Mississippi’s Confederate past and history of racial violence are well known throughout the United States; in fact, that’s all many people seem to know. “Oh, is it really like Mississippi Burning?” I’ve been asked countless times by new acquaintances from around the world. Uh, no, I don’t think so. It’s really not even like The Help.
Many outsiders (and even some left-leaning insiders) seem to assume Mississippi is full of gun-toting white racial supremacists, drunk on fundamentalist religion or Colt 45 or both and, while I’m sure here are white people like that in Mississippi, I’m lucky enough not to know many. I mean, yeah, my great aunt from Newton County looked askance when she realized Mr. Kim and I would live together before marriage; yes, I did see a Ben Carson bumper sticker outside a sushi restaurant over Christmas break; and I’m pretty sure at least some of my cousins don’t believe in evolution. But actually, Mississippi has been more or less split 55/45 Republican/Democrat in the last two elections, so even by the most strident liberal Yankee’s standards we can’t all be the racist and shoeless illiterates we’re so often made out to be.
Actually, though, this isn’t a defense of white people or a denial of racism or any of those other reflexive, defensive, beside-the-point statements so often uttered by the majority in conversations on race. No, my point instead is that outsiders who see Mississippians as redneck cousin-loving racists are themselves ignoring, overlooking, forgetting the 37.5 percent of Mississippians who are black. And this is a population that has been ignored far to often for far too long.
Take, for example, the Hinds County Courthouse in Raymond (there’s one in Jackson, too), where I first registered to vote and where Mr. Kim and I went to get our marriage license last week. (We failed; they advised us to do it in 2016 because the forms were changing.) It’s a nice old building, Greek Revival, built in the late 1850s and considered one of the state’s best examples of the period.
We entered through a side door, but as we exited through the front door–I wanted to get a better look at the building–I noticed a Confederate monument in the corner of the lawn. I take what some people might call a perverse pleasure in photographing Confederate monuments and other obvious paeans to racism I find in Mississippi; they just somehow, still, unaccountably, shock me. As snapped several photos, Mr. Kim found the Wikipedia article for the building.
“Oh, apparently it was designed by a slave!” he said in mild surprise.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah, it says designed and built by slaves working for a company.”
Indeed. I’ve since looked it up myself, and the building–considered one of the best examples of Greek Revival architecture in the state–was designed by a slave named Jackson who worked for I guess the antebellum equivalent of building contractors, then built by other slaves in their employ. This fact was apparently important enough to list on the city’s application to place the site and the surrounding neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places, but not worthy of mention on the City of Raymond’s own history page, which mentions the courthouse three times in extolling its beauty and significance but doesn’t contain the words “black,” “African-American” or “slave” at all. On the other hand, the word “Confederate” appears nine times. Nine. And out in front of the Hinds County Courthouse in Raymond, there’s a pretty huge Confederate monument and the state flag with its Confederate canton.
So, next time you start to think of Mississippi as a place of ignorance full of white-hooded men and bare-footed women, or make fun of the ultraconservative, gun-toting rednecks you imagine populate it, go ahead. You aren’t completely wrong. But more importantly, remember Jackson, the slave who designed one of the most remarkable courthouses in South and, more remarkably, has somehow had his name preserved. Remember the slaves whose skill and sweat brought his design into being. And remember the 1.1 million black Americans living in Mississippi today who can’t register to vote, get a marriage license or watch their legislature in session without walking past monuments to a regime built upon a belief in their lack of humanity and dedicated to their exploitation.