Doing justice to 400-plus years of slavery and civil rights history in a 4,000-square-foot space is a monumental undertaking.
To succeed, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, one of two Mississippi history museums that opened in Jackson on Dec. 9, relied on the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, veterans of the civil rights crusade, their descendants and small museums across the state that kept stories of the struggle alive over the past 50 years.
The collection resides in the first civil rights museum ever funded in part and operated by a state.
Guardians of those long-standing local museums greet the state museum with anticipation and trepidation.
“You can best believe that the (Mississippi Civil Rights Museum) will attract so many people to this museum,” said Minnie White Watson, curator of the Medgar Evers House in Jackson.
Just five miles away from the new Civil Rights Museum, the Evers’ family’s former home houses artifacts associated with the life and death of civil rights icon Medgar Evers.
But some directors of local archives were expecting a more definitive association with the state museum.
“Why aren’t all civil rights museums tied together?” asks Johnny B. Thomas, curator for the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center and mayor of Glendora.
“That could be a boost for the economy. The investment should be where the event happened,” said Thomas.
Leona Harris, director of the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum and Cultural Center in Holly Springs isn’t quite satisfied, either: “We’ve been involved in the format of the new museum, but we have not been acknowledged. They got all their information from us to start their museum and they sent us an invitation for the opening. That’s it.”
Building on four years of research, the Civil Rights Museum unveiled shocking details of the struggle in Mississippi for equal rights from 1945 to 1976, museum director Pam Junior says. But the task was not easy.
“The civil rights movement is so young, it has been difficult to get artifacts from descendants
because they may not trust the system,” said Junior. “But we went out into the community and talked with people about the museum and some were able to give.”
One of those donors is Myrlie Evers.
“The rifle shot by Byron de la Beckwith that assassinated civil rights activist Medgar Evers (in 1963) is highlighted in the civil rights museum,” said Junior. The rifle was donated by his widow, who spoke movingly at the museum’s opening ceremony.
Medgar Wiley Evers, a native of Decatur, served in the U.S. Army and attended then Alcorn A&M College before becoming Mississippi’s first regional field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In the 1950s and ’60s, he promoted voter registration among black Mississippians and engaged many young people in the civil rights movement.
In 1963, Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his family’s home in Jackson, just steps away from the door he used to enter house.
The house, built in 1956 in the first subdivision in Jackson to be developed by black entrepreneurs, was acquired by Tougaloo College in 1993 through a warranty deed executed by Myrlie Evers-Williams and her children. The house underwent restoration and was turned into a museum in 1995.
In 1997, Castle Rock Entertainment furnished the house with historically accurate period furnishings for the filming of the film Ghosts of Mississippi.
“Before now, we’ve just talked about it and just saw it in books. I want to see it and feel it for myself,” Dr. Tony Gass, professor at Bowie State University in Maryland, said recently as he touched the walls still pierced from the bullets that claimed Evers’ life.
Earlier this year, the house was designated a historic property by the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“People are already talking about coming to visit the museum downtown and then making a track back (to the Evers home),” Watson said.
Other sites contributing to the Civil Rights Museum are more distant — in mileage and history — than the Evers home.
Unlike the Evers house, the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum and Cultural Center of African American History in Holly Springs does not have landmark designation, nor is it financed and operated by a local historically black institution.
In the 1890s, Ida B. Wells-Barnett became one of the most influential leaders in the early civil rights movement. She was a crusading journalist, a reformer and a founder of the NAACP in 1909.
The Wells-Barnett museum exists within the Spires Bolling House, where Wells was born in 1862. Wells’ father, a slave, worked as a carpenter, and her mother was a cook.
Leona Harris and other charter members bought the home from the city of Holly Springs in 2002.
The museum contains a variety of Wells-Barnett’s family heirlooms, personal memorabilia, awards and belongings. Other items have been donated to the National Museum of African American History in Washington, but none have been given to the museum in Jackson.
Alfreda Duster Ferrell, granddaughter of Wells-Barnett, donated three 1925 hand painted Rosenthal china pieces, a cup, saucer and plate, used by Wells-Barnett to the museum in Holly Springs.
“You are walking on the soil she once walked,” said Harris. “I can feel her spirit in this community.”
The Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center is another museum that cannot boast official landmark designation, but still attracts people such as Tony Gass who travel to Mississippi to see significant sites in the civil rights struggle.
In addition to Medar Evers’ home, Gass’s list of must-see places included historically black colleges and universities, Fannie Lou Hamer’s gravesite in Ruleville and Bryant’s Grocery in Money.
Gass arrived last summer as a historical interpretive marker about the murder of Emmett Till, erected near the site of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, was being restored after it was defaced.
In 1955, the 14-year-old Till allegedly flirted with a 21-year-old white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in an incident that led to his kidnapping, torture and murder. Store owner Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, were acquitted of charges by an all-white jury, but later confessed to the crime in a paid interview with Look magazine.
In 2005, the partially restored M.B. Lowe’s Glendora cotton gin became the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center, opened and operated by Glendora Mayor Johnny B. Thomas. The museum sits adjacent to the site of the Milam home.
Milam and Bryant stole the blast wheel that was tied to Till’s neck from this same cotton gin before dumping his body into the Black Bayou, Thomas said.
The Emmett Till Center is a repository for artifacts, photos, oral histories and audio-visual archives reflecting the town of Glendora and its association with the kidnapping and murder.
It has operated on donations since its inception, but Thomas doesn’t know how he will keep the lights on in the future. Glendora, with a population of approximately 150 people, is an improverished place.
Thomas fears this major stop on the civil rights journey will be left off the tourist map without the help of the new state museum.
Pam Junior says the Mississippi Civil Rights museum will be supportive.
“We want to partner with agencies in Mississippi like such,” Junior said.
“There are small museums in the Delta that nobody really knows about unless you live in the city or work with museums,” she said. “We want to be able to help them get their word out about their museums. Starting with brochures in our lobby and pitches encouraging tourists to go to these places. We want to do that.”