The Sultan of Jazz: A Black Russian from Mississippi

If you were to travel back in time to Constantinople’s Taksim Square in the 1920s, you might hear the lively beat from Club Maxim. Inside, you’d likely find a black man in a top hat, perhaps with a pipe in his hand. He might just tell you, as he did one tourist, how he’d overcome “difficulties that would stagger the ordinary man.”

This would be Frederick Bruce Thomas, known later in his life as Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the Mississippi farm boy who became a Moscow impresario and introduced jazz to Asia.

Thomas was born June 12th, 1872 to Hannah and Lewis Thomas, who owned 600-plus acres in Coahoma County, Mississippi. In 1886, a white planter took over their land. Against all odds, the Thomas family sued the planter, and in what must have been one of the few successful cases for black landowners at the time, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in their favor. However, the planter appealed and, under threat, in 1890 the Thomas family decided to leave Mississippi and settle in Memphis. In late October, 1890, just a few months after moving the family to Memphis, where he took work as a flagman for the railroad, Lewis Thomas was hacked to death in bed by a jealous husband.

A short time later, Frederick Bruce Thomas, who’d only known life in the South, hopped on the rails, first to Arkansas, then to St. Louis, Chicago, and Brooklyn. He went to Europe in 1894, and in 1899, after crisscrossing the Continent, mastering French, and honing his skills as a waiter and valet, he signed on to accompany a nobleman to Russia.

Thomas’s career in Moscow proved to be more successful than he could ever have imagined. He found no color line in Moscow, where he worked for ten years as a waiter, a butler, and a valet, before becoming assistant to the owner of Yar, the city’s most prominent café-theatre. The Sokolovsky gypsy choir performed there on a regular basis and their songs about their years as slaves likely reminded him of his own people’s story.

Yar was frequented by the bourgeoisie of Moscow and Frederick Thomas became the darling of the wealthy clientele. By 1911 he had earned enough money to open an entertainment garden, “Aquarium,” with the help of two Russian partners. In 1912, he rented a music venue in the city center called “Maxim” which very quickly became popular with wealthy Muscovites.

In Russia, Thomas was one of only a dozen blacks. With his résumé of jobs in the finest European hotels and restaurants, he had the three things he needed most: opportunity, access and know-how. Ironically, he also had history on his side. The African Abraham Gannibal had been seen as “the dark star of the Enlightenment” in Russia as far back as the 18th century, and his great-grandson, Alexander Pushkin, became an icon of Russian literature.

With his talent for booking musical acts from Western Europe, Thomas’ night spots, Aquarium and Maxim, became the spots in which to be seen (and from which to disappear) during Russia’s late imperial era. Black performers visiting from the States remembered, everything was “gold and plush” so that “you would sink so deep in carpets that you would think that you would be going through the door to the cellar.”

Frederick Thomas blossomed in Moscow. He obtained Russian citizenship, was married three times and had five children. Around 1914, he bought a dacha near Odessa and he also owned buildings in Moscow. An African-American immigrant from Mississippi, the son of slaves, had made a fortune in Russia.

But when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Thomas found himself on the wrong side. His newly acquired wealth trumped his past oppression as a black man in the United States. He went to Odessa, but the city was evacuated in April 1919 by the French and British forces allied to the White Army. He managed to embark with his wife Elvira, his children and other refugees on the Russian ship “Emperor Nicholas” bound for Constantinople.

Arriving in the Ottoman capital, he hastened to the American embassy to seek help, or even repatriation to the United States. Officials at the embassy refused to recognize his American nationality and therefore refused to help him; his skin color undoubtedly played a decisive role.

Having lost all his wealth, Frederick Thomas started to do business again in Constantinople, like many Russian refugees. After three months, he opened his Anglo-American Garden Villa (the “Stella Club”) on August 31, 1919, with acts by “Mr. F. Miller and Mr. Tom.” Thanks to his new establishment’s success, he rented the basement of the Magic cinema with gardens in Pera in 1921, and transformed it into a jazz and night club. He named it “Maxim” in memory of Maxim in Moscow which had allowed him to start his career in the entertainment world.  Harry A. Carter and the Shimmie Orchestra to headlined the first season, 1921-22.

Though opening “Maxim” left Thomas on the verge of bankruptcy, business at last started to pick up. After the First World War, you had been an American tourist looking for a good time in Constantinople, you probably would’ve been directed across the Golden Horn to one of the popular Russian-Western, European-style “cafés chantant,” where you could order a drink (outside of Prohibition), sample the finest cuisine, listen to all kinds of music and dance.

Despite the economic and political upheavals of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Frederick Thomas succeeded in making his establishment the most popular place in the city.  He was the first person to import jazz to Turkey, and its popularity among the city’s natives and swarms of well-heeled tourists consolidated his success and made him rich once again. All those who remained of the Stanbuliot bourgeoisie, along with the English and French soldiers occupying the capital, hurried to listen to jazz at Maxim. Thomas became known as the “Sultan of Jazz.”

It’s astonishing that a black American who’d left the U.S. in 1894 and became a Russian citizen in 1914 was bringing America’s greatest music to the other side of the world by hosting black jazz bands in Constantinople before Louis Armstrong had even joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. But Thomas had already done similar things for the tango in Russia, and whatever obstacles he had to overcome as a Russian refugee. Ottoman Turkish had no word for Negro. Thomas told those who visited his clubs “he was ‘conservatively rated to be worth at least $250,000,’ which would amount to $10 million today.

Then, during the first years of the Turkish Republic, business began to decline. Foreigners and a large part of the bourgeoisie had left the city, while embassies and their staff began to be transferred to the new capital, Ankara. Frederick Thomas plunged into debt. Unable to pay his creditors, they had him put in jail and seized his nightclub, which they renamed “Yeni Maksim”.

Frederick Thomas was never to recover. Although his skin color was of no concern to the Turks, he could not avoid dealing with the diplomats in the American Consulate General in Constantinople, or with their racist superiors in the State Department. When he most needed their help, they refused to recognize him as an American and to give him legal protection.

Abandoned by the United States, and caught between the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic and his own extravagance, Thomas fell on hard times, was thrown into debtor’s prison, and died in Constantinople on July 12th, 1928 at Pasteur Hospital in Taksim. Forgotten by the Americans, Russians, Stanbuliots and all those he had entertained throughout Europe, Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas was laid to rest at the Protestant Feriköy Cemetery in Istanbul, far away from the “most Southern place on earth.”

(Thomas’s biography, The Black Russian, by Vladimir Alexandrov, was released by Atlantic Monthly Press in 2013.)

Hemingway’s Twister: The Candlestick Tornado

On March 3, 1966, a supercell thunderstorm developed over central Mississippi and produced a large tornado around 4:00 pm CST near the old Adams community in Hinds County, several miles south-southwest of Raymond.

Tracking generally to the northeast, the tornado moved through mostly rural areas, though several barns and a few homes were heavily damaged. Around 4:30 pm CST, the storm struck the southern limits of Jackson as an F4 or F5 tornado and leveled the Candlestick Park shopping center, which gave the tornado its name; cinder-blocks from the structure were scattered for long distances, a number of homes and businesses were destroyed, eyewitnesses reported pavement scouring and a few cars were tossed upwards of 0.5 mi (0.80 km). A brick church was destroyed with such force that it seemingly exploded. Once the storm moved through Jackson, it crossed the Pearl River and entered Rankin County, maintaining a nearly straight northeastward track through the county.

The tornado reached its maximum strength of F5 near the Leesburg community; multiple homes were swept away, large swaths of trees were leveled, pavement was scoured, and chicken houses were obliterated. In Neshoba County the storm began to weaken though not considerably as about a dozen more homes were destroyed before the system crossed into Alabama. The tornado finally dissipated near the city of Tuscaloosa around 7:45 p.m. CST. During the storm’s three-hour-and-forty-five-minute existence, it traveled roughly 202.5 mi (325.9 km), one of the longest paths ever recorded.

The Candlestick tornado touched down in what was in 1966 rural Rankin County, which like the area around Cooper Road is more heavily populated today. The tornado crossed Highway 25 (Lakeland Drive), and homes and businesses in the area around River Oaks, the north side of Jackson International Airport, Laurel Wood and Castlewoods lie in or very near where the tornado passed. The storm was also going through the Jackson metropolitan area between 430 pm and 5 pm, during the afternoon rush hour. In 1966, the interstate system was in the process of being constructed, but today the tornado would have been moving near the Stack just south of downtown Jackson where Interstates 20 and 55 converge. The tornado would have also been passing near or through the heavily trafficked areas along Highway 80, Flowood Drive and Lakeland Drive in Flowood.

The tornado’s story is told by Lorian Hemingway in her book, A World Turned Over: A Killer Tornado and the Lives It Changed Forever (Simon & Schuster; July, 2003). Hemingway, the granddaughter of novelist Ernest Hemingway (the daughter of Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, who left his wife and eight children when Lorian, the youngest, was 6 years old), moved to Jackson with her mother and stepfather into a house fifty yards north of Candlestick Shopping Center some years before the storm and moved to Nashville a month before the tornado hit, but in an interview after the book’s publication said the tornado, “… wouldn’t let me alone. I was haunted by it. I’ve been haunted by it all my life; I’ve been haunted by it in dreams. Each time I would go back to Mississippi — and I did not go back until I was well into my adult life — just by happenstance, just sitting around and hearing people talk, that tornado would come up. Not through any provocation of mine. I was amazed to see how much it had lived on and how much it had impacted people and become a part of their history.”

Hemingway’s book takes us back to Jackson with interviews of friends and neighbors. Included are the stories of Ronny Hannis, who was severely injured but helped dig survivors from the rubble,  and Donna Durr, who was sitting in her Volkswagen with her child and was carried away in the air, only to be gently set down in a field. As you might expect, there are plenty of people who talk of God and their belief that there was a plan to nature’s savagery. Hemingway, who shares her contrary thoughts with the reader, brings a sophisticated yet sympathetic tone to the conversations, never passing judgment. In fact, she seems desperate to reconnect with the people who made Jackson seem like home for her. Her style is radically different from that of her grandfather’s; the story is told in fully-rounded sentences often brimming with emotion, and the descriptions of the area around Caney Creek along Cooper Road seem pastoral.

She tells the story in her own words and those of other survivors. Weaving childhood nostalgia with apocalyptic images of that world “rolled onto a spear, of the sky punctured at its heart,” Hemingway draws the reader into the nightmare, describing the moments preceding the tornado and the instant when everything was turned upside down. Hemingway describes how a familiar setting is suddenly turned into a morass of shattered concrete, twisted metal, splintered glass, mangled cars and broken bodies and how everyone walks and speaks “with reverence because what is heaving and bending at jagged turns all around them is a burial ground they must undo.”

Even after Candlestick Shopping Center was rebuilt, local residents stayed away. They couldn’t bear to remember.

Charlotte Capers: “The House”

In addition to their numerous charitable endeavors, the Junior League of Jackson has issued two quite remarkable publications. The first, in 1978, was their landmark Southern Sideboards, a truly luminous work that has since gone through fifteen printings, five of those Southern Living Hall of Fame editions. The recipes in Southern Sideboards altogether comprise nothing less than an exhaustive tutorial for home cooks in the Deep South, and if that weren’t enough also includes a heart-felt introduction by Wyatt Cooper.

Their second, more important work, is Jackson Landmarks (1982) dedicated to the Manship House, one of Jackson’s most beloved architectural treasures. Jackson Landmarks is important not only for the wealth of detail and historical data, but also because Jackson’s urban landscape has changed significantly in the 35 years since its publication, and an estimated 25-30% of these structures are gone.

Jackson Landmarks also includes this essay by Charlotte Capers. Miss Capers was director of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History from 1955-1969, and during that time saved the Old Capitol from destruction and saw to its renovation and establishment as the state historical museum. Miss Capers also oversaw the restoration of the Governor’s Mansion. In addition, Capers was a “world-class raconteur”, a writer (The Capers Papers as well as hundreds of magazine articles and book reviews) a wit and a close friend and companion of Eudora Welty. Charlotte Capers is a significant figure in Mississippi history and deserves a work of equal if not greater thoroughness than the one recently afforded Fannye Cook.

The House

My first opportunity to participate in this book was an invitation to write a brief and breezy history of Jackson.” Well, Jackson goes back to the 1820s and I don’t, so I declined. When I was reminded that I do go back to the 1920s, and what’s a hundred years more or less, I agreed to write a few recollections of my old home at 705 North State Street, as I remember it and as for me it was the heart of Jackson when I was very young.

When I first saw the house it was white, and I was five years old. Therefore, it remains in my memory as white, and only recently I learned that it was not white to begin with, but a darker hue much favored by home owners of the 1890s, when it was built. Perhaps it was buff or brown or gray. It doesn’t matter, except to point out that things are not always what they seem. The house was built by Mr. and Mrs. A. D. Gunning on the corner of North State and George streets. The Cunnings had a large family and must have been much given to hospitality, as the house was plainly built for entertaining. A large reception hall opened into a graceful living room on one side, and a dining room with striking midnight blue wallpaper and painted white paneling on the other. A mirror was built into the ornately carved hall mantelpiece; a central staircase which divided and curved upward from the landing was the architectural focus of the hall. Shining oak floors invited dancing, and of more concern to my mother, suggested more rugs than we had and required a good deal of waxing and polishing.

After the Cunnings, the house was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur C. Crowder. Mr. Crowder was at one time mayor of Jackson; Mrs. Crowder was the former Mattie Robinson Saunders, whose family home was a block away on the corner of North State and Boyd streets. When the Crowders moved to Birmingham, the house was purchased by St. Andrew’s Church as a rectory for my father and his family. Subsequent owners were the Lamon Goings, who had a Studio of the Dance therein, and Mr. and Mrs. Harry Jacobs, who adapted the house for use as a retail outlet for their business, Greenbrook Flowers. The original architecture is essentially unchanged.

As I see the house now, it is big. As I looked at it with five-year-old eyes, it was tremendous. Adorned with every detail and conceit available to admirers of the Victorian style, it had towers, minarets, gables, a scary basement, a cobwebbed attic, cushioned window seats, and wonder of wonders, swinging doors for the dogs. Scaled to fit the family canines, these doors opened at the touch of a muzzle. When I tried to describe them to a contractor for my own house, he was confounded. My dogs have to bark to get in. So everything isn’t more convenient now than it used to be. Ask the dogs. Anyway, when I was a child I saw the house as a fairy-tale castle, and untroubled by the economic realities of maintaining such an establishment, I thought it was a perfect home.

This depends upon your point of view, of course, and I remember Our struggle to keep the house warm in the winter. Beautified by countless windows and French doors, 705 North State was a veritable cave of the winds. The windows called for draperies which we could not afford, so my mother settled for glass curtains. My childhood memories seem to return filtered through yards and yards of filmy material, which let in the light as well as the breezes. Another problem was the coal furnace. Coal was expensive, plus the fact that my father had to stoke the furnace and bring coal to the fireplaces throughout the house. My father solved this problem by rising above aesthetics and installing a pot-bellied stove squarely in the middle of the elegant reception hall. This at least indicates that he put first things first, like not freezing to death. The feature of the house which I remember with most affection, next to the dog doors, was my bathtub. It was splendid, something like a gondola, mounted on iron paws with a stalwart wooden rim. Into its watery vastness could submerge the vicissitudes of childhood, and dream great dreams as they soaked away. When I left that bathtub, and moved to a shorter and stubbier one, my dreams grew shorter and stubbier.

It seems to me that 705 North State Street was a fine place for growing up in Jackson and learning the lay of the land. Around the corner and less than five minutes by skate, foot, or bicycle, was Davis School. The New Capitol was only a few blocks away, and young skaters did not hesitate to skate through the tiled basement floor and admire the Egyptian mummy who was the star of the building. A streetcar track ran in front of the house. When we were very young, we would put two straight pins on the track, spit on them, and wait for the streetcar. As it rumbled past it fused the pins into a charming design of crossed swords. If you wished to travel, the streetcar could deliver you north, south, or west. East was the Pearl River, and the suburbs in that area were not yet developed. As St. Andrew’s was the only Episcopal church in Jackson for a long time, my father’s congregation was scattered all over town and from Clinton on the west to Madison on the north. Sometimes Father would let me ride with him in the family Essex when he went calling, and we covered a lot of territory. The Fairgrounds were within walking distance, as were the downtown picture shows. Beulah, my nurse, took me to the Fair every year on the five dollars my grandmother sent us. This included lunch. When we got home, Beulah became our cook. I should note that Beulah was not my nurse because I was sick, but because I was a child, and nurses were what children had in the 1920s. Nurses were for taking care of children, cooks were for cooking, and so far as I knew, maids had bit parts, like “Your carriage awaits, madam,” in the occasional stage plays which came to the Century Theater.

An interesting thing, at least to me, is the fact that I can remember the telephone numbers of the neighborhood children, I have always had a block in my head about numbers, and now I have trouble remembering my own telephone number. At any rate, to suggest the size Of Jackson in the 1920s, I could get Mary Woodliff at 2628; Winifred Green at 1210; Ann Sullens at 560; and Maude McLean at 247. As Maude’s father was a doctor, we thought we would help his practice, which did not need any help, by making up a jingle for him. It went like this: “If you think you’re going to heaven, call two-four-seven.” I believe you call the Fire Department nowadays, whatever your destination.

The Depression was an exciting time at 705 North State. There were a good many home weddings, as it was more economical to get married in the Rectory than in the home of the bride. Sometimes a drop-in bride and groom, having proven that they were of age and met other canonical requirements long since forgotten, got married in the living room, and if any of my friends were there Father might ask us to be witnesses. This custom ended when Winifred Green and I stood up with a lisping groom, and got the giggles every time he repeated his vows. Mother was good about entertaining, and we had a lot of company. I always had a Hallowe’en party and a birthday party, and during the Depression some of our company often included tramps. Tramps are now known as vagrants or street people, but they amount to the same thing. Our tramps knew the best places for a handout, and occasionally one would make a great impression on my father, who would invite him to spend a few days with us One of our favorites called himself Jiggs, and more than repaid us for our hospitality by his tales of travel and adventure. Jiggs left us wearing my father’s clerical vest, and some months later appeared in a news magazine, photographed in ecclesiastical garb while attending a Tramps’ Convention in Washington. It is interesting to observe that in spite of the real economic hardship of the Depression, I don’t remember it as a bad time. It was in the 1920s that we learned to dance, and perfected our skills later during the Depression at dances in our homes, including the Rectory, to the Dixieland jazz of Joe White and his combo, fifteen to twenty-five dollars for four hours, depending on the number of instruments.

This isn’t much of a “brief and breezy history of Jackson,” but it may recall a certain time in a certain place, both gone forever. North State Street has just about given up the ghost, the town has grown into a city, the city has spread into the suburbs, and sometimes I can’t remember my street address. •sour crowd” had a good time, there was room in our house for friends and my grandparents and my brother and his wife, and even for transients who could tell a tall tale.

Much of what was once “old Jackson” was swept away by commercial development after World War Il, but as this is written, 705 North State Street still stands! (And still does. jly)

WPA History of Calhoun County

You can find a print resolution of this document in the Mississippi Library Commission’s Online Resources. It is a formidable file, 1.7 G, but I’d encourage everyone with an interest or–as in my case–love for this place, this land, these skies, these people, to download the copy at MLC just to have it. Dennis Murphree’s introduction is a testament of devotion from the heart of a man who loved his home, his people, and the land he grew up in; the rolling, wooded foothills of the Appalachians. They strike a very strong chord in my heart.

A Holy Grail among Calhoun County historians would be the volume provided for “the (Calhoun County) library,” which might possibly be in the Murphree house in Pittsboro.

From the Forward:

“This volume of historical data is one of a series of eighty-two, assembled by the W. P. A. Mississippi Historical Research Project, under the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects, Miss Ethel Payne, Director. In 1935, under the New Deal, funds were allocated to the Works Progress administration for that purpose. The project was set up on a state-wide basis, February 19, 19236, with a unit in each county, and employing about 400 persons of work relief status. The plan was unique in that it provided for the writing of eighty-two county histories instead of one state history. Each volume purports to set forth the background of social, economic, and political history of its respective county.

The original Project Proposal, which has been closely followed, succinctly states the objectives and character of the work: “Historical research and compilation of historic data: Work to consist of (1) searching city, county and official records, (2) interviewing old inhabitants, (3) collecting date, (4) compiling data pertaining to historic, civic and cultural development of locality. Index and condense into handy volumes for educational and reference purposes.

This compiled data will be made a permanent record. One volume of the historical data will be given to the State Department of Archives and History, one volume to the county library, and other volumes to other designated public institutions. Particular consideration will be given to the making of photographs and sketches of public institutions, municipal halls, schools, churches, and all historic sites and places of interest as well as photographs of old portraits of pioneer citizens and famous men and women who have been instrumental in building and developing Mississippi.”

New Orleans Barbecued Shrimp

This recipe comes from Howard Mitcham’s knowledgeable, rambunctious, and absolutely delightful Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz  (Addison-Wesley: 1978). Howard lived in New Orleans in what many consider a golden era, (1955-70) when the city was filled with talent not only local, but brought on board by the scintillating lures of freedom and indulgence.

One of the most delicious seafood dishes to come out of New Orleans is barbecued shrimp, and once you’ve eaten it, you’ll never forget it. Barbecued shrimp have been around for a long, long time, and they’ve been served at many restaurants, but they’ve been brought to a peak of perfection by Pascal’s Manale, up- town on Napoleon Avenue. People come from miles around to eat their barbecued shrimp, and on weekend nights the place is so crowded, you have to wait two or three hours to get a table.

It is said that Manale’s secret recipe for this dish is buried in the center of a two-ton concrete block under the office safe. A friend of mine, Mrs. Ivy Whitty, solved the riddle by hiring a cook who used to work at Manale’s. The cook could neither read nor write, but she had all the treasured secrets in her head. Working together, that cook and Mrs. Whitty perfected a barbecued shrimp recipe that may or may not be Manale’s, but it is sublime.

It’s amazing that such a good dish could be so simple, but there’s nothing in it except shrimp, butter, and black pepper. If you try to add anything else-herbs, spices, Worcestershire, whatever-you’ll spoil it for certain. It’s important to use fresh shrimp with their heads and shells on if you can find them. The tomalley inside the shrimp’s head, which is like the tomalley of a lobster, adds a real punch to the sauce in the pan. (However, if you can’t find fresh shrimp, frozen unpeeled shrimp with tails will make a dish that’s almost as delicious and better than almost any shrimp dish you could find in the average seafood restaurant.)

At first glance it seems that the recipe calls for too much black pepper, but you’ll discover later that it’s just right. The heat cooks out of it-well, sort of. Always open a fresh can of black pepper when making this dish so that it will be fully aromatic and pungent. The general rule for butter is one stick per pound of shrimp plus a stick for the pan.

Use a 16-20 count; pat shrimp dry and place in the bottom of a buttered baking dish, skillet or casserole. Drizzle with melted butter—one stick to one pound of shrimp—and top with excessive amounts of freshly ground black pepper. Place on the highest rack in your hottest oven for about 10 minutes (jly).

Play It Again, Boys!

Buried deep in my album is a photograph from the hot summer of 1979, of the boys playing music on a flatbed trailer. We appear to be laying down some pretty hot licks, going for the big $100 purse in the band contest on the Oxford square. Old John Bradley is thumping the stand-up bass; Mr. Cragin Knox frails the banjo. Randy Cross, staring off into the flaw- less summer sky, is on rhythm guitar; the immortal L. W. Thomas is playing lead; and I am sawing on the fiddle.

Our faces are solemn masks, the de rigueur expression of the old-time string band. WOOR Radio is flashing us out over the airwaves; the shirt- sleeved judges lean on their elbows; and in the foreground Mr. Jack Cofield himself is snapping our picture as if we were very big dogs indeed. It is a satisfying image, for it fails to mention that we were not big dogs at all but mere dabblers in the music trade. Moreover, it omits the dubious harmonies we sent aloft that day to the old arched windows of city hall.

And to look at it you would never guess, any more than the “bored judges” or the listeners scattered on the green, that our faces-so cool, so self-possessed-are in fact rigid with fear, and in our hearts a secret voice bargains with God to only let us live through this set and we would never, never, never play in public again.

What, then, were we doing there? It was a question we often asked our-selves when the pressure, largely self-induced, was on. It was not really all that bad, playing music-we had our good days, even a triumph now and then. But there was always the suspicion that sooner or later the People Out Front would rise up in their scorn and drive us from the stage. hey never did, of course, and we lurked on the fringes of the business for years.

We were known by picturesque names-The Waterford Road, The Eighth of January, The Horse Stealers. Friends came and went: Uncle Frank Childrey and his Gibson mandolin; Gathal Runnells, a great fiddler; young Les Kerr and Mike Burduck, a fine bass player. We played all around, turning up like rented palms at parties and banquets and wedding receptions, even at wine-and-cheese affairs where our repertoire nearly always clashed with the decor. We worked the Watermelon Festivals in Water Valley, the Faulkner Conferences in Oxford, and Ole Miss pep rallies.

And always there were the taverns: Abbey’s Irish Rose, Cajun Fred’s, The Warehouse; all gone now but lively enough places once upon a time. In the taverns we met all the usual roadhouse foolishness. People grabbed at our microphones and spilled beer on our instruments. Combatants arrived at our feet in a spray of broken glass. It was a rare show that we didn’t get 10 requests for “Rocky Top,” a song we all hated and couldn’t play very well anyway.

But in our travels, we knew also the good bright sun, the faces of friends, pretty girls dancing, free drinks, and the smell of barbecue in the air. It was a colorful pastime, and there was nothing quite like walking into a job with an instrument case and having the public mistake you for a musician.

We fooled them for a long time, though we never amounted to much more than a bunch of boys playing music on a flatbed truck. We had none of the professional apparatus, like matching shirts or our own sound equipment, and our showmanship was… elemental, you might say (“Now it’s time for the boys to innerduce themselves,” L. W. would announce, “and we would turn and nod and shake hands with each other, and sometimes the People would get it and sometimes they wouldn’t.)

Yet in time we gained, to our everlasting astonishment, a following. Not just our girlfriends and cronies, understand, but people we never knew before. To the Ole Miss students we were a novelty beyond words, to the older folks perhaps the half-remembered voice of a simpler time. And in spite of our fears none of them ever seemed to care if we were very slick or not, if we broke strings or forgot the words. All they wanted was a joyful noise, and we could give them that. Through the old songs, we touched something solid and authentic in the heart that all of them could recognize, even if they didn’t know why.

And for ourselves – when we were rolling along and hanging on to the steady thumping of the bass, we were in high cotton indeed. So in the end it was worth it, and if we had to ask what we were doing up there, we need look no further than the music for an answer. We would do it all again, I think. And when the house lights came on for the last time, and the boys closed their cases and went away into the world, they took with them a long memory, and the old songs – to be broken out in the parlor now and then, or suddenly remembered in the ruin of night. And in my album the boys are captured forever, having a bad day but trying to do their best just the same.

We won the $100, by the way-not for being top band in the contest, but for being the only one to sign up. “That’s show biz,” as the feller said.

–Howard Bahr

Ham of Dreams

In the 1930s, Harry J. Hoenselaar worked at a honey-glazed ham store in Detroit, handing out samples and teaching drugstore clerks how to slice hams for sandwiches. He had long since mastered knifing ham from the bone, but he knew there had to be a better way.

Then Harry had a dream, and with a tire jack, a pie tin, a washing machine motor, and a knife, he fashioned and patented the world’s first ham spiralizer. He later bought the Detroit store on Eight Mile Road in Detroit where he once worked from the owner’s widow in 1957.

This, the original Honey Baked Ham store,  eventually spawned a company with 417 stores, from Southern California to New Hampshire. The busiest is in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala. After decades of familial wrangling and consolidation, the entire operation has landed in the lap of Linda van Rees, a granddaughter, who moved the company headquarters to Alpharetta, Georgia, in 2015.

Many people will bake a spiral-sliced ham, but it’s best bring the ham to room temperature, twist a steak knife around the small center bone, and follow the natural lines of the meat to cut smaller pieces for the table.

Remember the Alamo!: Howard Bahr on the Woke Movement

Almost 200 [sic] years after the battle which killed 200 [sic] Americans at an old Spanish church outside San Antonio, the essential argument remains the same: were these settlers fighting for their “freedom” against the oppression of a Mexican tyrant, Antonio López de Santa Anna, or were they mostly interested in preserving the slavery recently independent Mexico opposed, but [which the settlers] considered essential [sic] for the success of their burgeoning cotton farms? Burrough, Tomlinson[,] and Stanford leave no doubt [italics mine] about the correct answer. Slavery.
–The Guardian, August 30, ‘21

Praise for Forget the Alamo (2021), a celebrated revisionist history which, according to The Guardian, has laid to rest once and for all, with no room for further discussion, an argument of almost two centuries’ duration! Well, thank goodness, I say.

Nevertheless, nagging questions remain. Is the “essential argument” about the Alamo really such an antique, or is it freshly sprung from the collective conscience of the Third Millennium? Were the defenders of the Alamo really such moral paupers that they would sell their lives violently and irretrievably for nothing more than cheap plantation labor–Would you, dear reader?–or is it possible they chose to fight and die for some higher purpose? Is it conceivable that soft, comfortable, well-fed scholars whose entire lives have been spent in school–is it conceivable such persons are suddenly able to remove all doubt about the motives of men–white, black, red, or brown–who lived hard lives no contemporary person can imagine?

 Forget the Alamo is a landmark document of The Woke, a populist movement of seemingly boundless authority whose acolytes seek Righteous Truth and, like Christopher Columbus, believe they have discovered a New World. However, and also like Columbus, they are mistaken, for many persons less objectionable were there long before they arrived. In any event, one quality–their first principle, in fact–renders The Woke unique: i.e., their universal condemnation of persons from the past who, through no fault of their own, were born free and white. The Woke have decided, all by themselves, that Western Civilization–from the Vikings[1] to just yesterday–is irredeemably tainted by oppression, suppression, deception, cruelty, corruption, and lies promulgated by the white race. At best, this assumption is a grave discourtesy; at worst, it slanders people whom The Woke never met, who are conveniently dead and thus no longer around to speak for themselves.

Ironically, because The Woke have little chance–and less desire–to participate in a cause that demands physical courage and sacrifice, they have raised an Alamo of their own, a bastion of morality whence double-shotted rhetoric may be fired into the national conscience. Their Alamo is unique: being virtual, no one is able to assault it! Ambrose Bierce might have anticipated The Woke Movement when he included this definition in The Devil’s Dictionary:

Discussion, n. A method of confirming others in their errors.

Theirs is an egregious fallacy. It is Presentism, a tendency by which citizens of a distant and far different time are judged in the light of contemporary morality–judged by, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”[2]

For our purpose here, let us limit Chesterton’s “small and arrogant oligarchy” to, first, The Woke themselves, and second, those whom they have “awakened[3].” To the latter, we might well apply a cliched (but hard to improve on) simile. They are like sheep who must have a shepherd to protect them from the wolf. Tragically, shepherd and wolf are often one and the same: an entity who has understood since the days of Eden that, when it comes to control, nothing works like fear and guilt. The Great Assholes of History (including, in our time, Putin and Trump) rallied their flocks with fear–of Jews, of negroes, of Communists or Capitalists, of Armenians, of Catholics or Protestants or Democrats, what have you. The Woke, however, choose to invoke the specter of guilt. The Woke speak with the iteration of the sadistic nun in Game of Thrones–“Shame! Shame! Shame!”–and white people everywhere respond, “But what are we guilty of?

 Well, there’s Texas Independence for one, and slavery, and Jim Crow, and the Confederacy–and how about old Christopher Columbus? The Italian navigator, bold and ambitious and under Spanish patronage, set out in three primitive caravels in the belief that, by sailing west, he would discover the East. His primary motive was to open the Orient’s riches to European trade; at the same time, he would illuminate blackened pagan souls with the light of Christianity. As everyone knows, Columbus did not reach the Orient–too much geography was in the way; instead, he stumbled upon something almost as good: a world new to him, filled with possibilities for exploitation and populated by heathens ripe for conversion. Columbus and those who came after took advantage of the opportunity and set about exploiting and converting with the brutality common to Renaissance life. I was not around in the Renaissance, nor do I know a single person who was. I’ve never been rich, have exploited no one, and converting the heathen has never engaged my interest. Yet for me, for you, for the white boy pumping gas at the Shell station, The Woke have a stern admonition: For this, for the cruelty and excesses of European adventurers, are you guilty. White people–how dare you continue to celebrate as heroic, as consequential, this man Columbus! Raze his monuments! Erase Columbus Day from the calendar! Teach your children the Truth: Columbus was a piece of shit[4], and you all white motherfuckers are responsible! Wake! Wake to the shame!

 I decline to feel responsible for Christopher Columbus, and I hope you do as well. Meanwhile, “Who’s Columbus?” asks the white boy at the Shell station.

* * * * *

Though secular in intention, The Woke manifesto gives off a strong whiff of Calvinism. The concept of Original Sin–“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all”–is revised and updated so that contemporary white people must answer not only for the disobedience of Adam and Eve[5], but for the collective misdeeds of their ancestors. No other ethnic group has been thus burdened, nor has any such burden been so joyfully embraced. As it turns out, The Awakened are happy to dismantle their own culture, ignoring its virtues while simultaneously ignoring the vices of all the others. The physical vandalism and destruction of monuments is an expression of a spiritual zeal not only self-indulgent, but perfectly safe. In marked contrast to those whom they condemn, The Woke make no sacrifice, face no peril, suffer no hardship. Like Medieval flagellants (but absent the pain and gore), The Woke and The Awakened revel in guilt, robe themselves in the sins of others, and spew curses on their fellows–the white ones, anyhow. The result, for them, is a warm sense of moral superiority and, even better, the happy knowledge that a culture’s entire narrative is crumbling under their hands. They do not care to create, nor do they build; they only destroy. This is their sole accomplishment and will be their only legacy.

I have said The Woke frame their judgments from Presentism, a fallacy that is itself framed from ignorance–which, I hasten to add, is not to be equated with stupidity. The latter is a mental vacuum common among those who, for whatever reason, cannot or do not wish to think, who view the world without complexity as it presents itself in the moment. Ignorance, on the other hand, is a conscious choice by persons who refuse not to be stupid. The Woke demonstrate ignorance in two ways. First, they seem to have no understanding of the ambiguities of history; second, they apparently know very little about its realities. Taken together, these deficiencies should disqualify The Woke from judgment. Instead, they form the cornerstone of the movement.

* * * * *

The principle of ambiguity, as I use it here, is hardly complex–anyone not a psychopath should find it already familiar. It begins with an unassailable premise: everybody you know, including yourself, is totally fucked up[6]. That goes for your mother, your grandma, your best pal, the lover whom you believe hung the moon and the stars–everybody. This hard truth, once accepted–and accept it we must, soon or late–proves useful as we ponder why the world itself is so . . . well, you know.

A useful truth no doubt, but one that harbors a dangerous possibility. Should we allow it sole governance in our conduct toward others, no human relationship could endure. Indeed, it is unlikely we could endure even ourselves. Lucky for us, this first premise is only half an equation, made complete by a second equally unassailable: we have the innate, perhaps evolutionary, ability to acknowledge universal human frailty and at the same time continue to love and admire, or at least like, or at least tolerate others–and ourselves–in spite of it. Not everyone, of course, gets a free pass. Only a fool would ignore evil or dismiss injustice or excuse one whose only guide is a malignant nature. Every person is weighed in the balances, and some, in the end, deserve neither forgiveness nor mercy. In my view, however, the Total Depravity of Man, perhaps the most significant Calvinist doctrine, is, like Original Sin from which it derives, a wholly artificial concept contrary to reason, contrary to evidence, and offensive to every decent impulse of the human heart. To believe without exception that a man’s worth cannot transcend his inevitable folly is nothing less than nihilism and denies the value and purpose of existence itself.

Nevertheless, it is through the lens of Total Depravity that The Woke view history. They are merciless in their appraisal of historic figures great and small. Should a man[7] be brought to judgment before them, his conduct in life, however honorable, is dismissed as irrelevant. In the court of The Woke, higher virtues are inadmissible evidence, and nobody gets a free pass.

Unless, of course, he is a man like George Floyd.

The Woke represent Floyd’s brutal, needless murder by Minneapolis police as emblematic of the abuse of power and authority; in this, at least, they are correct.. Floyd was a felon, a dope-head, and a thief–a troubled soul struggling to overcome his demons. He needed help, but what he got was death at the hands of an officer sworn to serve and protect everybody. However, extensive media coverage elevated Floyd above the myriads who have suffered a similar fate and made of him a symbol which The Woke were quick to seize upon for their own purposes. Now they are able to demand, and demand we accept, that men who acted in the past be replaced in our admiration by persons who are acted upon. And while the Woke ignore the egregious flaws and ambiguities surrounding a man like Floyd, they refuse to tolerate the same qualities in those they put on trial and condemn to oblivion. Like Columbus. Like General Lee and Walt Whitman. Like the defenders of the Alamo.

Hard evidence has revealed William Travis to be a cad of the first order. James Bowie, a cold killer, has always been difficult to romanticize: the knife he designed was not meant for whittling, but to cleave an opponent from stem to rudder-post. David Crockett was neither cad nor killer, but a genuine legend in his own time; his principle flaws seem to have been political ambition and his role in the “heroic Anglo narrative.” These three, and the 180-odd men who died with them, were not mythic heroes, nor were they models of Christian virtue–this, no one can deny. Still, they were possessed of humanity: like all men, like George Floyd, their souls were of light and darkness, fraught with ambiguity.

Here, however, the similarity ends. The Alamo’s defenders were nothing like us; in fact, I would argue they have no parallel in modern culture. Like the principle of ambiguity, this is an element of history The Woke cannot seem to grasp as they hold men to account and judge them by a moral standard that did not even exist in their time.

* * * * *

I alluded above to “citizens of a distant and far different time.” Here we will take a glance at how distant and how different their time actually was.

Persons living in the present are privileged to view the past as an unfolding series of complex and interrelated events. Patterns emerge that are obvious to us, but were invisible to those who took part in making them, just as we are unaware of the shape our own time will take in the view of those who come after us. And while we can gather data and facts and discern cultural shifts–while we can analyze and interpret events in a larger context–there is one thing we cannot do: we cannot now, nor will we ever, be able to enter or even begin to understand the minds of those who acted out their parts in a vanished time. A fundamental rule of science states that a thing observed is necessarily changed by the very act of observing. It is impossible, no matter how hostile or sympathetic we may be, to look upon persons of the past without interference from our own consciousness.

The defenders of the Alamo can only be viewed in the context of the 1830s, and thus are no more comprehensible to us than inhabitants of Pluto. It is easy to condemn their morality until we reflect that it was the product of their world, not this one. The same is true for any period in history, including that within living memory.

Medical science began to emerge from the Medieval around the time of the Great War. In all the long ages prior, a person who lived into adulthood was possessed of a constitution strong enough to survive; such a person, of whatever color, was an exception. In a moment, we will touch on some of the difficulties his survival brought down upon him, but here let us try an illustrative experiment. Choose a night in deep winter when the rain has turned to sleet, and the ground is covered in ice. After the temperature falls below freezing, take off your shoes and socks. No coat or thermal underwear allowed: only pants, a shirt, a hat, and a single blanket over your shoulders. Now walk out into your yard and see what happens.

If you can stand the pain more than five minutes, you are a better man than I. Ten minutes, and you are a masochist. Once back in your warm house, ponder this: it is impossible–impossible–for a barefoot (or rag-shod) human being, clad only in a thin coat and trousers and hat, to survive for weeks in temperatures below freezing. Yet, time and again throughout history, we find persons doing precisely the impossible!

As a specific example, consider the Confederate Army of Tennessee during their siege of Nashville in December, 1864. Many of the men were without shoes. Food was scarce. Firewood was scarce. They had few tents and few blankets; if a man had an overcoat, it was likely taken from a Federal corpse back in Franklin. Every morning, men would be found frozen to death. We can understand that. We are astonished the whole rebel army did not freeze to death!

How did they endure under those circumstances? The customary answer, “Well, they were tougher than we are,” is insufficient. It is too easy, glosses over too much, and fails to take into account the realities of human limitation and the demonstrable nature of Impossibility. What answer, then, can we offer in its place? Devotion to cause and country, however fervent, cannot overcome physical impossibility. Neither can the will to live, nor hatred of an enemy, nor love for one’s comrades, nor the memory of folks at home. We may salute the indomitability of the Spirit, but in the end, we must face an incontrovertible fact: the human body, unprotected against extreme cold, ceases to function. The heart stops. Death comes. There is simply no alternative.

Except . . . there was an alternative. Soldiers of the Army of Tennessee first endured the impossible, then gave a good account of themselves in the battle of Nashville. In headlong retreat–physically and emotionally exhausted, terrified, freezing, starving, debilitated–the majority not only continued to endure the impossible, but in many cases did so on their own initiative, without the support of comrades or the presence of any military discipline. They walked all the way to Mississippi, and when they stopped, they were still an army and still dangerous–individually dangerous and ready to fight again.

(In one personal account, published in Confederate Veteran magazine in the 1880s, the author tells of his experiences on the retreat from Nashville. These included wading the Harpeth River up to his armpits and emerging soaking wet on the far bank–and this at night under the same conditions as our experiment. His comment? “I walked fast to keep from freezing.”)

How did they do it? The answer is unlikely to be found, for it lies in a realm of human nature forever beyond our reach. So, too, is the answer to a parallel question: Why did they do it? To ensure the spread of slavery into the territories? To confirm white superiority? To keep the niggers in their place? These are among the responses The Woke might offer as they drive their kids to soccer practice.

When the noise, the frenzy, the fever of postmodern life grows unbearable, The Woke also drive their kids, and themselves, to therapy. When the darkness comes down, and that old anvil settles on the heart, a variety of nostrums–Paxil, Zoloft, Cymbalta–are on hand to ease the pain. Who is not thankful? The Woke are thankful, surely, but they forget that those whom they condemn had no recourse from a woeful mind, a troubled soul.

I have always believed that, for most of human history, people hovered on the brink of madness–and why not? Little in their world was soft–persons white and black and brown, rich and poor, were alike cold in winter, hot in summer, tormented by insects, in constant pain from headaches, toothaches, arthritis, pleurisy, melancholia, and for these no help but willow twigs and whiskey. They were surrounded by death in violent encounters and in their quotidian lives. The prick of a thorn might easily lead to blood poisoning; a woman had little chance of surviving childbirth, and the infant would likely die before it could walk. The specter of sickness–yellow fever, scarlet fever, cholera, consumption–lurked always in their minds, and suicide was a common escape for people who could no longer bear the sorrow or the fear[8]. Nighttime was a stygian dark, an abyss of silence that tortured the imagination. By light of day, they broke their backs at labor and grew old before they ought. They lived at the mercy of horses, mules, milk cows, the weather, wood stoves, fires, spoiled food–and on the frontier, what they ate, they had to grow or kill for themselves. Their food, heavily salted and overcooked, was empty of vitamins and short on calories, and there was rarely enough of it. On the frontier, people were closer to the natural world, more in tune with its rhythms and moods, than anyone alive today, and they were not immune to its beauty. Yet, for them, the natural world was no Garden of Eden; it was hostile and threatening, and in every way their adversary.

We, who dwell in such ease and comfort, must allow those people their own lives and condemn, as outlined above, only those who deserve it.

Thus we return to the men in the Alamo. What they knew and how they perceived the world is unavailable to us. How they actually viewed slavery and nation-building and Negroes and Mexicans and Indians is forever beyond our grasp. We can only examine the facts, among which is this: the defenders of the Alamo fought with the certain knowledge that their lives would be the price for something they believed in. We cannot know how they saw their sacrifice: that belongs to them alone. They were deeply flawed, but for me–and I hope for you–they remain brave and honorable. They gave us Texas, and men like them gave us America for better or for worse.

* * * * *

I have said–and I believe it true–that The Woke have no interest in discussion. I will add here that The Woke are not only dismissive of, but immune to, criticism. They are at the helm, and whatever voices might be raised in opposition–including my own–will go unheard by them. How and why that happened is beyond the scope of this brief exercise. Instead, and despite the futility, I will conclude with a few paragraphs entitled simply,

A Message for the Woke.

The cruelties and inequities of the human experience are nothing new to historians who, since at least the 1960s, have struggled to temper romance with reality[9]. Nevertheless, you believe–or behave as if you do–that you are the very first to be woke (awakened?) to the realization that some people got left out of the American story. Your attitude might have been forgiven–are we not supposed to challenge the status quo?–had you striven honorably to recognize voices heretofore silenced and to illuminate inequalities (the list is long) heretofore ignored. Such an approach might have healed old wounds and made possible a genuine reconciliation among antagonists.

Instead, you have embarked on a path that leads only to greater antagonism and separation. On behalf of minorities you cannot possibly understand, you have chosen to erase the memory of people you cannot possibly understand, who lived in a time you cannot possibly understand–all this to spite others whose view you do not wish to understand. You have shattered the old Metanarrative into a swarming pool of micronarratives that may themselves be divided into fragments, each one jealous of the rest, each one insisting on its true place as the one and only axle of the universe–and this in the name of Equitas.

Your belligerent righteousness has won the day. Soon, no one may point to an ancestor with pride, nor to any place where his kinsmen acted bravely and well. You will teach your children to be ashamed of whence they came, and pretty soon they’ll stop caring, for you will teach them that as well. The old stories will be banished and in time forgotten, and you will have no stories of your own, for, in the world you are creating, it is unlikely you will ever do anything worth telling about. Then one day, after all the monuments are pulled down, all the buildings and towns and landmarks renamed, all the long narrative of humanity purged–on that day you will look down from your moral Gibraltar and discover that you yourselves are forgotten. Or, if your movement is remembered at all, it will be as a pale, pathetic, humorless blur whose cowardice was masked as virtue, whose pandering was disguised as sympathy. You have rung the Passing Bell for others; you do not see that it tolls for thee as well.

This Message for the Woke is delivered from the ramparts of the Alamo, the Rebel trenches at Petersburg, the field of Union dead on Marye’s Heights. I speak for Jeff Davis at Monterey and Pat Cleburne musing in St. John’s churchyard; for all the unknown dead who gave up their lives for causes they believed in–and for my pals Neumeyer and Rudisill, killed in Vietnam, and for my Old Man Charlie Bahr and my daddy Gene Hereford and my Uncle Bill Gleaton who helped whip the Axis in World War II, and for my Great Grandaddy Josiah Hereford who fought in every battle of the Army of Northern Virginia, and finally from my own once-upon-a-time self, crouched on the stern sheet of a landing craft in the Tonkin Gulf.  For these and for myself I speak, and for the myriads who had the great good fortune to live out their lives before you came along.

–Howard Bahr
The Mean Summer of ‘22

NOTES:

[1] Actually, I have yet to see enlightened comment on the Vikings–but they were mostly white, Nordic even, so their time is coming.
[2] For the nature of Presentism, I am indebted to an old friend, the historian Michael Bradley. Another old friend, Frank Walker, introduced me to Chesterton long years ago.
[3] By this means, we excuse the reasonably intellectual and the myriads with more to worry about than the historical canon.
[4] This phrase is not original to me–a Woke Female of my acquaintance once used it in a media posting. Columbus as a piece of shit? A marvel of reductivism to stun the intellect!
[5] Presumably white themselves if illustrated Bibles are to be trusted. And The Almighty too, and Jesus and Mary and Joseph–the whole crowd save poor old Gaspar the Moor, who was no doubt oppressed and forbidden to vote.
[6] I challenge the reader to assemble, from all the resources of the language, a more succinct phrase to identify this fundamental human quality.
[7] I am aware of no woman of any class or color who has fallen under the disapprobation of The Woke–a curious omission in a movement–indeed, a generation–hyper-sensitive to gender equality.
[8] We are often told that God gives us no burden greater than we can bear, but, Believer, consider this:  Your husband left weeks ago, and you can no longer hope he will return. Snow sifts through the chinks in the cabin, and the weight of it will collapse the roof pretty soon. You can’t remember how long it’s been since your child died; she is turning black, her eyes are glazed, and she is beginning to smell, but still you clasp her to your breast–you simply cannot let her go. The wood-box and pantry are long since empty. Every night, more and more wolves come to snuffle and scratch at the door, and it’s only a matter of time before the Kiowa or Comanche find you. Now, in a felt-lined case lies your husband’s Dragoon pistol. You take it out, see that it is loaded and primed as he taught you. What do you say to God now? Do you pray for His help, His intervention, His protection? Do you pray for a miracle? No. As you cock the pistol–it’s hard, for the spring is strong–and press its cold muzzle to your temple, you pray only that it will work. This was a reality of life, once upon a time.
[9] An instructive example is Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (1984). While his titular subject is George Armstrong Custer, and the central event the Little Bighorn fight, Connell presents both in the wider context of the Nineteenth Century. I think no better demonstration of historical ambiguity can be found in the language.

Dock Bishop

Mississippi politician Dennis Murphree became governor of Mississippi twice on the death of the state’s chief executive while he held the lieutenant governancy, and was governor during the Great Flood of 1927. Murphree was also a newspaperman, editor of The Monitor-Herald, the weekly in his native county of Calhoun, and took a deep interest in its people and their histories.

I reproduce here Murphree’s account of the story of Dock Bishop, a north Mississippi outlaw whose reputation has passed into the romance of legend. In the summer of 2002, deputy marshals from Fort Worth made a 12-hour journey from Texas and replaced the brick inscribed “WISE” in the Sarepta cemetery with a proper tombstone for their fellow officer. The ceremony was well-attended by the good people of Calhoun County.

The Hanging of Dock Bishop
by Dennis Murphree

The Monitor-Herald, Calhoun City, Calhoun Co., MS, Thursday, April 9, 1942 

A few days ago the newspapers of the nation carried the thrilling story of how the FBI or “G” men had surrounded the Number One Bad Man of the United States, Charles Chapman, over in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and called on him to surrender. When he refused the demand and opened fire these representatives of the law promptly sent him to his death with eighteen bullet holes in his body. For years, it is said, Chapman had slipped in and out of this, his home community, being shielded from the law by friends and kinsfolks, while members of the FBI kept relentlessly on his trail until they finally cornered him and sent him to his death.

Pondering this grim story and talking with friends who had first-hand and personal information about its stark details, there came from time to time back to my mind the story of Calhoun County’s All-time Bad Man, and his gruesome end. This is a story which was fresh in the minds of all Calhoun County folks in my earliest boyhood days, and the details were so thoroughly implanted in my fresh young mind in those days that I have never forgotten. One day this week, I was gratified indeed to have a personal visit from my lifetime friend, Uncle Bill Yancy, 87 year old citizen of Sarpeta, and talking over these things with him and having him refresh my mind on various points, I decided I would endeavor to write this story for Calhoun County folks, all of whom have heard of it, and many of whom perhaps will find it of interest.

Nearly sixty years ago, up in the high hills of Northeast Calhoun County and along the line of Lafayette, there lived the characters of this story among a people who were honest, sincere, hardworking, mostly god fearing, and all in all the kind and type of folks who are even yet the very backbone and sinew of good citizenship of our land today. The blight of the four years of Civil War still lay heavy on the land. Times were hard, money was scarce, opportunity was lacking and yet these people made the best of what they had, and enjoyed life as best they might. There was a dance one night in the home of a good citizen who lived Northeast of Sarepta, with a fiddle and a banjo, and a man to “beat the straws,” in a big old log house, with a huge fire place, in which blazed a big fire of hickory logs and fat pine knots. It was the old-fashioned square dance. “All hands up and circle left,” “right hands across and left hands back,” ladies do see and gents you know,” “swing your partner and promenade.”

Ab Kelly was quite a character. Big and strong, a fine fellow when sober, but given to being quarrelsome and overbearing when under the influence of the brand of “wildcat” liquor, which was at that time a rather plentiful product on Cowpen and Potlockany. Ab was at the dance, more or less looking for trouble. Dock Bishop was there too. He was a man of striking appearance. More than six feet tall, coal black hair and eyes, handsome face, fine personality, Dock with his impressive personality, made many friends easily. Always he was a favorite with members of the fair sex.

On this night, Dock was having a fine time, dancing with one of the most beautiful girls present. Round and round he went, keeping perfect time, his polished boots seeming to tap most lightly as he lifted his beautiful partner to the strains of “Soldier’s Joy” and the “Eighth of January.” Somehow the sight of Dock Bishop having such a good time jarred on Ab Kelly’s vision. Somehow, Ab resented it. So, when Dock swung by with his partner on his arm, Kelly deliberately spat a brown stream of tobacco juice on Dock Bishop’s polished boot. Dock looked Kelly in the eye, half stopped, but decided to let the insult pass. Round he came again, and this time Kelly spat a big shot of tobacco juice on Bishop’s new jean trousers.

This was entirely too much. An invitation to go outside, a wild melee in which others joined, and in a few moments, Kelly was flat on the ground with a pistol bullet through his shoulder, and there was the beginning of a feud which smoldered as messages passed back and forth between the principals and with friends on both sides being slowly drawn into the affair. Months passed and finally in the little town of Dallas, two miles north of the Calhoun-Lafayette County line, the long smoldering feud burst into full blaze when principals and friends on both sides met and engaged in a general battle and shooting scrape, in which it is said that Dock Bishop, always a crack shot with a pistol, shot and killed two men whose name was Harmon and shot through the mouth another man who was present. This was too much, and immediately the officers of the law began a manhunt for Dock Bishop, and for two or three other men who were his kinsmen and friends charged as accessories to the crimes.

But Dock Bishop, like Charles Chapman, had many friends, many kinspeople scattered throughout the area from Yoccona to Scoona Rivers. It was not easy to catch him. Over a period of several months, he roamed the territory accompanied by his friends, staying a night with one kinsman, a week with another, moving as the word was brought to him of efforts being made to apprehend him. I do not remember whether or not a reward was offered for their capture. Evidently there must have been.

Anyway, down in the Robbs neighborhood in Pontotoc County and the Paris neighborhood in Calhoun County, each bordering the Calhoun-Pontotoc line, there appeared a man named Wise, from Texas, who claimed to be a cow buyer or cattle man and who made it his business to try to locate Dock Bishop and his associates. In reality, Wise was a famous detective, and he felt that he was outwitting these bad men thoroughly. But he was badly wrong, and he paid for his error with his life. Wise made friends with a member of the Bishop crowd, and agreed to reward this man if the man would direct him to Bishop’s hideout. All plans were made, and it was agreed that on a certain night, the accomplice would go on ahead of Wise and from time to time drop pieces of torn newspaper in the road so that Wise might follow and take the outlaws in their nest.

Jim Bishop was the man who promised to lead Wise to the outlaw den. It was the theory of the state in the prosecution of Dock Bishop that Jim Bishop was a tool and accomplice of Dock Bishop and that instead of leading Wise to the place where he might arrest Dock Bishop and the others, he betrayed Wise and led him to his death.  Whatever is the truth about this, there can be no doubt but that Wise on a starlight night followed what he thought was a certain trail to catch the outlaws.

As a boy I saw the place where Wise was murdered. A narrow country road winding along the ridges and slopes of the red hills some five miles southeast of Sarepta in Calhoun county, and only a little way from the Pontotoc County line, came at one point between two huge white oaks trees, neither tree being more than ten feet from the road bed. It was down this road came Detective Wise on that starlight night way back in 1884, looking from time to time for the piece of newspaper scattered along the road. Neighbors who lived in hearing distance swore on the witness stand that suddenly there rang out on the still night air several gunshots and then there was silence again. The story is that when Wise walked down the road and just as he reached the two huge trees a signal was sounded and from shotguns and pistols a stream of bullets and buckshot poured into his body killing him instantly. Wise was missing several days before the countryside was aroused. But aroused it became when the story of the shots and his disappearance became known.

Posses were formed and a widespread search of the countryside was made. Combing the woods and the entire country, one member of this searching party, riding horseback through the woods, noticed as his horse stepped across a fallen log, a piece of bright red clay lying there. A clod of red clay lying by itself there in the deep woods aroused his suspicions. He got down off his horse and tied him to a nearby bush. Then he went and got down on his knees and began to remove the leaves, pine straw and other debris which covered the spot. It was a matter of a moment to determine that the earth had been disturbed there and recently. He notified other members of the posse and soon with shovels they began to remove the earth. Buried almost under the huge fallen log in a shallow grave not more than two feet deep, they found the bullet torn and mangled body of Detective Wise, and as you can very well imagine, excitement flared to a crescendo. Word went by telegraph back to Texas and within a short period there appeared on the scene grim and determined relatives of the dead man bent on seeing to it that the murderers of Detective Wise should be speedily brought to justice.

The shocking crime was too much for even the friends of Bishop and his associates. No more could they find shelter and safety in the home of people in that country. No more could they roam scot free. Public indignation mounted to such extent that realizing they could no longer escape, Bishop and one or two others went to Oxford and surrendered themselves all the while bitterly denying the murder of Wise. Money was not lacking to defend Dock Bishop and so there was employed as his legal counsel, the Hon. Hamp Sullivan of Oxford, one of the greatest criminal lawyers of his day and age.

Representing the State of Mississippi as District Attorney was the Hon. Ira D. Ogglesby, reputedly one of the ugliest men in personal appearance ever known in that country, but at the same time, one of the brightest and shrewdest prosecuting attorneys that section has known. From the very outstart, it was a battle of giants. Sullivan, with all his vast legal knowledge and great ability, took advantage of every legal technicality, every loophole, every possible avenue to save and acquit his clients. Ogglesby on the other hand backed by the majority of the law as well as public opinion, met his adversary on every point and maneuver.

Bishop was tried first. He was the chief object of the state’s attack. He was the acknowledged leader of the gang. Back and forth the battled raged, with each prospective juror being scrutinized and put under the legal microscope. Many were challenged and set aside. Those finally chosen were seated only after a barrage of questions seeking in every way and manner to determine their leanings or opinions. For days on end Ogglesby put on the stand an array of witnesses linking one to the other certain facts which all together would irrevocably damn and convict the accused Dock Bishop. Then for days, Sullivan threw forward an array of men and women whose testimony he hoped would raise a doubt as to Dock Bishop’s guilt. In the end, after many hours of deliberation, the jury filed back into a tense and crowded courtroom with a unanimous verdict of “guilty as charged.”

Standing cool, calm, and unruffled in the court’s presence, Dock Bishop declined to make any statement as to why the sentence should not be pronounced and heard the Judge sentence him to be “hanged by the neck until your are dead, dead, dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.” Then followed many months of waiting while Mr. Sullivan appealed to the Supreme Court and finally that high court said: “The case against Dock Bishop is affirmed,” and set the date on which he should die. Friday, the fourth day of July, 1886, was the awful day on which Dock Bishop was slated to pay with his life for his crime.

Bright, hot sunshine fell upon the untold thousands of men, women, and children, who on horseback, on foot, in mule and ox wagons and all other kinds of transportation then in existence, wended their way toward Pittsboro, the county seat of Calhoun “to see Dock Bishop hung.” The Board of Supervisors had made arrangements to have the hanging in public. They had selected a valley two miles west of Pittsboro on the old Pittsboro and Big Creek road as the site. It was a natural amphitheater, at the head of a little hollow where on three sides the earth sloped down to the little valley and under the fine trees that covered these hillsides, thousands upon thousands of people from all over Calhoun, Pontotoc, Lafayette, and Yalobusha Counties gathered in restrained silence, waiting, watching for the dread event. A gallows of huge square timbers had been built there, and from the cross beam several feet above the hinged trap door there hung a brand new grass rope, already coiled ready for the fatal knot.

As the appointed hour drew nigh, there was a buzz from the crowd, and coming slowly down the winding country road, there was a wagon with spring seats on which sat the sheriff and his deputies, one on each side of the prisoner. In the back of the wagon, partly covered by a quilt, was the black draped coffin inside of which the body of the prisoner was soon to rest. Scott Hardin, a good man and true, was sheriff of Calhoun County. He led the way up the steps of the scaffold and the prisoner followed.

Dock Bishop stood on the gallows and looked over the great crowd assembled. There was the stillness of death over all. Pale from his long days in jail, Bishop was yet a fine looking man in the very prime of his life. A minister prayed for the forgiveness of all sins, and especially for the soul of the condemned man. Then Dock Bishop was offered the opportunity to speak for the last time on earth, and stepped forward. There was not a tremor in his voice. There was no hint of a breakdown. Calmly and with deliberation, Dock Bishop expressed his thanks to those who had befriended him; he told of how he held no malice against him nor against those officers of the law at whose hands he must suffer his life. With almost his last breath, he finished his statement by declaring that he was innocent of the death of Wise, at the same time admitting that he had killed a man in Alabama.

Not a muscle in his fine body quivered as Dock Bishop stepped on the fatal trap. The black cap was swiftly slipped over his face, and then the peculiarly tied hangman’s knot was adjusted so that it would break his neck when he fell. There was a long drawn sigh from the assembled thousands, and then Sheriff Hardin swiftly raised his hatchet and struck the rope which was so tightly stretched across the block, but not striking with the full blade, severing all strands in two save one, and the Sheriff found it necessary to make the second stroke. The trap door fell with a bang and Dock Bishop’s body shot through the hole, jerked tight on the end of the rope several feet below. There was the sound of a sharp crack as the bones of neck snapped, and swinging slowly in the ghastly circle, Dock Bishop’s body “hung by the neck until he was dead, dead, DEAD.”

When his body was finally cut down, and placed in the coffin, there stepped up to the sheriff a comely woman, who made request that she be given the rope which had taken Bishop’s life. “I was the wife of Detective W.A. Wise,” she said, and these men are my brothers.” She was given the rope, and took it back to her home in Texas.

I was born on January 6, 1886. Dock Bishop was hung on July 4, of that same year. (NOTE: July 4, 1886 was a Sunday, which casts doubts upon this being the actual date of the hanging.) I was, therefore, only six months old, and the things I tell you are, of course, only those that were told to me when I was a little boy. But I have never forgotten them, and there are many, many people yet living in Calhoun County today who will remember as I have this terrible tragedy and its shocking sequel. Jim Bishop was finally found not guilty. Bob Lamar, another one of those implicated, was kept in jail for months and years and finally the case against him was nolle prossed. W.A. Wise’s body lies today in the old cemetery at Sarepta far from those who loved him, while Bishop was buried I know not were.

And so ends the story of the man who in his day was Calhoun County’s “Charles Chapman” while “time marches on.”

Dock Bishop (b. 27 Oct. 1857, Marion County, Alabama) was buried in the Collums Cemetery, which is some 8 mi. northeast of Bruce, Mississippi.

 

Tom  Freeland, an Oxford attorney and historian, added this postscript to the original post in August, 1914:

The article is correct about outlawry in that area. Not quite 20 years later, two federal marshals went to a house east of Yocona and north of Dallas (but nearby– outskirts of what is now Tula) to arrest a counterfeiter/parole violater. He talked them in to staying for the dinner just put on the table, and the arrestee and another shot the marshals through a window (at the trial, the coroner testified that marshalls had cornbread in their throats at death. In Greek mythology, those who killed dinner guests had gruesome eternities). They were later brought back to town, and James Stone (Phil Stone’s father) and his law partner as special prosecutors held an inquest by torchlight, largely to try to make clear to the crowd justice would be done. Later, both murderers were sentenced to hang, after a trial in which W.V. Sullivan (who had been a senator in the interim, and who was NOT a favorite of the Stones) defended the ringleader. When he was sentenced, he asked to be hung seperately than his cofelon, who was black. The judge pronounced sentence, stating that it “is not a social occasion,” that they were to be hung together. They were.

The ringleader wrote a confession which was published and sold at the hanging (I have a copy), there are pictures of them being taken from the jail in a wagon on the Square. Dept of odd coincidences; There’s an account of the day of the hanging in Blotner’s bio of Faulkner, because that was also the day 6-year old Billy Falkner moved to Oxford with his family. A few years later, James Stone bought Sullivan’s law office, where I am seated at this moment. A few years ago, an elderly client, since deceased (who gave me an original of the confession from which I got my copy) told me that she was related to the murderer, and that a cousin out in the county still has a trunk with mementos of the incident, including the window curtains with bullet holes in them. She would not tell me who it was because the family is still VERY private about this lore.

Further aside: There are not too many instances of double murders of US Marshalls in the history of the marshall service. This one is still remembered in their histories.

This is the entry on Wise from the “Officer Down Memorial Page,” (www.odmp.org) The a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring America’s fallen law enforcement officers..

Marshal Wise was shot and killed in Oxford, Mississippi, while working undercover in an attempt to apprehend two men who were wanted for murder in Texas. Marshal Wise had first gone to Oxford to return a prisoner to the local sheriff. While in town the Sheriff requested Marshal Wise’s assistance to capture the two men. Marshal Wise returned to Fort Worth where he was given permission by the City Marshal to return to Oxford to help with the investigation.

Upon his return to Mississippi, Marshal Wise disguised himself as a cattle buyer and made contact with a man close to the suspects. The man agreed to help Marshal Wise in exchange for part of the reward money. Marshal Wise devised a plan to drug the suspects with tainted whiskey and then take them into custody. The informant, however, betrayed Marshal Wise and informed the suspects of the plan. As Marshal Wise approached the home the suspects ambushed him on the roadway, shooting him with a shotgun and pistol.

The suspects buried his body on the side of the road where it was located the next day by a search team. Three suspects were eventually apprehended and sentenced to death. Two of the sentences were overturned but the third man was hung in Pittsboro, Mississippi, on July 3, 1886.

Marshal Wise had been with the agency for 18 months and was survived by his wife. He is buried in Sarepta Cemetery in Sarepta, Mississippi.

 

The following letter comes from a descendant of the Bishop family in the tri-corner area of Calhoun-Lafayette-Pontotoc in Mississippi. It was written by Dock Bishop, who was convicted for the killing of a federal marshal and hanged on July 4, 1886. The circumstances of the crime and the atmosphere of the time and place were such that Bishop passed from outlawry into legend, and his story became a fireside tale in the area for generations. The narrative is uneven and at times unintelligible, but those are likely for the most part due to my errors as a transcriber, and a sentence may be missing, since this is a poor copy of the original.

A few things to note are, first, the date, which Bishop gives as Oct. the __ 1850, cannot be correct, since Bishop murdered Detective Wise October 2, 1884. Why Bishop gave this date is unaccountable, but duress likely played a factor. The handwriting is in Spencerian script, a Copperplate-based style, widely used from approximately 1850 to 1925, the American de facto standard writing style for most correspondence prior to the typewriter. The use of this script, along with somewhat good—if uneven—spelling indicates some degree of education. The use of “verrie” for “very” is likely due to a familiarity with older versions of the King James Bible, composed when that variant was still in use. The letter does not mention his two co-defendants in the crime(s), Jim Bishop and Bob Lamar, but a certain G.D. comes in for condemnation, and the wording hints that Dock is trying to put the finger on him.

Finally, it seems to be that Dock signs the letter “Jeff Bishop,” and it seems reasonable to assume that Jeff/Jefferson may well have been Bishop’s actual given name.

Oxford, Miss
Oct. the ___ 1850

Mr. Bill Bishop

My dear cousin, with pleasure I write you this leaves me well and hope this will find you and all the counsel. The same I wrote has as soon as I got back from Pittsboro tho have not heard from him, yet I will not have my trial the 26 of this month for the judge has called in his court and now I will have to say here until March. I think that my case will be misprocessed here and then they will send me to Coffeeville. I fear though I hope that I can stay here where I can be with my friends. I have not seen my counsel in time time cousin I am so troubled now I have a letter from my sister and ma is dead and it is verrie grievous to me to hear

I get my trial and want you to find out all you can for me so I still have no trouble when the time comes for my trial I want you all to write me for I am glad to hear from you all tell Jim that I want him to come to me soon would be glad to read a letter from him and learn all the news. I have been expecting some of you up for some time. I want you to bring me a bushel of potatoes when you come. I hear from my wife each week she is well and in good heart about my cast and has no fears but what I will come home when I have my trial she has some good evidence for me since court. Cousin, I want you to not forget to go to see

I will take it as a favor if you all will do this much for you and you shall never lose anything by it in the future. Give my love to Cousin Mallie and kiss the little ones for me. Tell them I will send them my picture when I go out to court so I can get one taken for them. Tell my little cousin that I got those peaches she sent me while I was at Pittsboro. Would be glad if you could bring them all with you at court here to see me. Tell Hal I don’t think that he has treated me right by not evidencing my card. Cousin, I have a heap to tell you when I have a chance. Tell Henry to not think hard of me for not writing him for I have so much writing to do. I want you all to come around to see me when you can at

Pittsboro this month that I think that I can demand a trial at any time and they are bound to give it to me if my liberties is debared on account of that case being against me there I want you to do all you can here on this case for I think that Jim will be present in his trial in this court and get up all you can in regards to evidence. Let me hear from you as soon as you get this with the news in the community. I hear that G.D. ed was gone and I think he is ashamed of himself and can not stand to face everybody that ever knew him after surviving such lies as he did. He is 8 miles (about) Pontotoc near Cedar Grove. I am your true cousin with love to all the connections.

Jeff Bishop

And, finally, we have “The Ballad of Dock Bishop,” written by Dottie Moore of Pontotoc County, which is justly more about Texas lawman William Wise than Doc Bishop. What a Ft. Worth detective was doing in Calhoun County then is complicated—and ambiguous—even when detailed in Selcer and Foster’s Written in Blood: The History of Fort Worth’s Fallen Lawmen, Volume 1, 1861-1909, but his murder initiated a reinstatement of justice in an area scoured by war. Bishop was hanged on July 3, 1886, “the first white man legally hanged in the state of Mississippi since the Civil War”. Selcer says that this ballad is a “variation on the more famous ‘Ballad of Sam Bass’ and ‘Ballad of Jesse James’”. He also notes that the ballad was frequently sung—to an unknown tune—at folk gatherings for over fifty years.

When I lie down at night to rest
And slumber deep steals o’er me,
As I close my heavy eyes in sleep,
Dark visions pass before me.

I see a calm still moonlight night,
No breath of air is stirring;
No sound the silence breaks, except
The wings of insects whirring.

I see a forest deep and dark,
A man walks through it quickly,
Now in the shade, now in the light
Where the dark leaves mingle thickly.

A man with soft, brown, shining eyes,
And gold brown hair o’er lying,
And daring courage on his face,
On his own strength relying.

He treads the darksome forest through,
Where outlaws lie in hiding,
No fearful thought in his strong heart,
The thought of fear, deriding.

He is a bold, true officer
Attending to his duty,
No thought he gives to nature bright,
Nor the night’s calm, holy beauty.

He follows scraps of paper thrown
Into the path before him,
By one in whom his trust he placed
Who threw a glamour o’er him.

He’s walking swiftly to his doom,
But alas! He does not know it;
He sees naught of the danger there,
Oh, God! If thou would show it!

A little distance on ahead
Are two oak trees, o’er bending,
Behind which two cold hearted men
Evil faced are standing.

Crouched, with weapons cocked in hand,
Awaiting for his coming,
They make no sound to warn their prey
Of the awful risk he’s running.

He’s nearer, he’s almost in their hands,
Will nothing now delay him
From those who plotted, worked and planned
To murder and betray him?

Ah! No, for now he steps along
In the path marked out before him;
He sees the fiendish daces not,
No sense of fear steals o’er him.

Another step, Great God! A shot!
Of oaths and groan a medley;
Another shot! And the ground around
With his lifeblood, gleams redly.

“Tis done, a noble soul is sent
to the land of Heavenly Glory;
a brave detective low is laid
by hands all red and gory.

O, Heavenly Father, pity her,
Whose heart will now be broken,
Grant her in mercy, from thy throne,
Some sweet, peace-giving token.

Help her to bear the awful blow,
Her heart with thy grace cover;
She, in the far off “Lone Star” state,
Awaits her husband lover.

Be thou a friend to this fair child,
As much as to the mother,
Oh, Father of the fatherless,
Than Thee, they have no other.

The murderers, here, may still go free,
By lawyers shrewd, defended,
Free in this world, but yet the next,
Shall see their triumph – ended.
–Dottie Moore

Clio in Our Time

In her acceptance speech for the 1969 First Federal Foundation Awards given by the University of Mississippi, Charlotte Capers said, “I had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, and most especially, with the right people, to be able to make a contribution to my home state.”

That’s half the story. Capers was able to achieve what she did because she was the right person in that place and time and had the strength and malleability to withstand the upheavals in a watershed era for Mississippi. Moreover, she had the intelligence and initiative to know what needed to be done and how to do it. She also had the perspective and character to maneuver with dignity, efficiency, and relentless humor in a highly volatile political landscape.

Let me be the first to say that this monograph is inadequate; Charlotte Capers at the very least deserves the sort of biography afforded Fannye Cook. Might I add, given the firm conviction that Capers would agree, that a Pulitzer awaits the person who bring Evelyn Gandy from behind the curtain.

Ellison Capers, known as “the Fighting Bishop,” joined the Confederate Army as a major, saw the action at Ft. Sumter and was later promoted to  lieutenant colonel of the 24th South Carolina. In May 1863 the regiment joined General Joseph E. Johnston for the Vicksburg Campaign. Capers was wounded in the leg at Jackson, Mississippi, promoted to Colonel, and then to Brigadier General shortly before the end of hostilities. In December 1865, he was elected secretary of state for South Carolina. Ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1868, he served as the Episcopal bishop of South Carolina from 1894 and cHancellor of the University of the South from 1904, until his death in 1908.

Bishop Capers officiated at the marriage of his youngest son, Walter, to Louise Woldridge, on June 29, 1904, in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Columbia, Tennessee. Walter Branham Capers was born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1870, attended Furman College and the University of South Carolina, and served as rector of St. Johns Memorial Church, Farmville, Virginia, after his graduation from Virginia Theological Seminary. From Virginia, Capers was called to Tennessee, where he was president of Columbia Institute, the diocesan school for girls, and rector of St. Peter’s Church, Columbia, from 1902 until 1918. He received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from the University of the South at Sewanee in 1917. In Columbia, he met and married Louise Drane Woldridge. Here the two Capers children, Walter Woldridge (1905) and Charlotte (1913), were born. Capers was called to St. Andrew’s Church, Jackson, in 1919, where he served as rector until 1946. He died in October, 1952.

In Jackson, the Capers family lived in the new rectory on the corner of North State and George Streets. Charlotte later wrote,

Charlotte with her dog, Rita

“It seems to me that 705 North State Street was a fine place for growing up in Jackson and learning the lay of the land. Around the corner and less than five minutes by skate, foot, or bicycle, was Davis School. The New Capitol was only a few blocks away, and young skaters did not hesitate to skate through the tiled basement floor and admire the Egyptian mummy who was the star of the building. A streetcar track ran in front of the house. When we were very young, we would put two straight pins on the track, spit on them, and wait for the streetcar. As it rumbled past it fused the pins into a charming design of crossed swords. If you wished to travel, the streetcar could deliver you north, south, or west. East was the Pearl River, and the suburbs in that area were not yet developed.”

 “As St. Andrew’s was the only Episcopal church in Jackson for a long time, my father’s congregation was scattered all over town and from Clinton on the west to Madison on the north. Sometimes Father would let me ride with him in the family Essex when he went calling, and we covered a lot of territory. The Fairgrounds were within walking distance, as were the downtown picture shows. Beulah, my nurse, took me to the Fair every year on the five dollars my grandmother sent us. This included lunch. When we got home, Beulah became our cook. I should note that Beulah was not my nurse because I was sick, but because I was a child, and nurses were what children had in the 1920s. Nurses were for taking care of children, cooks were for cooking, and so far as I knew, maids had bit parts, like ‘Your carriage awaits, madam,’ in the occasional stage plays which came to the Century Theater.”

 “In spite of the real economic hardship of the Depression, I don’t remember it as a bad time. It was in the 1920s that we learned to dance, and perfected our skills later during the Depression at dances in our homes, including the Rectory, to the Dixieland jazz of Joe White and his combo, fifteen to twenty-five dollars for four hours, depending on the number of instruments.”

Capers graduated from Central High School in 1930. That June, The Jackson Daily News reported: “Miss Capers Entertains with Lovely Dance”—No graduating affair has been more enjoyable than was the beautiful dance given by Miss Charlotte Capers on Wednesday evening from 9 until 1 o’clock in the ballroom of the Edwards Hotel. Miss Capers in a most becoming creation of green lace with her escort Mr. George F. Woodliff, was assisted in receiving by her parents Dr. and Mrs. Walter. Capers. Mrs. Capers was charming in a dress of apricot satin. The ball room had been converted into a lovely scene with palms and other greenery, forming a pretty background for the beautiful dresses worn by the high school and college girls, who with their escorts participated in the delightful occasion. Joe White’s orchestra furnished the wonderful music and dancing was enjoyed until a late hour.”

With the goal of becoming a journalist, Capers attended the University of Colorado and Millsaps College. She was awarded a BA degree in English from the University of Mississippi in 1934. After a brief stint with Condé Nast’s publicity department in Boca Raton, Florida, Capers returned to Jackson.

The year 1938 would prove pivotal for Charlotte Capers. The Capers family suffered a tragedy in the loss of her older brother, Walter Woldridge Capers. Born in 1905, Capers earned his LL.B. at Vanderbilt University, and attended the International School of Law at The Hague, Holland. In 1936 was chosen to serve in the state senate for the four-year term and was appointed chairman of the judiciary committee. He was also dean of the Jackson School of Law He died in December, 1938, from complications of rheumatic fever, in Biloxi, Mississippi, and was buried in Lakewood Memorial Park in Clinton, Mississippi.

In 1938, Charlotte Capers joined the staff of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History (hereafter, MDAH) as a stenographer. Capers later wrote, “I managed to avoid the responsibilities of hard times of bringing home some bacon during the Great Depression, I wanted to play on, until the Right Man swept me away to some swinging tune from A Great Big Band. When the R.M. failed to appear and the wolf was at the Rectory door, I was offered a job in MDAH, and was persuaded to accept it by a family increasingly nervous about making ends meet, and tired of supporting me.” She was to quip, “I came in for a cup of coffee and stayed 45 years.”

MDAH was established by an act of the Mississippi legislature. Governor A. H. Longino signed the bill into law on February 27, 1902. Mississippi became the second state after Alabama (1901) to establish such a department. The first director was Dr. Dunbar Rowland, a lawyer, from Coffeeville. The Department’s first quarters were the rooms adjoining the House of Representatives in the Old Capitol. The department moved to the ground floor of the New Capitol in 1902. Dr. William D. McCain was appointed Director of MDAH in 1938. The Department remained in the basement of the New Capitol until 1940, when slightly more commodious quarters were provided in the War Memorial Building.

When McCain was called to active military service from 1943-45 and 1951-53, Capers was promoted from her position as research and editorial assistant to Acting Director. On May 25, 1955 McCain accepted the position of president of Mississippi Southern College in Hattiesburg and on June 1, at a special meeting of the Board of Trustees of MDAH, Charlotte Capers was unanimously elected Director of the Department to serve out the unexpired term of Dr. McCain, and to begin a six-year term beginning on January 1, 1956. She also became editor-in-chief of The Journal of Mississippi History and chairman of the Mississippi Historical Society.

Capers soon exercised her new authority in a spat with another state agency. Plans of the State Highway Department for the proposed route of a new lane for Highway 49 North, between Jackson and Yazoo City, called for the leveling of a pyramidal mound near the town of Pocahontas. From archeological source materials in the Archives, it was determined that this mound was an important archeological site of prime importance by Moreau B.C. Chambers, former archeologist with MDAH.

In July, 1956, Director Capers invoked for the first time a little-known law which makes MDAH responsible for the safety and preservation of “ruins and archeological sites” in the State of Mississippi. House Bill No. 62, Chapter 161, General Laws of the State of Mississippi, 1938, provides that “any person who shall appropriate, excavate, injure or destroy  any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of historical, archeological or scientific value, situated in the State of Mississippi without first securing the permission of the Director of MDAH shall be guilty of a misdemeanor . . .” The Director informed the State Highway Department of the historical and archeological significance of the Pocahontas Mound, and the 1938 law; as a result, the new lane of Highway 49 North would by-pass the mound, and the State Highway Department would make a roadside park, appropriately marked, nearby.

The Highway Department had its revenge almost sixty years later, however, when in July, 2013 a newly-opened rest area on U.S. High-way 49 at the Pocahontas Indian mound was named for three people instrumental in saving the historic site from development. What Miss Charlotte would say about the Capers-Blake-Scales Rest Area is a matter ripe for speculation.

THE BASIC EIGHT

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Capers was a member of a small, exclusive social circle.

(Eudora) and seven other friends gathered almost weekly for dinner, conversation, and parlor games; they called themselves the Basic Eight. Charlotte Capers, then assistant director of MDAH, which she would eventually head, was a central figure in the group. One of the world’s great raconteurs, even if the world beyond Mississippi did not know it, Charlotte also wrote a regular column for the Jackson Daily News under the pseudonym of Miss Quote. Charlotte’s young assistant Ann Morrison and Ann’s architect husband, Bill, were also members of the Basic Eight as were Jacksonians Jimmie Wooldridge and Major White. The seventh and eighth places were filled variously by friends who returned to Jackson on regular visits—Frank Lyell and Hubert Creekmore most frequently. A different group member would entertain each week-once at the Morrisons’ the guests saw their hosts climb into a bathtub in order to wrap a large roast in layers of wet, salted newspapers, emerging to place the wrapped meat in a barbeque of hot coals. Another time the group painted a mural in the stairway that led from the Morrisons’ basement apartment to Charlotte’s house above. One evening they met to see a moonflower bloom at the home of Major White. At anyone’s home they might play word games: each person writing one line in the set pattern of a story, folding a piece of paper to conceal what he or she had written on it, then passing the paper to another, who would complete a second part of the pattern and so on. Eventually all eight or more lines would be revealed to the assembled group. The results could be hilarious. One exchange led to this sentence:

The beauteous
Marlon Brando
Jocosely
Accosted
the luscious but naughty
Greta Garbo
by the sea
He said, “I want you.”
She said: “It couldn’t matter to me less, one way or the other.”
They rode off on a bicycle built for two.

 The Basic Eight never themselves rode bicycles built for two, but they did make excursions together. A favorite overnight stop was twenty miles north of Jackson at Allison’s Wells, a notably eccentric spa. There one evening soap bubbles began to waft from the laundry up through the dining room, and the proprietor, Hosford Fontaine, made the best of a bad situation: “Aren’t they beautiful, aren’t they lovely?” she rhetorically inquired. Like Hosford, the Basic Eight knew how to find amusement and pleasure wherever they gathered.

 Members of the group entertained, together or separately, notable writers, editors, agents, and photographers who came through Jackson to see Eudora. In February 1952 Robert Penn Warren delivered a lecture at Belhaven College and then spent an evening with Eudora and Charlotte. “Not a serious word was spoken,” Warren later recalled with pleasure. (Suzanne Marrs, Eudora Welty: A Biography)

THE OLD CAPITOL

Capers was learning to develop the directorship of MDAH into an effective agent not only to enforce the antiquity provisions in the Mississippi constitution, but also as a spearhead to carry out the directives of the executive branch. It wasn’t long before she would use her good offices to carry out an objective that had been cherished not only by her predecessors but also by the new officers in state government: the restoration of the Old Capitol.

The Old Capitol had been saved from total destruction in 1916, and Dunbar Rowland, as well as McCain and Capers all recommended a “Hall of History” in a restored Old Capitol, and both Rowland’s successors, McCain and Capers, included such recommendations in their biennial reports. In the late 1950s, Governor J.P. Coleman personally charged MDAH was with planning and creating a state historical museum to be housed in the restored Old Capitol. He was supported by Secretary of State Heber Ladner, Speaker of the House Walter Sillers, and State Tax Collector William Winter.

The Building Commission would perform the restoration, but the MDAH Board of Trustees was to plan the museum. As director, Capers was responsible for carrying her board’s policies into effect. While Capers had a large and direct stake in the restoration, she had no authority over the architect, John Ware. What she did have was a powerful personality and enormous personal influence. She was a friend of Secretary of State Ladner and of Speaker Sillers as well as Sillers’s wife and sister. She and Governor Coleman had been schoolmates at Ole Miss, and Speaker Sillers and State Tax Collector William Winter were on the MDAH Board of Trustees.

Capers had no museum experience, no museum staff, and no budget. She was attempting to create a historical museum in a building on which work had yet to begun. In addition, she had to develop policies for a state historical museum as well as an exhibit plan, and she had to match her rationale and her exhibits plan to Ware’s restoration plans.

Charlotte Capers rose to the occasion. She began by educating herself and by establishing contacts within the museum world. During 1957 and 1958, Capers wrote hundreds of letters seeking advice and help, and she joined professional museum associations and attended their meetings. By the beginning of 1958, she had established a close professional relationship with Dr. Arnold B. Grobman, director of the Florida State Historical Museum and president of the Southeastern Museums Conference. For exhibit expertise Capers turned increasingly to Ralph H. Lewis, chief of the National Park Service’s museums branch. From Grobman, Capers could get expert advice on museum policies, space allocation, budget, and staffing. From the National Park Service, she could get expert help in designing exhibits.

The famous “Mississippi Mummy” didn’t meet Capers’ criteria as a Mississippi relic.

Two years later, in January 1959, plans had been completed. The ambiguous division of roles in the restoration produced some disagreements between architect John Ware and Charlotte Capers. Capers recognized that Ware was ultimately responsible to the Building Commission, the final authority for the job. Although she knew that she had no direct authority over the architect and that her primary duty was to create the museum, Capers nevertheless had a mandate from the Board of Trustees to advise and consult on the restoration. Governor Coleman, the Building Commission, and the Board of Trustees of Archives and History all agreed that the restoration should be as pure as possible. The restored building would be the centerpiece for MDAH’s state historical museum, thus making the entire building, in a sense, a grand exhibit.

 In 1956, Capers had a staff of seven, including a janitor and three clerical workers. In 1958, another clerk was added. None was a museum specialist. In her biennial report of 1959, Capers assured the legislature and the general public that the planning of the Mississippi Historical Museum had not been haphazard, and that it “represents the best thinking in the museum profession in America.” Over the next three years, Capers visited key legislators to enlist their support and made countless speeches to civic clubs and patriotic societies. The staff and budget request Capers submitted for the 1960-62 biennium included money for museum staff and exhibits. Her request included eight additional full-time employees and one half-time. When she submitted the budget to the Commission of Budget and Accounting on August 24, 1959, she noted that she was asking for “a sizeable increase” from $95,165 in the previous biennium to $246,492, more than a one-hundred-percent budget increase. When Capers heard a rumor that her request would be cut by $12,000, she wrote her friend Speaker Sillers asking for help. The department received $248,075 for the 1960-62 biennium and a new museum staff of five, headed by a museum curator.

When the Old Capitol opened on March 21, 1961, Governor J.P. Coleman gave the principal address, stating that the building was “an emblem of the faith that was new and shining in 1839, 122 years ago, and which continues today.” Charlotte Capers presided.

THE CIVIL WAR CENTENNIAL

In the Clarion-Ledger of Friday, March 10, 1961, columnist Tom Ethridge, in his “Mississippi Notebook,” noted that “the total cost of the restoration for the Old Capitol was over $1.5M—a sound investment as an historical asset and tourist attraction. It will play a big part in Mississippi’s observance of the Civil War Centennial.”

The restoration of the Old Capitol was important because in the late Fifties, due to the state’s violent reaction to Brown v. Board of Education, Mississippi’s reputation was at a very low ebb and state officials were struggling to present a more positive face to the nation.

 In the committee assignments of the Society of American Archivists, in December, 1959, Capers was named liaison to the Civil War Committee of the Civil War Centennial Commission along with Dallas Irvine of the National Archives and Sidney Foreman, archivist and historian of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The seven-member committee was appointed by Mrs. Mary G. Bryan of Georgia, president of the American Association of Archivists, at the request of General U.S. Grant III, chairman of the Civil War Centennial Commission. In a talk to the Downtown Kiwanians at the King Edward on March 23, 1961, Capers mentions a two-volume Mississippi in the Confederacy to be published by MDAH “One of the finest collections of material on the Confederacy is in the Department and available to researchers.” Capers also published a feature essay, “Mississippi’s Civil War Role Extensive,” in The State Times, Tuesday, March 28, 1961, prior to the opening of the Old Capitol on June 3.

The nation commemorated the centennial of the American Civil War in the midst of the Cold War and a civil rights struggle at home. Mississippi Governor James P. Coleman had envisioned a conservative commemoration and looked to the state’s heritage organizations and historical community, including MDAH Director Capers, who was slated in a leading position, to shape a respectful remembrance. However, his successor, Governor Ross Barnett, used the centennial to publicize his views about the “southern way of life,” emboldening support for his stance against integration. One of the state’s largest centennial events, the March, 1961, celebration of Mississippi’s secession from the Union, featured Barnett costumed as a Confederate general, marching at the head of several thousand similarly dressed “Mississippi Greys” in downtown Jackson. Tens of thousands of spectators roared to the sounds of “Dixie” and cheered the University of Mississippi’s half-block-long Confederate battle flag. In 1989, she recounted,

“You just cannot imagine the to-do that was going on. We wanted a lot of people to see the museum. It had been the big plan and it worked. Fourteen thousand people attended. And they were wild people; we had complete chaos. They hadn’t understood a museum at all. And they mainly said, “Where’s the bathroom?” And we lost a baby that day because there was a baby buggy with a baby in it that somebody noticed and then later they noticed the buggy, but the baby was not in it, a lot of peanuts were in it. Governor Barnett came and the elevator kept going up with him, but they wouldn’t stop to let him out. So, somebody remembered the buggy and the baby and Governor Barnett in the elevator, so when we found peanuts in the buggy and didn’t find the baby, we thought he was still in the elevator with Governor Barnett. I don’t know where he was, but he wasn’t dead. It was the wildest thing you’ve ever seen. I just wanted to kill myself.”

Though Charlotte toed the line in the state’s overblown celebration of the Confederacy, her personal political views were progressive, if not to say liberal, as Suzanne Marrs relates in her splendid Eudora Welty: A Biography:

“In February 1964 Robert Penn Warren paid a welcome visit. He was in Mississippi doing research for his book Who Speaks for the Negro? And one evening Eudora invited him to join her and Charlotte Capers for dinner. The three had a wonderful time; Warren reported that he “woke up the next morning with my stomach muscles sore from laughing.” Much of the laughter had been directed at former governor Ross Barnett. In November, Robert Penn Warren wrote Eudora for permission to use a fictionalized account of the evening he had spent with her and Charlotte (see above). He wanted to incorporate it in his book Who Speaks for the Negro? Eudora consulted Charlotte about the piece, and Charlotte was immediately opposed to its use, feeling that she would be easily recognized and that her criticism of Ross Barnett and Paul B. Johnson, Jr. would result in the loss of her job as director of MDAH. “I think,” Charlotte told Warren, “they would be reasonable in firing me when considering the use of the words: idiot, drooling, face like an old wash rag, ripped right open like a hog killing, and defective child, in connection with the chief executive and chief executive-to-be. Incidentally some of these expressions are not familiar to me.” Warren promptly replied “to hell with publishing it,” and the difficulty was resolved. Charlotte and Eudora’s dismay at the state of Mississippi politics was not.”

THE ARCHIVES & HISTORY BUILDING

Minutes of a meeting of the Board of Trustees of MDAH, held on July 25, 1963, include a plea from Capers to press for a new building. The Board unanimously adopted a resolution strongly recommending that $1,250,000 be made available to MDAH for the construction of “adequate, modern facilities to house the archives and records program of the State of Mississippi, and that these facilities be constructed in as close proximity to the State Historical Museum in the Old Capitol as possible.”

Little progress was made toward securing funds for the building until 1965, when Dr. R. A. McLemore recognized the opportunity of promoting a new archives building as part of Mississippi’s celebration of her Sesquicentennial of Statehood in 1967. Mr. William F. Winter, member of the executive committee of the Board of Trustees, drafted a bill calling for a new archives building as a permanent memorial to the Sesquicentennial of Statehood, but it never came out of committee. An Extraordinary Session of the Legislature was called on November 9, and Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr. made a personal telephone call to Capers, asking the amount that would be required to construct an Archives building. Capers gave him the figure $1,250,000, which was the amount originally requested by the Board of Trustees. A few days after the Governor’s telephone call, the sum of $1,120,000 was provided for an Archives building in House Bill No. 7, Laws of Mississippi, 1966-1967 Extraordinary Session. This bill was signed into law by Governor Johnson on January 5, 1967.

Capers reported this belated triumph to the Board of Trustees at its January 13, 1967 meeting. On April 13, 1967, the State Building Commission appointed Overstreet, Ware and Lewis of Jackson architects for the project. E. J. Yelverton was executive secretary of the State Building Commission at the time. Mr. Joe Ware, partner in the Overstreet, Ware and Lewis firm, and Capers visited many archival establishments throughout the country to familiarize themselves with the special requirements of archival repositories, and put the plan for the new building which was eventually approved by the Board. (The design called for a largely windowless second floor, but Charlotte insisted an eastern window in the executive office so she could, “keep an eye on Rankin County.”)

It was not until February 6, 1969, that the matter of a site was finally settled. The State Building Commission again approved the Capitol Green site which had been approved by the Board of Trustees, the State Building Commission and the State Capitol Commission of the previous administration in 1967, and finally, four years after the Board of Trustees and the director began their drive for a new building, the stage was actually set for construction.

On November 6, 1969, bids on plans for the Archives and History Building were opened by the State Building Commission. Miss Capers, Dr. McLemore and Mr. Winter were present in the Woolfolk State Office Building auditorium when the bids were opened. Mid-State Construction Company, bidding on the plans of Ware Lewis Partnership, was low bidder with a base bid of $1,061,525, and a base bid plus alternates of $1,108,925. With the addition of architects’ fees, equipment, and contingencies, the total cost of the building came to $1,290,000.

On December 3, 1969, ground-breaking ceremonies were held on the site of the building. The ground was broken with souvenir shovels, each bearing a metal plate with the inscription, “Archives and History Building, December 3, 1969.” When Capers retired in April, 1983, the structure was renamed the Charlotte Capers Building.

THE GOVERNOR’S MANSION

 Capers, director of MDAH since 1955, was reelected to a six-year term at the January, 1968) meeting of the MDAH Board of Trustees. But in May, 1969, she apparently decided she had had enough and informed the Board of her decision to resign from the directorship of the Department on July 1, 1969. Dr. R.A. McLemore, president of the board, said that the Board accepted Miss Capers’s resignation with “regret and appreciation for the distinguished contribution she has made in the State of Mississippi.” When she stepped down from the directorship, Capers was appointed to head the Department’s division of Information and Education, doubtless she anticipated a return to writing and editing. Instead she was named principal executive for the restoration of the Governor’s Mansion, a $2.7 million project begun in 1972.

By 1971, time again threatened the Mansion, which had been a focal point of Mississippi history for more than a century. Governor and Mrs. John Bell Williams moved out of the Mansion in July, 1971, on the advice of engineers who declared it unsafe. Mrs. Bill Waller, campaigning with her husband, said that if Bill Waller was elected, the Mansion would be restored. Waller was elected, and shortly after his inauguration in 1972 the State Building Commission appointed the Jackson architectural firm of Ware, Lewis, and Eaton (now styled Lewis Eaton Partnership, Inc.), as project architects for the restoration of the Governor’s Mansion.

Although MDAH had some responsibility for the Mansion under the Mississippi Antiquities Law of 1970, it was directly involved in the restoration only through a resolution of the State Building Commission, which asked the Board of Trustees of the Department to advise the project architects on the historical aspects of the restoration, and named Charlotte Capers as principal executive for the project. The Archives board recommended two consultants to the State Building Commission: Charles E. Peterson, architectural historian, restorationist and planner, best known for his Independence Hall restoration; and Edward Jason Jones, architect, interior designer, and consultant to the White House.

The restoration and reconstruction of the Governor’s Mansion was completed in May, 1975. Governor and Mrs. Waller opened it to the public on June 8, 1975. At that time Mrs. Waller accepted the National Historic Landmark designation from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

THE CAPERS PAPERS

 When Dr. William McCain started The Journal of Mississippi History in 1939, then-stenographer Capers was made research and editorial assistant. She had still not abandoned ambitions to be a journalist. Between 1949 and 1961, Capers published fifty-two book reviews in The New York Times. Among the titles were The Secret Pilgrim, by Meridian, Miss. native, Edward Kimbrough (Oct. 30, 1949); The Insolent Breed, by Borden Deal, from Pontotoc, Miss. (Sept. 13, 1959); Tammy Tell Me True, by her fellow Millsaps College student, Cid Ricketts Sumner (Nov. 29, 1959); and two Louisiana novels, Victorine (Oct. 28, 1958) and The Chess Players (Jan. 22, 1961), by popular sentimental novelist Frances Parkinson Keyes. On Nov. 7, 1948, the Times also published a letter from Capers that begins, “Ask most New Yorkers what they know about Mississippi; even now they will answer, ‘Bilbo.’ The fact that a vital contribution to America’s literature is being made currently by this most-maligned state often goes unnoticed.” Capers introduces the Times readership to Elizabeth Spencer, Stark Young, David Donald, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Hodding Carter, William Alexander Percy, Shelby Foote, Ben Wasson, James Street, and, of course, Eudora Welty. Capers wrote an additional forty-eight reviews for The New York Times Book Review. She also edited many books on the history of Mississippi and the South. She was editor-in-chief of the Journal of Mississippi History from 1956-1969, and wrote historical articles for Encyclopedia Britannica.

In a January 29, 1967, article in the Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News, Louis Dollarhide wrote, “Charlotte Capers has made a very efficient and imaginative State Archivist. To her friends, she has always been one of the best raconteuses anywhere about. In recent issues of The Delta Review, we have been able to enjoy in print some of her best tales. The recent issue has another chapter in her odyssey. What we should expect of Charlotte is more and more writing.”

Friends had long encouraged her to publish some of her writings in a collection, which she did in 1982 with The Capers Papers contains the “Miss Quotes” essays that she wrote for The Jackson Daily News, Jackson Star-Times, and her “Good Life” pieces in The Delta Review. Her old friend Eudora Welty wrote the foreword:

CHARLOTTE CAPERS NEVER thought to collect her papers. Her colleagues in the Archives have now done it for her, making their choices from a large number that go back for several decades. Here they are for our delight.

We will all have to agree at once to this: they represent Charlotte but they cannot convey her. They weren’t written with that in mind, for they came about by circumstance. Many of them—some of the best, in fact-are samples of her warmly remembered Sunday newspaper column, “Miss Quote,” set down spontaneously in response to an occasion. The occasion would have been local; it might have been of public or personal import, might have been anything that flagged the author down as she came its way or it came hers. They were crowded by space limitations and pressed by the deadline, but they were tossed off with ease and speed. And they acutely reflected their day. They can still call it up, and remind us well that Charlotte Capers never missed a thing in the passing scene.

She’s such a part of it herself. Charlotte does a variety of things well and enthusiastically besides write. She’d rather rise up and dance than sit down and type. She favors the spontaneous, she enjoys the immediate response, the give-and-take of conversation, in which she is a virtuoso. Writing is something you do by yourself. This is the most serious strike against it, or Charlotte may jokingly let you think that; but in the judgment of another writer who has kept urging her on, she writes entirely too well not to take an honest satisfaction from doing it. When we read the collection here we want still more.

 Most of these pieces were written to amuse, and they abundantly do so. If some of them are fleeting, so was, and so is, the passing scene. The point is that Charlotte caught something. Her perceptions are not only quick and bright but accurate and wise. She knows her world. She sees the social world we all move in with its history behind it, too, that built and shaped, and sometimes shadowed, our times. She is a viewer with perspective.

It is above all, though, the sense of people, of human nature and intractable human behavior that intrigues and stirs and delights her mind, and fairly often confirms her expectations. It’s the rest of us that set her off. Herself too she can take on as an equally qualified subject; her own adventures make her best pieces. Her writing might spring out of that sensitivity to human idiosyncrasy which very often brings about such a satisfactory evening of conversation between friends. (Southern conversation, as we know and practice it.)

 They are wonderfully conversational, these flowing pieces. However, she makes it appear, the conversational style is not at all easy to get down on paper. Charlotte has mastered her style without seeming to try; this is characteristic of her. The Capers papers as in her character, is intuitive, receptive, hospitable, unpredictable but succinct.

 To relish human nature (which is a talent all its own, you probably have to be born with it) is to pretty well know it, to be well-prepared and seasoned to its surprises and revelations. She applies the extravagant idiom, the outrageous now and then it offers her a reasonable amount of scope in a small column of type, and comes in generally handy for reporting what goes on here. Exaggeration is one of her splendid accomplishments. Just as a towering skyscraper can only be built on bed rock that goes deep and stands unquivering, to exaggerate as tellingly as Charlotte can, you need to be pretty firmly based in human truths.

 These pieces vary in subject and mood and kind. But they convey in common a warmth of feeling you won’t fail to recognize as Charlotte’s own. In reading the Capers papers we hear the Capers voice.

 The beautifully written “God and My Grandmother,” an essay given the full development it deserves, has the power to deeply stir us. “Pawley’s Island” is a sensitive and very special evocation of a place. The exemplary portrait of the “Tiny Tenant” is made up of one part clear eyed observation, one part headlong devotion, and no part whatever of sentimentality. You will decide which are your own favorites. In any case, the last piece, “Autumn Light,” an elegy of our state in 1954, is likely to remain a picture in all our minds, not fleeting but indelible.

CAPERS CANINES

 In 1999, Patti Carr Black published The Capers Canines a series of essays Capers had written about her beloved dogs, with charming illustrations by Mack Hunter Cole. All of these animals were in their turn the stars of her anecdotes, but none more so than the inimitable Fred Friendly, the Dog Who Came to Dinner.

FRED’S CIRCLE WIDENS

 By the time Fred had been with me about a year, he was an accepted and respected member of the neighborhood. He had an active social life. Mr. Birch, who took his devoted peeka-poo for a long walk every night, still stopped by to pick up Fred, who was waiting, alert, for his call. Fred unleashed ran interference for Joey when he was threatened by a larger and more unfriendly dog. Their walk lasted about thirty to forty-five minutes, and Fred always returned peacefully after a friendly good-night to Mr. Birch and Joey.

 When I had company, Fred liked to be indoors, so that he could be as helpful as possible. He usually greeted guests enthusiastically at the door, to the consternation of some gentleman callers when he gave them unnecessarily close check-ups. However, this was a brief encounter, and when the guests were seated, Fred went from chair to chair inquiring with his large and protruding brown eyes as to their needs. Of course, he shook hands, all around, several times, and even sat up while shaking: to prove his true hospitality. He was such a natural host I would not have been entirely surprised to hear him inquire, in his deep and husky voice, “Can I get you anything?” So time went along, Fred and I grew older, and his popularity steadily increased. He routinely received Christmas presents from the neighbors, and he seemed to accept his role as my friend and defender. The smooth tenor of our ways was occasionally interrupted by his overnight stays at the dog pound, where he made friends readily. In fact, when I missed him, I knew exactly where he might be found. The keepers were always sad to see him go. I never retrieved him without a parting message from his captors: “He sure is a nice dog. I hate to see him go.” Fred evidenced his love for one and all, even after he had broken the law and paid the price for it, and always seemed glad to be home again.

 About this time, however, Fred began to travel. 1 think it was because I began to travel, too, farther and farther away from our home place, like England, and even Italy and Greece. This would not have been possible if Fred and I had not been supported by a large circle of friends. My office staff assumed some responsibility for Fred, in that his collar proclaimed their telephone number. The neighborhood support group included the Culvers next door, who fed him; Ann down the street, who had agreed to receive his missing-in-action calls; and of course Mr. Birch and Joey, who still kept their appointments with him when possible.

 When I returned from my first stay in London, they all had tales to tell. It seems that Fred’s travels during my absence suggested that this country dog with a mysterious past absorbed some love for culture during his life with my friends and me. I was told that my office received a call from the state office for continuing education, where it was reported that a friendly dog had scratched at the door, come in, and indicated an interest in the program. He doubtless shook hands, and they reported, “He is such a nice dog, we wanted to get him safely home.” So they called my office, and the Committee for the Preservation of Fred swung into action. Ann picked him up and returned him to our home, and all was quiet until the next call came. It was not long in coming. “Do you have a dog named Fred?” The affirmative answer brought the same comment made by the education people. “He surely is a nice dog. I am at Dr. X’s office. He’s a dentist, and we found Fred at the door when we came in. He is here in the office and we will keep him until you come.” It seems that Fred, being speechless, was not able to say why he was there, but I have to admit that his teeth were not in perfect occlusion. By this time no one at my office discounted the evidence that Fred may have had unusual powers. No matter, Fred was brought home again, amiable as ever, and there he was when I returned from my trip a few weeks later.

 We rocked along as usual, and Fred seemed settled and glad for both of us to be home. He was help with company, a great topic of conversation, and good company when I was alone. I thought Fred had missed me too much, and had naturally traveled to find company.

 On these first travels, his moves were to the South. For many years the Butcher Shop was our town’s best and most expensive meat market and delicatessen. During one of my summer absences, left in charge of my – and his – faithful friends, Fred checked it out. In his mysterious manner he made it through heavy traffic and across Lakeland Drive unscathed. My friend and neighbor on Berkley Drive received the call. “Do you have a dog named Fred?” was the question. On admitting some responsibility for Fred, my friend was told that he had arrived at the Butcher Shop, and that, though dogs were not welcomed there, “he is such a nice dog” that the owner had presented him with a large bone and escorted him to one of the apartments above the Butcher Shop, that overlooked Lakeland Drive. There on the balcony my friend found Fred, tied to the balcony rail, lounging lazily while chewing on the largest and meatiest bone she had ever seen. Fred was especially interested in the incessant flow of traffic east and west and was not especially interested in being rescued. Nonetheless, he took his capture in a gentlemanly manner and went on home, there to dream of his one-and-only adventure with east-west traffic and prime beef.

 The first indication I had of a northerly instinct in him came when my neighbor Mary Brister went grocery shopping at Kroger’s, a supermarket located several miles from Berkley Drive. She reported that when she came out of the store, there was Fred at the door, gravely shaking hands with everyone who came or went. She recognized him at once, and she asked him if he wanted to come home. Without any hesitation he got into the car with her, and she deposited him on my doorstep, where he seemed content to be.

RETIREMENT

On Feb. 24, 1983, Gov. William F. Winter issued a proclamation that read, in part:

WHEREAS, Charlotte Capers, writer, editor, literary critic, historian, raconteur, and administrator is now retiring after her distinguished and productive career in state service;

NOW, THEREFORE I, William Forrest Winter, Governor of the State of Mississippi, hereby make known the high regard in which Charlotte Capers is held by the executive branch of government of the State of Mississippi by declaring Wednesday, the 30th day of March, 1983, as Charlotte Capers Day, and order all state agencies to observe the day in an appropriate manner.

Charlotte Capers retired on April 1, 1983. When she joined MDAH in 1938, she was one of three employees; in 1983, the department had grown to include 150 employees in six divisions. Charlotte Capers had been a part of every step of that development. The fact that she retired on April Fool’s Day did not escape the notice of her many friends.

DARK DECEMBER

Charlotte Capers died December 23, 1996. Services were held in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, where she was the first woman elected to the vestry in 1968. Survivors were her friends and adopted family Ann K. Morrison, William D. Morrison III, Barry K. Morrison and Charlotte Morrison. Pallbearers were John Allin, Cecil Heidelberg III, Sam Lane, Dale Lane, Robert Wise and Harry Weir. Burial was in Lakewood Memorial Cemetery.

 

SPEAKING OF CHARLOTTE

Chrissy Wilson Interview
August 20, 2019

Charlotte hired me at the Archives in 1978. My main job was to be the managing editor of the Journal of Mississippi History, and I did that for thirty years, until I got so sick of it and tired of sitting at a computer and having tendonitis, and so I just retired in 2008. But we were great friends. I guess you know what her big accomplishments were. She had the vision of what was to become, what has become, the present-day Mississippi Department of Archives & History.

Her brain was funny, and by that I don’t mean weird funny, I mean that everything she said was funny, and if not funny, then delightful. And I’m not kidding! Everything she said. She was smart as a whip. She could get so much done, then she wanted to talk and play. She could get it done (snapping fingers) like that. She and Patti Black were my big mentors. I learned and observed her style and it was all a treat. I was also there when, you know, she and Eudora were best friends, or she was one of her best friends. Eudora would come up to the office all the time, and she’d often call, and when she called—my office was next door to Charlotte’s and we always kept our doors open—I could hear Charlotte say, “Dodo!”, and that meant that Eudora had called and said, “Sha-sha!” Those were their little greetings. And I got to be great friends with them, just special friends. Eudora has been over several times for drinks. We’d have parties and it would be Charlotte, Eudora, Patti Black, and Ann Morrison. And then when Suzanne Marrs came, she became a part of that group. But for a long time, it was just the four of us, we’d have drinks and party. So that was really something to be around that group.

Everything that came out of her office had to be precise and correct grammatically as well as graceful. It just had to be that, as well as correct historically and factually. It had to be pretty much darn near perfect. I learned that you had to get it right pretty quickly.

When I knew her, she was not the director. She had stepped down; Elbert Hilliard was the director. Charlotte was in her sixties, and she got tired of being director. There were the quarterly board meetings, too, which she was in charge of. I think she especially got tired of all that, so she became director of what was called “Information and Education.” The division handled news releases, book editing, the Journal of Mississippi History, and the newsletter, among other projects. Of course, she wrote the newsletter forever. I took it over when she gave it up—I forget the year. Even though she wasn’t director of the Department, she kept an eye on what was going on, and Elbert went to her for advice all the time. She kept her hand in, big time.

Once she hired you and figured out you were okay, Charlotte gave you free range to just go off and do what she hired you to do. And she taught Elbert to do that, too. If you hire good people you don’t have to watch them like a hawk, and she tried to teach him that, I think. Charlotte got to be a really good friend of mine, and it just eclipsed from boss to good friend. She was raised in social Jackson, so she had all those people in her world. Mary Heidelberg was one of her good friends, and so was Eudora. Charlotte was quick to make fun of all the social stuff in Jackson, even though she was a part of it. She had an extremely dry wit.

The Capers Building? She directed the building of it. And the director’s office is on the eastern side of the building. There is only one window on that side—in her office. She said, “I had to have a window so I could keep an eye out on Rankin County, the Gold Coast.” Because she went over there all the time. She was a party girl! That window there, whenever I see it, I think about Charlotte. That said a lot about her.

She used to say that she stopped by Archives & History one day for a cup of coffee and stayed for forty years. That was her phrase. She used to say how she used to hate to hear people say, “Oh, yes, she never married…” She hated to be judged like that, like she was an old maid.

She talked about her dogs a lot. I knew Fred. Fred was a big old hound. I don’t know what kind he was. Just nondescript. A big old dog. I don’t know where she got him, I think he just came up to her house one day, but he had a tattoo in his ear and she used to think that he had… that they’d been doing experiments on him, some kind of brain surgery at UMMC, maybe implants because he was so smart, and that he had escaped. This is what he would do, and I swear this is true. He would get out of the fenced yard all the time, and he would go to the Fred’s store up on I-55, and he would stand out front of the store holding out his paw to greet people. One of the former directors was R.A. McLemore, who had a habit of coming up to everybody, even people he knew extremely well (he was just oblivious) and shaking hands and saying, “R.A. McLemore” even if the person knew him and saw him every day. So when Fred would hold up his paw, Charlotte would say he did it just like R.A. McLemore. The other place Fred would go was the lingerie shop in Highland Village. Many times the women who ran that shop would call and say—you know he had a tag on his collar—“Fred is here again.” Occasionally there was a burger place he went to, which is the only place that made sense. And I think she talks in the book about how she was having this tea party in her yard, and Fred and his girlfriend proceeded to carry on romantically there in front of the ladies there.

We’d go over to Vicksburg a lot on business, and there was the Old Vicksburg Hotel there with a tea room, and she called it the Old Vicksburg tee-tee room because that’s where we’d stop by after our long drive. She had this Scottish terrier later after she was retired, and that dog was so bad, but the worst thing it would do is …Charlotte would have to leave the bathroom door open when she had guests, but as soon as she opened the door, that dog would grab the end of the toilet paper roll and run through the house. It was awful.

I remember one time she went into the Old Capitol House chamber for a program and said she was going to sit there on the aisle so she could see and hear and leave, leave being the most important thing.

Her brother was in the legislature. She would tell me that he’d climb out the windows at night and slide down the roof to sneak off and see his girlfriends. He was a live wire, really smart, died young. She kind of adopted the Morrisons. Ann named her daughter Charlotte. We called her Little Charlotte.

When Eudora went to the White House o receive the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1980, Charlotte accompanied her. She took a nice suit to wear at the ceremony, and tucked a bottle of Old Crow into her suitcase. Unfortunately, the bottle broke, and her suit was soaking wet. She sent it out to the cleaner, but it still reeked of Old Crow.

One day Patti and I went to pick Charlotte up from the nursing home/rehab place, where she was undergoing some rehab after a hospital stay.  Patti had a truck then. Patti and Charlotte sat in the front, and Ann and I sat in the back. We went out to eat. After we left, we got in the truck and headed out and Charlotte said, “Now, you know where to take me, don’t you, Patti?” And Patti said, “Yeah, I know. To the nursing home.” And Charlotte, who was nervous, asked, “Are you sure you know?” She was anxious. “Don’t just take me to any nursing home, Patti,” Charlotte said. To have a sense of humor in that situation is extraordinary.

I went to visit her at that rehab center, the one behind the fire station on Lakeland.  I went in and met her roommate. She introduced me cordially; her manners were always perfect. After the introduction, she pulled the curtain, saying, “Let’s have a little privacy.” And to her roommate, “We’ll see you later!” So she pulled the curtain and said to me, “She says she’s a Methodist, but I think she’s a Baptist.” She kept her sense of humor to the very end.

Charlotte was an ardent Episcopalian, of course, and I heard her comment several times that she loved the idea that in her church everyone received the same full funeral ritual, no matter who they were. I thought of that at her funeral.

Suzanne Marrs Interview
July 17, 2019

When I first came to Jackson to do research, I was down at the Archives, and I said I’d like to interview Miss Welty, and they said, “Well, we’d better ask Miss Capers.” She was retired by then, but they consulted her. She came up to meet me, and we talked. She said, “I think Eudora should meet you.”  I met Eudora through Charlotte rather than the other way around. This would have been 1983. She arranged for us to meet. I was teaching in upstate New York at the State University of New York at Oswego, and I had written a few things about Welty while I was on sabbatical, and I was coming to look at the Archives.

So that first summer, I saw Eudora two or three times, I think, and a friend who was also doing Welty research and I took Eudora out to lunch, and I don’t know that I saw Charlotte again that summer. Then I came back the next summer, and Chrissy Wilson and Madel Morgan at the Archives approached me and said they wanted to write a grant to being me back to be the scholar-in-residence for a year here at the archives. I was thrilled with that, but I’m not sure if Charlotte was involved in that grant proposal or not. But when I came back for a year, that’s when I began to see Charlotte on a regular basis. That would have been the summer of 1985. I came back in the summer of 1984, so I was here summer of ’83 and ’84, and in 1985 I came back for a year as scholar-in-residence at the Archives on a Mississippi Humanities Council grant that they had gotten. I began to see both Eudora and Charlotte on a regular basis. Charlotte and her friend Ann Morrison, who also became my very good friend, and Eudora and I, the four of us, would get together often and have dinner at one house or another. Usually at Charlotte’s or at Ann’s house. So then I got to know Charlotte pretty well.

Charlotte was one of the greatest conversationalists you could ever encounter. You wanted to listen to Charlotte, you really didn’t want to listen to anyone else, even Eudora, who was a pretty good story-teller and conversationalist herself. But Charlotte would move from one story to the next seamlessly, and she was one of these Southern story-tellers that you don’t find a lot any more. They weren’t jokes; she wasn’t telling jokes, they were anecdotes. She told them in a very humorous way. There was always a great sense of humor with her. She had a knack for turning everything into a funny story. It could be what happened during the day, it could be what happened ten years ago, and she might go back and forth during the course of an evening, but she was a wonderful raconteur.

She talked about old-time Jackson, her family, friends, travels, a lot about dogs. There was Fred. One dog she had when I knew her was Piper. Scottie. But then there were a lot of stories about Fred.

We talked about the Welty Collection, which she was responsible for acquiring. She asked Eudora for her papers. And it was Charlotte and Governor Winter and Patti who asked Eudora to give her house to the state, which she did. Eudora could have sold her papers for a princely sum, but she didn’t, she gave them to the state as an act of friendship to Charlotte, a love of home a well.

Charlotte did cook. Not much, but she made this and that. She taught me how to make cornbread in the proper way because I was putting not buttermilk but just milk in, and I put a little flour in with my cornbread, but she taught me it should have buttermilk and corn meal only.

She was living on Berkeley Drive at the time. Before then, the Capers had lived on the corner of Poplar and St. Anne, and that’s where the Basic Eight used to get together a lot, at that house. Ann Morrison and her husband Bill rented from Charlotte and they became, the three of them, best friends. After Bill died, she and Ann remained best friends and Ann and Bill’s children were family to Charlotte, she was devoted to them as well. Ann and Bill rented the basement apartment and Charlotte lived upstairs with her parents—I’m not sure when they died—first with both of them, later with just one of them. I think her father survived her mother.

I think this—The Capers Papers—was her genre. She wasn’t a fiction writer; she was a memoirist, a raconteuse. She was an archivist and a journalist, but I don’t think she thought of herself as a writer. She did book reviews, too.

Charlotte did change my life in the sense that I was getting ready to go home after I’d been here a year on that grant, and Charlotte had me out to lunch and said, “I think you ought to stay.” And that’s when I began to think seriously about looking for a job in Mississippi, and I moved to Millsaps after that. That was in 1986. I moved back here in 1988. She was very affirming, she said, “I think you fit in well here. It would be great to have you here working with the Welty collection and writing about Eudora.”

She was always just a wonderful friend to me. If she needed a ride to church and she didn’t want to go by herself, I’d go with her, I’d take her to St. Andrews, which was a great experience. Madel Morgan used to call her “the Rose of the Rectory” and of course you know the rectory is where Greenbrook Florists is now. I’m glad I came when I did because I got to know all these amazing people. I had sort of a privileged position because Eudora’s friends became my friends, so that’s how I came to know Charlotte, and Patti, and Ann and Jane Petty and all them, and Tom Spengler. So it was a great way to get to know Jackson. It was the most interesting group of people you could ever hope to be around: smart and funny, and generous.

We talked books all the time. Charlotte was a great reader, lots of books in her house. She was very confident and competent. She started out in a secretarial role at Archives because at that time, that’s what women got. Then she became director of the Archives and hired people like Chrissy and Patti and Ann. Another person who worked for Charlotte is Hank Holmes.

That would be a great project in itself, a book, actually, the collected writings of Charlotte Capers. Charlotte was a great storyteller, and one reason I’m not telling her stories is that I was going to a conference in England one time, and Charlotte said to me, “When you’re in England, don’t tell my stories. You always get them wrong.”  They were such great stories, and I might tell them, but she might hear me and say, “It wasn’t like that!” And I know some of the ones she meant.

The BBC came to Jackson to make a program on Eudora Welty one year, and Charlotte and Patti and Ann were trying to feed Eudora lines that would get Eudora to tell stories. But then they’d tell stories themselves, like the one about Miss Fannye Cook. So Patti starts telling the story about Miss Cook having what she called her card catalogue. You’d pull open a drawer and there’d be a little dead bird in there with a tag on it. And I think it was Eudora who said, “Then she’d say, ‘And these are our summer visitors.’” And Charlotte would say, “They were her last visitors!” Then there’s the story about Mr. Wiley Harris bringing a dead owl to her and saying, “Eudora, would you put this in your refrigerator, I think it will prove my point with Miss Cook about the stomach contents.”

[Because nothing has been done on Charlotte] I can’t help feeling a little derelict because I knew Charlotte well and loved her and she’d be a great subject for a book. Because she had a vantage on Mississippi all those years, on Jackson, because she was such a great storyteller and humorist as well as a political observer.

You’ll have to concentrate on Charlotte as a public figure and a writer, but I keep coming back to what a wonderful friend she was. I’m sure you’ve heard that from Patti. Her ability as a storyteller was unsurpassed; you didn’t want her to stop, you didn’t want to hear anyone else. You know, it’s Mark Twain, isn’t it, who talks about the difference between a humorist and a comedian. The humorist is somebody who tells it straight, with no punchline, but everything about it is amusing. And that was Charlotte’s style.

I may write down some of Charlotte’s stories, but then she did tell me not to tell them. You might get them out of me. Here’s one. When Little Charlotte was about to be born, Big Charlotte went up to the hospital, the Baptist Hospital, to be present at the birth, and she went in the wrong door and went into the psych ward. She went through the door and it shut behind her and locked. When someone approached her, she’d say, “I’ve gotten here by mistake, I don’t belong here.” And of course they’d say, “That’s what they all say.” She had to be rescued. She loved telling that story. Up in heaven, she’s telling it.

Bill Ferris Interview
July 29, 2019

Charlotte was a part of my life as far back as I can remember, and she was always very supportive of my work in folklore, which was especially welcome because a lot of people didn’t understand what I was doing. She did. She and Patti Black encouraged me with early projects on folk art and architecture. We actually did an exhibition that was circulated by the Smithsonian to sites around the country that started at the Mississippi (Old Capitol Museum). That would have been around 1970-71. It was very early. The same time we did an exhibit called “Mississippi Folk Voices,” which was a series of concerts at the Old Capitol that featured musicians that I had worked with. That eventually inspired a long-playing record album and a small paperback book. Those were all projects that Charlotte supported. She introduced me to Patti Black, and Patti and I worked together on projects for many years after that.

Charlotte’s parents were friends of my grandparents. They all lived in Jackson about a block or two from Eudora Welty’s home, the house that Blair Batson lived in for many years. Charlotte’s father married my aunt, Frances Ferris, to her husband, Parker Hall. Bishop Capers performed the wedding ceremony, and Aunt Frances taught only one year in Jackson, taught the high school seniors, and Charlotte was a student in the class she taught that year. My parents lived on a farm outside of Vicksburg, and Charlotte was a regular visitor there. It was like theatre when she came, because she was a great raconteur of stories, and she just lit up a conversation in a very special way. I always remember sitting around the table with my family and Charlotte and listening to her wonderful conversation.

I was always interested in folklore, and Charlotte encouraged that interest. Charlotte asked me to speak about my work, and I’d already started the recordings. She asked me to come speak at the archives so her staff could hear more about what I was doing. That was where she introduced me to Patti Black, and she also introduced me to the photographs that Eudora Welty had taken. I knew Eudora’s work as a writer, but was not aware of her work as a photographer. Her photographs made a deep impression on me, and I later interviewed Eudora about them and published a piece on them. But Charlotte opened all those doors.

I remember her funeral. My brother and I took Eudora Welty to the service. The service speakers were all women; it was very powerful. You could feel Charlotte’s spirit there in a very deep and meaningful way. Eudora, as she always did, talked about Charlotte and their friendship and their connections to both Jackson and New York City.

She was famous for her ability as a raconteur. When I was at Yale, I got to know Robert Penn Warren, and he was an old, old friend of Eudora’s. I brought her to speak several times and arranged for her to be awarded an honorary doctoral degree at Yale. At one point, I was talking with Robert Penn Warren about a visit he had with Eudora. They had a dinner and a wonderful evening. He said, “I’ll never forget Charlotte Capers. I think she’s the greatest storyteller I’ve ever heard. Then he related this story that she told of a lady from a prominent Jackson family who had killed her mother and cut her up into pieces, and they never found all of her mother. Rather than put her in prison, they put her in Whitfield. And each Sunday the friends would come and have their weekly bridge game with her. One day they were playing and one of her friends laid her cards down on the table and said, “I refuse to play another hand until you tell us what you did with the rest of your mother.” So that was the kind of Southern gothic tale that Charlotte could level a room with.

She, like Eudora, was a tall, elegant, strong woman. And she basically had a clear sense of what she wanted to do as the archivist of Mississippi. and Eudora had a strong view of what she wanted to do as the great writer of Mississippi. They really were partners in many ways. Eudora placed all her archives at the state archives under Charlotte’s able hand. She left her home to the Archives to be a museum. Charlotte’s legacy was very important.

When my father began farming, my grandparents lived on the farm in Warren County. My father built a log cabin where his parents lived, and our closest white neighbor was several miles away, George and Clara Rummage, and they lived in a home that had been built by Colonel B.L.C. Wailes, the first state geologist of Mississippi, and many of Wailes’ papers were still there. My grandfather copied them and placed them and his own papers in the state archives.

My uncle Parker Hall was treasurer of the University of Chicago, and when Eudora would go to do readings, often Charlotte would go with her. And, again, she had very funny stories of how my aunt would take them on a tour of Chicago and drop them off on the steps of a building and say, “Now, run up those steps and look at that view, and I’ll come around the block and pick you up. Charlotte would describe how they’d run up the stairs and back down, and exhausted, my aunt would pick them up. She described it so well. She had a way of eliciting humor. The Capers Papers is one of my favorite books. In that book, and in the essays she wrote, she always had a wry sense of humor. Her family, as I recall, were from Columbia, Tennessee, the mule capitol of the world. I did an oral history, a book on Ray Lumm, who was featured at the Old Capitol. We had a screening of a film he was in and he sat next to Charlotte and Eudora and never stopped talking throughout the film. Charlotte was appreciative of all those worlds.

I see Charlotte as the foundation, the anchor of the archive collection in the state of Mississippi. Before Charlotte, there really were no archives of note, and she was like a bird dog. She went after collections, and built them. She also cultivated friendships with figures like William Winter, who lent political and financial support in ways that were unique to Mississippi. The fact that the Capers Building is named for her is a most appropriate way of remembering her legacy.