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)
For Gulf Coast residents, January means Mardi Gras season and in the South, no Super Bowl party is complete without a King Cake. Beyond the traditional Carnival celebrations in Mobile, Biloxi, and New Orleans, many other southern cities have established their own annual parades and festivities in recent years.
Ocean Springs native, Christa Hode grew up attending the Biloxi Mardi Gras parades with her family. In this episode, she remembers the day her father asked if she would like to be the Queen of Carnival for 1971. As Queen Ixolib for the Biloxi Mardi Gras, Hode wore an elaborate gown and long flowing train. She describes having the gown made in New Orleans and the heavy fabrics they used back then.
Hode has many fond memories of being the Biloxi Queen. She remembers how cold it was during the night parade and how much fun she had waving to the crowds. Having spent her life participating in Mardi Gras festivities, Hode has witnessed the comradery and sense of community it provides Gulf Coast residents. She also appreciates the economic benefits and tourism Carnival brings to the area.
During WWII, a key component of the Allied strategy to defeat the Axis powers in Europe was a sustained aerial bombing campaign against key German military and civilian targets. Despite the vaunted reputation the B-17 bomber achieved, they were outnumbered by the lesser known B-24 Liberator.
Greenville native, Colonial C.R. Cadenhead trained to be an B-24 bomber pilot. In this episode, he shared some memories of his time flying missions over Germany. Cadenhead explains how he and his crew dined on fancy French cuisine while on their way to Europe and how they helped a shell-shocked bombardier complete his tour of duty. He also describes how, on one mission, his crew made it back to base after losing two of their four engines with some help from the Tuskegee Airmen.
PODCAST EXTRA: After completing his tour of duty in Europe, Cadenhead expected to be sent home. Instead he was shipped to California to prepared for the invasion of Japan. He remembers how the sudden end of the war in 1945 allowed him to return to college that fall and play football for Mississippi State.
This episode of Mississippi Moments was researched by Hayley Hasik and produced by Ross Walton, with narration by Bill Ellison.
PHOTO: US Air Force