An Interview with Elbert Hilliard

Sometime in 2018, I began working on a profile of Charlotte Capers, and in the course of my research was fortunate enough to get an interview with Elbert Hilliard..

The interview was held on March 21, 2019 in a conference room on the second floor of the William F. Winter Building in Jackson, Mississippi. Also present was De’niecechsi Leyton, Head of Reference Services at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Though the purpose of my interview was to gather information about Mr. Hilliard’s brilliant predecessor, Charlotte Capers, Hilliard spoke of many other things, most notably about his outstanding career as a historian and director of MDAH.

* * * * *

I think Miss Capers shares what a lot of people share, is that once you’re gone, then you tend to be forgotten to a degree, plus the fact that, I hate to say it, but probably the vast majority of citizens don’t do a very good job of keeping up with history of studying history of remembering people in the past. Now, of course, when you say, Miss Welty, that’s different. She was a prolific author, yet Miss Capers, had she had the time, probably could have written books that we would still be reading today. As you’ve already stated, she was a very capable talented writer and very capable and talented person.

I did not meet Miss Capers until the spring of 1959, when I was at Mississippi State in graduate school studying history. And truthfully, I had never heard of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History until I was in graduate school. Sadly, though (the Department) has grown, and we have a wonderful publicity department, you con probably walk down the street here outside, go down a few blocks and ask someone how to get to the Department of Archives & History, we may or may not get an accurate answer.

But getting back to Miss Capers, that was when I met her in the spring of 1959. Probably the first time that I heard her name mentioned was in a conversation I had with Dr. John K. Bettersworth. He was head of the Department of History at Mississippi State when I was in graduate school, and I’ll always be indebted to him because he took a chance with me and approved a graduate assistantship for me. Clara and I were married on August 3, 1958, and we went up there the 1st of September, 1958.

After Christmas, when we got to the second semester there, we started thinking about jobs, and apparently Mr. Bettersworth was thinking the same thing. He came by my desk are there in Lee Hall, second floor, and I told him we were going to be contacting the top school districts in Mississippi. He said, “You also ought to contact Charlotte Capers at Archives & History.” By that time, I think I was smart enough, having been told by Dr. Glover Moore about the Department of Archives & History, I put two and two together and concluded that she was the director. Of course, he said “Charlotte Capers”, and here I am, eighty-two years old, and she’ll always be “Miss Capers” to me. I loved Miss Capers.

I did contact her, I can’t remember the specific dates, came down to Jackson and met with her in her office in the War Memorial Building. You went in the front door, you turned left, and then you made the first left, this north wing of the War Memorial Building was the Archives & History Department. They had just initiated or were in the process of initiating the restoration of the Old Capitol. That was a crucial moment in Miss Capers’ life, because here she is, Director of the Department of Archives & History, and as you noted earlier, it was a very small department with a very, very small staff, probably at that time less than 10 people, I can go back and check that, but I think it’s right. Years later, after I came into the department, we became very close and she would tell me stories. One day she told me her telephone rang, and the conversation went something like this:

“Charlotte? This is J.P.” (Gov. Coleman; they had been in school together at Ole Miss.) “Charlotte, the building commission just met.” (Back then, Jesse, the governor was the ex officio chair of the building commission, and when I say “ex officio”, depending on the nature and the personality of the governor, he was the chairman of the building commission. And that was the case with Gov. Coleman, because he was a strong, forceful leader, and fortunately he was very interested in history.) “And we have voted to restore the Old Capitol, to become the state historical museum, and we also voted to have you be responsible for doing it.” This was probably early 1959. (cf.: They started restoration work in 1959.

She said, “Elbert, I almost collapsed of apoplexy there on the spur of the moment.”

Well, you can imagine. Here is a lady who, as I said, in this small department, had nobody to help her on this. They’re not allocating any extra funds for staff people for Archives & History, so she had had no former experience in museum work, and certainly not museum planning or restoration details. She had high blood pressure as well!

So she took than on, and she was smart enough to know she needed to contact the top people, so she contacted the top people, so she contacted the American Association of Museums and the National Park Service and got some experts to give her guidance and advice. Well, as the process went along there, one of the things she recognized was that the museum needed to have written policies outlining the purpose of the museum and the scope of the collections because what had happened was that the museum function of the Department of Archives & History had been started back in the very early days by Dr. Dunbar Rowland, who was the first director.

Dr. Rowland had started the museum over in the first floor over on the first floor of what we call the New Capitol. Archives & History had moved from the Old Capitol to the New Capitol in 1903; Archives & History was founded in 1902, started out in the Old Capitol, and then was moved to the New Capitol in 1903. I’m sure he planned it that way, but he cited the fact that he was the last person—he was very proud of the fact—the last person to leave the Old Capitol. He then began to call for its preservation as a shrine—that was his word for it—to Mississippi history. He sent out that call in 1903, and it took a long time to be answered. That’s the way we do things in Mississippi.

After he (Rowland) became director, he began to assemble a museum collection. The approach that he took was common to most entities back then that were involved in museum work which was that they collected virtually everything that was old and unique and different. There were no written policies. That led to the department acquiring many historical artifacts but it also led to the department acquiring a number of artifacts that had nothing to do with Mississippi whatsoever. For example, there was an artifact associated with Lafayette’s visit to Natchez in 1825, there were all sorts of Civil War swords and pistols and so on, some of them belonged to prominent people. Then you had things with no connection, for example the hair from the mane of Stonewall Jackson, who never set foot in Mississippi. There were bricks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. There were a pair of size 21 boots worn by a Negro soldier in 1901.

And then perhaps the most acclaimed one was the Egyptian mummy. And that’s a story in itself related to Miss Capers and me as well. As the years went by, if you were to conduct a poll of the museum there in the New Capitol and asked them what was their favorite artifact, they would have chosen the Egyptian mummy. They lined up to see the Egyptian mummy. Miss Capers told me that as a child they would skate through the New Capitol; they lived a few blocks away.

Anyway, this is what she inherited, that and the fact also that there had never been an official curator of the museum. The department was just so small. Dr. McCain succeeded Dr. Rowland, and Dr. McCain went off to war twice, so the museum was just sort of frozen in time then. I forgot to tell you also that Miss Capers had this great sense of humor and—this was after I’d been there and worked with her for a while—she told me some of the things that I’ve told you there about the museum collection. She said that the practice (viz: to collect virtually everything, jly) had been under Dr. Rowland, and it had probably been majorly curtailed under Dr. McCain and her, but Miss Capers said that one day a couple appeared in her office there in the War Memorial when she was director, and they said they had something to donate.

She asked, “What is it?”
And they said, “A stump.”
“A stump?”
“Yes, ma’am, a stump.”
“Well,” Capers asked, “What is the historical significance of the stump?”
She said they looked at her straight in the eye and said, without hesitation, that it was the stump on which Adam and Eve sat in the Garden of Eden.
“Oh,” Capers said. “Well, where did y’all find the stump.”
Again without hesitation, they replied, “Madison County.”
Of course, those of us who live in Madison County have always felt that we live in the Garden of Eden. But I asked, “Miss Capers, what did you do?”
“Well,” Capers said, “Dr. McCain told me never to alienate anyone, so I accepted the stump, and after a proper passage of time, I had it burned.”

So that was the type of thing she had to deal with, and as I said there was no curator, there were no professional museum standards, there was no catalogue system, so when I came with the department in July of 1965—I’ll catch up with that later on—what I found when I got involved with the state historical museum in the Old Capitol that they had instigated a professional cataloguing system. Now, what predated that was simply somebody years ago back in the early 1900s had simply gone to the exhibit cases, looked at the exhibit cases, saw what was in there, probably with a typed or handwritten label, had written that down and produced a page-by-page typescript that listed each artifact.

So here it gets to be 1960 or thereabouts and that’s what Miss Capers was dealing with was to get a professional curator on board who could then train the staff to catalogue the collection, which involved having a bound accession book, a catalogue number for each artifact which was entered and put on each artifact with indelible ink and sealed appropriately. That had to be done and then you had cards, object and donor cards so that you could find things in case someone came in and said, “Years ago, Great-great Grandaddy did this, do you have this?” What problems would develop from time-to-time was that in the early days prior to the restoration of the Old Capitol, there were no contracts of gifts that people signs, so Miss Capers had to start that, composing a contract stating that the donors were giving these items with no limiting restrictions or conditions. They became the property of the Department of Archives & History. Anyhow, she deserves credit for doing the research, recognizing what had to be done to have a professional museum, and getting the staff to implement that.

As I said, the first time I met her was in the spring of 1959, and I came in, of course I was a little nervous, since I’d never met her. That was not the first time I’d come to the Department of Archives & History; the first time would have been in the early fall of 1958 to do research on my thesis, a biography of Fielding Wright. That was my first visit, and of course I was impressed with the department, but the first thing they told me was that Gov. Wright’s papers had burned in his law office in Rolling Fork. That was a disappointment, so I had to find a way to get enough material to put together the thesis. I did not meet her on that occasion. So here I am coming back in the spring of ’59, and told her that Dr. Bettersworth recommended I come and talk with her. Now, it helped that Dr. Bettersworth was on the Board of Trustees of the Department of Archives & History. That kind of gave me an entrée. She said that she was interested in talking with me, but that she did not have a position at that particular time.

Back then, the state was on a legislative biennium, meaning that the legislature only met every two years. Of course, they’d have special sessions as needed, but they only dealt with the budget every two years. She said that they had a request before the legislature for a position, but added that they did not know how that was going to turn out, so they’d have to wait and see. Well, here Clare and I are, Clare had taught a year before we married, so she had a little money saved up. I was getting $100 a month teaching two classes at MSU, American Civilization survey courses, and so I knew that we couldn’t take a chance on waiting to see if this position would open.

So I sent letters to the top three (paying) school districts in Mississippi at that time: Jackson, Natchez and Meridian. I heard back from Meridian and Natchez, didn’t hear from Jackson. I never did get my nerve up, years later when I got to know Kirby Walker, kidding him about missing out on such a talented young man. I loved Dr. Walker. He was a delightful gentleman. Anyway, being in Starkville, the first appointment we made was in Meridian, then we’d go on to Natchez. In Meridian, I interviewed with Dr. Ivy. Now, this tells you something else about schools at that time. We’ve named the top three (sadly no longer the top three), but the difference is, who is interviewing us? The superintendent. This tells you that back then superintendents were hands-on managers.

Dr. Ivy was a very learned and erudite gentleman, held in high esteem in education circles in Mississippi, but when you started meeting and talking with him you quickly came to know that he knew that he was erudite and scholarly and held in high esteem. Dr. Ivy said that he would take us under consideration. So we went to Natchez, which I was familiar with because my sisters had worked there. Clare hated the smell of the paper mills. The superintendent was Mr. D.G. McLaurin. He had asked the president of the school board, Mr. Brent Foreman, a prominent attorney, to meet with us. Now, when you met with Mr. McLaurin, as opposed to Mr. Ivy, you realized you were in the presence of a servant/leader and a very special gentleman. I don’t know if you’ve ever been with Gov. Winter, but when you’re with Gov. Winter, you know you’re in the presence of a servant/leader and you feel comfortable. When Mr. McLaurin finished interviewing us, he asked Clare what she thought about Natchez and Clare, being one who always says exactly what she thinks, she didn’t have to work with the legislature, said, “Well, it’s a beautiful city, and the historical architecture is magnificent. But that odor is terrible.” I though to myself, well, we’ve blown it now, but he just smiled and said, “Well, down here we think it smells like money.”

So spontaneously, he offered us contracts for her to teach at the institute school and for me to teach at Washington High School. We were running out of money, so we singed the contracts. We came back to Starkville, and about a month later the telephone rang and who would it be but Miss Capers. She said, “Mr. Hilliard, I’m just checking back with you and wanted you to know that the legislature has approved a budget, we have a new position and I was wondering if you were interested in coming with us. I said, “Miss Capers, I am greatly interested in coming with the Department of Archives & History, particularly in working with you, but we have signed contracts with the Adams County school system.”

Well, this was 1959, back when contracts meant something. It wasn’t long after that when Paul Dietzel, who was at LSU, broke his contract, and that kicked off a great furor, but nowadays things have changed completely, and nowadays contracts don’t mean anything. So I told her I felt obligated to honor that contract, and she responded that she understood, to stay in touch and down the road if I was still interested in coming, to get back in touch with her.

There I am in 1959, and at that point I’m concentrating on finishing my master’s, getting to teach, and then my high school coach and history teacher had come that year from Anguilla to Madison/Ridgeland to be the principal. He was my first hero, and he started working on me to come teach and coach basketball and baseball there for him. I tactfully declined at first, but as time went on—as I said he was a hero of mine and I loved basketball and baseball part—we agreed to do that. I had to tell Mr. McLaurin that spring, and he wanted me to stay and to go into administration. I just wanted to follow this dream I had of teaching and coaching. So we came to Madison/Ridgeland, that would have been around the first of June in 1960. There were about 700 people in Madison, about 1100 people in Ridgeland. And those were five wonderful years. It was a different era altogether.

In the late winter of 1964, I began to wonder what to do with my life and what all was happening with the school system, so I sat down and wrote Miss Capers, “wondering if you might remember me” or words to that effect, and enclosed an updated resume. A few days pass, here comes an envelope with the Department of Archives & History letter head on it, “Dr. Mr. Hilliard, I am in receipt of your letter and am interested in your working with us, however the updated resume you mentioned was not enclosed.” Fortunately, she didn’t hold that against me, and scheduled a meeting. She grilled me thoroughly, and it was just luck that I had written at a time that she had just gotten a new position that she called Curator of History, who would serve not only as the curator of history but also as the administrator of the State Historical (Old Capitol) Museum.

She said that the person she had hired to come onboard to guide the development of the museum, Robert S. Nietzel—I guess the ‘S’ was for Stewart, since people would call him ‘Stew’—was an archaeologist, that he was very talented and that she wouldn’t have been able to get the museum going without his help and leadership. He is an interesting gentleman, she said, but that he’d just “burned out on me”. She said that she wanted me to go over there and motivate him. She said that he had excavated the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians with a National Science Foundation grant, that he’d supposed to have written a report on that which he had not done, and that he had not finished the exhibit on the Natchez that he was supposed to do.

I’m hearing her tell me all this, and then she asked me what my salary was at Madison/Ridgeland. I told her it was $5300. She offered me the job at $5400. Years later, after I’d worked with her for a while, I asked her if she remembered what she’d offered me and told her I’d often thought that I should have looked her straight in the eye and asked her &7800. She said, “That wouldn’t have done you any good, I wasn’t making that much myself.” I’m guessing in all likelihood that as a female agency head, perhaps at that time the only agency head, I’ve not researched that. If she was not the first, she was one of. Miss Cook was there, but anyhow, what with her being a lady her salary might not have been as good if she had been a man. She said, “I am literally exhausted.” The museum opened in June 1961. (She was 52.) She said that the Board had agreed to give her the summer off, that she was taking an Aegean cruise and would be back in September. She said, “You will come in when I’m gone and will start work July 1. I am going to start you here in the Archives and will ask Laura (Drake Siderfield) Harrell to train you.” (Sister of John Siderfield).

Laura was a diminutive, beautiful lady, the research assistant, and she was also what we would call today the managing editor of The Journal of Mississippi History. She started out in the basement of the War Memorial Building in one of those big old double desks that dated back to Dunbar Rowland’s era. It was piled up through the sky; I used to tell her she trained me how to pile up a desk. I was fortunate in having her because she was kind, and helpful. One day, she gave me a letter and said, “Elbert, I just don’t have time to work on this.” It was from a 92-year old lawyer up on Canton named Herman Dean seeking information on the Treaty of Hobukintoopa, which I was unfamiliar with though I knew many others. So she referred me to The American State Papers on Indian Affairs and Clarence Carter’s papers. Back then life moved at a slower pace, so I was able to work my way through that, to pick up clues until finally I could document that Hobukintoopa was the Indian name for Ft. St. Stephens on the lower Tombigbee.

I wrote it all up and showed Miss Harrell, sent that to Mr. Dean. I didn’t hear back. But when Miss Capers came back to the office in September, she called me into the office to talk with her, and she reaches in her desk, pulls out a letter and reads, “Dear Miss Capers, In all my years of legal research, I have never seen anything surpassing that done by your young Mr. Hilliard.” Bless Mr. Dean’s heart, he got me off to a good start, and Miss Capers said, “Elbert, you’re going over to the Old Capitol now, and take over there.”

Fortunately Mr. Nietzel was gracious enough not to be resentful of this young man who knew absolutely nothing coming in. He and I had a good relationship over the years and after he left the department, Dr. McLemore was director, I got him to come in and head up another excavation of the Grand Village when we were developing it as a state historical site.

Elbert Hilliard (seated) with William Winter in the State Archives, Oct. 2003. Photo courtesy of Chris Goodwin

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