The University of Mississippi is trying to move beyond the painful vestiges of the Old South. This summer, it embarked on yet another round of removing or altering divisive symbols. But as MPB’s Sandra Knispel reports, changing the historical narrative is fraught with peril
Here on campus at the corner of Fraternity Row, a short lane past Paris-Yates Chapel and the tennis courts used to be called Confederate Drive. Freshly painted over, the unassuming white street-post now reads "Chapel Lane" ... Danny Blanton is the university spokesman.
“Obviously the name Confederate Drive can be seen as divisive by some people and could be seen as an effort by the university to embrace an ancient idea.”
This is the latest in a series of changes over the last decade and a half to improve the university’s public image, and to help recruit and retain more minorities. Starting last year, freshmen are now required to learn about Mississippi history and race relations.
[nat sound classroom] "Alright, chapter 15 in your book is 'Race and The University of Mississippi'. There's always been an issue with race and people often wonder why."
At the end of the class, students talk about lingering stereotypes. Courtney Brown, an African-American freshman from Hattiesburg, describes the reaction from some family members when she told them she had chosen to go to Ole Miss.
Courtney: "They were, like, 'You don't need to go up there. And you're gonna get lynched. Don't go anywhere by yourself.' And, you know, stuff like that. I mean, I didn't listen to it, of course, 'cause I am here."
Next, the university will place historical markers to add context to some buildings and sites … among them the prominent Confederate soldier statue on campus. Again spokesman Blanton. “They are going to provide a historical perspective to show why they do have historical significance to a university. And to educate people on what role they played as part of the history of our university and our state.”
But pushback against some of the changes has been swift. W.T. Bailey is an accounting and finance student from Tennessee. “I’m not o.k. with it. I’m all about tradition and I think that it should remain Confederate Drive. It’s just part of the history of the South.”
“We believe that what they are doing by renaming Confederate Drive is actually against state law.”
Allen Terrell is the commander of the Mississippi Division Sons of Confederate Veterans. The ultra conservative group is now suing.
"I think that those folks are living in a bunker mentally and they understand that they are at war."
Jennifer Stollman is a historian and the academic director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. "They are in this sort of trench mentality. They see, in their minds, outside agitators or people who don't understand the South who are trying to erase or eliminate the South."
But one sacred cow the university is not about to slaughter – the school’s nickname. Of course, ’Ole Miss’ is the term slaves used for the mistress of the plantation and it’s been the university's nickname since 1896.
On a recent game day, the Grove, an iconic green at the center of campus, is crowded with several thousand football fans under red and blue marquees. [start hotty toddy in background] As part of the pre-game show, the marching band, as always, plays the school's beloved fight song.
"We're gonna beat the hell out of you. Hotty Toddy, gosh almighty. Who the hell are we? Hey! Flim Flam, Bim Bam -- Ole Miss, by damn!"
University Chancellor Dan Jones says the administration is not planning to curtail the use of the name.
"The vast majority of people associated with the university, that includes our faculty, our staff, our students, our alumni, think that the term ‘Ole Miss’ is a term of endearment, a nickname that they are proud to have associated with the university.”
“It’s not an innocent, affectionate term though a lot of people I know see it that way.
That’s Jaime Harker, an associate professor of English. She would like the term to disappear.
But that remains a minority view. Tommy Lee, a financial advisor who graduated from here in 1982, is positively stricken at the thought of nixing the name. "That would be the death knell. Ole Miss has been here since I can remember. It is part of our university. It needs to stay! I mean we are Ole Miss. That's our slogan - we are Ole Miss. Amen!"
And so, the university ambles along on the path of change -- incremental, careful and slow.