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
Rosie Washington was sixteen years old when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Grenada in 1966. In this episode, she recalls how meeting the civil rights icon inspired her to explore activism and school integration. Washington and her siblings were among the first students to integrate the public schools in Grenada. She remembers the severe backlash they encountered from the white community.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Washington’s family hosted several visiting activists. She explains how that experience encouraged her to participate in protests across her hometown.
While picketing in downtown Grenada, Washington and the rest of her group were rounded up and incarcerated. She describes the trauma of being forced onto a flatbed truck and driven to Parchman without representation or due process.
This episode was written by Abigail Wiest, a senior at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Hattiesburg.
Mississippi Moments is produced by Ross Walton, with narration by Bill Ellison.
Willie Mac Blaine was born in Ethel, Mississippi, in 1936. In this episode, he shares his family’s long history in Attala County and how he came to live in the town of McCool. Established in 1883, McCool, Mississippi was a thriving railroad town. Blaine recalls the town in its heyday and how his grandfather helped build the train depot.
Like many small-town banks, the Bank of McCool was unable to survive the Great Depression of the 1930s. Blaine explains how skittish depositors and a sympathetic banker led to the bank’s demise. According to Blaine, the town of McCool began to decline when it was bypassed by HWY 12. He discusses life there today and why so many other communities get their mail from McCool.
PHOTO: McCool Post Office by J. Gallagher
Dr. Stuart Rockoff grew up in Houston, Texas, as the grandson of Jewish immigrants. In this episode, he recalls how a class in Texas History led to a job with the Institute of Southern Jewish life, here in Jackson.
Rockoff became the Executive Director of the Mississippi Humanities Council in 2013. He explains how the Council’s commitment to inclusive storytelling impacted the Two Museums project. For everyone involved with the development of the Two Mississippi Museums, giving a complete and accurate account of our state’s history was a top priority. Rockoff remembers how each word was scrutinized for truthfulness and tone.
As a member of the Two Museums Review Committee, Rockoff’s goal was to insure that all Mississippians could take pride in the stories being told. He discusses why inclusiveness is so important.
Philip Freelon was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In this episode, he explains how his family background in Education and the Arts inspired him to become an architect. As a young African American architect, Freelon aspired to design libraries and schools. He recalls how a focus on education and community development led him to several museum projects.
Philip Freelon is proud to have been chosen as the chief architect of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. He laments that so few women and people of color choose to enter the field of design.
According to Freelon, the decision to have two Mississippi museums was an unusual choice. He discusses the positive aspects of having two connected and centrally located facilities.
In 2016, Philip G. Freelon was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He passed away on July 9, 2019.
Kosciusko native W.C. “Billy” Leonard got married and joined the Army in 1940. In this episode, he recalls how his life changed after hearing news of the Japanese attack on a place called Pearl Harbor.
While serving as an artillery officer, Leonard met several people from his hometown. He remembers being pleasantly surprised by one such Kosciusko connection.
Leonard’s artillery platoon was transferred to a base in Burbank, California to await deployment. He recounts how he and his wife were able to tour Hollywood before he was shipped out.
After months of fighting in the Philippine Islands, Leonard was given a 30-day leave before the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. He explains how dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed those plans.
After the war, Billy Leonard came home and eventually took over Leonard’s Department Store from his father. He ran the business until his retirement in 1985. Leonard passed away in fall of 2005.
Jerry Mitchell was working as a reporter for the Clarion Ledger when he attended a press premier for Mississippi Burning. In this episode, he explains how that event piqued his interest in civil rights-related cold cases.
After the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was dissolved in 1977, its records were ordered sealed for 50 years. Mitchell recalls how he was able to get a look at those files in 1989. The ACLU filed a lawsuit to gain access to the sealed records of the State Sovereignty Commission, and the judge ruled in their favor. Mitchell recounts how having access to those files helped investigators solve several civil rights cold cases.
In his work as an investigative reporter, Jerry Mitchell gained extensive knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement. He describes his feelings about the Two Mississippi Museums and their impact.
Jerry Mitchell was awarded a Genius Grant by the MacArthur Foundation in 2009.
On January 6th, 2020, a statue of slain civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer was unveiled at Hattiesburg City Hall.
In this episode, taken from her 1974 COHCH interview, Ellie J. Dahmer remembers her husband as a Christian man who helped everyone regardless of race. As a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, Vernon Dahmer received death threats, daily. Ellie Dahmer recalls the extreme measures she and her husband took to protect their family.
On the night of January 10, 1966, Vernon Dahmer attended church and then returned home to prepare for another week of hard work. Ellie Dahmer describes waking up to gunfire and trying to rescue her children as bullets riddled their burning home.
Vernon Dahmer died January 10, 1966 from injuries sustained when his home was firebombed by the KKK. Ellie Dahmer discusses her husband’s legacy and why she thinks he would do it all again.
(note: in the podcast and broadcast, the statue dedication date was incorrectly given as January 4th, not January 6th)