Thursday, September 25, 2014

Univ of Mississippi: What's in a Name?

"Ole Miss" giving a 'clear starching' to her slaves
This 1837 etching by August Hervieu depicts an irate plantation mistress
scolding two household servants. The slaves cower, carefully hiding
whatever anger or resentment they might feel behind a submissive pose.

Ever wonder where The University of Mississippi got its sweet Old South and seemingly innocuous  name, "Ole Miss?" I had no idea at all of its origins until I ran across an Associated Press article today about a  law suit underway by the Sons of Confederate Veterans against The University of Mississippi for daring to make name changes to 'Confederate Drive,' which enters Fraternity Row, being renamed ‘Chapel Lane.’ Seems the SCV way back when had a state law written that prohibits removal or alteration of war memorials on state property.

The short Associated Press article was used in a regional South Mississippi online daily news web site I check every morning. Having lived in Mississippi for almost 35 years I was dumbfounded to read that "Ole Miss" was originally what slaves used to refer to a plantation owner's wife. And that same 19th century slaves' reference continues to be used today with great fondness, innocently or otherwise, by students and proud alumni of "Ole Miss." Checking around I found more detail in the original story published September 24th, 2014 in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.

Serious progress has been made at the University of Mississippi by forceful movers for change like former Chancellor, Robert Khyat. His steady, patient leadership was effective in distancing the University's image from memories of the Ole Miss campus riots of 1962. This climb up out of a darker past has been recognized across the USA.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans are free to preserve civil war history and to take pride in being descendents of those who fought to continue their percieved right to own slaves and keep them in forced labor from dawn to dusk in the sprawling cotton fields of Mississippi. That pride, however, gives them no right to sue to keep what they deem to be offensive street names, monuments and other symbols from being updated or placed into a modern day context.

I think most of us can still see the black and white film of James Meredith being walked into the university doors of by Federal Agents through a gauntlet of shouting, taunting and threatening students as well as rabid local white segregationists, in the bad old days of Ole Miss. I thought this state had long gotten way past all of that, at least publicly.

But the Good Old Boys, parading under the flutter of a huge Confederate Flag are still living back in the Civil War Days and have a string of their law suits to prove that they and their ilk have not gotten past a damned thing, and don't want to.

Chancellor Khyat, a true Gandhi on the Delta, moved and operated carefully and thoughtfully as he guided the University of Mississippi from its immovable granite rock 19th century attitudes of class and race to an excellence-based school of true learning that hosted the first 2008 presidential debate.

And what about the little Confederate flags that used to fill the stands at Ole Miss football games? The mini Civil War battle flags painted the stadium with the symbolic color pallet of Ole Miss, and its colored past. Khyat removed them from the riotous and pride-filled stadiums not by flatly outlawing the flags. He simply outlawed sticks of any kind from entering the gates . . . even the short ones to which little flags can be stapled. This allowed everyone to look sideways at the dual meanings of the stars and bars ... innocent school spirit or racist banner. And they quickly disappeared from Ole Miss games and eventually from the Ole Miss campus, neither side really wishing to create another nasty uproar.

Robert Khyat was Chancellor from 1995 until his retirement in 2009. He led his University and a steadily growing contingent of forward thinking and fair minded leaders in Mississippi into a new era. He saw the the Confederate Battle Flag, Colonel Reb, the school's mascot, and the old Southern Anthem, "Dixie" all leave the University Campus. But when Khyat retired five years ago, the University was still called "Ole Miss," and it still is. Even Gandhi could effect just so much change.

Poking around a little, I found that this past August 1st, present Ole Miss Chancellor, Dan Jones, unveiled a six-point plan which would include adding a new Vice Chancellor For Diversity. Plaques are to be placed at "racially divisive sites to add modern context to their symbolism." The announcement said that Jones, "... also defined a shift in the common use of the term “Ole Miss” for close identification with athletics and school spirit." So school spirit and "athletics" still will have 19th century slave slang for a plantation owner's wife from which to draw their pride and inspiration. Jones clearly is no Gandhi but he knows a hot potato when he sees one. Too bad potatoes on his campus aren't on sticks.

Ole Miss is not the only Civil War reference alive and well in Mississippi. There are still countless sacred old Mississippi names with painful segregationist roots adorning places public and private across the state. A good example is the large Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg which serves a 17-county area. It is named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general well remembered for being accused of war crimes at the Battle of Fort Pillow for allowing troops under his command to massacre hundreds of black Union Army and white Southern Unionist prisoners. And, oh, he was also the very first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. But, otherwise it is a very good hospital.

Mississippi's state flag is the sole remaining U.S. state flag with the Confederate battle flag's crossed blue saltire. Even Georgia adopted a new flag in 2001. If there is no political will to do anything about the use of the old reference to a slave owner's wife as the popular sobriquet for The University of Mississippi, then maybe the ESPN and major Network sports announcers can effect some change.

Most all the major NFL announcers now refer to the NFL football team from the state of Washington only as "Washington" never saying "Washington Redskins" because that name has increasingly become offensive to a majority of their American viewers.

So, maybe if the big buck college football networks and their announcers became aware of where the Ole Miss Rebels got their name, even Mississippi's good old boy hands-off politicians and big business titans might finally be pulled into the 21st century by their purse strings. "The University of Mississippi Rebels" would work fine. There are all kinds of rebels, including civil rights workers.

*The 1837 etching above is from the University of Rochester Frederic Douglass Project


Anonymous said...

Very nice, Larry. Extremely informative. Thank you. Jeff.

Larry (not Gandhi) of Austin said...

Good one, Larry. Very good to read and hear about. Born and raised and I didn't know the source of the name either. I only know that my father frowned on it every time U of M played his beloved LSU Tigers. Great point about ESPN and other network folks learning to refer to it as U of M from now on. Love Gandhi of the Delta too!

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