STARKVILLE — Frank Williams began collecting artifacts for what is now a presidential library when he was 11.

That was decades before he took the bench as Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, served as president of the Ulysses S. Grant Association or became founding chair of The Lincoln Forum.

Over the course of his life, he amassed nearly 30,000 Lincoln artifacts — the first an abridged Lincoln biography he bought for 25 cents with his lunch money.

On Thursday, he gave it all to the Mitchell Memorial Library at Mississippi State University, which houses the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, donating what was considered the largest privately owned Abraham Lincoln collection in America. “[It’s like] you’ve given away 30,000 children,” Williams said after the dedication. “But I’m good with it. I had some, I think, remorse at the beginning once the decision was made. But once I realized just what a good use will come of this collection, it was easy.”

The Mitchell Memorial Library at MSU has been home to the Ulysses S. Grant Collection since 2008, storing photos, letters, books and memorabilia associated with Grant. In 2012, that wing received designation from the National Archives and Records Administration classifying it as a presidential library. It serves as one of six presidential libraries to be housed at a university, and one of 15 presidential libraries across the United States.

Williams’ Lincolniana Collection advances the library, making it a, “truly national center for the study of the American Civil War,” MSU President Mark Keenum said.

Keenum has referred to the library as something that can be a beacon of reconciliation during a time ripe with turmoil.  

“Through the landmark academic collections, I would submit that perhaps no other university in the nation is doing more to bring substantive, academic balance to the study of the conditions that led up to the Civil War. … Our university offers a unique opportunity for the study of the Civil War, not on a Northern perspective or a Southern perspective, but from a truly American perspective,” Keenum said.

Thursday’s event also marked the unveiling of a new, interactive space for the presidential library featuring artifacts, life-sized statues and touchable screens.

The 21,000-square-foot addition to Mitchell Memorial Library was funded by a $10 million allocation from the state Legislature — a move whose irony did not go unnoticed.

“Never could we have imagined a day when the state of Mississippi would pay $10 million to bring U.S. Grant to Mississippi,” Gov. Phil Bryant said at the Thursday event. “This exhibit here today of President Lincoln and President Grant will go so far along the road of reconciliation, so that the rest of the world might look to Starkville, Mississippi, as the place where it continues,” Bryant went on to say.

Ultimately, Williams said, this is what he hopes will come from leaving his 33,000 children in the trust of a deep South university.

“I hope it’s used, as with the Grant collection, to help in the end heal the divisions between members of our culture,” he said.

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.