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Mississippi Students Make a Marker for History
Honoring African American women who desegregated a university in the 1960s
Current MSMS juniors conducting the MoreStory Monuments project this school year. L-R Sean Stewart (hometown: Laurel, MS); Jaelon Carter (Philadelphia, MS); Alexis Allen (Columbus, MS); Eli Bankston (Brandon, MS); Savannah Massey (Pelahatchie, MS); Ramse Jefferson (Raymond, MS); and Aniyah Allen (Jackson, MS). (Photo Caleb Youngblood, MSMS.)
Travelers are all familiar with the idea of markers, murals, and plaques that pay tribute to events or people important to the places we visit. Some of the most memorable to us at Our Towns: the bronze reliefs at a corner park in Duluth, MN, site of one of the country’s northern-most lynchings around the time of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921; the lifesize bronze statues of presidents in Rapid City, gateway to Mount Rushmore; Triangle Park in tiny Ajo, AZ, with mosaic, photos, and scenes from the century-old copper mine culture, and of the Mexicans, Native Americans, and Anglos who worked and lived side by side under very different circumstances;.
Now, when statues and monuments to the Confederacy are being dismantled throughout the South, a new marker has just been installed, a tribute to six young African American women from Columbus, Mississippi, who integrated the Mississippi University for Women in 1966.
The story of this marker is unusual for being driven by high school students in Mississippi, with help of their teacher, a university, the public library, the state of Mississippi, the support of the philanthropic Emerson Collective, and the enthusiasm of the people of Columbus, MS.
This is a summary of the full piece now on the Our Towns website:
The high school: The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) is a residential public boarding high school for juniors and seniors. The students come from far and wide across Mississippi: the fashionable parts of Hattiesburg, the doublewides in the Delta. We have visited it many times over the past decade and written about its innovations.
The teacher and the idea: Chuck Yarborough is a history teacher at MSMS. We had learned about two of his earlier projects, Tales from the Crypt, and the Eighth of May Emancipation Celebration, in which students researched and then presented reenactments of episodes from early Columbus, MS. This new marker is a product of his MoreStory Monuments project.
The students and their work: The students are enrolled in Yarborough’s history class. This project demanded primary document research from Columbus’s Lowndes County public library, more online supporting research from nearby universities and organizations, literature and media, writing up their findings, building public presentations, composing the text for the marker, and eventually securing the official go-ahead.
The state of Mississippi: For almost 75 years, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has overseen the state’s Historical Marker Program. The designation of this marker adds to the so far scarce collection honoring women and African Americans in Lowndes County, among the some existing 1000 statewide markers.
The University and the public library: MSMS is located on the campus of the Mississippi University for Women (MUW). Erin Kempker’s students there had researched desegregation of the university for years, and assembled a moving 50th anniversary art exhibit called In Their Footsteps in 2016. MSMS students built on that work for their own marker project.
The Columbus-Lowndes County library, located in downtown Columbus, has long hosted MSMS students doing original research for Yarborough’s previous projects, and they extended that privilege to the students for this one.
The Support: Chuck Yarborough was selected by the Emerson Collective for a national fellowship for 2022, on the topic of Democracy. This opportunity has elevated Yarborough’s projects from a local to a national stage.
The Marker and the story behind it: The marker honors six African American women who integrated the university in 1966 -- 82 years after its opening. The origin story of the 3 undergraduate women, Diane Hardy, Barbara Turner and Laverne Greene (now Greene-Leech), is humble and sounds almost accidental. It began as a dream and a dare from Hardy, who announced her plans to apply to the school, mostly just to see what would happen.
Greene-Leech, who attended the ceremony, recalled this history, telling local TV, “Diane said ‘I’m going to write to The W’ (its colloquial name), and you know we laughed at her because we were going to Valley, Jackson State, Tennessee, and wherever else, and she said ‘I am going to apply to The W.’ Well, Barbara and I said, ‘If you do, we’ll do, and so we did.’”
The Bigger Picture: The work by the students and the dedication of a marker became much more than a class assignment. It spells out a more unvarnished and honest history lesson for the students and the town and residents of Columbus, Mississippi. It is now part of the official record for this part of the American South. A practical bonus lesson for American educators and education as well: such a project is replicable in other schools in other parts of the country.
Thanks for reading.