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 recently afforded Fannye Cook.

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, and was buried in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he died.

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.

Totally Jacked

In the mid-80s, I moved from north Mississippi, where I’d spent my entire life, to north Florida, where nobody spends an entire life. I caught total hell. I mean, I caught hell from people who didn’t even know where their grandparents were buried.

Part of the problem, of course, was the fact that I attached some degree of importance to such things as knowing where your grandparents—and ancestors beyond—had been laid to rest. I also suffered by being the only Rebel fan in a swamp full of Florida Gators. Believe it or not, most of these people didn’t even know what I meant when I said “Ole Miss.” Instead, they referred to it as “Mississippi.” That’s within bounds, of course, but it just doesn’t have the same cachet.

For another thing, I was a pacifist liberal in an area largely supported by military funding during the middle of the Reagan Era. My Dukakis campaign button brought down a rain of derision upon me, but I wore it defiantly. Finally, to add insult to injury, I’d only been there a little over a year when Alan Parker comes out with this damnatory film about one the darkest chapters of my home state’s history, Mississippi Burning. The impression these people got from the film was that everybody in Mississippi is an ignorant racist just itching to get their hands on some out-of-staters to help shore up our levees.

This conception was reinforced on at least one occasion that I can remember. At the restaurant I worked in, we offered a fish of the day. The offering varied, depending upon what the fleet from Destin brought in and what they charged for their catch. More often than not, however, the fish of the day was amberjack. Now, amberjack is a perfectly good fish, but large amberjack—those over 15 pounds or so—are heavily parasitized by a tapeworm, Poecilancistrium caryophyllum, more commonly known as spaghetti worms. The worms have bulbous heads and long, skinny bodies and they’re all coiled up in the flesh and you have to . . .  well, I’ll leave it at that. It’s pretty disgusting. We were always careful to clean the fish fastidiously before we served it. But some people won’t eat amberjack—or speckled trout, which sometimes have the same problem—for that reason.

Well, I was working in the kitchen one morning with a waitress with whom I had what you could only call a difficult relationship. She was a world-class bitch, and I grew to love her dearly, but at this point I was still coming to appreciate her derisive wit. So when she stormed in, marched up to me and said, “Let me tell you what I think about you damned Mississippians!” I knew I was in for it through no fault of my own, so I just stood there while she let me have it. She had just waited on a table composed of a man from the Mississippi Coast and his wife. He asked her about the fish of the day, and when she told him it was amberjack, he said, “Amberjack! Why, only niggers eat amberjack!”

She was pissed, and rightly so. Oddly enough, though, this incident proved to be a turning point in our relationship, because I assured her that I was just as appalled as she was and dismayed to boot that she had to put up with such a display of rudeness and bigotry. I like to believe that despite my abundant flaws as a human being I was a good ambassador for my home state during my tenure on the Redneck Riviera. I made some good friends there, and though we’ve long since gone our separate ways, I still remember my time in Florida with varying degrees of fondness.

Valley of Dry Bones: A Meditation on Change by Howard Bahr

In 1951, author S. Skip Farrington, Jr., bestirred himself to see how America’s railroads were faring in the years following World War Two. What he found was a thriving industry open to innovation and dedicated to customer service. In his classic Railroading the Modern Way (Coward-McCann, 1951), Farrington extolled the virtues of the great companies whose heralds, maps, lists of officers, and intricate schedules fattened The Official Guide to the Railways, that indispensable yearly publication, the size of a Chicago phone book, that every ticket clerk and agent in the Republic consulted for the routing of freight and passengers. Farrington raised hymns to powerful diesel locomotives, all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), cushion couplings, centralized traffic control, end-to-end radio communication, and luxurious new passenger equipment. Reading Farrington’s work now, one is struck by his implicit conclusion: everything about the railroad was going to stay the same, but it would all be faster, safer, and shinier than ever before. The traveling public could rejoice, and small shippers could rub their hands in glee.

Two decades later, Farrington’s cheery prophecy had collapsed like a washed-out trestle. Those of us who were railroading in those twilight days witnessed changes in the industry far more radical than anything Farrington could have imagined in the money-green glow of the ‘Fifties. From our decrepit yard offices, grimy locomotive cabs, and generic all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), we watched as the old resounding road names celebrated in Farrington’s book were gobbled up by mergers. We saw the sale or abandonment of entire districts, the consolidation of agencies, the ruthless encroachment of job-killing technology, and the surgical excision of labor-intensive commodities like perishable fruit and passengers. The government got involved, then it got uninvolved, and then–well, who knows? Traffic agents like my old man– those stalwart, hard-drinking, fiercely loyal drummers who pounded the pavements in search of business–became as anachronistic as link-and-pin couplers and finally disappeared altogether, their once-busy offices abandoned or used for storage.

Railroads, it seemed, had found other interests. Our beloved Illinois Central, for example–once the Main Line of Mid-America–yearned for greater profits, so it redefined itself as Illinois Central Industries and wrapped its tentacles around Pepsi Cola and Whitman Candies and left the now-unprofitable railroad property to wither on the vine. By the mid-Seventies, the Official Guide had shrunk to the size of an L.L. Bean catalog. On our Gulfport District, the maximum main line speed of freight trains had been reduced to ten miles an hour over crumbling lightweight 1930s rail affixed to ties that could be pulled apart in the hand. Three-man crews, with radios that rarely worked, risked their lives trying to switch behemoth tank cars and piggyback flats in yards designed in the 1890s. Almost overnight, the old craft became unrecognizable to persons like myself, who remembered footboards and forty-foot cars and coal-oil switch targets, who had penciled switch lists in the rain, who had passed lantern- and hand signals along a cut of cars and waved at pretty girls from the cupola of a caboose or the cab window of a growling GP-9.

But surely some revelation was at hand. Surely the Second Coming was at hand. The new railroad model, slouching toward solvency with relentless efficiency, was a desperate attempt to survive in a world that had swiftly left Farrington’s ideal behind.

In due season–another ten years perhaps–the railroads accomplished their vision and their survival. The result, as John R. Stilgoe so beautifully illustrates in Train Time (U of Virginia P, 2007), was a tectonic shift in the American industrial landscape. Stilgoe’s book, in perfect counterpoint to Farrington’s, demonstrates how, in less than a half-century, the old clanking, colorful, individualistic railroad companies of folklore and romance vanished like a dream, and in their place rose a new paradigm: the single trunk line, a silvery welded-rail turnpike over which computer-controlled trains with two-man crews hauled inter-modals or bulk commodities. Yard switching became a matter of mere pulling and shoving, and along the main line, switching was minimal or nonexistent. Depots were sold for restaurants or gift shops, freight houses were demolished, and only the most reluctant accommodation was made for Amtrak passenger trains.

Out of the chaos, finally, rose a single indisputable Gibraltar of fact: for the Post-Modern age, no better method exists for the transportation of bulk commodities than a well-maintained, high-speed, computer-controlled, heavy-rail corridor over which fuel-efficient motive power hauls the goods. American mega-railroads have achieved their goal, and American mega-business–not to mention highways and Interstates choked with eighteen-wheelers–will be the better for it.

Like most revolutions, however, that which I have just described was not without its cost. A way of life disappeared, and with it the loyalty men and women felt for the companies that had sustained them, often for generations. Countless jobs were abolished as shops and yards “modernized,” trains were cut off, and maintenance and damage control were hired out to private companies. Small shippers found they were no longer courted; indeed, they were ignored, even bypassed, as the railroad companies pulled up branch lines and spur tracks. Train crews no longer learned on the job, but attended centralized schools like truck drivers or heavy-equipment operators. People, especially poor ones, who still found it expedient to travel by rail were shuffled off to poor old Amtrak, for years the red-headed stepchild of the new empire.

Today, railroads have all but disappeared from the American imagination, where they once held center stage. Through four years of Naval service, I was sustained by the idea that, when I was released at last, I could go and be a railroad brakeman–somewhere, anywhere. I would walk the tops gaily and ride the caboose; I might even get to wear the uniform of a passenger trainman. I could do it for as long as I wanted, for the railroads, of course, would never change, a prodigious delusion as it turned out. In latter years, I have met not a single young person whose ambition was to work for the railroad.

When the family SUV is inconveniently blocked at a grade crossing–OMG! Josh will be late for soccer practice!–or when a derailed ninety-foot tank car of ammonia exterminates a congregation, then the citizens pay attention, a little. Otherwise, most people are only dimly aware of the big, graffiti-plastered objects that lumber past on the edge of their vision. In an age when, for example, the Canadian National operates in Mississippi and Louisiana, the public can hardly be blamed for losing their sense of regional affiliation. Crewpersons, buttoned up tight in their air-conditioned locomotive cabs, do not wave much anymore, and the caboose, the public’s most cherished railroad icon, has long been replaced by FRED, the Federal Rear End Device. FRED is an air-pressure gauge with a blinking red light fixed to the last knuckle of the last car. FRED does not wave, he cares nothing for pretty girls, and trains pass like sentences without punctuation, gliding on their way toward destinations no one can name.

With the exception of amateur rail enthusiasts, most people born after 1970–even most contemporary railroad persons, I expect–have little sense or patience for what the old craft meant, or how important it was in the daily life of generations. My students do not know what a caboose is. They have never heard of the Panama Limited or the Pan American. They think The City of New Orleans is a corny old song their grandparents listened to. This is our collective consciousness now. It is where we need to be if we are to have a viable rail system in the context of the Twenty-First Century. A hard truth, perhaps, but, as old Major R.K. Cross used to say, the truth is a stubborn thing.

And yet. And yet. Some ghosts are hard to shrive from blood memory, and not for nothing do people have a sense of something lost, though they may no longer be able to articulate just what the loss involves. When a person, by chance meeting, discovers that I was once a railroad man, he or she will more often than not voice a familiar lament. “Isn’t it a shame,” the person will say, “that we let our railroads go.” Then, inevitably, he will press on to sing of the supposed glories of European systems, or how, as a child, he rode to grandma’s house on the beautiful Sunset Limited and drank from Waterford crystal in the dining car as the scenery reeled past like illustrations on an SP calendar. I never know how to answer the complaint, nor how to respond to the memoir, so I nod my head and remain silent, wondering if the person understands what he is saying. He is unaware, I think, that the guilty collective pronoun included the railroads themselves. He forgets, perhaps, that the complexities of modern life offer no alternative. He forgets, most of all, that one can no longer expect Waterford crystal in a culture that has agreed unanimously on the Styrofoam cup.

Nostalgia has little virtue save for them who have earned it. In the end, Nostalgia, and its consort Romance, are an insult to the old ones who spent half their lives in cheap hotels; who saw their comrades cut in half or mangled under the wheels; who felt the loneliness and isolation of flagging behind in a ghostly fog; who understood that a steam engine, for all the mournful poignancy of its whistle, was a hard taskmaster and a deadly one. Nostalgia and Romance conceal, and therefore dishonor, the fact that old-time railroading was a real bitch, a dangerous and lonely and demanding craft, and those who followed it, especially in train or engine service, dwelt always on the edge of catastrophe. To paraphrase my old friend Frank Smith, a switch engine foreman of thirty years service, if you got home after the job without having killed someone or turned something over, your day was a success.

And yet, for those of us who lived the old craft, no coldly efficient, high-speed computer game can replace it. Perhaps too much happened for too many years out there in the night when the old trains ran. There was too much death, too much honor and meanness, too much tragedy and glory and fun, and too many souls were moved by the distant cry of a locomotive–steam whistle or diesel horn, no matter–for it all to be erased by corporate ukase. Something of the old life remains, something deeply human and therefore messy and dramatic, to haunt the memory of the Race.

Once, Frank Smith and I were talking to a gentleman who had worked his whole life on the now-vanished Columbus and Greenville Railroad. Beside him sat his wife, a gentle, silver-haired lady whose eyes glowed with the knowledge that she and this old rascal had been married sixty-one years and had made it work. The old man patted her knee. “Ever’ time I’d leave on the job,” he said, “my wife would make me a bucket of fried chicken. I used to throw the bones right out the cab window, a lot of bones all down the main line, years and years.” He thought a moment, then smiled. “Lord,” he said, “wouldn’t it be funny if them bones was to rise again.”

Funny, indeed, and an irresistible image: hundreds of white leghorns rising from the dust, gazing about, puzzling how in the world they ever got there, all wandering forlorn along the weed-choked iron of the old C&G. Meanwhile, all across the Republic, outside the trembling windowpanes of restored depots and freight house museums, the big anonymous trains roll on, the cone of their headlights pointed toward tomorrow.

Flip the Bird

The bill to designate the mockingbird the official state bird of Mississippi was approved unanimously by both houses of the Mississippi Legislature in 1944, which is probably the only time those assemblies totally agreed on anything. Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida followed suit, establishing the Northern mockingbird (fifteen species of the genus live outside Dixie) as the most popular state bird in the Union.

Mockingbirds are sleek and noisy, accustomed to human company, and an iconic bird for zones 6 and below, but speaking as a seventh-generation native, I’d like to have an avian symbol for Mississippi that sets us apart from our four Great Sister States. Let’s keep the mockingbird–which, I might add, is arguably the meanest bird for its size on the face of the planet–but adopt another winged denizen of our borders to represent us. My nominee is the Mississippi kite, a bird so at home in the air it’s said that “Only two powers of nature can defeat the wings of a Mississippi kite. One is rain, the other darkness.” These graceful birds can be seen sailing above our woods in summer, tumbling in the air as they catch prey on the wing. A pair will usually nest in the same location for years.

Another unanimous vote on a new state bird is absurd; some fool’s going to suggest a cardinal, another a blue jay, and you can be damn sure some legislator from the Delta will throw a duck in just for the hell of it. The ultra-conservative Democrats who represent me in the Mississippi legislature–for whom I voted, mind you–would never endanger their lucrative political careers by proposing a new state symbol—they’re even complacent with the racist flag and song—but I’d like to think we could have a bird of our own.

God help us, and give us that, at least.

A Mississippi Flag Primer

Most state flags were adopted between 1893 and World War I. Texas is an exception, her flag a holdover from the Republic of Texas (1836-46), but the Lone Star was itself adopted from an earlier flag, the Bonnie Blue flag of the Republic of West Florida. After a failed rebellion against Spain in 1802, American settlers in the coastal South revolted successfully in 1810. The Republic of West Florida was organized, a constitution adopted, officials were elected and application was made to President Madison for admission to the Union. Madison declared the republic a part of the Louisiana Purchase and ordered Louisiana Governor Claiborne to take possession. The Republic of West Florida’s flag had a blue background bearing a single white star that in time became known as the Bonnie Blue Flag. This flag flew over Baton Rouge, Pass Christian and Pascagoula for a short time and reappeared as the Lone Star in the flag of Texas.

When Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, the Bonnie Blue was widely recognized as the unofficial flag of the Confederacy; it was raised over Ft. Sumter as well as the capitol building in Jackson. On January 26, Mississippi officially adopted a state flag which included a canton with the Bonnie Blue star and a magnolia tree in a white center field with a red border. This flag, usually depicted without the red border but with a red bar on the right, is now widely known as the Magnolia Flag. The Bonnie Blue remains an icon of the Confederacy, an image that while lesser-known in our day was just as emblematic as the battle flag to contemporaries. Take note that Scarlett and Rhett had their daughter baptized as “Eugenia Victoria Butler”, but she was called “Bonnie Blue”.

In November 1861 the Confederacy adopted an official flag, the “Stars and Bars”, a flag so closely resembling the Union flag that in the Battle of Manassas in July, 1861, Confederate forces fired on their own troops. General Beauregard, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, decided that a change must be made and in cooperation with General Johnston and Quartermaster General Cabell, they issued a flag designed by William Porcher Miles, a broad blue saltire on a red field, bordered with white and emblazoned with thirteen five-pointed stars. This design became known as the battle flag, and was later incorporated in flags adopted by the Confederacy in 1863 and 1865. The Magnolia Flag remained in use as the state flag of Mississippi until 1894, when a new one with the Confederate battle flag in the canton and a field of blue, white and red bars was adopted by the Mississippi Legislature. The only change since then has been the addition of a white border separating the canton from the blue and red bars; the original specifications were vague, and the flag was made in versions with and without the border until Governor Fordice issued an executive order requiring its use in 1995.

In 2000, the Supreme Court of Mississippi ruled that state legislation in 1906 had repealed the adoption of the flag in 1894, so what was considered to be the official flag was only so through “custom and usage”. Governor Musgrove appointed an independent commission that developed a design replacing the Confederate battle flag with a blue canton containing 20 stars representing Mississippi’s status as the 20th state admitted to the Union. The proposed flag, with the exception of a single undistinguished star in the inner circle of six signifying the state’s membership in the Confederacy among five other sovereign nations (the others representing France, the Republic of Mississippi, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States), had no outstanding symbolic reference to the Confederate States of America. On April 17, 2001, a non-binding state referendum to change the flag was put before Mississippi voters. The new design was defeated in a vote of 64% (488,630 votes) to 36% (267,812).

Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee

It was the third of June, another hot and dusty Delta day.
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was bailin’ hay.

So begins Mississippi’s most familiar ballad, “Ode to Billy Joe,” a plaintive tune about Billy Joe McAllister’s suicide in the Tallahatchie River, written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1967.

Bobbie Gentry was born Bobbie Lee Streeter July 27, 1944, on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Mantee, Mississippi. Her father, Robert H. Streeter, lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, where she attended school. Gentry moved to Arcadia, California at age thirteen to live with her mother and stepfather. They relocated to Palm Springs two years later, where Bobbie graduated from Palm Springs High School. She changed her name to Gentry after seeing the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. Gentry briefly attended UCLA and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, then drifted between secretarial and nightclub jobs and eventually found herself in Las Vegas working as a showgirl.

Gentry approached Capitol Records in early 1967 with two tunes, “Ode to Billy Joe” and “Mississippi Delta,” which she recorded. “Mississippi Delta” was made the B-side, and despite its lengthy four minutes and thirteen seconds, “Ode to Billy Joe,” the featured song. The recording was released on July 10 and became an immediate hit. By the end of summer 1967, “Ode to Billy Joe” had climbed to the number one position on all three major American music charts–Billboard, Cashbox, and Record World. The album was No. 1 on the US Billboard Top LP’s chart, the only album to displace the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from its 15-week reign at the top of the chart. It also peaked at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and at No. 5 on the US Billboard Top Selling R&B Albums chart.

“The burning question of the day,” wrote Jackson Daily News arts editor Frank Hains, “is not how to un-snarl ourselves from Vietnam or how to un-uppity H. Rap Brown…. It’s what did Billy Joe and that girl throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

“People are trying to read social comment into the song, but none is intended,” Gentry said at the time. The song was simply about human indifference. And she wasn’t even protesting indifference in “Billy Joe,” just describing it. “I’m not so sure indifference isn’t a good thing,” she said. “If we were all totally affected by tragedy, we’d be afraid to go anywhere or do anything.”

Gentry insisted that the “Ode to Billy Joe” narrative, despite its perceived genuineness and its use of actual place-names, was “not true;” however, she conceded that, of all the bridges spanning the Tallahatchie River, she referred in her song to the one just outside Greenwood. She also said that Choctaw Ridge was also located in Leflore County, she noted, near the former home of “Greenwood LeFlore (sic).” Print media outside the South commented on both the song and Gentry’s authenticity. Newsweek called her “a true daughter of the Mississippi Delta who can vividly evoke its pace and poetry and smells and style.” Time reported that “Ode to Billie Joe” was “based on (Gentry’s) recollection of life around Greenwood, Miss.,” and that “millions of puzzled Americans coast to coast [were ready to start dragging] the Tallahatchie.”

Gentry appeared on the most popular variety shows (the Smothers Brothers, Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Carol Burnett) and piloted a BBC series that had some success in other countries. Eventually, Gentry’s fame subsided. She married renowned casino owner William Harrah in late 1969; news reports focused on the couple’s thirty-year age difference and on the bride’s $150,000 pear-shaped diamond ring. The marriage lasted four months.

Gentry eventually signed away rights for both a film adaptation and novelization of “Ode to Billy Joe.” When they both appeared in 1976, nine years after the hit single, they were extremely popular. The book, issued exclusively in paperback by Dell, enjoyed over a dozen print runs that year, and the movie grossed over $10.4 million, placing it fifteenth in earnings among films released in the U.S. in 1976.

The film premiered in Jackson, Mississippi, with much hoopla on June 3, the anniversary of Billy Joe’s swan dive. Mississippi governor Cliff Finch proclaimed it “Bobbie Gentry Day,” and Lieutenant Evelyn Gandy presided over a dedication ceremony at one particular bridge over the Tallahatchie, which Boxoffice magazine claimed was designated as “the official Billy Joe McAllister leap site.”

The picture opened as well in 550 theaters across the South, followed by national distribution. The concern with specifying the exact date and the precise site of Billy Joe’s demise ironically eclipsed the questionable truthfulness of the story. Janet Maslin pointed out in Newsweek that, though the beginning of the film included a title explaining it was shot on location in the Mississippi Delta, “where this story actually took place,” the final frames contained the standard disclaimer that all individuals and incidents depicted were fictitious.

Most reviews and promotional materials stressed the film’s perceived authenticity and its successful evocation of setting. Most of this was due largely to the producer-director. Max Baer, Jr. Born in 1937, in Oakland, California, Baer was best known for his role as the lumpish Jethro in the popular television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” New Englander Herman Raucher was chosen to write the screenplay and novel. The characters Baer and Raucher created were certainly not “free of cliché,” as Variety asserted. These figures were nothing more than a confusing crowd of Southern stereotypes, and the place depictions were just a mishmash of rural images. Robbie Benson and Glynnis O’Connor played the young leads, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee, with awkward accents, and though the film was set in the Mississippi Delta, which has a majority black population, the film had not one African American character. Most surprising, for a film based on a song, the music also was displaced; when characters attended a jamboree, they were treated not to Delta blues but rather to upcountry bluegrass.

For all its awkwardness, the film did give a reason for his suicide. After an unsuccessful attempt at intercourse, Bobbie Lee tries to assure Billy Joe that “it’s alright,” but he insists: “It ain’t alright. I ain’t alright. Bobbie Lee, I have been with a man, did you hear me?— which is a sin against nature, a sin against God. I don’t know how I could have done it, I swear.”

Was this reason for Billy Joe’s suicide, the resolution to the question unanswered by “Ode to Billy Joe,” the invention of Herman Raucher, or was the character of Billy Joe McAllister somehow based in reality? Herman Raucher confided in a Jackson Daily News reporter that “the song’s lyric is not quite all fiction. We’ve got an odd combination of fact and fiction in it.”

Gentry’s final public appearance was at the Academy of Country Music Awards on April 30, 1982. Since that time, she has not recorded, performed or been interviewed. On May 14, 2012, BBC Radio 2 in the UK broadcast a documentary titled Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry? presented by country music artist Rosanne Cash. One 2016 news report stated that Gentry lives near Memphis, Tennessee, but according to another, she lives in Los Angeles.

Bobbie Lee has become as much a mystery as Billy Joe.

 

Jackson’s Hellmouth

Jackson, Mississippi shares the problems of many municipalities: urban decay, a shrinking tax base, rampant crime and a citizenry plagued with indifference. Other cities can usually trace these difficulties to such mundane matters as confused politicians, inept and municipal bureaucracies or social strife, and while Jacksonians deal with in these issues, some blame a deeper element: a volcano.

An extinct volcano squats some three thousand feet beneath Mississippi’s capital city. If it ever blows (a purportedly remote likelihood since it hasn’t been active since T. rex ruled the earth) the Mississippi Coliseum would be ground zero. The volcano’s dense core is a prominent structural abnormality in gravitational and magnetic surveys. Bernadette Cahill, in her book Over the Volcano: An Inquiry into the Occult History of Jackson, Mississippi (Aardvark Global Publishing: 2010) maintains that the volcano’s dense core affects not only physical aspects of the locale such as gravity and magnetism, but it also generates a negative well of psychic energy that continually saps the city – its spirit of place as well as the spirits of its citizens – of positive and essential life forces. She also hints at even more malevolent aspects, tagging the volcano as a portal for evil from another plane.

When I’m beset with muddy bathwater, exploding sewers, or dim-witted politicians, instead of trying to call anyone and griping about it, I just blame it on the volcano. It’ll saves me a lot of frustration.

 

Coming Out of the Magnolia Closet: A Review

Oral histories are a portal for understanding not only a time and a place, but the character of its people. With Coming Out of the Magnolia Closet: Same-Sex Couples in Mississippi, John Marszalek III examines the lives of gay couples in Mississippi at a watershed in the history of gay activism: the Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which guarantees the fundamental right of marriage to same-sex couples. Marszalek serves on the faculty of the online mental health counseling program at Southern New Hampshire University; in this volume, his stated purpose it to provide, “a glimpse into the world of gay couples in Mississippi. How did we meet? What is it like to be gay in our communities? What type of reaction do we receive from our neighbors, families, and churches? Why do we live in Mississippi? Do we plan to stay or find a home elsewhere?”

 Coming Out of the Magnolia Closet is structured around interviews of gay and lesbian couples living in each of the five regions of the state (Hills, Delta, Pines, Capital/River, and Coastal), in rural, small town, and metropolitan settings. Marszalek spoke with fifty couples: fifteen of those recorded conversations, “which best represented themes I heard from all the lesbian and gay couples I met,” are included in this book. Marszalek is meticulous in his procedure and is careful to preserve the anonymity of his subjects.

Marszalek’s selection of couples for his interviews were drawn from the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the 2000 Census, which estimates 3,500 same-sex couples living in Mississippi. While his sample is limited, Marszalek worked to ensure it was representative by seeking diversity in gender, race, age, socioeconomic status, and length of relationship. He spoke to an equal number of male and female couples in ages from twenty-five to sixty-five, who had been in their relationships from seven to thirty years. Furthermore, the sample embraces professional, self-employed and blue-collar work settings.

The couples’ stories are at the heart of Coming Out of the Magnolia Closet. They discuss their places in the communities they call home, their relationships with family, and their experiences with church and religion. These voices are often poignant; they speak of tolerance rather than acceptance, of a tacit understanding that tolerance itself is achieved by keeping a low profile, and to avoid acting “too gay,” particularly in regard to public displays of affection. What emerges is the sense of a “social compact of silence” that John Howard mentions in Men Like That (1999), a monumental work on gay culture in Mississippi, and one that Marszalek frequently references.

Marszalek is not only a sympathetic listener—he includes his own narrative as a coupled gay man—but an accomplished scholar who provides the reader with a generous survey of his research and a review of the literature related to the content of each chapter. His sources encompass documents from history, sociology, psychology, and other disciplines.

There is still no legal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity, and gay couples in Mississippi fear being fired from a job or refused service at a business because they are in a same-sex relationship. Coming Out of the Magnolia Closet should be a guide for others to understanding that we are all in this life together, facing the same fears, sharing the same hopes, and that bias and prejudice toward others imposes a burden both ways.

The World from Gillespie Place: Edwardian Jackson

I am not from Jackson, nor (even worse) am I from Belhaven. This relegates me to troglodyte status to the natives to this fair city, but before you begin casting aspersions (or something sharper and heavier) let me assure you that Seta Sancton’s The World from Gillespie Place goes a very long way towards explaining why I and others love it so.

Given my primeval ignorance, of course I had to find out who Mrs. Sancton was, and given that I know so few people here, I decided to simply do what I do best and research the matter. This eventually led me to contact Tom Sancton, who among other things is former Paris bureau chief for TIME magazine, professor of journalism at the American University of Paris, Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Tulane and a jazz clarinetist to boot. He’s also likely to be one of those irritating people who complete the NYTimes crossword even before they finish their second cup of coffee. In response to my query, Mr. Sancton wrote:

Dear Jesse,

Seta Alexander Sancton (1915-2007) was my mother. She was born in Jackson, on North State Street, into a prominent local family (Whartons on mother’s side, Alexanders on father’s side). Her father was Julian P. Alexander, a graduate of Princeton and Ole Miss law school, and an associate justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court. She graduated from Millsaps College, where she was a member of Chi Omega. She was a close personal friend of Eudora Welty, a neighbor from childhood. (My mother’s family lived first on Gillespie Place, then at 1616 Poplar Blvd; Eudora was on Pinehurst.) Seta married my father, New Orleans journalist and novelist Thomas Sancton, in 1941. They lived mostly in New Orleans and had three children of which I am the youngest. When my mother was in her 70s, she decided to write down some family stories and memories for her children and grandchildren. She started jotting down stories on notepaper, the back of envelopes, whatever she had at hand, adding stick figure illustrations as she went along. The result was the book you have in hand. In the 1990s she recorded readings of some of the stories.
Best regards,

Tom Sancton

Seta’s book is the memoir of city full of “sugar and spice and everything nice”, of June bugs and fig trees, lavender lantana and magnolia musk, braided biscuits, sidewalk parades, and ragtime on the Victrolas. “Though Edward VII was no longer on the throne,” Seta writes, “the temper of the times remained Edwardian for our mothers, our grandmothers and for us children.”

The World from Gillespie is a world where maids took children to Smith Park to play on the swings and slides, feed the swan, and eat sugar cookies in the miniature Greek pagoda. Home libraries offered volumes of Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson and the best-selling works of Zane Gray. Gillespie Place itself was a new subdivision off State Street, and having a mother who was Episcopal and a father who was a Presbyterian was awkward. Going to the state fair was a landmark event as was going downtown to eat at the Bon Ton, the Pantaze, or the Edwards House. Seta’s eyes are filled with the genteel character of Jackson during the 1920s. Yes, of course poverty and oppression were rife at the time, but those and other unpleasantries such as war and epidemics are set aside for bridge luncheons, birthday parties, dragonflies, and swimming in Livingston Lake.

I’m charmed by this picture of Jackson’s past, watch for glimpses of it now, and see it every day. Memory, my children, is a living thing.

 

 

Recipes for Success

In his introduction Oscar Rogers writes, “The title of this book could well have been My Mother Cooked My Way Through Life with These Creole Recipes. Her skill in cooking fine foods, prepared with loving care, assured her of a living and me of my survival. She places part of herself into each dish she prepares—in fact a part of herself is in everything she does. This is her priceless legacy to me.”

Dr. Oscar Rogers was one of the most distinguished educators in Mississippi. He received his A.B. from Tougaloo in 1948, the B.S. in theology in 1954 and an M.A. in theology in 1954, both from Harvard. He returned to Natchez to accept the position as dean of students and registrar at Natchez Junior College in 1954, and was appointed president of Arkansas Baptist College in 1956, serving until 1959. In 1958, he received a doctoral fellowship to enroll at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and there he completed his doctor of education degree in social science in administration in 1960. Rogers’ wife, Lee, insisted that her children (three sons) live near and learn to know her father, Jefferson O. Lewis, a longtime employee of Tougaloo College, so the family moved to Jackson where she became a teacher in the Jackson Public Schools, and Oscar accepted the position as dean of students at Jackson State College from 1960-68. During 1968-69, the family moved to Seattle, where Lee taught and Oscar engaged in research. They returned to Jackson in later 1969, where Dr. Rogers became dean of students at JSU, a position he held for fifteen years. In 1984, he became the seventh president of Clafin University, a position he held to his retirement in 1994. Dr. Rogers died in July, 2011.

This book was published in December, 1971, when Rogers’ mother, Mrs. Walter Tillman, affectionately known as Pinky, was still alive. She attended the reception and signing, which was held by the University and College Press of Mississippi in the H.T. Sampson Library on the JSU campus. Some may be surprised that Oscar calls the recipes “Creole”, since they originate not in New Orleans, but upriver in Natchez, but in its strictest definition, Creole is defined as “a person descended from the early French and Spanish settlers in the U.S. Gulf States”. Natchez was founded by French colonists in 1716. In the culinary sphere, however, Creole implies the cooking of the well-to-do, more urban inhabitants of the region; one authority, Howard Mitcham, defines it as “city” cooking as opposed to “country (Cajun)”. And many of the 200+ recipes are sophisticated indeed: cauliflower Hollandaise, Doberge cake (a distinctly New Orleans dish, by the way), shrimp remoulade and floating island pudding, but there is also an abundance of good home-style recipes such as Southern-style pork chops, a meat loaf, baked beans and spoon bread. It’s also well worth noting that a recipe for Harvard beets makes an appearance on page 49.

Courtbouillion of Red Fish

1 large red fish, snapper or sheepshead, 5-6 lbs.
1/2 cup salad (vegetable) oil
1 c. flour
2 large onions, chopped
2 1/2 cups canned tomatoes
2 bay leaves
4 green bell peppers, chopped
4 shallots or green onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 slices lemon
1 cup claret or port wine
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 1/2 cups water (scant)
a few sprigs parsley

Slice fish across back into 2 or 3 in cuts. In a large skillet heat the salad oil, add the flour and stir until very brown. Add onions, stirring until cooked a bit. add chopped tomatoes and remaining ingredients except wine and fish, cook for 1/2 hour or more. Add sliced fish (you may lay fish in roasting pan or large pot if skillet isn’t large enough and pour sauce over fish). Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until fish is cooked. Add wine and let come to a boil again. Serve with rice or creamed potatoes. (Serves 6 to 8).