The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. This week we look at the life of George Edward Allen. Few figures of the 20th Century had a bigger impact on American politics and business.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Allen became an attorney, but made a name for himself early as an investment banker with Halsey-Stuart. After a large investment in a hotel company threatened to go bad, the firm took over the company and sent Allen to Washington DC to oversee operations. He did well in hotel management and his continued rise through the ranks of the Democratic Party eventually netted him a position in the Roosevelt administration. His penchant for using humor to diffuse tense situations earned him the nickname “Court Jester,” a moniker that he enjoyed, but his wife did not.
After serving in two administrations, Allen returned to the business world as a consultant. It is said that in his day he held more board of directors positions than anyone on the planet. He amassed considerable wealth and was active in many philanthropic organizations. Allen passed away less than five months after this interview, on April 23, 1973. He is buried in the family plot in Booneville.
1972 - Booneville native, George Allen became interested in politics at a young age. In this episode, he recalls attending his first political convention as an alternate delegate in 1912 at the age of 16.
In 1933, Allen was appointed Mayor of Washington DC by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He then served in the Truman administration as Secretary of Political Appointments. He explains how that position made him unpopular with certain party bosses.
George Allen served in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and was a close personal friend of President Eisenhower. He compares the personalities of the three men.
After serving in two administrations, George Allen returned to the private sector as a paid consultant. He credits luck and opportunity as important factors to his success.
The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. Another controversial Mississippian takes the spotlight in this week’s episode. Few public figures did more to hinder the cause of civil rights in our state than Judge Thomas P. Brady of Brookhaven.
1972 - In 1948 President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the US Military. He also supported progressive civil rights legislation that threatened long-established Jim Crow laws of the day. In this interview recorded on March 4, 1972, Judge Brady recalls helping form the State’s Right Democratic Party or “Dixiecrats” in response. In the 1950s, a series of progressive Supreme Court decisions angered conservative whites across the South. Brady states his reasons for wanting Justices to be elected and not appointed.
After school segregation was ruled unconstitutional in Brown versus the Board of Education, Brady railed against that decision in a speech entitled “Black Monday.” He explains how the speech became a book and inspired the formation of Citizens’ Councils across the country. While overtly rejecting the violent tactics of the KKK, the Citizens’ Council covertly worked to destroy the lives and livelihoods of all who openly supported integration and equal rights of black Mississippians.
Judge Brady was appointed to the Mississippi Supreme Court in July of 1963. Despite his record on racial matters, in several cases that came before the court, he demonstrated a fealty to the Constitution beyond his personal beliefs. He discusses his decision to integrate a “whites only” park in Greenwood despite being a segregationist.
PHOTO: actual Citizens Council membership card from private collection.
The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021.
1972 - Percy Greene had a terrible secret. When the civil rights pioneer and publisher of the Jackson Advocate newspaper agreed to be interviewed by us in December of 1972, he had been secretly serving as an informant for the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission for years. It was a secret he would take to the grave when he passed in 1977 and not revealed until the Commission’s files were unsealed much later.
So why would a man so nationally respected as a voice for the disenfranchised black citizens of Mississippi agree to share damaging information about the Civil Rights Movement’s leadership with the state?
It is an intriguing question. Perhaps it was Pride—bitterness at having lost his role as the state’s voice for equality under the law—that drove him to do it. Maybe it was his belief that the Movement was a communist plot to overthrow the country: a conspiracy theory that echoes today’s criticism of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Whatever the reason, Greene’s role as an informant has forever overshadowed his legacy.
In 1940, Greene, organized the Mississippi Negro Democrats Association. In this episode, he describes their early efforts to register Black Mississippians to vote. By 1944, over 8,000 African Americans had been registered to vote in Mississippi. Greene recalls Senator Theodore Bilbo’s campaign of black voter suppression.
As publisher of the Jackson Advocate, Greene championed equal rights under the law. Even so, he believed the Civil Rights Movement was in fact, a communist plot. Greene opposed efforts to integrate public schools and the use of the word “Black” instead of “Negro.” He explains how his call for a “New Liberalism” throughout the South would be more tolerable to whites than forced desegregation.
Greene’s characterization of young civil rights workers as communists and militants made him a pariah of the Movement. He discusses how his newspaper’s circulation dropped as a result and how he has worked to gain more subscribers.
CAUTION: CONTAINS RACIALLY EXPLICIT LANGUAGE
PHOTO: State Sovereignty Comm. file photo - MS Dept. of Archives and History
The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021. This week we delve into an interview conducted in August, 1971 of famed Southern writer, Erskine Caldwell. Perhaps no single work of fiction influenced the world’s view of the American South more than Caldwell’s breakout novel, Tobacco Road, published in 1932.
The interview, conducted by USM English Professor Jac Lyndon Tharpe, is a classic battle of the “Lits” versus the “Langs.” Throughout the almost six hour recording, Tharpe repeatedly attempts to draw Caldwell into a discussion of Literary Theory, while the exasperated author focuses on the process of writing—seemingly dismissive of all Tharpe holds dear.
1971 Growing up poor in the South, Caldwell had limited access to books and magazines. In this episode, he recalls how the wide variety of literary journals at the University of Virginia inspired him to write. As a sophomore in college, Caldwell only took courses related to his goal of becoming a writer. He remembers convincing an English professor to let him take a graduate-level writing workshop.
Even though Caldwell’s novels were inspired by his memories of growing up in the South, he insists he never knew how the story would end before it was finished. A prolific writer, Caldwell wrote 25 novels and 150 short stories. When asked which book was his favorite, his only reply: his next one. He also confesses that he is never satisfied with the final story.
PHOTO: By Giorgio Lotti (Mondadori Publishers) - http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/american-writer-and-journalist-erskine-caldwell-smoking-a-news-photo/186170230, Public Domain.
The Mississippi Moments Decades Series continues counting down to the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2021.
1971: Luther A. Smith came to Hattiesburg as a young attorney in 1908. In this interview, conducted on June 18, 1971, Smith shares his memories growing up in North Georgia. As the son of a Methodist minister, Smith was taught to avoid certain groups and activities. He recalls how his mother found him at a party one night on the Chattahoochee River.
Even though Smith’s family did not have a lot of money, he was determined to attend law school. He recounts how a chance reunion with a childhood friend provided the means to pay his tuition. While attending law school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Smith became friends with Hattiesburg native, George Curry.
Smith moved to Hattiesburg with his classmate to establish a law firm in 1908. He shares his initial impressions of the town and the story of how he met his future wife, Lorraine McInnis. The Hattiesburg National Bank of Commerce expected the Curry-Smith law firm to provide the bank with fulltime support. Smith explains how the partners flipped a coin to divvy up the work.
PHOTO: National Bank of Commerce facade, Hattiesburg, MS.
As the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage approaches its 50th Anniversary in 2021, we continue our Mississippi Moments Decades Series by starting at the beginning and working our way through the collection, year by year. This week we look at Volume 1.
1971 New York Times Editor Turner Catledge began his newspaper career at the Neshoba Democrat in 1921. In this episode, he recalls those early days and how publisher Clayton Rand helped him get started. Newspaper reporters and publishers have often been attacked for writing unflattering stories. Catledge remembers two fearless Mississippi journalists: Clayton Rand and Fred Sullens.
In 1971, the New York Times published a secret document on the US war in Vietnam known at the Pentagon Papers. Mississippi native, Turner Catledge, discusses their decision to run the story.
Even though Turner Catledge left Mississippi as a young man to purse a Journalism career, he was always proud of his home state. He opines on the state’s reluctance to change and expresses hope for the future.
PHOTO: New York Times
1971 One year after the courts forced Mississippi to fully integrate its K -12 public schools, the newly-formed Mississippi Center for Oral History at the University of Southern Mississippi sat down with former governor Ross Barnett to discuss his life and career in politics. Barnett was a good storyteller and had much to share about his childhood and career as a young attorney. During his tenure as governor from 1960-64, Barnett worked hard to bring much needed industry to Mississippi and had several large-scale construction projects of which to boast. But his views and actions as an unrepentant segregationist have rightfully defined his place in history. This episode focuses on his memories and opinions surrounding that time.
Barnett campaigned as a diehard segregationist, promising to maintain the status quo in Mississippi as the winds of change in America began to blow in earnest. That promise would soon be put to the test when a young African American named James Meredith attempted to enroll at the all-white University of Mississippi. After a Supreme Court ruling in his favor, Meredith was finally allowed to enroll at Ole’ Miss in 1962. When President Kennedy sent in troops to enforce the court’s ruling, the standoff turned into a riot. Three years after the riot at Ole’ Miss, it was revealed that Barnett had been in secret negotiations with the Kennedy Administration. He shares his version of those events.
The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission tried to maintain racial segregation by investigating civil rights workers and through public relations campaigns. Barnett discusses traveling the country presenting his views and the hostile reception he received in Michigan. Segregationists claimed the Civil Rights Movement was really a plot to destroy America. In the interview, Barnett argues why integration would ultimately fail and how the communists were involved.
Caution: this episode of Mississippi Moments contains racially derogatory language.
In 1971, Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, became the first black Mississippian to run for governor in modern times. That same year, he agreed to be interviewed by a new group of scholars at the University of Southern Mississippi called the Mississippi Oral History Program.
At the time of the interview, Evers was forty-nine years old and had lived through a lot. He was frank about his early days in Chicago, describing how he worked in illegal gambling and prostitution before opening a series of successful night clubs. Evers stated he had always intended to return to Mississippi eventually, but his plans were upended when his brother was assassinated in 1963. He returned home the next day and took over Medgar’s duties as field secretary for the NAACP. From there, he became politically active, running for and becoming mayor of Fayette, Mississippi in 1969.
The interview is a snapshot in time, taken exactly halfway through his ninety-eight years. In this episode, Evers recalls how a white lady named Mrs. Paine became like a second mother to him and Medgar. He discusses how his life in Chicago was interrupted by Medgar’s death and how he tried to share his brother’s fate by actively provoking confrontations with law enforcement and the Klan upon his return to Mississippi.
He describes his reasons for going into politics, his vision for a better, more inclusive Mississippi, and why more black citizens needed to run for political office at all levels.
Charles Evers passed away on July 22, 2020. Now in our forty-ninth year, the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage is proud to share with you excerpts from the seventh volume in our collection: The Honorable Charles Evers, Mayor of Fayette, Mississippi.
CAUTION: CONTAINS RACIALLY EXPLICIT LANGUAGE.
Malcolm White became interested in the local music scene as a student at Booneville High School. In this episode, he remembers his early career booking bands and managing music venues in Hattiesburg and Jackson. In 1985, White opened Jackson’s largest music venue, Hal and Mal’s. He recalls the wide variety of bands that played there and how casinos affected their business.
After Hurricane Katrina, White became involved in rebuilding the state’s cultural centers. He discusses becoming Executive Director of the Mississippi Arts Commission and the formation of the Culture Club. During his time with the MAC, White has worked to develop the state’s cultural economy. He explains how the Mississippi Blues Trail promotes cultural tourism.
After nearly 15 years of public service to the state of Mississippi, Malcolm White will retire as executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission on September 30, 2020.
The Civilian Conservation Corps was established in 1933 to create jobs for young single men. In this episode, Charlie Odom of Gulfport recalls learning to operate heavy equipment as part of the CCC.
Odom learned to drive large trucks while working with the Civilian Conservation Corps. He explains how that ability proved useful after being drafted into the Army during WWII.
During the war, Odom was a motor pool sergeant, hauling men and materials to the front lines. He discusses his service in the European and Pacific theaters. After the war ended, Odom spent six months serving in Yokohama, Japan, as part of the occupying force. He remembers befriending several of the Japanese soldiers assigned to his motor pool.
Robert Darville grew up working in his father’s café during WWII. In this episode, he shares his memories of the food service business in the days before chain restaurants. His father was a welder at the McComb Railroad Maintenance Shop in the evenings and ran his own lunch counter in the mornings. Darville explains what made the hamburgers at the old Taste and Sip Shop so special.
According to Darville, his father’s café had lots of competition. He discusses some of the town’s classic eateries of the 1940s and 50s.
After serving in the Korean War, Darville returned to McComb and opened the Hollis drive-in restaurant with his father and uncle. He remembers fondly how the community supported their business. Darville and his father sold hamburgers and hotdogs to the McComb Railroad workers for decades. He recalls how many of their customers ate the same lunch every day, year after year.
Ruth Colter attended school in Natchez from the first grade through high school during the 1930s. In this episode, she shares her memories of those days and life in Natchez during WWII.
During the war, thousands of young men from across the country came to Mississippi for basic training. Colter recalls how the Military Maids assisted these new recruits. After graduating high school in 1942, Colter went to work for a Natchez trucking company. She explains how she and her friends still managed to shop and socialize despite wartime shortages.
PODCAST BONUS: During her lifetime, Ruth Colter witnessed many changes to her hometown of Natchez. She remembers shopping downtown, buying produce from street vendors, and the low cost of groceries.
PHOTO: Camp Shelby Military Museum
Tom Johnson was a student at Baylor University when he started working for his father as a hotel manager. In this episode, he recalls how that job led him to pursue a career as a corporate trainer for Holiday Inns in Memphis. By the early 1970s, Holiday Inns, Inc. had grown from a few dozen hotels to over 1300 locations worldwide. Johnson remembers the decision to build the company’s new training facility in Olive Branch.
As the travel industry evolved during the 1960s and 70s, the skills needed to run a hotel changed as well. Johnson explains how Holiday Inns expanded the training they offered company employees.
The Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management at the University of Memphis prepares students for a variety of careers in the hotel industry. Johnson discusses his decision to become the General Manager of the school’s hotel and conference center.
Gene Stork of Big Point, Mississippi, became a commercial fisherman in 1954. In this episode, he recalls working on a “mother boat” for Clark’s Seafood and how they used four skiffs to catch fish. Commercial fisherman like Stork would release redfish over a certain size because those were the egg layers. He explains how the popularity of blackened fish led to a reduction in the redfish population.
Fishing boats sometimes haul in sharks and poisonous species of fish, unintentionally. Stork remembers falling overboard once as he tried to release two sharks from his net. During his time as a commercial fisherman, Gene Stork witnessed many changes. He discusses those changes and compares the nets of today with those of the past.
The brutal death of Emmett Till in 1955, shocked the nation and ignited the Civil Rights Movement. In this episode, civil rights icon Cleveland Sellers, Jr. recalls how he and other students were inspired to confront systemic racism.
In 1964, after his sophomore year at Howard University, Sellers left school to devote himself fulltime to the cause of racial equality. He became active in SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Sellers discusses how they would often protest in front of the White House and the importance of SNCC’s DC office in planning the Mississippi Freedom Summer.
After four years of working in Mississippi and other segregation hotspots, Sellers moved to Orangeburg, South Carolina to attend school at South Carolina State University. Soon after moving there, students began protesting at a local bowling alley about their “whites only” policy. On February 8, 1968, State Troopers opened fire on a group of 200 unarmed protesters on campus. Sellers and thirty others were shot and three died. He explains why he was the only person charged in the incident.
After serving seven months in prison, Sellers found it impossible to find a job due to his record. He remembers how one white woman looked past his FBI file and gave him the opportunity to rebuild his life and his reputation.
Cleveland Sellers, Jr. was pardoned by the State of South Carolina in 1993.
When J.E. Yarbrough of McComb became a train engineer, Illinois Central was still using steam engines. In a career spanning several decades, Yarbrough witnessed many changes as the nation’s transportation demands evolved. In this episode, taken from his 2006 interview, he reflects on those changes. He begins by discussing the switch from steam to diesel in the 1950s.
Before the development of two-way radios, railroads depended on synchronized watches to keep the trains running on time. Yarbrough explains the importance of keeping to a schedule. On average, there are 5,800 collisions between trains and road vehicles per year in the United States. Yarbrough recalls how people would risk their lives to avoid waiting for a train.
After working for decades as a freight train engineer, Yarbrough was promoted to passenger trains, running the famous Panama Limited between McComb and New Orleans. He remembers how a near collision with a log truck convinced him it was time to retire.
This Memorial Day, we salute all our service men and women who have paid the ultimate price in the line of duty, with the story of Marine demolition man, Alvy Ray Pittman. A Columbia, Mississippi native, Pittman volunteered to join the U.S. Marine Corp in November of 1942. After bootcamp, he went to demolition school for training in the use of high explosives and landmine removal. In this episode, Pittman explains the hazards of being on a demolition team and why their casualty rates were so high.
During WWII, the campaign to take the Pacific Islands held by Japanese forces, resulted in thousands of casualties. Pittman recalls how so many of his friends died in combat.
On February 19, 1945, U.S. Marine and Navy forces attacked the island of Iwo Jima. During five weeks of constant fighting, the Marines endured heavy artillery barrages from the entrenched and fortified positions of the Imperial Japanese Army. Pittman describes a phenomenon he calls “Combat Wisdom.”—a combination of battle experience and premonition that helped him and his team escape death on multiple occasions.
Given the human cost, some have questioned the strategic value of taking certain Pacific Islands during WWII. Pittman discusses why the battle of Iwo Jima saved more lives than were lost.
While most American cities had electricity by the 1930s, most farms were still without power. In this episode, George Taylor of Hattiesburg discusses designing power grids for rural electric cooperatives.
The South Mississippi Electric Power Association was formed by a group of rural electric co-ops, to provide their customers with affordable electricity. Taylor recalls the challenges they faced. In 1962, he left Southern Engineering and became Chief Engineer for the Singing River Electric Power Association. Taylor recalls being promoted to Manager of SMEPA and building the organization from the ground up.
PODCAST BONUS: According to Taylor, SMEPA provided its members affordable, dependable electricity through the buying power of a large organization. He explains why energy security and operational independence is so important.
In 2016, SMEPA changed its name to Cooperative Energy. They continue to provide electricity to over 417,000 homes and businesses.
PHOTO: Library of Congress
Dr. T.E. Ross came to Hattiesburg in 1892 and set up an office on Main Street. In this 1975 oral history interview, his son, Dr. T.E. Ross, Junior, recalls his father’s decision to move their family from Neshoba county.
Before vaccines and antibiotics, the only way to stop infectious diseases was through quarantine. Dr. Ross recounts how his father was blocked from returning home during a yellow fever outbreak.
Dr. Ross graduated from Tulane Medical School in 1918. He remembers the circumstances that led him to set up his practice in Hattiesburg like his father.
PODCAST EXTRA: W.S.F. Tatum was a successful Hattiesburg timber magnate who served as mayor in the 1920s and 30s. Dr. Ross describes the soft-spoken businessman as a frugal, yet good and generous man, who disliked ostentatious displays of wealth.
Retired Fire Chief Robert Gavagnie joined the Bay St. Louis Fire Department in 1972. In this episode, he looks back with pride on a career spent savings lives and training young people to become firefighters. Before the opening of the Mississippi State Fire Academy, local fire departments had limited training resources. Gavagnie discusses how things have changed over time.
As part of their jobs, many first responders witness horrific scenes of carnage and devastation they can never forget. Gavagnie remembers a tragic fire he responded to and how that memory haunts him even now.
When Robert Gavagnie retired as Bay St. Louis Fire Chief in 2007, he had over 25 years of experience. He explains what makes firefighting such a demanding and yet rewarding career.
CAUTION: Contains graphic descriptions of tragic scenes witnessed by the speaker as a firefighter.
Established in 1889, the Neshoba County Fair is known for the privately-owned cabins located on its fairgrounds. Dorothy Dixon’s great-grandparents built a cabin there during the early years and their family has maintained a house on the main square ever since. In this episode, Dixon discusses how the Neshoba County Fair has evolved during her lifetime. She compares the early cabins to the ones of today.
People come the Neshoba County Fair ready to eat their fill of good, southern cooking. Dixon discusses the tradition of inviting people to eat at their family’s fairground cabin.
Dixon recalls that on certain days, fairgoers would dress up in their most stylish attire and the girls would always have a “Thursday” dress. According to her, the Neshoba County Fair was originally intended as a place where county farmers could meet up with old friends before it was time to go home and pick the cotton. She describes those simpler times and what the fair has evolved into today.
James Bass of Laurel was fifteen years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. In this episode, he recalls convincing his father to sign his enlistment papers when he was only sixteen. After joining the Navy, Bass was assigned to a destroyer minesweeper. He remembers learning to be a gunner as they sailed from Boston to Pearl Harbor.
During the battle for Okinawa, Bass’s ship was struck by a kamikaze plane and heavily damaged. He describes the events leading up to the attack and how their captain managed to keep the ship afloat.
After Bass’s ship was damaged in the battle for Okinawa, the crew was given a 25-day leave. He reflects on how the dropping of the atomic bomb probably saved his life and millions more.
PHOTO: USS Harding DMS-28
In 1961, Ruby Magee was a student at Jackson State College, majoring in History and Political Science. In this episode, she explains how her participation in local Civil Rights demonstrations, almost led to her expulsion.
That summer, Magee returned to her home in Tylertown and attempted to register to vote. At that time, Mississippians were required to pass a literacy test before being allowed to register. Magee remembers how her application was rejected even though she passed the literacy test.
After being denied the right to vote in Walthall County, Magee filed a complaint with the Justice Department. She describes her parents as supportive, even as they feared for her safety.
In 1961, the U.S. Justice Department filed suite against the Walthall County registrar, and others, for denying blacks citizens the right vote. Magee recalls the outcome of that trial.
This episode was written by Ellie Forsyth, a senior at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hattiesburg.
Mississippi Moments is produced by Ross Walton, with narration by Bill Ellison.
G. R. Harden grew up working on his family’s cotton farm near the Delta town of Cleveland. In this episode, he explains how that experience gave him a leg up when he attended Mississippi State. Taking over the family farm at a young age, Harden felt ill-prepared and unsure of himself. He recalls being taught to think of commercial farming as a game and to always plan ahead.
In the early 1950s, the Hardens transitioned their farm from growing cotton to the production of rice. He discusses why they made the switch and how farming has changed during his fifty years in the business.
After spending decades working on his Cleveland farm, Harden began collecting old tractors. He shares how that hobby led his club to host the Tunica Southern Nationals Antique Tractor Pull.
G. R. Harden passed away on February 20, 2014, at the age of 74.
Elder Elias Harris of Port Gibson grew up a sharecropper’s son on a plantation near Pattison. In this episode, he recalls that even though their family worked hard every day, they never missed church. From a young age, Harris knew he was going to be a preacher. He remembers how he and his sister would have pretend church services as children.
As a spiritual leader, Harris works with other Port Gibson residents to affect change within the community. He discusses how the group Christian Concerned Citizens tackles issues in an inclusive way. Being a longtime resident of Port Gibson, Harris has witnessed many changes over the years. He explains how white and black spiritual leaders formed a race relations senate to bring the community closer together.
PHOTO: Google Maps