Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, right, discusses plans for the Museum of Mississippi History and a Mississippi Civil Rights Museum during a Thursday visit to the editorial board of The Dispatch. Photo by: Micah Green/Dispatch Staff
December 12, 2013 10:19:20 AM
Mississippi turned 196 years old Tuesday. The goal of state leaders is to open a historical and civil rights museum under one roof by the time it turns 200. To achieve that, it is relying on a Mississippian whose experience in state government has few rivals: Former Governor William F. Winter.
State legislators authorized a $40 million bond issue in 2011 to begin construction of the two facilities provided that $10 million more in private donations is raised. A groundbreaking was held last month in Jackson. The project has an estimated $90 million price tag between building construction and exhibits, meaning more private donations will be crucial in executing the vision of the 2 Mississippi Museums campaign.
Winter, Mississippi's 57th chief executive, is throwing his support behind making the museums' opening the centerpiece of Mississippi's bicentennial by his fundraising efforts. The former governor said Wednesday during an interview with The Dispatch that having the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum together with a common entrance would be a major tool in achieving progress in racial reconciliation and education. In a state long associated with a history of segregation and racial tension, the bond issue would make Mississippi the first state to have such public investment in a civil rights museum.
"I think it's the most significant public building project that the state of Mississippi has been involved in since the new capitol was built in 1903," Winter said. "Folks can go in a museum and learn as much about where they've come from and the circumstances of their history and why things happened and how we are where we are ... in one day that they would learn in a history class, even taught by a first-rate history teacher. I think coupling that aspect of education with racial reconciliation does really tie those two great causes together in a visible way.
"You have a building there that's committed to enhancing education, enhancing racial reconciliation and bringing people on a day-to-day basis into an atmosphere where they will be learning about their common heritage and their common interest," he added.
Trey Porter, director of community relations for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said the four-floor facility will have about 40,000 square feet in exhibit space and that much again for storage and processing.
Winter's long history of service the state of Mississippi includes three terms in the state house of representatives in addition to serving as state tax collector, state treasurer and lieutenant governor. His public service extended beyond his years in elected office, however.
Winter spoke about serving in an advisory commission on race under former U.S. President Bill Clinton during his administration. He said during that time the commission visited 26 states and, despite encountering people of "every conceivable background," common themes emerged when asked about the basic life desires they hold dear. The construction of the two museums is something he hopes will reinforce that commonality on the state level.
"Literally everybody wanted the same thing. They wanted their children to get the best education. They wanted to have a fair shot at a job that would sustain them and their family. They wanted to live in a decent house on a safe street. They wanted to have access to some sort of adequate healthcare, and above all else they wanted to be treated with dignity and respect," Winter said. "I came out of that experience and I said, 'Why can't we use most of our energy in promoting those common objectives?' If we'll do that, these differences that we have devised somehow and pulled us apart will disappear. I think this is a point of that process of reconciling attitudes black and white in this state so that we will know about where we've all come from, know about what we've done in the past but also know what we've done right in the past and build on that."
Along with being the main hub for education on Mississippi's history, he hopes the two facilities will be a major draw for tourism. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History projects 200,000 visitors each year to the site and an annual economic impact of $19 million for the Jackson area and across the state. The project will create 500 construction jobs totaling $19 million in wages.
"The design of the building itself, everybody comes in one entrance. Black folks are going to be primarily interested in the civil rights museum. Most white folks are going to be primarily interested in the Mississippi history museum," Winter said. "When they come, 90 percent of the folks who come are going to do both. We will teach young blacks more about the whole history of the state. We'll teach young whites more about the civil rights movement ... I think (the museums) are going to bring a deluge of visitors to Mississippi as a tourist destination."
For more information on the project, visit 2mississippimuseums.com.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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