Greenwood: A Resting Place Downtown

There’s a green place in the heart of Jackson where roses bloom and a Summer House rests beneath the city skyline, a place to have a quiet lunch, a leisurely walk and a chance to recharge batteries during another day at the office. You won’t be disturbed; those many around you there lived their lives to fruition years ago. You will be in a place to contemplate your own life and expectations in Greenwood.

Greenwood Cemetery is Jackson’s largest green space; much larger than downtown’s Smith Park or old Battlefield Park in south Jackson. It is bounded on the east by West Street, on the north by Davis, the west by Lamar and the south by George. Each of these streets has its own story and each was part of the early city. They have changed in nature but not their boundaries or how it all came about when the city was founded. Those interred within these grassy perimeters of Greenwood were influential in the early city and responsible for building it to maturity. They are not ghosts, they are history, and you will have a chance to know them better. Let’s begin.

The cemetery itself, part of a federal land grant which also established the City of Jackson as the official site of the Capitol of Mississippi on November 21, 1821, was formally designated by an act of the State Legislature effective January 1, 1823. The original six acres were known simply as the “graveyard” and later as the “City Cemetery”. Some referred to it as the “burying ground”. An early map (1822) showed the area west of what is now West Street as vacant land indicating that originally the cemetery, while in Jackson’s original plan, was not yet officially within the city limits. The cemetery is shown on an 1845 Jackson map as the Grave Yard, encompassing 11.8 acres. The future extension to its present size is shown in squares 6N, 9.64 acres and 7N, 9.77 acres on this map. Its formal designation as Greenwood Cemetery was adopted in 1899, and it was listed on the National Register of Historical Places as a Mississippi landmark in 1984.

Greenwood Cemetery contains the graves of seven Mississippi governors, 14 Jackson mayors, six Confederate generals, six state Supreme Court justices and 27 clergymen. It is the final resting place for over 100 unknown Confederate soldiers whose lined markers may be seen easily from the West Street side. According to Greenwood Cemetery Association board member Peter Miazza, “Jackson pioneer Logan Power said there are altogether about 600 Confederate soldiers buried in the Confederate graveyard. We have names of about 500 of them, but do not know exactly where each is buried.”

“There were no sections for any group,” Cecile Wardlaw, executive director of the cemetery Association says. “Many old cemeteries were divided into sections by race or religion. Greenwood never was. Catholic, Protestant, or atheist, black or white; everybody just got buried. ‘Born in Ireland’ appears on many of the oldest stones.”

Time well spent with Mrs. Wardlaw and Mr. Miazza in May 2013, provided a wealth of information on the early days and development of the cemetery. “There are 330 unmarked graves at the original south end of the cemetery,” Mrs. Wardlaw related, “with the estimated number of all graves today being 5,000.” The oldest known surviving marker with a date is Governor Abram Marshall Scott who died June 12, 1833. There are an estimated 2,200 monuments posted on the Find A Grave website and Jacksonian Linda Robertson is in the process of doing a monument survey.

Mrs. Wardlaw told of how the roses came to be along the roads and walkways. “Local horticulturalist Felder Rushing donated the roses you see along the paths which he obtained from the Antique Rose Emporium in Texas. He did some work for that establishment and instead of getting a fee, he came back with a truck and trailer load of roses. He did that for two or three years and master gardeners helped him plant them. He will not tell us the names of the cuttings but only to say ‘they are there for people to enjoy’”.

The city owns the cemetery, but much of the maintenance is done by the Greenwood Cemetery Association which also raises funds to repair and perform landscaping work. Volunteers in this organization have provided more than 600 hours of service since the beginning of 2013. They have been aided by local Boy Scouts, AmeriCorps and the Phi Theta Kappa honorary fraternity at Mississippi College. Boy Scout Troop No. 1 (St. James and St. Andrews Episcopal Churches), performed volunteer work at the cemetery during the spring. The Brookhaven Monument Company is the primary source of stone repairs. The old section (south end) of the cemetery was not plotted since the “burial ground” was not officially a part of the city when first put to use. As the cemetery expanded northward, surveyors had difficulty putting in roads since bodies were buried haphazardly rather than in organized rows.

A number of Jackson’s first families have been interred in Greenwood Cemetery. Marion Dunbar, first pastor of Mt. Helm Baptist Church, is there. It was named Helm because Thomas Helm contributed the lot for the church to be built and also gave the church some money to help with construction. According to its website, Mt. Helm, Jackson’s oldest African American church, began in 1835, with several enslaved African Americans who worshiped in the basement of the First Baptist Church. It became a separate body in 1867, the year the 13th Amendment was ratified. A modern version of the church structure may be seen today at 300 E. Church Street near the west side of the cemetery.

Other Jacksonians of note include Millsaps College founders Col. William Nugent, Bishop Charles Betts Galloway, and Dr. William Belton Murrah, who served as the college’s first president; Dr. Lewis Fitzhugh, first president of Belhaven University and father-in-law of Dr. Murrah; founders of the Baptist Hospital, Harley R. Shands, M.D., and John Farrar Hunter, M.D., and Rev. John Hunter, pastor of First Presbyterian Church (1858). Monuments are plentiful for many early Jackson families including the Yergers, Spenglers, Greens, Poindexters, Lemons, Virdens, Henrys, Miazzas and, of course Miss Eudora Welty.

In addition to Miss Welty (d.2001), other Belhaven residents buried in Greenwood Cemetery include Henry Muller Addkison, local hardware dealer (d.1974), Lawrence Saunders (more on him later), R.H. Henry, owner and publisher of the Daily Clarion and Clarion-Ledger (d.1891), and James H. Boyd (d.1882). Boyd, the owner of what is now The Oaks home on North Jefferson Street, was a former mayor of the city and his home was the site of the conception of Mississippi’s first “Decoration Day”, which became known nationally as Memorial Day.

The Summer House

Monuments range from barely noticeable to imposing. In the circle by the cemetery’s Summer House, is the monument of Rev. Amos Cleaver, an Episcopal priest, who died in October 1853 from yellow fever. Five years after his death, some women took up money for this monument. The exact location of his grave is unknown so his marker was placed where it is today. The widow Cleaver had a girl’s school in a frame building where St. Andrews Episcopal Church stands today at S. West and E. Capitol Streets. In 1854, she sold the school to the state for its first school for the deaf. There is also the “Weeping Lady” (Sarah Ann and George Lemon plot), the Hilzheim lot framing structure, which looks like a church, and the “Angel Tombstone” in the Poindexter lot.

Perhaps the most interesting monuments have stories associated with their namesakes. What’s in a name? We shall soon see.

 The Saunders Stone

Lawrence Saunders was a professor at the deaf school which was then across the street from his mother’s house near Barksdale and North State Streets. On Christmas night in 1895, he dressed as Mrs. Santa Claus to entertain the students. Saunders was on his way to the school and stopped by his mother’s home to show her his costume but the front door was locked. He let himself in through the back gallery. The only person home was his nephew who awoke to discover a strange presence. He shouted “Stop or I’ll shoot.” Unfortunately, Lawrence, being deaf, did not hear the warning and was killed by his own kinsman. It is never good when you shoot Santa Claus.

The Little Dog Tombstone

An unnamed small girl lived in Jackson during the mid-1800’s. Her family moved from the capitol city to Oxford where the child died. She was buried in the Simms plot which may be seen north of the summer house to the right of the circle. It is said her small grief-stricken dog would not leave her grave and died at its foot a short time later. His likeness remains to guard his mistress through the portals of eternity – faithful to the end.

The Good Samaritan Monument

Dr. Samuel Cartwright was well known for his work and writings to control the great Yellow Fever and cholera epidemics. During the Civil War, he was charged with getting rid of dysentery in the Confederate military camps, but he contracted dysentery himself and died in 1863. The carving of the “Good Samaritan” on his tombstone attests to his sacrifice and may be seen on his marker today.

My Dog Skip

A movie scene, filmed in Greenwood Cemetery, was based on Willie Morris’ 2000 novel My Dog Skip, and represented the witches’ tomb in the Yazoo City Cemetery. It depicted one of the characters going out among the tombstone to sit down and drink booze. Also, a replica of the Helm mausoleum was constructed for the movie in which the bootleggers stored their moonshine. There is no written record, however, of these spirits raising other spirits or sharing their company for the evening.

Lorian Hemingway’s Ghosts

The granddaughter of novelist Ernest Hemingway came to Jackson in 1999 to write an article on the 1966 Candlestick Park tornado. While here she participated in a ghost tour in Greenwood Cemetery, which was conducted and scripted by Jo Barksdale, much to the delight of a number of children.

The Tallest Monument

The stateliest monument in the cemetery looks eastward toward the sunrise. It is said its tenant was fabulously wealthy, controlling more cotton land than anyone outside the country of Egypt. He died in New Orleans in an area made famous by Josh White’s folk ballad “The House of the Rising Sun”. No one knows exactly to what extent the sun rose on that occasion, but it does make for fascinating speculation. Following his death his wife donated $5,000 to the church. Perhaps a wise investment.

Early Jackson family descendent Peter Miazza says “If you want to take a short tour to visually observe evidence of the history of Jackson and the leading citizens of the State of Mississippi, there is no better place to learn than Greenwood Cemetery.”

They are all here, diverse in their lifetime but equal in the eyes of God. Within the 22 acres of monuments and memories lie those who preceded this day, and share its common ground. There are the wealthy and the pauper, the slave and his master, the business owner and his clerk, the patriarch and the child. There are the physicians, the barristers, the judges, the politicians, the writers and artists, the entrepreneurs and the indigents. There are the prominent with their success and their secrets. There are the unnamed and the unknown. There are the wretched and the rascals and the Good Samarian and the faithful dog. There is Everyman. As Albert Einstein once said “Before God we are equally wise and equally foolish.”

As you walk the paths of Greenwood Cemetery, contemplate the rose shaded spirits around you. Feel their presence. You, like them, are part of our city’s heritage and its destiny. While our own lives are but a flash of light in the darkness of creation- a short string, the deeds of those who sleep around us endure forever. It is one final reminder that beauty is at our fingertips and that we are not alone.

Bill & Nan Harvey: June 2013; revised January 2015
Copyright © Bill and Nan Harvey

Sources and suggestions for more information:

Most of the material in this article was obtained from an interview with Greenwood Cemetery Association Executive Director Cecile Wardlaw and board member Peter Miazza on May 9, 2013. Other sources include:

1) Greenwood Cemetery brochure
2) Wikipedia Encyclopedia
3) Walt Grayson’s Look around Mississippi (WLBT-TV, 4/24/12; 12/26/12)
4) Jackson, A Special Place by Carroll Brinson (1977) P. 49 (map)
5) Mt. Helm Baptist Church website

Interested readers might also wish to consult:

* Find-A-Grave website
* The Old Cemeteries of Hinds County (1811-1988) by Mary Collins Landin

Gay Marriage in Mississippi: An Introspective

It’s inconceivable now that Mississippi seems on the brink of legalizing unions between members of the same sex that I should find myself alone among gay middle-aged Mississippians caught in a personal maelstrom of celebration and rancor.

On the one hand, these are exciting, invigorating times for gay Mississippians. We seem to be capable of finally attaining those “unalienable” rights which have been denied us on the basis of our very being, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, which are outlined in the first and most fundamental document issued by our government. We may at long last be able to confirm and secure our relationships and our shared responsibilities with a ritual as old as civilization itself. These rights now seem within our reach as well as our grasp.

On the other hand, however immense my gratitude that the zeitgeist has changed to such a degree in my lifetime that these once inconceivable goals are now verging on reality, I harbor a considerable residue of bitterness, not only over the difficulties of the struggle itself, but also over the number of people now gathering loudly under a rainbow banner who within memory were mocking and derisive in their condemnation of gay Americans. While the civil rights bestowed by marriage are undeniable—favorable treatment in tax, inheritance, and insurance status; immigration rights, rights in adoption and custody; decisional and visitation rights in health care and burial; spousal privilege exemption when giving testimony in court and others—I’m left wondering how this begrudging bestowal of these elemental rights in Mississippi will or won’t affect our standing as members of a society that we know and for the most part love, if not “because of its virtues, then despite its faults”.

Perhaps like any member of many groups who have fought for their civil rights and won them I should be content as citizen in a fuller sense, let bygones be bygones and run to embrace this new world with rapture; but I find my feet are leaden, and my steps are slow.

The Mississippi Heritage Amendment: An Independent Opinion

A group is collecting signatures for a constitutional amendment that asks the following question:  Should the Constitution be amended to restrict or define Mississippi’s heritage, religion, official language, symbols, universities, and state boundaries?

Sounds innocuous, right? But try reading the whole thing. You’ll see how insidious and silly it is all at the same time. You hate to take it seriously, but some provisions are very carefully worded so as to woo voters into thinking they’re voting for an amendment that actually accomplishes something. Reporting by media outlets thus far has been both inaccurate and incomplete, so having been given plenty of space by the editor of this blog, I’m going to outline the entire initiative and try to suss out what it means to do.

Introductory paragraph: “Upon the passage of the Heritage Initiative, the Constitution of the State of Mississippi shall be amended to include and incorporate all the following twelve provisions.” Hear that? The following would be enshrined in the state constitution if this ballot initiative passes. Here’s what you’re voting on:

Number One: “The State of Mississippi hereby acknowledges the fact of her identity as a principally Christian and quintessentially Southern state, in terms of the majority of her population, character, culture, history, and heritage, from 1817 to the present; accordingly, the Holy Bible is acknowledged as a foremost source of her founding principles, inspiration, and virtues; and accordingly prayer is acknowledged as a respected, meaningful, and valuable custom of her citizens. The acknowledgements hereby secured shall not be construed to transgress either the national or the state Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”

I don’t see how it can be construed as naming “an official state religion” as one media outlet put it. However, it does leave out other religious groups important to our state’s history and culture. Nice job of showing your ignorance, guys. But what practical effect does it have? None that I can see.

Number Two: “English shall be the official language of the State of Mississippi. All governmental or public non-emergency or non-judicial services, functions or communications in Mississippi shall be in the English language only, except for specific foreign language instruction in the public schools, and except for the option of Latin or French for jurisprudence, medicine, heraldry, and other traditional uses.”

I just love the exceptions here. They give the illusion that this part of the bill is well-reasoned and thought-out. To be fair, laws do exist on the books that say that financial records have to be kept in English for tax purposes. But this amendment seems to be aimed at killing English-as-Second-Language language instruction in our schools and disallowing the printing of government forms in other languages besides English. And it doesn’t say a thing about American Sign Language. Is that banned by this amendment? Inquiring minds and all that.

Number Three: “The state flag of Mississippi shall be the state flag adopted in 1894, which has been in continuous use since 1894, and which was confirmed by statewide vote in 2001. The state flag of Mississippi shall be displayed in front of all public buildings, including but not limited to all state, county, and municipal buildings and any school receiving state funding. Wherever the national flag is displayed on public land or in public buildings, a state flag of equal size shall also be displayed. In Mississippi public schools and other public institutions, whenever the pledge of allegiance to the national flag is recited, the state flag salute shall be recited immediately thereafter. The state flag salute shall be: “I salute the flag of Mississippi and the sovereign state for which it stands with pride in her history and achievements and with confidence in her future under the guidance of Almighty God.”

This provision does not establish a “Confederate pledge of allegiance” as reported by one media outlet. It does render a state flag salute that is just as offensive to non-Christians as the American flag’s current pledge of allegiance. Way to win votes, fellows.

Number Four: “Mississippi’s official and sole state nickname shall be “The Magnolia State”. Mississippi’s official and sole state motto shall be “Virtute et Armis”; said state motto shall appear below the eagle on the state’s coat-of-arms. Mississippi’s official and sole state song shall be “Dixie”. Whenever the national anthem is played in a public venue or at a public event in Mississippi, either “Dixie” or “Go, Mississippi” shall be played immediately thereafter.”

So not only does Ole Miss get to play “Dixie” at football games and other sporting events again, so does State, Delta State, Valley, Alcorn, JSU, Southern, and all other universities and schools. Not only that, it gets played at military events, dance recitals, public meetings, etc. etc. ad nauseum. The amendment nonsensically says that “Dixie” is the only state song, but “Go, Mississippi”, the current state song, can be substituted for it. If you’re going to offend, guys, at least be consistent about it.

Number Five: “ All newly issued and all replacement Mississippi car tags, driver licenses, identification cards, welcome signs, and historical markers shall include: an image of the state flag of Mississippi, an image of the Magnolia flower, and the words “Mississippi” and “The Magnolia State” in elegant font.”

Problem: does this amendment vacate all the laws passed by the legislature establishing various license tags for veterans groups, advocacy groups, schools, etc? I admit I get chapped at seeing a Mississippi plate with “Roll Tide” across the bottom, but do we really need a state amendment for that? And what does “in elegant font” mean? I guess no Comic Sans for these people. Here’s where it gets fun.

Number Six: “The official and sole mascot of the University of Mississippi shall be “Colonel Reb”, whose appearance shall be an accurate reflection of Colonel Reb’s definitive appearance on the cover of the 1947 University of Mississippi yearbook (the 1947 Ole Miss). University of Mississippi teams shall be the “Rebels”. The official and sole alternate title of the University of Mississippi shall be “Ole Miss”; no other alternate titles, abbreviations, or bynames of the University of Mississippi shall be used in any official capacity. The University of Mississippi traditions of playing “Dixie” and of displaying hand-held flags of any size, with or without flag sticks, at athletic events or in athletic venues shall not be infringed. The annual Ole Miss homecoming titles shall be “Colonel Reb” and “Miss Ole Miss”. One year after the Heritage Initiative’s passage, a life-sized, classical, and heroic statue of University Greys soldier Jeremiah Gage shall be erected on the edge of University Circle, positioned centrally in front of the Lyceum; said statue shall stand on a base five feet high with a metal plaque affixed listing the name, rank, and hometown of each University Greys soldier; the funding thereof shall be from non-public sources.”

NOW we’re getting to the important stuff—university mascots and school traditions. Curiously enough, the name “Rebels” isn’t mentioned in here.  Don’t miss that new statue to be erected on the Ole Miss campus, with non-public funding, of course. Really? Don’t you people have anything serious in this state to worry about? It gets better. They’re not only going to interfere with Ole Miss’ way of doing business, they’re going to do it at Mississippi State and Southern, too.

Number Seven: “The official and sole mascot of Mississippi State University shall be “Bully”, who shall be an English Bulldog. Mississippi State University teams shall be the “Bulldogs”. The Mississippi State University traditions of carrying and ringing hand-held Cowbells, of prominently featuring Bully in the form of a live canine Bulldog at athletic events or in athletic venues, and of honoring the founding college president, Stephen Dill Lee, shall not be infringed.”

Take that, NCAA haters of cowbells! Our constitution will trump your rules any and every day! Don’t forget the reference to Stephen D. Lee. If you don’t recognize him, don’t worry. I’m sure you can guess whose cousin he is.

Number Eight: “The official and sole mascot of the University of Southern Mississippi shall be “Seymour d’Campus”, who shall be a “Golden Eagle”. University of Southern Mississippi teams shall be the “Southerners”. The University of Southern Mississippi traditions of celebrating Mardi Gras and of prominently featuring a live horse named “Son of Dixie” shall not be infringed.”

Did you even know about these traditions? I didn’t. How far back with revisionist history are we going to go, anyway? But don’t the rest of you institutions of higher learning feel left out. The authors of this amendment have a provision for you, too:

Number Nine: “Alcorn State University, Delta State University, Jackson State University, Mississippi University for Women, and Mississippi Valley State University shall not be required to consolidate or merge, and they shall be permitted to remain distinct public institutions of higher learning.”

Pandering, much? How many extra votes do you think you’ll get with this one? If people even get around to reading it after digesting the other provisions.

Number Ten: “The month of April shall be ‘Confederate Heritage Month’ in the State of Mississippi, annually proclaimed by the Governor and declared by the Secretary of State. Annually throughout the month of April, all primary and secondary public schools in the state shall acknowledge ‘Confederate Heritage Month’ and include within the curriculum appropriate information about Mississippi’s Confederate history, heritage, achievements, and prominent people, including Mississippi’s African American and Native American veterans. The last Monday in April shall be ‘Confederate Memorial Day’, an annual state holiday; all state, county, and municipal non-emergency departments and buildings, including but not limited to public schools, universities, courts, and offices, shall be closed in observance thereof. Non-emergency public employees within any department or building closed on Confederate Memorial Day shall have a non-compensated holiday on this day, unless the State Legislature voluntarily allocates compensation to said public employees for this holiday. The right to acknowledge, observe, and celebrate ‘Dixie Week’ throughout the seven days preceding Confederate Memorial Day shall not be infringed.”

Do they not study the Civil War in school anymore? Isn’t that enough? Why do we need a dedicated month for this information? The Constitution is for more important matters than what state holidays are celebrated. And what on earth is “Dixie Week”? How does one celebrate it? One of many unanswered questions in this bill.

Number Eleven: “In honor of the Mississippians who served under this military flag, the Confederate Battle Flag, measuring at minimum four feet by four feet, shall be permanently displayed on a flag-pole directly behind and above the monument to Confederate women on the state capitol’s exterior grounds. The right to place and display flags at veterans’ graves shall not be infringed. Within Mississippi, all publicly owned, publicly held, or publicly managed Confederate or Confederate-themed items, including but not limited to monuments, statues, works of art, relics, markers, signs, names, titles, structures, roads, parks, graves, and cemeteries shall be preserved and maintained by the state government, which may delegate applicable duties to the respective counties or municipalities for this purpose; for all cases in which said items were renamed, the more historical name shall take precedence and be reestablished in full.”

And how does one determine the “more historical name?” Another unanswered question. (Author’s note: I know the answers to most of these questions. I’m just being silly.)

And finally, Number Twelve: “The borders and boundaries of the State of Mississippi are hereby restored; the repealing of Article 2, Section 3, of the Mississippi Constitution, is hereby nullified; and said Article 2, Section 3, shall be reinstated and reactivated, in its entire pre-1990 wording. The jurisdiction and laws of the State of Mississippi, and the rights and liberties of her citizens, shall exist within her borders and boundaries. The borders and boundaries of the State of Mississippi are hereby restored; the repealing of Article 2, Section 3, of the Mississippi Constitution, is hereby nullified; and said Article 2, Section 3, shall be reinstated and reactivated, in its entire pre-1990 wording. The jurisdiction and laws of the State of Mississippi, and the rights and liberties of her citizens, shall exist within her borders and boundaries.”

I researched this idea of pre-1990 borders and came up with precisely zilch. Does this mean New Orleans belongs in Mississippi now? Or does Mobile? Or does Memphis? Anyone out in internet land is free to comment and enlighten me. But obviously it’s of some importance to these people and their cause.

But people can be reassured of some sanity—according to the “revenue statement”, “Implementation of the Heritage Initiative would not require a net increase in government expenditures beyond an estimated maximum of $250,000 per year (less than 0.005 percent of the state’s current fiscal year budget), which the State Legislature may apportion from the state’s General Fund and/or Special Fund. Most of the Heritage Initiative’s provisions would not require any additional government expenditures or allocations of revenue; for the provisions that involve revenue, the State Legislature may reasonably apply the least costly means to carry out the provisions of this initiative.”
Isn’t that good to know? Only a quarter-million dollars of your hard-earned tax money should go to implementing these ideas. Isn’t that comforting?

But what is their cause for which they need $250,000 of public money? It seems to me all this initiative is good for is slapping 21st-century American citizens in the face with 19th-century racial politics, pure and simple. I have a mission with this article—it’s to make any and all public figures who associate themselves with this initiative politically radioactive. These ideas do not belong in the same room with those of adults. These people need to go sit in the time-out corner and think about what they’ve done. All they need are somewhere around 107,000 signatures to put this amendment on the ballot. Make sure yours isn’t one of them. Educate your neighbors. Ridicule the supporters. And tell them to grow the *&^% up.

(Julie Whitehead is a political observer, writer and teacher living in Brandon, Mississippi.)

Balancing on the Barstool

Alcohol is what makes a martini sing, beer buzz and wine fine. It’s also a poison and—along with nicotine—the only recreational drug legally available in most states to the American public, which consumes it in its various forms to the tune of an estimated $110 billion dollars a year.

ethyl moloculeEthyl alcohol (C2H5OH) is formed by the action of yeast upon sugar and starches. The yeasts that create alcohol are among the oldest cultivated plants in the history of civilization, and some archeological studies suggest that mankind may well have been brewers before they were bakers, probably as early as the Mesolithic period, some 7000 years ago. Bad pick-up lines, irresponsible sex and hangovers also date from this period. Drinking as a subject represents the prime example of a familiar topic that on closer examination becomes quite arcane. Drinking is steeped in tradition, exalted in verse, celebrated in song and provides pleasure to millions, yet to others it is a curse.

The devil on the rocks

Before there was a wild West, there was a wild Southwest, and Mississippi was its cornerstone. At that time, any city or town with a berth on a river (which most of them had in those days before rail) eventually found itself host to a riverfront district subject to laws that were either non-existent or non-enforced.

This sketch of Natchez-Under-The-Hill was drawn in 1866 by A. R. Waud, for Harpers Weekly.
This sketch of Natchez-Under-The-Hill was drawn in 1866 by A. R. Waud, for Harpers Weekly.

Natchez-Under-the-Hill is a prime example of such a red light district, but Jackson harbored a similar section during its early development. Audubon, who visited the area in the 1820s, said that the banks of the Pearl under LeFleur’s Bluff were filled with “low dives of the worst sort.” One of the most notorious dens of iniquity was located just below the corner of North and Amite Street, within spitting distance of the Old Capitol itself, now the site of the Winter Building housing the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. As fortified as these fiefs of John Barleycorn were, they soon found themselves inundated by the spirit of Protestant evangelism that was spilling its way down from the Northeast. The first churches were established here well before Mississippi became a state, but the nineteenth century revivals increased their numbers a thousand fold, and their influence on state laws regarding alcohol were (and still are) formidable.

Mississippi is still legally “dry” in that the state never has repealed Prohibition. According to the Mississippi Code of 1972, “The policy of this state is reannounced in favor of prohibition of the manufacture, sale, distribution, possession and transportation of intoxicating liquor; and the provisions against such manufacture, sale, distribution, possession and transportation of intoxicating liquor, as contained in Chapter 31 of Title 97, Mississippi Code of 1972 and elsewhere, are hereby redeclared the law of this state.” Instead, the state has granted counties and municipalities to “come out from under the dry law” in local option elections.

William F. Shughart II, an economist at the University of Mississippi, wrote in an article for the Independent Institute that “when national Prohibition was repealed in 1933, so that the federal government would be able to offset declining income-tax revenues by reintroducing selective excise taxes on distilled spirits, wine, and beer, the regulation of alcohol sales was left to the individual states. Mississippi finally went “wet” in 1966, choosing to become one of 18 jurisdictions operating state-owned wholesale liquor distribution systems. Other states, like Pennsylvania and Virginia, sell alcoholic beverages directly to consumers through state-run liquor stores, and still others, like California, simply tax liquor sales at retail.”

The ABCs of alcohol

In Mississippi, the Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) of the Mississippi State Tax Commission is responsible for the purchasing and distribution of wines and spirits. The ABC buys about 3,000 brands and package sizes of wine and ardent spirits from vintners and distillers. As the enforcer of the state’s liquor laws, ABC is also responsible for maintaining fair and equitable enforcement of the Local Option ABC laws and the prohibition laws. Twenty-eight certified enforcement agents are stationed across the state, most of whom maintain offices at the Tax Commission District Offices. Since 1966, ABC agents have successfully prosecuted in excess of 36,000 liquor law violations and destroyed approximately 2,500 illicit whiskey stills. David Wilson, Chief of Enforcement for ABC, said, “We have much more of a problem with unlicensed sellers, but we still catch a lot of moonshiners. You might say that we have a lot of unlicensed distribution points, and that’s a continuing concern. If you’ll look at the map, you’ll see that almost half of the state is still dry, and if there’s drinking going on in those parts, there must be an unlicensed distributor.”

State law requires the ABC to mark up the wholesale price on alcohol by 27.5% over what it pays its suppliers. This markup generates about $32,500,000 in revenue for the state annually, not counting the sales taxes which are also collected on retail liquor sales. The actual mark-up for the general fund is 24.5; the other three percent, dictated by statute, goes to the Mental Health Association, purportedly for alcohol rehabilitation and treatment.

“As it sits now, the state of Mississippi itself controls what sort of beer, wine or spirits you might legally prefer to have at your dinner parties,” Shughart said. “Until any given alcoholic beverage has been included in the state list (ABC’s “Price Book” or on its monthly “Fine Wine List”), it is unavailable to the citizens of Mississippi.”

The alcoholic beverages purchased by the ABC are shipped to its 186,000 square-foot warehouse located in South Madison County’s Industrial Park, from which every year 2,000,000 cases of wine and distilled spirits are reshipped to the state’s 1,250 retailers who are licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for either on- or off-premise consumption where local-option laws permit. It is a massively complex operation. According to Joe Perkins, Deputy Director of the ABC, additions to the list are based on consumer demand, as well as demand from the retail stores and the industry. “This includes the venders, brokers, and companies that we buy from will present listings to us, submit lists to our purchasing department who decide, based on brand support and consumer demand whether we should list a particular brand or not. This decision is ultimately approved by the three commissioners, Commissioner Ed Buelow Jr. along with Associate Commissioners Terry Jordan and Donald Green, who oversee the ABC.”

“We add various sizes of products according to consumer needs and we work with the companies on these sizes, too. Sometimes the company will dictate when they want a product in a particular part of the country and in what size, so it’s a little more involved (to add a particular product) than people sometimes think. We do everything we can to give the consumers what they want,” Perkins added. “We do all the work of getting the pricing, getting the case or whatever ordered, getting it in here and getting it out to them.”

Mike Cashion, former executive director of the Mississippi Restaurant Association, said, “There are some aspects of the system that work well. The issue of being able to pick up the phone and order a product from one central location is pretty convenient. But overall with the system you just need to look at it and see if there’s a better way to do business. If you look at what happened a couple of months ago (October 17) when the ABC had to shut down (due to a problem with computer software), I think that’s indicative of the fact that there are some operational issues that need to be reviewed,” Cashion said. “There were several areas that needed to be fixed. From a business perspective you need to look at what caused those problems and see what those long-term fixes are.”

Cashion said that the ABC has made some inroads in procedures on how to special order and has made some progress on that, but he points out that when it comes to blanket availability there are a lot of factors involved. “It’s very, very complicated and there’s no easy fix and no easy answers to the questions that are out there,” Cashion said.

Incidentally, the spirit and wine law is separate from the beer and light wine law; beer and light wine permits are issued by the Miscellaneous Tax Division of the state tax commission. This division registers all beer and light wine labels and issues permits to wholesalers. The tax commission issues wholesale beer permits to distributors (wholesalers), and beer permits to retailers. The wholesalers distribute beers and light wines to retailers, which number about seven or eight thousand in the state, including bars, restaurants, retail groceries and convenience stores. The only direct dealing the ABC has to do with beer is that ABC agents enforce the beer laws.

Of booze and bods

The way the body disposes of alcohol has been on record since the nineteenth century, having first been described by the German chemist von Liebig. Before Liebig, it was generally assumed that alcohol simply passed through the body without change, only to be eventually excreted in its original form by the skin, lungs and kidneys.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Most foods (and alcohol is a food, albeit a poor one) need to be broken down and remodeled by various agents in the mouth and stomach in order to be oxidized in the body. But ethyl alcohol doesn’t need any sort of preparation; it is as naturally as digestible as water, and can be assimilated into the body by the stomach, the small intestine, or even the large intestine (yes, you can get drunk from a vodka enema). Since alcohol has no effect until it reaches the bloodstream, the key to the effects of alcohol on the central nervous system lies in what as known as the blood alcohol level (BAL). It is recorded in milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, or milligrams percent. For example, a BAL of .10 means that 1/10 of 1 percent (or 1/1000) of your total blood content is alcohol.

Various factors influence the rate of alcohol absorption, the most crucial of which is the speed with which it is drunk. The effect on the body of a quick succession of high-proof drinks is shattering, and can even be fatal. With increasing alcohol consumption, unconsciousness and even a failure to breathe becomes more likely. In extreme instances, the alcohol level is so high that the sleep center in the brain becomes depressed, breathing stops and death may occur. Yet a mild degree of intoxication is the very reason why most people drink at all. The vast majority of people who drink do so because they find it enjoyable. Most people who drink choose to do so for at least partially hedonistic reasons. If fact, this may be the single most obvious reason that some anhedonic religious groups not only abstain from alcohol, but condemn drinking on the part of others. All over the world, people claim to drink because they like the taste, the sense of celebration and relaxation that comes with drinking, the mood alteration it provides, and the positive social aspects that surround it.

Alcohol is almost unique in that it has a dual effect on the central nervous system. Briefly, on the upswing curve the blood alcohol level, it acts as a stimulant. After the first drink or two, most drinkers feel animated and most can even perform better in tests of eye-hand coordination. But relaxation is another common reason for drinking, especially in the context of leisure time. Refreshment might also be an aspect of this: a cold beer on a hot summer day, for instance, or a warm toddy on a cold winter night. Then again, for most people, a drink or two is enough to cause an alteration in mood, and for most people this change is pleasurable. You’ll find people explaining that having a few drinks after a round of hectic activity—say a day at work—is a relaxing activity. Hence we have that institution with the blithe name of happy hour, during which for an hour or more during the afternoons you can drink at reduced prices, presumably with the result of becoming happy. Not so recently, since some critics have voiced the complaint that drinking should not be promoted as a key to happiness, some of the more progressive drinking establishments have instituted what is known as an “attitude adjustment hour.”

Yet however enjoyable or pleasurable a few drinks can be, a steady increase in the levels of alcohol in the blood has less fortunate effects. After several drinks, disorientation is followed by mental confusion, dizziness, and increased muscular incoordination. Further intoxication usually results in staggering gait and slurred speech, marked muscular incoordination, the inability to stand or walk, vomiting and incontinence, impaired consciousness and stupor.

When the party’s over

Drunkenness is condemned down through the ages. “At the first cup,” a Japanese poet wrote, man drinks wine. At the second cup, wine drinks wine. At the third cup, wine drinks man.” Genghis Khan recommended that a soldier not get drunk more than once a week. “It would be better if he did not get drunk at all,” he wrote, “but one should not expect the impossible.” The Jews filled the Old Testament with denunciations of drunkenness; the “strong drink” of the Old Testament is considered to be undiluted wine, since distilled spirits didn’t come about until around 800 A.D. The lyric poet Alcaeus wrote of habitual excess that “One that hath wine as a chain about his wits, such a one lives no life at all.”

Throughout history, it was obvious that no matter how much time someone spent in the gutter or in the stocks, or how often they were threatened with hellfire and brimstone, no matter how much their family begged and beseeched them to quit drinking, some people just kept getting drunk. Gradually the “problem” with alcohol became removed from the outward and everyday fact of drunkenness itself to a realization that there were some people who showed a propensity to get drunk whenever the opportunity presented itself. What made these drinkers stand out as different was that they easily lost control over their drinking and just got sloppy drunk again and again and again. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that alcoholism and alcohol abuse in the United States cost society from $40 to $60 billion annually, due to the lost production, health and medical care, motor vehicle accidents, violent crime, and social programs that respond to alcohol problems. One half of all traffic fatalities and one-third of all traffic injuries are related to the abuse of alcohol.

Alcoholism is a complex medical and psychological condition, and many theories have been put forward to explain the phenomenon. Initially, of course, alcoholics were simply dismissed as inveterate sinners, but as people began losing faith (so to speak) in sin as an all-embracing explanation of deviant behavior, they began to consider that perhaps something was constitutionally wrong with this sort of drinker. The concept of alcoholism as a disease finally congealed around the middle of the twentieth century in the studies of a researcher at the Yale Center for Alcohol Studies named E.M. Jellinek.

Jellinek published influential research which appeared to confirm the disease status of alcoholism by showing that over time the condition was predictably progressive, with distinct and recognizable phases to its natural history. Jellinek’s masterwork, The Disease Concept of Alcoholism, was published in 1960. When he died in 1963, the disease concept, both as idea and work, was seen as his supreme accomplishment. Even though Jellinek invented a scientific doctorate for himself which no university ever awarded, the significance of his work remains profound. His recommendation of total abstinence remains the basis for the most effective treatments available today, including the programs at the Betty Ford Clinic and other treatment facilities and abstinence, along with the celebrated 12-step process, are the basic tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous, widely regarded as the most successful recovery program for alcoholics the world over.

Patsy Hillard, former associate director and outreach coordinator for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of the Central Mississippi Area, states that according to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual for Mental Health, “alcoholism is a disease.”

The, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) Inc. is a national non-profit organization combating alcoholism, other drug addictions and related problems through its National Office, 200 state and local affiliates and thousands of volunteers in communities throughout the nation. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of the Central Mississippi Area was established in 1949. Hugh Barkley, executive director of the NCADD of Central Mississippi said, “The treatment programs that we deal with are based on the 12-step programs that have been used by Alcoholics Anonymous for over sixty years. An alcoholic is an alcoholic; one drink is just going to trigger his mind to going back to start drinking rather than coping with life on a regular basis.”

Barkley said that one of the most significant pieces of legislation involving alcohol in Mississippi was the lowering of blood alcohol levels for the conviction of DUI cases in 2002. The law lowered the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers in the state from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. This law brought Mississippi into compliance with federal requirements passed in 2000. States that fail to lower their blood-alcohol levels risked losing millions of dollars in federal highway funds in the year 2003.

“That’s just the way we do things in Mississippi,” Barkley said. “We wait until the last or the next to the last year before the government threatens to take away funds, then we pass the law. We always procrastinate. But according to a recent report, our DUI rates have decreased, whereas in other states, such as South Carolina, they have increased. And that’s directly attributable to the new DUI law and its enforcement.”

Barkley also said that the state’s allocation of tax monies for treatment has also undergone revisions. “Back in the 70s, the legislature put a tax on hard liquor that was to be used for alcohol and drug treatment. That was true for a few years, but then the state got into a budget crunch and the Legislature saw fit to say, ‘Okay, we don’t want to earmark that money for alcohol and drug treatment, we’ll put it into the general fund along with the other funds, and we’ll allocate funds to the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, and they can decide how much they’re going to put into treatment.’”

“Basically, one out of ten people who drink in this country will become alcoholics,” Hillard said. “That’s probably world-wide as well. But the one thing that’s interesting about traffic accidents and traffic fatalities (involving alcohol) is that they are not caused by alcoholics but by people who might go out and drink more than they’re accustomed to. Most alcohol-related traffic fatalities are caused by people who are not alcoholics, not regular drinkers. One of the things we address in our prevention programs is to talk about risk factors,” Hillard explained. “Risk factors are those factors which might make a person more likely to become addicted to alcohol or any other drug. They include a family history of alcoholism or addiction or living in a place where drugs and alcohol are readily available. You can’t always move a child out of a neighborhood, but you can alert him or her to the risk factors they face.”

Barkley said that many people who are addicted to alcohol are abusive, not only to themselves, but to their family members, and this abuse is often more subtle than physical or verbal: such elements as the erosion of family finances, the upkeep of homes and compassion for others are problems spread across every social and economic level, every race and every gender.

“Alcoholism has so many facets that you can compare with other diseases,” Hillard said. “It’s treatable. The recovery rate is not what we’d like for it to be, but just because a person goes through treatment many times does not mean that we don’t hope that they might make it one day.”

Bottom line

During the holidays, law enforcement agencies across the state conduct “You Drink and Drive, You Lose” campaigns. Given the adjustment in the DUI laws that are now in accordance to federal standards, the state will have about a quarter of a million dollars at their disposal to put additional officers on the roads and to enhance patrols that are already in place, and while these efforts have reduced alcohol-related highway fatalities considerably, drinking and driving still leads to tragic consequences on a periodic basis. Drink responsibly, and always drive safely.