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Wyatt Emmerich: Celebrating Mississippi's 200th birthday


Wyatt Emmerich



On Sunday, Mississippi will celebrate its bicentennial. It's been 200 years since the founding of our state. 


This Saturday, Dec. 9, will be the big day, coinciding with the opening of the new Museum of Mississippi History and the adjacent Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. 


Gov. Phil Bryant will speak, as will former governors Haley Barbour and William Winter. Former NAACP chair Myrlie Evers will also speak. 


Tickets to enter the museums Saturday are sold out, but tickets are not needed to attend the opening day program at Entergy Plaza, the grassy courtyard in front of the new museums. Free parking will be available at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds, and seating will begin at 10 a.m. on a first-come, first-served basis. 


The Legislature provided $90 million for the museums. Another $19 million was raised through private donations and endowments. The two museums share a lobby, auditorium, classrooms, collection storage, and exhibit workshop for a facility that covers a total of 200,000 square feet. 


The Museum of Mississippi History covers the past 15,000 years. Eight galleries featuring interactive exhibits cover every aspect of the state's history through more than 1,600 artifacts. The eight galleries at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum focus on the years 1945-1976. 


I got a sneak preview of the museums and they are terrific - modern, easy to walk through, easy to engage. Lots of big photos, big type and artifacts. I liken it to walking through a very graphic history book with lots of photos. This will make a great tourist attraction. 


In 1817, the population of Mississippi was around 50,000. It was a dense forest full of wildlife and scattered tribes of native Americans. During Mississippi's early decades the population doubled every 10 years with farmers from the Carolinas and Georgia. They brought slaves with them. 


It was tough back then. Yellow fever and malaria were rampant. Sanitation was marginal. Medicine was crude. Ten percent of women died in childbirth. Most adults lost their teeth. 


The timber of the vast virgin forests was easy pickings. A huge forestry industry was born, providing wood for the great cities of New York, Chicago and other booming metropolises. Huge swaths of acreage were clear cut. Reforestation was not practiced. 


The Delta was a vast swamp of bottomland hardwoods. Valuable timber was cut and sold as a prerequisite to cotton farming. In those days, Delta rivers and streams were crystal clear. There were no agricultural runoffs. Bears and cougars abounded. 


Even hundreds of years ago, many Mississippians lived as they did in the Bible days. Subsistence farming dominated. I have known many people who grew up in such an environment. Rather than speak of the hardships, most of these people talked with great enthusiasm of the joys of growing up on a farm near a small town. 


The Delta was different. Plantation cotton farming was a big deal. The world craved cotton as it craves software today. The Delta was the silicon valley of the antebellum era. Mississippi planters became an incredibly rich aristocracy until the Civil War. 


That aristocracy was gone with the wind after our great war. Mississippi suffered a huge blow from which it really has never recovered. We returned to a state dominated by subsistence farming. Jim Crow laws reintroduced white domination after a brief period of black political freedom. 


After WWII, Mississippi embarked on a great wave of industrialization. Mississippi was the Mexico and China of low-cost wages. The non-unionized state boomed. Sharecropping and then farming mechanization resuscitated the cotton industry. 


The Civil Rights movement transformed Mississippi once and for all, throwing off the shackles of apartheid. The rubicon was crossed and there was no going back. 


During the founding of our country, primary loyalty was to your state, not the nation. That's why Robert E. Lee fought for the Confederacy even after being offered leadership of the U.S. forces. He could not bring himself to betray his native Virginia. 


Today, we are firstly Americans, even in Mississippi, which is probably the most traditional, provincial state in the nation. Mississippians are far more attached to national politics than to state politics. 


I was born in McComb, Miss., 59 years ago. I have personally lived a quarter of our state's 200 years. Twenty-nine of my 32 great-great-great-grandparents were Mississippians. I feel an intense connection and loyalty to this state. My ancestors were here from the beginning. 


Strangely, my wife's Mississippi roots are as deep as mine. My children have 10 ancestors who were in Mississippi at the time of statehood. 


Being a Mississippian is a big part of my personal self conception. 


Mississippi is in the middle of the fastest growing region of the wealthiest country in the history of the world. It has everything: vast forests, arable land, abundant rainfall, a mild climate. 


As Faulkner said, the past isn't dead, it's not even past. So true in Mississippi. We love our past and our traditions, but let's not cling to them to the point that we fail to embrace a most promising future. 


Happy bicentennial Mississippi! There will be more century celebrations to come. 


Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]



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