People that know me well, know that two of my great interests in life are history and football - in particular, the American Civil War, WWII, college football and the stadiums/venues in which these games are played.
A few years back, I ventured to Oxford, MS to check out the campus of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), learn more about the history of the school, and try to see if I can get inside the Ole Miss stadium to view the football field. Some 55 years ago this university was the epicenter of racial conflict/violence involving school integration/segregation in our country. In September 1962, the all-white school denied admission to James Meredith (a US Air Force veteran) upon discovering he was African-American. Meredith had met the academic qualifications as a transfer student from Jackson State University as a junior and was desirous of obtaining a degree from the state’s Flagship university.
Thus he pressed on.
Major controversy and upheaval ensued and the consequences had far-reaching national ramifications. Despite death threats and more, Meredith did not back down.
Neither did campus officials, nor the Governor of Mississippi Ross Barnett ... that is, until President Kennedy and his administration intervened and basically forced the school’s hand to admit Meredith.
Thousands on campus rioted throughout the night, two people were killed, over 300 injured, and US Marshall and the National Guard were called in to quell the uprising. Meredith WAS admitted and graduated there in August 1963. He had paved the way for racial integration among institutes of higher learning across our country.
So there I was, standing next to The Lyceum — the university’s Administration Building, built in 1848, and site of these riots.
Approximately 50 ft. away is the life-size statue of James Meredith with appropriate plaque marking the significance of the time and place. As I was taking in the moment, I wondered if I might find someone who’d take my picture with The Lyceum in the background.
About that time a sharply-dressed middle-aged black man wearing an “Ole Miss polo-type” shirt came walking by, and I asked him if he would mind taking my picture while I stood at the entrance of The Lyceum.
We exchanged pleasantries and before I knew it he asked me if I’d like to take a short tour of the building. Next thing I knew this man was walking me through halls of history.
I felt a strange sense of pride, guilt, patriotism, justice as I noticed folks of all backgrounds/races glance up from their desks and work places, smiling and acknowledging my guide and me.
It was as if my guide was saying to the office workers “he’s with me.” I could not help but think of the irony that this man of color was escorting ME around the site where 55 years earlier he would not have been welcome.
He told me that The Lyceum once served as a hospital for both the Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War, and that General Ulysses S. Grant once rode his horse through the hallways of the building when the Union overtook the Rebels in Oxford. He showed me the office where James Meredith signed papers for his admission into the university in 1962.
He took me into the North Parlor room, where extravagant wallpaper murals depict Colonial-era scenes of America the beautiful — visualized and painted by French artists in the 1840’s who’d never even been to America (Niagara Falls, Boston Harbor, etc.).
And beautiful it was! Then my host led me to an adjoining room saying, “Now, this is the Chancellor’s office. Would you like to sit behind his desk? I’ll take your picture.”
WOW. Would I! And I did. He then escorted me outside and pointed to the site where those all-night riots took place that dark September night in 1962.
Pausing briefly, and with a smile, he pointed to another area saying “We affectionately call this The Grove, known for our famous tailgate parties before football games. We have a saying here at Ole Miss: we might lose a football game, but we never, ever lose a Tailgate!”
Then it was time to go. My gracious escort had an appointment with a professor to keep. Pausing briefly, I looked this man straight in the eye, thanked him and with a firm handshake the words just came out, “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Yeah, me too.”
By the way, within 10 minutes I was having my picture taken while standing in the End Zone of the 65,000 seat Vaught Hemingway Stadium. Somehow it seemed a little anticlimactic. Maybe you understand.
Charlie Norman has lived in Somervell County since 1994. He and his wife have two adult children, who graduated from Glen Rose schools. You can contact him at email@example.com.