THIS BLOG POST IS DEDICATED TO MY MATERNAL GREAT-GRANDFATHER, AUGUSTUS GARNER, WHO, BY THE LATE-1800s, WAS EXTREMELY LITERATE AND OWNED 200 ACRES OF LAND, IN MISSISSIPPI, WHICH HE LOGGED FOR TIMBER SALES. INDEED, ALMOST AN IMPOSSIBILITY. SOME OF THAT PROPERTY IS STILL OWNED BY MY FAMILY; AND I WAS SO MOVED AND PROUD, WHEN MY MOTHER TOOK ME THERE, TO SHOW ME WHAT HE HAD ACCOMPLISHED.
A jaw-dropping piece of news was broadcast in all the media, today. Just over a week ago – yes, a week ago, the State of Mississippi officially ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which outlawed slavery … 148 years after most of the States in the Union had done so.
|Jackson, Mississippi State Capitol|
The amendment was passed by the U.S. Senate on April 8, 1864, and by the House of Representatives on Jan. 31, 1865. Throughout 1865, 26 states ratified the critical law; and in December of that year, the amendment was formally adopted into U.S. law after Georgia’s approval brought the number to the required 27.
Only slightly less astounding to today’s news, was the disclosure that The Mississippi Legislature had actually formally ratified the historic amendment in 1995 – no, that is not meant to read 1895. Several states, including Kentucky and Delaware, waited decades to ratify the amendment; but the last was Mississippi in 1995 – or so everyone thought…
The huge delay, was the result of a ‘clerical error’, when the ratification document was never presented to the U.S. Archivist. So, it was never deemed official. However, amazingly, no one noticed.
According to various news sources, the bizarre error was discovered by a pair of Mississippians, Dr. Rajan Batra and Mr. Ken Sullivan, who, after seeing the movie, Lincoln, and being thankfully curious about how Mississippi had reacted to the 13th Amendment being passed, discovered the mistake when investigating at the National Archives Office of the Federal Register. They then brought the oversight to the attention of state officials that they had never, in fact, ratified one of the most important documents in modern history. The government promptly sent the paperwork, and it was ‘officially received’ and noted.
Slavery in Mississippi dates back to the early 1700s, in the Natchez District, when the plantation system was introduced by French colonists. The first major crop that thrived, from African slave labor in Natchez, was tobacco. Once the cotton gin was perfected, almost one hundred years later, the slave owners increased their wealth through cotton production.
From the time of their first arrival in Natchez, slaves resisted bondage. The slaves, in Natchez, often rebelled against the cruelty of their White masters – cruelties, such as: branding, cutting off ears, whipping and torture. Any form of education was completely out of the question. These rebellions made slave owners very nervous. One notable uprising was in 1731, when African slaves and Natchez Indians were involved in a conspiracy to kill all of the French and take over the colony. The group was led by a slave named Samba Bambara, who was the trusted, first officer and interpreter of a Swiss expat, living in Natchez, named Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz.
|Antoine Simon Le Page du Pratz|
The rebels were not to be successful, and were brutally punished to death.
After the American Revolution, slaves often began to run away to either find freedom in the northern parts of the country; or to be with family members at nearby plantations. Runaway slaves encountered slave patrols, slave catchers, dogs, wild animals, and unfamiliar surroundings. Desperation, starvation and fear ultimately led many runaways to return to their masters.
Natchez became part of the United States in 1817, when Mississippi entered the Union as a state – despite massive resistance.
The American Civil War period also saw many slave uprisings. The timing was no coincidence. Slaves were aware of events outside of Natchez because the slave underground rapidly spread news from plantation to plantation. They were eventually freed, once President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came into effect, in 1863. However, it was not easy sailing for the freedmen, for decades to come.
|Natchez, Mississippi c. 1800|
Click here to hear an amazing, 9-minute audio recording of former slave, 101-year-old (in 1949) Fountain Hughes, giving his first-hand account of being a slave. Fountain’s grandfather was the property of Thomas Jefferson and lived to be 115-years-old.
Alcorn State University was founded in 1871, by the Reconstruction era legislature, to provide higher education for freedmen. Established in Lorman, Mississippi, Alcorn was the first state-supported institution for the higher education of African-Americans, in the United States.
Alcorn was actually founded on the site originally occupied by Oakland College, a school for White students, established by the Presbyterian Church. Oakland College closed its doors at the beginning of The Civil War, so that its students could fight for the Confederates. When the college failed to reopen at the end of the war, the property was sold to the State of Mississippi. It renamed the facility, Alcorn University, in honor of James L. Alcorn, the state’s governor, in 1871 and established it as an Historically-Black college.
|James L. Alcorn|
Hiram R. Revels resigned his seat in the United States Senate to become Alcorn's first president. The state legislature provided $50,000 in cash, for ten successive years, for the establishment and overall operations of the college.
|Hiram R. Revels|
|Hiram Revels's credentials as State Senator|
At first, the school was exclusively for African-American males; but in 1895, women were admitted. Today, women comprise over 65% of the 4,000 students, from all over the world, and of all races.
|Alcorn State University students, today|
While early graduates of Alcorn had limited horizons, more recent alumni are successful physicians, lawyers, pharmacists, dentists, educators, administrators, managers, and entrepreneurs.
Alcorn’s most probable famous son was civil rights activist and Mississippian, Medgar Evers, who graduated in 1948. Medgar was involved in efforts to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi. He became active in the Civil Rights Movement after returning from overseas service in World War II and completing secondary education; he became a field secretary for the NAACP.
|Medgar Evers wearing a protest sign|
One early morning, in June 1963, just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s speech on national television, in support of civil rights, Medgar pulled into his driveway, after returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Emerging from his car and carrying NAACP T-shirts that read, "Jim Crow Must Go," Medgar was struck in the back with a bullet, fired by Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the White Citizens’ Council (and later, the Ku Klux Klan, as well) Medgar died at a hospital, less than an hour later. As a military veteran, Medgar was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, before a group of 3,000 mourners. His murder and the resulting trials inspired civil rights protests, as well as numerous works of art, music, and film.
|Medgar's driveway, where he was assassinated|
|Medgar Evers's family at his Arlington Cemetery grave|
During De La Beckwith’s first and second trials, juries, composed solely of White men, deadlocked twice that year, on his guilt.
|Byron De La Beckwith as a free man|
In 1994, 30 years after the two previous trials had failed to reach a verdict, De La Beckwith was brought to trial based on new evidence. During this trial, Medgar’s body was exhumed from his grave for an autopsy. This time, one year before the 13th Amendment was voted to be ratified, in the State of Mississippi, De La Beckwith was brought to justice and convicted of murder on February 5, 1994. He had, for the most part, been living as a free man, for the three decades following Medgar’s assassination. De La Beckwith appealed unsuccessfully, and died in prison, at age 80, in January 2001.
Mississippi has had an extremely long and slow road to full acceptance of racial integration – much longer than most. However, I would like to think that it is still moving forward, with institutions such as Alcorn State University; which can only be a good thing.
|Members of One Mississippi, a group working to promote racial harmony in the State|
Sources: Mississippi History Now, Wikipedia, Alcorn State University, Huffington Post, NY Daily News, Ancestry.com, Google Images, YouTube