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Mississippi’s best storytellers most often are the ones born and raised here, the ones whose roots run deep in the state’s legendary ground. Becca Walton at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture is helping collect those homegrown stories and put them all in one place.
“For a long time, Mississippi has been a place where people come for a short time, extract a story from a community, and then they leave,” she said. “We have many great documentarians here, and they are telling stories that have nuance that wouldn’t be possible for documentarians who, as we say, helicopter in and out.”
As associate director for projects, Walton gets to serve as a cultivator of ideas, developing new programs, conferences and most recently a website called www.mississippistories.org. In July 2016, the center launched the site to showcase the stories of the people and places that give Mississippi its complex nature, giving voice to everyday people through documentary media, including film, photography and oral history.
Walton said that while the goal of the site is to showcase great documentary work, its more abstract goals are at the heart of the center’s work.
“I hope we contribute to an understanding of Mississippi and the South as a remarkably diverse and complicated place,” she said. “Mississippi is often shorthand for ‘hopeless and backward’ in national discourse. We acknowledge the state’s violent history and continuing challenges, but we hope to defy the notion that this place is stagnant and closed.
“To be a Mississippian can mean so many different things, in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity and faith. We hope to tell that complicated and full story and, in doing so, help shape a more equitable future for all who live here.”
The site is funded by the University’s Office of Research, and contributors to the site include faculty, students, staff and alumni. Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, said that the site is organized around a set of methods in documentary work rather than a specific topic.
“So it’s a good way to see the range of ways people do documentary work,” he said. “We live in an age when anybody can post not-very-good photography or they can film and post something as it happens, so, in some ways, most of us are documentarians.
“This site can help show examples of especially good work, and we’re hoping it can encourage conversations about what’s good enough to be on the site and how to improve work that’s not quite successful.”
Native Mississippian Rex Jones is a producer and director with the Southern Documentary Project at the university and has two documentaries published on the site. Walking Tall in Tchula tells the story of Tchula Chief of Police Kenneth Hampton, who is known for his larger-than-life character and his unconventional ways of keeping order in his jurisdiction. Jones’ documentary Brothers details an initiative to encourage more African Americans to get regular blood pressure checks by setting up machines in barbershops.
“I’m always looking for ideas, and I read about this initiative and thought that was such a neat concept,” he said. “The barbershop is so paramount in African-American culture, and it was so interesting to explore that as a person who had no experience with that whatsoever. It’s such a novel way to reach that population and very progressive thing for Mississippi to be doing.”
Jones said that Mississippi is not always known as the most progressive state and that Mississippi, its history and its people are more complex than typically given credit for.
“We are telling the stories of the most storied place,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon everyone as they’re getting to know a place to understand the nuances of that place. I think this website helps that.
“It’s an interesting little compendium of stories that I think helps put a different light to Mississippi and its people.”
Walton and Ownby believe that this will help bridge the gap between stories that are being curated by documentarians in Mississippi and the viewing public.
“So much documentary work isn’t accessible,” Walton said. “Oral histories sit in boxes in libraries, and no one sees documentary photography outside of occasional museum exhibits. We want to give someone unfamiliar with the state a site that will hopefully convey the diversity of people and experience in the state.”
Walton said they plan to publish one to two documentaries each month. Currently, the site includes stories from North Mississippi, but the center plans to eventually cover other regions of the state as well.
“We don’t want to create art in a vacuum,” Jones said. “We want it to be enjoyed and reflected on and possibly affect a little change.”