By Colin Woodward
Back in graduate school, I once jotted down a list of the most southern states in the Union. At number one was Mississippi (with, if memory serves, Alabama second, South Carolina third, followed by Virginia and then Georgia.) Well, I hadn’t spent much time at all in Mississippi until October, when I made my first trip to Oxford, Mississippi, for a Civil War conference.
The conference, “This Terrible War,” was good, and I did some site-seeing. Now, I can say I’ve spent a good amount of time in Mississippi that didn’t involve me just driving through it length-wise in order to get to New Orleans. And being there only confirmed my view that Mississippi is the most southern place on earth.
Even more to the point, were someone to ask where to get a stereotypical southern experience, I would say Oxford. It’s home to perhaps the most famous southern writer, William Faulkner. You don’t have to search long in Oxford to see a Rebel battle flag (not the official flag of the Confederacy, mind you, but the battle flag). There’s a Confederate soldiers monument in the middle of the campus as well as an old Confederate burial ground behind a coliseum.
Streets like Rebel Road and Confederate Avenue are how you get to where you’re going. Oddly, though, I didn’t see anything named after William Faulkner, whose house is a five minute drive from the middle of campus. Faulkner even attended Ole Miss for a little while after the First World War, despite the fact that he hadn’t graduated from high school (nor did Faulkner get injured in the war, despite the fact that he hobbled around using a cane–but that’s another post). Billy F, of course, was born to late to have fought for the Confederacy. He did write about the War of Northern Aggression, though, in the not-so-great book The Unvanquished, and elsewhere. You can’t buy a history book about Gettysburg, for example, without reading Faulkner’s quotation from Intruder in the Dust for the millionth time (thanks, Shelby Foote).
Ole Miss is, like anyplace I guess, full of contradictions, where Old South meets New South (Confederate ghosts buy sodas from digital Coke machines), democracy (a state school with a large enrollment) meets gentility (southern tradition and a beautiful campus) and elitism (the palpably strong Greek system). Ole Miss has a reputation for being one of the strongest purveyors of the Good Ole Boy mentality, and yet, it is also the site of one of the most important events of the civil rights era: the enrollment of James Meredith as a student at what was then an all-white campus.
Yes, contradictions abound at Ole Miss. The school mascot is the “Rebel,” but you might wonder what a frat boy driving a $30,000 truck with a Rebel flag license plate is rebelling against exactly. That’s the problem with symbols, especially well-worn ones: they are open to interpretation. As for southern rebels, I’ll take Johnny Cash over a Confederate soldier any day.
At the conference, I filled my head with talk of the women of Atlanta, the U.S. cavalry bureau, the Civil War death toll (now estimated at 750,000), war bonds, married troops, yeomen, the freedmen, and Danish-U.S. relations, among other topics. I also met Eric Foner, a large man with a New York accent who has written more books than most people have read. I didn’t arrive in time to hear his keynote address. But I saw him alone after one of the talks, and I introduced myself. I talked only briefly, both to save his time and to avoid embarrassing myself. If you are a second semester graduate student and don’t know who Eric Foner is, there is something wrong with the program you’re in. His last book won the Pulitzer Prize, and he probably should have won the Pulitzer for his 1988 book Reconstruction, which reconfigured the history of the post-Civil War era.
At the conference, I filled my head. And at meal times, I had the chance to fill my stomach at one of the many restaurants in the area. Big Bad Breakfast was the best place I went to. It had the best grits I’ve ever eaten. Ajax, which was very busy at lunchtime, was so-so. The place was very crowded and the service wasn’t very friendly or helpful.
Oxford Square is very charming, with book stores and pizza places aplenty. In its residential neighborhoods, pretty much every block looked like a page torn from Southern Living. The town square was always cramped, but we were surprisingly lucky in finding free parking spots.
Thankfully, there was no football game the weekend I was there. However, it was Rush Weekend. And no, Geddy Lee-fans-with-dreams-of-Neal-Peart-doing-a-20-minute-drum- solo-under-southern-stars, that Canadian prog rock band was not there. Rush means the brothers of frats and the sisters of sororities were bouncing around. Nubile women in three inch heels and cocktail dresses. Men with shaggy hair who would make their first million as corporate attorneys. The usual stuff. An Alabama colleague of mine at LSU once talked with annoyance to me about “typical” southern womanhood. “I’ve never met a debutante,” he snarled. Well, I think Rush Weekend at Ole Miss is as close as you’ll get.
As far as historians go, the most famous of them ever to teach at Ole Miss might be Winthrop Jordan, who died in 2007. He was from Worcester, Massachusetts. So goes the “duality of the southern thing.” Wave those flags, Rebs. And good luck against LSU next time they play you on the gridiron.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.