April 3, 2013 10:25:12 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
William Faulkner said that to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. But to understand Mississippi, you must first understand a place like Columbus.
Juniors at Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science have spent the entire school year exploring the historical context of issues like race, class, gender and religion as they relate to some of the city's most notorious residents.
Tonight at 7 p.m., they will present the culmination of that knowledge in the 23rd annual "Tales from the Crypt" at Friendship Cemetery.
In August, MSMS history teacher Chuck Yarborough distributed a master list of names selected from the cemetery headstones and distributed the list to the class, allowing them to choose their subjects. They wrote research papers in December, and tonight, they will bring those characters to life for the hundreds who are expected to pour into the cemetery for the 45-minute, candlelight walking tour.
Nine vignettes will be presented, with students performing three-and-a-half minute monologues they wrote to explain their character's role in Columbus history.
Kemmins Cockerham, of Hamilton, will portray Dr. Bolivar A. Vaughan, who came to Columbus in 1853 to open his practice and lived here until his death in 1897. Vaughan served as the state surgeon general during the Civil War.
For Cockerham, a Civil War buff, it has been the perfect class assignment. Students made weekly trips to the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library and explored Lowndes County Courthouse records, special collections at Mississippi University for Women and Mississippi State, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson and other resources.
But increasingly, the Internet is proving to be a boon for the budding historians, as was the case for Cockerham, who feels he now has a pretty good idea of Vaughan's life. He has chosen to focus his skit upon the horrors and frustrations doctors faced during the war due to the inadequacies of medical technology.
"Most of the men died not from the wounds but from the infections they got from their wounds," Cockerham said Tuesday night. "It was terrible, because doctors couldn't do anything. A lot of people don't understand. Men died from cuts that weren't even an inch deep."
He is not nervous about tonight's performance -- the students have practiced every Wednesday night since January. But he is acutely aware of what he calls his greatest vulnerability: In such a short performance, one flub can cause the point to be unclear, destroying the entire monologue.
Because "Tales from the Crypt" never duplicates subjects, it is possible attend every year and learn something new, Yarborough said. It gives students the opportunity to be historians, and it gives attendees -- who average 2,000 to 3,000 people per year -- the chance to connect the local stories to their own.
They don't sanitize history, he said. Sometimes the stories are violent, shameful or tragic. All are steeped in raw emotion and humanity.
The project has won national recognition over the years, including an award for distinguished historic preservation from the Mississippi Heritage Trust, a letter of commendation from the Mississippi Historical Society, a nomination as one of the top 20 tourism events in the Southeast, the 2005 Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts and the 2009 Award for Outstanding Use of Historical Documents in the K-12 Classroom by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. It has been featured in the New York Times travel section and Turner South Broadcasting's "3-Day Weekend," and it has spawned a legion of similar programs across the South.
"Ultimately, what we're trying to do is create a more complex understanding of our story," Yarborough said Tuesday. "When 'Tales' works well, visitors walk away with a more complex understanding of our past."
The students gain a deeper understanding of history and their place in it, too.
"I take for granted electricity and advances in medical technology," Cockerham said. "Things escalated so quickly from a minor cut to amputations. It's just eye-opening."
Though he is interested in a career in dentistry, his involvement with "Tales" has deepened his interest in psychology, particularly the nuances that shape people's personalities and how that changes historical viewpoints over time.
He said he chose MSMS for its reputation as an open, accepting, multi-cultural school, and those values are reflected in the project.
"Susan B. Anthony said real progress is made when people begin to think," Cockerham said. "That's what I love about our 'Tales' performances. They make you think. People are going to leave here a little changed."
Performances will be held tonight and Friday this week and Monday, Wednesday and Friday next week. All performances run from 7-10 p.m. at Friendship Cemetery, which is located at Fourth St. South and 15th Ave. South. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students.
Proceeds will go toward covering the costs of the performances and a class community service project. The remaining proceeds will be donated to the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation to support its on-going local preservation efforts.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.