Thursday, July 12, 2012
History teachers tour city’s historic sites
By SUE WATSON
A group of teachers of American history toured Holly Springs recently to learn about the New South.
As they learn more about the history of the South, they will take it back to their classrooms and become better history teachers.
The period in focus is the New South from the 1970s forward, said Keesvan Minnen of the Netherlands, a teacher of American history with special interest in the U.S. South. It is Minnen’s fourth visit to the Oxford area and first to Holly Springs. He makes a trip to the U.S. every year and has toured the Northeast and California as well as Oxford.
Minnen said it is the culture, the towns, the hospitality and restaurants that lure him back again and again to the Oxford area.
In the Netherlands, the old slave South is not well known, but the U.S. has a cultural presence in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in particular. Minnen said Hollywood images and films shape the opinion of Europeans and the Netherlands as well as the news on the political scene.
“The U.S. South is not thought about much,” he said. “It would be of interest to only a minority in the Netherlands.”
The music from the South – blues, jazz, gospel – is well known in the Netherlands.
“Elvis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King are very well known,” he said. “The older generation have images of civil rights. They know about Martin Luther King, etc. I’ve been fascinated about developments in the South after the 1960s. There are new immigrants (Latinos, Asians) that have tremendously changed the South since the 1970s. And many African Americans are returning to the South – those who have reached retirement and the younger ones coming back for jobs in border states like North Carolina and Virginia, but no so much in Alabama and Mississippi.”
Minnen said he is struck by American television – the dearth of foreign news and information on the countries outside the U.S. except that foreign news that is connected with foreign wars.
In Europe, people want to know what’s going on in the U.S. and other foreign countries, he said.
He said Americans are more interested in themselves than outside nations.
“U.S. politicians teach the U.S. is the best country in the world, but you have no knowledge about the rest of the world,” he said.
Minnen believes people in the Netherlands and U.K. are the most open-minded in the world.
“One half the news on European television can be about other countries, including countries outside of Europe,” he said. “European film companies cannot compete with Hollywood, so T.V. stations and American T.V. and programs and books Americans publish are important – they are tested first in the U.K. and Europe because they know people read and it’s a testing ground.”
Lois McMillan guided the tour for the Gilder Lehrman Center. She coordinates group teacher tours. The group partnered with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss to provide a one-week tour in Northern Mississippi.
It was the center’s first tour here and teachers are selected from all around the U.S. and elsewhere – seasoned teachers as well as unseasoned ones. The institute was set up in the 1990s to increase the level of knowledge about American history.
Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman were historians and collectors and set up the institute to house their collection, she said. President Barnard, who established the Barnard Observatory in New York and at Ole Miss, and Jim Basker, president of the institute, were instrumental in establishing the teacher tours, McMillan said.
“They said, you have to get these documents into the hands of teachers to promote the love of American history,” she said. “They started with the first seminar on slavery and developed 40 seminars around the nation that deal with American history.”
Gilder and Lehrman partnered with the New York Historical Society to house their collection and use it to teach history. Basker set up the idea that teachers would go for one-week tours to study and enrich their knowledge of American history.
McMillan said this tour was the first time she and many of her teachers on the tour had visited Mississippi. There was instruction time at Ole Miss, then a trip to Clarksdale to experience Southern foods, and a seminar about “Race and Ethnicity of the New South.”
Groups have toured the University of Virginia, New York University, Colorado, Cambridge, England, and the Southwest Indians in Santa Fe.
“This is about after 1970 and what does the New South look like?” she said. “We think of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers. What a wonderful surprise (to see what’s here now). It’s so very welcoming and eclectic and (to see) Southerners embrace their history.”
Burton Place Tour
Teachers toured the slave kitchen at the Hugh Craft House and then Burton Place and the outdoor kitchen. David Person was the tour guide.
“The best thing about the ‘Behind the Big House Tour’ is that it has raised a dialog,” Person said. “There were socially contradictory times and how do you explain the unexplainable? The social structure in antebellum times was highly structured and everybody knew their places. There was a mutual give and take and caring - sometimes to extremes in circumstances of wealth and freedom.
“How do you teach this story? But we want to get dialog going in the right way.”
“It is impossible to go back to the bad ole days, but it’s close enough (the structure),” he said.
Before the big house was built, the kitchen house was the first house, he said. There were chicken coops and horse barns on the property and the nanny of the family is still alive. She worked for the former owner, he said.
What some claim was a holding room is truly believed to have been a laundry room, he said. The big house was the brainchild of Mary Burton, wife of Dr. Phil Burton.
Person said theirs was the first divorce in Marshall County.
“She was a strong woman and caught him taking advantage of her money,” he said. “She had cheap land from the Chickasaw about 15 miles out of town that needed to be worked. The land was in cotton and Burton’s cotton was brought to the courthouse lawn to be stored. Once her cotton was burned in Holly Springs and more of her cotton was confiscated by Federal agents on its way to New Orleans down the Mississippi River.
“The most incredible factor in this was sickness,” Person said. “People were deathly afraid of sickness affecting their labor.”
There was genuine caring for the sick and marriages were performed to make the social structure work. Men cut the wood and dressed the meat, while women worked in the kitchen, sewed, and took care of the inside jobs.
Mrs. Burton lived with her children in the old outbuilding. The structure is made of brick and of wood. The kitchen was not attached to the house because of the smell and the danger of fire. Trained cooks were the kings and queens of the culture. Food and provisions such as clothing and shoes, were distributed to the plantations for labor to use. There were written sets of rules, including whipping for runaways.
The living memories of slaves who lived on the property died out in the 1930s. New owners and their children did not grow up with knowledge of slavery that had gone before.
“We are just now starting to understand the whole picture,” he said.
Jodi Skipper, with Ole Miss, said speakers for the tour included Charles Reagan Wilson, who Monday discussed the history of American religion. Tuesday the group took a food tour to Clarksdale. Wednesday, Dr. Coombs, sociologist and specialist on urbanization of the South, gave a lecture.
“A few were uncomfortable coming to Mississippi at first,” she said. “I think they realize the stories are more complicated, obviously. Those on tour teach in high schools, universities and some run institutes. One is a librarian.”
Jenifer Eggleston, specialist with the National Park Service, explained how some recent events are loosely linked. The Behind the Big House Tour was arranged through Joseph McGill, an acquaintance she made a decade ago when they both worked for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They reconnected following Hurricane Katrina while heading up restoration projects on the Gulf Coast.
“Though I left the National Trust a few years ago, Joseph and I worked on historic preservation recovery in New Orleans and later I became aware of Joseph’s ‘Slave Dwellings Project.’ Last year, Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs began to develop a concept of how to recognize and document rare extant slave-related structures in Marshall County and Holly Springs.”
The effort was to both promote their preservation by using these surviving touchstones of a shared, but conflicted history…to hopefully begin a meaningful, more inclusive, accurate historical narrative of the region that was begun at the 74th Holly Springs Pilgrimage via the Behind the Big House Tour.
“Our idea was to combine the pilgrimage with the Slave Dwelling Project and seek a funder that would help make this happen,” she said.
The grant was funded by the Mississippi Humanities Council and the Holly Springs Tourism and Recreation Bureau to make the Behind the Big House tour possible.
The Behind the Big House project is not connected directly with the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History program that brought teachers to Holly Springs, but it is loosely connected through the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss, the Mississippi Humanities Council and Rust College and its “Come to the Table” project. Each event in some way or other supports the other in an informal manner.
“We look to continue to build interest and partnerships in telling this long overdue and often overlooked story while advocating research connecting the whole community with our shared history,” Eggleston said.
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