcano. This is an extinct volcano so there's no chance of it ever erupting but it's amusing to think that this geological feature is lurking underground in a place where no one would expect to find it.
Across the street from the Mississippi State Fairgrounds was the other main attraction that I'd come to Jackson to visit: the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. This was a new museum at the time of my visit in 2021 after having been opened only a few years earlier in 2017. I was wondering how in the world this beautiful museum ended up getting funded given Mississippi's dubious history on civil rights and the iron grip that conservatives have over Mississippi state politics. Here's the answer: former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour made this his pet project and pushed it through the state legislature because he thought it would improve his chances of running for president in 2012. This did nothing to help Barbour in his ambitions (his candidacy for president barely even registered) but it did result in Jackson getting an outstanding museum dedicated to the subject of civil rights. The new Civil Rights Museum was attached to the previously-existing Museum of Mississippi History and visitors can see both on the same entry ticket. These museums were both much higher quality than what visitors typically see at the state level and I'd recommend anyone traveling through Jackson stop to take a look.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum focuses on the period running from the end of the Civil War through Reconstruction and the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, as told through the voices of Mississippi's black citizens. Mississippi has a higher percentage of black residents than any other state in the USA (excepting Washington DC) at about 37% of the total population. This percentage was even higher in the decades following the Civil War when black Mississippians were a majority of the state's population and elected multiple representatives to Congress during Reconstruction. Unfortunately, when Reconstruction came to a close at the tail end of the 1870s, white northerners abandoned the black population of the south which led to the denial of voting rights, the imposition of Jim Crow regimes, and mass lynchings by the Ku Klux Klan and other supremacist organizations. This is one of the most shameful episodes in American history and it took long decades of struggle by the black community to fight for their civil rights. The museum does a fantastic job of taking visitors through this struggle, with a focus on the 1950s and 1960s when white Mississippians used brutal tactics in an attempt to maintain segregation. My only small criticism of the exhibits here would be that they don't make much of a connection to the ongoing current civil rights struggle at the time of this writing in 2021. There's a natural progression from the repression faced by black Mississippians of the 1960s to the ongoing struggle for police reform and voting rights taking place now. Perhaps the museum couldn't have secured the state funding needed to be built if it had mentioned something like Black Lives Matter but its total absence from the museum felt like an odd omission.
I'll highlight one small example of the neverending struggle over civil rights involving the Mississippi state flag. After losing the Civil War, the state of Mississippi decided that it would be fantastic to celebrate the Jim Crow era by adopting a state flag featuring the Confederate battle emblem in 1894. This was a clear sign that the state's (white) government didn't care about its black citizens and were committed to denying them equal rights. The state flag was prominently flown by segregationists during the 1950s and 1960s and civil rights activists at both the state and national level called for its replacement with a new flag, to no avail. There was even a referendum held on replacing the flag in 2001 where 64% of the voters supported keeping the Confederate-emblazened flag. (I will note again that Mississippi's population is about 63% white / 37% black; readers can follow the obvious math.) Mississippi was subject to greater and greater pressure as it continued to keep its flag, with the NCAA refusing to hold its athletic championships in the state and other businesses similarly refusing to host conferences. Finally in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests of 2020, the Mississippi legislature passed a bill taking down the Confederate flag; voters approved the flag on the right in the November 2020 election as the new state flag. And you know what? Even leaving aside the racist past of the old flag, the new flag is just a much more interesting and better flag overall! It features a magnolia blossom in the center along with 20 white stars for Mississippi's role as the 20th state plus a single gold star for Mississippi's indigenous inhabitants. This is a really cool and instantly recognizable flag that doesn't contain a message of hate towards a third of the state's inhabitants - a massive upgrade indeed.
There was also the Museum of Mississippi History in the adjoining wing of the same building which I checked out next. This part of the building had a larger exhibit space and focused on the other aspects of Mississippi history aside from civil rights. I rather strongly suspect that this older museum largely ignored civil rights prior to the construction of the recent Civil Rights Museum; it definitely told a more traditional view of the past that relegated black Mississippians to minor roles when it wasn't writing them out of the story completely. But I don't want to be too harsh on this museum which was still very good for a state museum, much better than the state history museums that I can remember visiting in Illinois and Nebraska on previous trips. There was a whole section on the native inhabitants of Mississippi and their way of life before the arrival of Europeans as well as an actual cotton gin which was the first time that I'd seen one in person. If there was maybe a little too much focus on the narrative of the white settlers and then the Confederate planter class in the antebellum period, well, that's why the Civil Rights Museum was located next door as a corrective. It was worth stopping in here since the museum shared the same building space with the Civil Rights Museum.
Once I finished up at the museums, I started the long drive back to where Liz's family lived in the northeastern corner of the state. Along the way I stopped to visit Starkville, home to Mississippi State University, where I spent half an hour walking around the campus and taking pictures. Mississippi State is the younger and less prestigious of the state's two major universities, locked in an eternal rivalry with Ole Miss located further to the north. It was founded in 1878 and enrolled about 23,000 students at the time that this was written. I didn't have a lot of time for this stop and planned to make a quick circuit of the main buildings in the center of the campus. I parked in one of the lots outside Humphrey Coliseum, the basketball arena for Mississippi State, and then started walking towards the tallest structure on campus: Davis Wade Stadium.
This is the home of the football team at Mississippi State and football is basically a religion for people across the whole state. Davis Wade Stadium is one of the oldest stadiums in college football, with the original core of the structure dating back to 1914 though it has been greatly expanded since then. MSU fans are known for ringing loud cowbells at football games in a long tradition that dates back to when a cow supposedly wandered onto the field in the early days of college football; every attempt to ban this practice by the university or the NCAA has ended in failure. MSU football has historically been a good program overshadowed by a bunch of extraordinarily successful competitors in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). MSU has only won the SEC a single time, back in 1941, and holds a lifetime record of 234 wins / 435 losses within the conference as of 2021. Again, MSU football is a pretty good program but it's tough when competing against Alabama and LSU every year. (The school's best sport is probably men's baseball where MSU has been a powerhouse for decades.)
EDIT: Three weeks after I visited the campus, Mississippi State's baseball team won the 2021 national championship, the first national championship in any sport in the history of the university. Congratulations Bulldogs fans!
The university team store was located right next to the football stadium where there was the usual spread of sponsored merchandise on display. Visitors could purchase pretty much anything imaginable with a Mississippi State or Bulldogs insignia on it here, everything in the maroon and white color scheme of the university. This building even had a second floor with more stuff on sale which I didn't examine more closely. Outside the book center, I walked across the small green space known as the Junction situated immediate to the south of the stadium. This is often a gathering space for students and university activities though nothing much was taking place in June with the university out of session. I did spot a statue of Bully the Bulldog, the official mascot of Mississippi State, a tradition which dates back to 1935. There's a live English bulldog named Bully who comes to major sporting events at the university; that role was filled by Bully XXI at the time of my visit, the latest in a long line of bulldog mascots.
The main campus lawn at Mississippi State is the pictured Drill Field which sits at the proverbial heart of the campus. The Drill Field gained its name from extensive marching by army cadets in earlier eras though today it's a typical green space surrounded by classroom buildings. Most of the academic buildings at the university are located around the Drill Field and I found myself thinking that Mississippi State wasn't a particularly large university, at least not in comparison to some of the monstrous state schools like Illinois or Texas. The most notable buildings here were Lee Hall at the north end of the lawn and Mitchell Memorial Library captured in the third picture above. This library surprisingly holds the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Collection with a bunch of letters and photographs from Grant's rather corrupt administration. I would have been interested in taking a look if I'd had more time available for poking around.
The last place where I stopped on my whirlwind tour of the campus was Colvard Student Union. This newer building was located on the same site as Old Main, the original dormitory at MSU, which sadly burned down in 1959 and no longer exists. The student union was typical of what I've seen at many other college campuses, with an upper floor devoted to activity spaces and a lower floor housing various student-oriented attractions. There was a Panda Express and a Chick-fil-A in the cafeteria and then something called the "Dawg House" which had a bunch of guitars in frames on the walls. I have no idea what was going on there, my best guess was a game room of some kind. There was an orientation for incoming students taking place when I visited and I did my best to blend into the crowd without attracting attention. The last picture above captured the university chapel, a red brick building with the same belltower that every college campus seems obligated to have in some form.
Those were all of the places that I visited on this trip as I hurried back to rejoin the rest of the family for dinner. But before wrapping up this travel page, I'll include some pictures of a previous trip that Liz and I made to Mississippi at the tail end of May 2016. On this occasion, we made the drive of roughly 75 minutes to Oxford, home of the state's other big college: the University of Mississippi. These pictures were taken with a cell phone instead of our good camera so apologies for the somewhat lower quality images.
We parked in one of the lots on the south side of the campus near the football stadium. The University of Mississippi (almost always referred to using the shorthand "Ole Miss") was almost exactly the same size as Mississippi State, with about 23,000 students and a campus of similar dimensions. Ole Miss is the older university though, dating back to 1844 and having a better academic reputation than its archrival. The university has produced five US Senators and ten governors of Mississippi which serves as a sign of where this state's elite typically end up attending if they don't head off to one of the Ivies. We passed near Vaught Hemingway Stadium on our visit, the location where Ole Miss plays its football games, without getting close enough for a great view. Ole Miss has been significantly more successful at football over the years as compared to Mississippi State, with six SEC titles and three national titles, albeit all of them coming in a short span of time (1959, 1960, 1962). Both Mississippi universities have been getting pasted by Alabama over the last decade as I write this in 2021 and only time will tell if either of them can claw their way back to the top of their extremely challenging conference.
These pictures were taken in and around the Grove, the spiritual heart of the Ole Miss campus. The Grove and the adjoining Circle are shaded green spaces surrounded by academic buildings where Ole Miss fans gather for rallies and assemblies prior to sporting events. The Grove will host as many as 100,000 tailgaters for a big football game and it would look nothing like the tranquil scene that we enjoyed on our visit. Unfortunately not everything about this space has been quite so peaceful. In a sign of the reactionary politics that have typically dominated Ole Miss across its history, there was still a monument commemorating the Confederate war dead at the time when we visited, visible in the first picture above. There was a little sign next to the monument explaining that it was erected in 1906 and served as a rallying point for pro-segregation mobs attempting to prevent the admission of the first black student in 1962. This sign was better than nothing but it would be better yet to take down this monument proudly displaying the Confederate flag. The statue was finally moved to a Civil War cemetery in a remote part of campus in 2020, long after it should have been shuttered. What kind of a message did it send to non-white students to have this thing sitting in the middle of the campus?
A better statute on the campus was this one commemorating James Meredith located a little bit to the west of the Grove. Ole Miss was ground zero for one of the largest clashes of the civil rights movement and it centered upon Meredith's admission to the university. Even though the Supreme Court had struck down segregated schools in the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education case, every single school in Mississippi was still segregated eight years later including both of the big universities. Meredith, an Air Force veteran, applied for admission to Ole Miss under the GI Bill and was denied entry, which the Supreme Court again struck down as unconstitutional. On multiple occasions Meredith was physically denied entry to the university by angry mobs backed by the governor of the state. More than a hundred US Marshals escorted Meredith to the campus in September 1962 to enforce the law; this sparked a riot in which two people were killed and more than a hundred injured. At one point more than 10,000 federal soldiers had been deployed to Oxford to keep the situation under control. I can't even imagine having to go through a situation like that or the courage that Meredith displayed; his life was very much in danger as other civil rights leaders were being murdered at the same time. Liz posed for a picture with the statue of Meredith during our visit which was added in 2006. In these small ways, Ole Miss is slowly and grudgingly making progress.
These pictures were taken outside the campus grounds in the town of Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford has a reputation for being one of the best college towns in the country and we found it to be a very pleasant place to visit. (This is not a knock against Mississippi State but Starkville isn't much of a college town.) Oxford is centered around an old town square holding the Lafayette County Courthouse, the charming white building in the first picture above. There are various little shops and cafes in historic buildings surrounding the town square and this is a great place to walk around doing some window shopping. It's supposed to be a real festival atmosphere whenever Ole Miss has a home football game and I have no doubt that the bars are hopping any time the team is playing. We stopped to spend some time in Square Books, an indepedent bookseller visible in the corner of the third picture above, and we'd highly recommend checking it out to anyone who might be passing through. We also had lunch in one of the restaurants in town although I can't recall which one while writing this five years after the fact.
Finally, these are some pictures from the Tombigbee Waterway located near where Liz's family lives in Mississippi. The Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway (popularly known as the Tenn-Tom) stretches about 225 miles / 375 kilometers to link together the Tennessee River with the Tombigbee River in Alabama. It's an artificial internal water route which was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers during the 1970s and 1980s; Liz's parents originally met while working on the project. Although the Tenn-Tom is mostly used for shipping cargo, small personal craft can also pass through the waterway and these pictures were taken while we were out on the boat of Liz's uncle. It was a beautiful afternoon in late spring and we essentially had the water to ourselves. I was able to capture a picture of one of the big locks constructed to change elevation along the waterway which we did not try to pass through. I also included a picture of one of the dogs owned by Liz's family that came with us because who can resist a cute dog on a boat?
That brings this page detailing some of our travels across Mississippi to a close. I hope that this was an interesting look at a state that rarely appears in the national spotlight - and when it does, usually not for anything good. Mississippi has a fascinating history and a vibrant culture that I've tried to highlight in this report, and that's without even getting into the local food which is downright amazing. (It's not especially healthy, mind you, but the southern cooking is fantastic.) Thanks as always for reading along with our travels!