Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science history instructor Chuck Yarborough examines a historic headstone in Friendship Cemetery. Yarborough is the faculty sponsor of Tales from the Crypt tour, a living history/research program presented by MSMS students that has become a part of the Columbus Pilgrimage. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
March 28, 2017 10:25:43 AM
Starting next week, juniors from Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science will again dress in hoop skirts and Confederate uniforms to perform Tales from the Crypt at Friendship Cemetery.
Tales has become a staple of Columbus' annual spring Pilgrimage event, as students perform skits and monologues while dressed as real-life figures from the city's past. The performances -- which the teens write themselves -- are based on months of research at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library.
"They're doing this exhaustive documentary research project and then they're making it come to life for themselves," MSMS history teacher Chuck Yarborough said.
Now in its 27th year, Tales has been around nearly as long as MSMS has. The program started when Carl Butler taught United States history at the school.
"The gist of it was that he was going to get the students involved in research and also come up with an event that could be performed during Pilgrimage, which would help the city as well as helping the students," said Carl's wife, Dixie Butler.
The Butlers were history buffs, in their own right, and already heavily involved in the Columbus Pilgrimage -- an event that showcases the many antebellum homes in the area -- by the time Carl started Tales from the Crypt. Right before getting married, the Butlers bought the antebellum home Temple Heights in 1969. That spring, Temple Heights was on the Columbus Pilgrimage and it has been ever since, even after Dixie sold the house to new owners in 2015. Throughout the '90s and early 2000s, while Dixie prepared Temple Heights for Pilgrimage tourists, Carl prepared MSMS students for Tales from the Crypt.
"I don't know how we did it," said Dixie, who still remembers going to see the performances on nights she had free. "I would go down and park in front of the main gate, which really wasn't being used for the tourists, and I would go see him and see how it was going. And sometimes I took Hersey's Kisses to him."
From assisting to leading
Yarborough began helping with Tales in 2000-01, when he and Carl Butler both taught U.S. history at MSMS.
When Carl died in 2003, Yarborough took the reins.
One of Yarborough's memories of that year is of a student who dressed as a Jewish merchant from the early 1900s and who had a ledger as a prop.
"He tallied Friday night -- we had 880 people come through in one night -- and he said that he performed his script 43 times," Yarborough said. "(That) is an amazing number of times."
Yarborough now shuts the gates earlier and sends in larger groups so the students don't have to perform quite that many times, but they may still perform the same monologue 20 to 25 times in a night. And usually they stay in character, he said.
But Tales has changed in other ways. Students now have access to online databases, which makes their research easier and gives them more access to sources, Yarborough said.
One student this year, junior Hayden Stokely, used a database of historic newspapers from the Library of Congress to put together her monologue of a member of the Cox family.
"This family has been researched previously and performed sometimes," Yarborough said. "I don't remember when the last time that happened was. However, (Stokely) was most interested in the newspapers during the period when her research subject was alive. So what she's done is created a script that is the young woman in early 20th century Columbus who is writing a letter to her brother and telling him about the goings-on in the community."
In fact, though none of the students have ever researched the same individuals, they have researched individuals from the same families throughout the years, Yarborough said. But the performances are still unique from year-to-year because students are interested in different things now.
"Today's students are more focused on exploring intersections of race, class and gender," Yarborough said. "And religion as well. So instead of mostly telling the story of the leading upper class folks in town and in Lowndes County, students are exploring what it was like to be a female in the late 19th century, or what tensions there were between the older and younger generations, or what tensions there may have been between people of different religious belief systems. And, of course, the tensions between black and white."
The students choose to study those tensions, Yarborough said, because it helps them understand their world better.
Dixie thinks Carl would be "thrilled to death" at the way Tales has evolved over the years. And even as she kept preparing Temple Heights every Pilgrimage after he death, she still never missed a single year of seeing the students perform in the cemetery -- and still hasn't.
"I'm looking forward to seeing it again this year," she said.
HOW TO GO
■ Tales from the Crypt takes place at Friendship Cemetery at 1400 Fourth St. S. Visitors can purchase tickets at the cemetery. Tickets $5 for adults, $3 for students.
Dates and Times:
■ Friday, March 31: 7 p.m.-10 p.m.
■ Monday, April 3: 7 p.m.-10 p.m.
■ Wednesday, April 5: 7 p.m.-10 p.m.
■ Friday, April 7: 7 p.m.-10 p.m.
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