Charlotte Capers, long-time director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History was—unlike her current successor—a woman of considerable integrity, intelligence, and wit, characteristics which she brought to the fore in a speech on the history of MDAH given before the Mississippi Historical Society in March, 1972. In this excerpt, she talks about a once locally famous curio that is still displayed on occasion at the Old Capitol Museum.
The Department remained in the basement of the New Capitol until 1940, when more commodious quarters, but not much more, were provided in the War Memorial Building. Since Dr. Rowland’s day, the Department has acted as a clearing-house historical agency, and the Museum function was included in this. However, when the Department moved into the War Memorial Building, the collection housed in the New Capitol was, of necessity, abandoned. Certainly, there was no space in the north wing of the new building for a full-fledged museum. Thus, we left in the basement of the New Capitol, a mysterious and miscellaneous collection including an Egyptian mummy, the hip-bone of a North Dakota dinosaur, a pair of size 20 shoes worn by an Alabama Negro in World War I, and a toy snake from the Philippines.
The star of this collection was the mummy, who had enchanted visitors to Jackson ever since she had been acquired as lagniappe in a collection of Indian artifacts many years ago. A real mummy mystique had developed, and grandfathers brought their toddling grandchildren in to see the mummy that they had seen as boys. When the board of trustees quite properly adopted in the Old Capitol Restoration, the collection was limited to items associated with Mississippi history. The mummy, an Egyptian, was plainly out of place. It fell my lot to separate the little Egyptian, known variously to her public as ‘The Little Gypsy Lady,” or occasionally as ”The Dummy,” from her admirers. I knew that such a move was to court disaster, for my generation, too, had visited the mummy on our way to Central High School, and we considered her as much a part of our American heritage as George Washington, Robert E. Lee, or Theodore G. Bilbo.
But, in what may have been my finest hour, I saw my duty and I did it. And I firmly withdrew ”The Little Gypsy Lady” whose connection with Mississippi history was tenuous at best, from the Museum exhibits. She was relegated to a collection file room in the old Capitol to be seen only on demand by her most avid admirers. Her admirers all turned out to be avid, and they continued to demand her until the day when a staff member, annoyed by constant calls for our most popular tenant, stated in a speech that he would like to bury the mummy.
That blew it. The wire services picked up the story and the shot went round the world. The public from all over arose to defend “The Little Gypsy Lady.” We got insulting mail and insulting telephone calls; and one concerned gentle man wrote from Germany about “das mumi,” calling us bigots for some reason. Offers of adoption for the mummy flowed in. An undertaker from Ohio wanted “‘The Little Gypsy Lady” as an example of his art. An archaeologist said that when he examined her he found her to be a young female offered her a home provided that her esophagus came with her (translate: sarcophagus).
The strife went on, I held my ground, the story of Mississippi, as you will see, is told in thirty-three permanent exhibits in this Old Capitol Museum, and the small foreigner slept on in a collection file room. Way back in Dr. Rowland’s day he had a seal designed for the Department with the motto ‘Veritas,” or “Truth.” Seldom in our lifetime, however, are we justified for taking an unpopular stand on the side of the truth. The mummy proved to be a heartening exception. In the 1960s a young medical student at the University of Mississippi asked for permission to x-ray the mummy. In the interest of truth, permission was granted. The startling results of this scientific investigation were reported in The Mississippi History Newsletter as follows:
“Our mummy, who has been the star of our museum for as long as we can remember, was exposed as a fake when Gentry Yeatman, an enterprising Ole Miss medical student x-rayed the little Egyptian princess and found her heart was full of nails. Further, she had a German language newspaper in her left foot, and her right arm yielded a copy of TheMilwaukee Journal, 1898. Again we note that things are not always what they seem, and the mummy is a dummy after all.”
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,
“It seems to me that 705 North State Street was a fine place for growing up in Jackson and learning the lay of the land. Around the corner and less than five minutes by skate, foot, or bicycle, was Davis School. The New Capitol was only a few blocks away, and young skaters did not hesitate to skate through the tiled basement floor and admire the Egyptian mummy who was the star of the building. A streetcar track ran in front of the house. When we were very young, we would put two straight pins on the track, spit on them, and wait for the streetcar. As it rumbled past it fused the pins into a charming design of crossed swords. If you wished to travel, the streetcar could deliver you north, south, or west. East was the Pearl River, and the suburbs in that area were not yet developed.”
“As St. Andrew’s was the only Episcopal church in Jackson for a long time, my father’s congregation was scattered all over town and from Clinton on the west to Madison on the north. Sometimes Father would let me ride with him in the family Essex when he went calling, and we covered a lot of territory. The Fairgrounds were within walking distance, as were the downtown picture shows. Beulah, my nurse, took me to the Fair every year on the five dollars my grandmother sent us. This included lunch. When we got home, Beulah became our cook. I should note that Beulah was not my nurse because I was sick, but because I was a child, and nurses were what children had in the 1920s. Nurses were for taking care of children, cooks were for cooking, and so far as I knew, maids had bit parts, like ‘Your carriage awaits, madam,’ in the occasional stage plays which came to the Century Theater.”
“In spite of the real economic hardship of the Depression, I don’t remember it as a bad time. It was in the 1920s that we learned to dance, and perfected our skills later during the Depression at dances in our homes, including the Rectory, to the Dixieland jazz of Joe White and his combo, fifteen to twenty-five dollars for four hours, depending on the number of instruments.”
Capers graduated from Central High School in 1930. That June, The Jackson Daily News reported: “Miss Capers Entertains with Lovely Dance”—No graduating affair has been more enjoyable than was the beautiful dance given by Miss Charlotte Capers on Wednesday evening from 9 until 1 o’clock in the ballroom of the Edwards Hotel. Miss Capers in a most becoming creation of green lace with her escort Mr. George F. Woodliff, was assisted in receiving by her parents Dr. and Mrs. Walter. Capers. Mrs. Capers was charming in a dress of apricot satin. The ball room had been converted into a lovely scene with palms and other greenery, forming a pretty background for the beautiful dresses worn by the high school and college girls, who with their escorts participated in the delightful occasion. Joe White’s orchestra furnished the wonderful music and dancing was enjoyed until a late hour.”
With the goal of becoming a journalist, Capers attended the University of Colorado and Millsaps College. She was awarded a BA degree in English from the University of Mississippi in 1934. After a brief stint with Condé Nast’s publicity department in Boca Raton, Florida, Capers returned to Jackson.
The year 1938 would prove pivotal for Charlotte Capers. The Capers family suffered a tragedy in the loss of her older brother, Walter Woldridge Capers. Born in 1905, Capers earned his LL.B. at Vanderbilt University, and attended the International School of Law at The Hague, Holland. In 1936 was chosen to serve in the state senate for the four-year term and was appointed chairman of the judiciary committee. He was also dean of the Jackson School of Law He died in December, 1938, from complications of rheumatic fever, in Biloxi, Mississippi, and was buried in Lakewood Memorial Park in Clinton, Mississippi.
In 1938, Charlotte Capers joined the staff of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History (hereafter, MDAH) as a stenographer. Capers later wrote, “I managed to avoid the responsibilities of hard times of bringing home some bacon during the Great Depression, I wanted to play on, until the Right Man swept me away to some swinging tune from A Great Big Band. When the R.M. failed to appear and the wolf was at the Rectory door, I was offered a job in MDAH, and was persuaded to accept it by a family increasingly nervous about making ends meet, and tired of supporting me.” She was to quip, “I came in for a cup of coffee and stayed 45 years.”
MDAH was established by an act of the Mississippi legislature. Governor A. H. Longino signed the bill into law on February 27, 1902. Mississippi became the second state after Alabama (1901) to establish such a department. The first director was Dr. Dunbar Rowland, a lawyer, from Coffeeville. The Department’s first quarters were the rooms adjoining the House of Representatives in the Old Capitol. The department moved to the ground floor of the New Capitol in 1902. Dr. William D. McCain was appointed Director of MDAH in 1938. The Department remained in the basement of the New Capitol until 1940, when slightly more commodious quarters were provided in the War Memorial Building.
When McCain was called to active military service from 1943-45 and 1951-53, Capers was promoted from her position as research and editorial assistant to Acting Director. On May 25, 1955 McCain accepted the position of president of Mississippi Southern College in Hattiesburg and on June 1, at a special meeting of the Board of Trustees of MDAH, Charlotte Capers was unanimously elected Director of the Department to serve out the unexpired term of Dr. McCain, and to begin a six-year term beginning on January 1, 1956. She also became editor-in-chief of The Journal of Mississippi History and chairman of the Mississippi Historical Society.
Capers soon exercised her new authority in a spat with another state agency. Plans of the State Highway Department for the proposed route of a new lane for Highway 49 North, between Jackson and Yazoo City, called for the leveling of a pyramidal mound near the town of Pocahontas. From archeological source materials in the Archives, it was determined that this mound was an important archeological site of prime importance by Moreau B.C. Chambers, former archeologist with MDAH.
In July, 1956, Director Capers invoked for the first time a little-known law which makes MDAH responsible for the safety and preservation of “ruins and archeological sites” in the State of Mississippi. House Bill No. 62, Chapter 161, General Laws of the State of Mississippi, 1938, provides that “any person who shall appropriate, excavate, injure or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of historical, archeological or scientific value, situated in the State of Mississippi without first securing the permission of the Director of MDAH shall be guilty of a misdemeanor . . .” The Director informed the State Highway Department of the historical and archeological significance of the Pocahontas Mound, and the 1938 law; as a result, the new lane of Highway 49 North would by-pass the mound, and the State Highway Department would make a roadside park, appropriately marked, nearby.
The Highway Department had its revenge almost sixty years later, however, when in July, 2013 a newly-opened rest area on U.S. High-way 49 at the Pocahontas Indian mound was named for three people instrumental in saving the historic site from development. What Miss Charlotte would say about the Capers-Blake-Scales Rest Area is a matter ripe for speculation.
THE BASIC EIGHT
In the 1950s and ‘60s, Capers was a member of a small, exclusive social circle.
(Eudora) and seven other friends gathered almost weekly for dinner, conversation, and parlor games; they called themselves the Basic Eight. Charlotte Capers, then assistant director of MDAH, which she would eventually head, was a central figure in the group. One of the world’s great raconteurs, even if the world beyond Mississippi did not know it, Charlotte also wrote a regular column for the Jackson Daily News under the pseudonym of Miss Quote. Charlotte’s young assistant Ann Morrison and Ann’s architect husband, Bill, were also members of the Basic Eight as were Jacksonians Jimmie Wooldridge and Major White. The seventh and eighth places were filled variously by friends who returned to Jackson on regular visits—Frank Lyell and Hubert Creekmore most frequently. A different group member would entertain each week-once at the Morrisons’ the guests saw their hosts climb into a bathtub in order to wrap a large roast in layers of wet, salted newspapers, emerging to place the wrapped meat in a barbeque of hot coals. Another time the group painted a mural in the stairway that led from the Morrisons’ basement apartment to Charlotte’s house above. One evening they met to see a moonflower bloom at the home of Major White. At anyone’s home they might play word games: each person writing one line in the set pattern of a story, folding a piece of paper to conceal what he or she had written on it, then passing the paper to another, who would complete a second part of the pattern and so on. Eventually all eight or more lines would be revealed to the assembled group. The results could be hilarious. One exchange led to this sentence:
the luscious but naughty
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just the other day, a neighbor told me that his night-blooming cereus—which of course was just weighed down with buds—was given to him by his grandmother, who had lived in Greenville, and she had gotten her “start” from Chestina Welty at a garden club gathering in Jackson. Since moving to Jackson twenty years ago, I’ve heard variations of this story ad nauseum every summer from every Tom, Dick and Harriet I run into. Most people will tell you that Eudora gave a cereus cutting to their mother/aunt/sister/nelly uncle, or will say they got it from someone else who did. Indeed, to admit—as I often do—that your “Queen of the Night” is of dubious lineage is to label oneself an unwashed member of the hoi polloi. You’ll find that the Welty night-blooming cereus mimics the properties of the True Cross, whose fragments once proliferated throughout Christendom in every church, chapel, and monastery. Of course, we can’t fault the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for peddling the Welty cereus rather much like the Borgia papacy did Holy Splinters; they have to get those leaks repaired in the Two Museums somehow. In the end, however, we really must admit that we can’t possibly be certain that any one cereus coming into bloom in Mississippi is really, honestly, a blue-blood Welty or just some pass-along white trash epiphyllum.