If American civil rights was a journey of a thousand steps, those first steps were taken here by some remarkable people. People like Ida B. Wells, who was born a slave and became a hero to millions as a crusading journalist and activist; and James Meredith, an Air Force veteran who’d answered his country’s call with honor and saw no reason for America to give a deferment to his own dream.
Following in the footsteps of leaders like these takes you through historic cities and welcoming communities proud of their African American heritage and pleased to share it with you. And it is a journey that offers not only a revealing glimpse of the past, but also a hopeful view of the future in a nation now led by President Barack Obama, who in a sense added the last word to the Lincoln-Douglas debate with his own superior performance here in the 2008 Presidential debate.
While there are other notable African-American stories in the Hills—including Oprah in Koscuisko, diva and Rust College alumnus Ruby Elzy in Pontotoc, Howlin’ Wolf in West Point—this is a trek that promises a wealth of information for your own inspiration, and it begins, appropriately enough, at a crossroads.
A lot of roads led to Corinth, known as the “Crossroads of the Western Confederacy” during the Civil War, and on those roads came escaped slaves by the thousands. Not yet legally free, they were declared “contraband” by the Union army to prevent their seizure by Southern planters. These “contraband” humans were put into a camp, but like a rose in the desert, the camp bloomed, miraculously, into a model community, self-sustaining in every sense.
Today, what you’ll find blooming in Corinth is a communal spirit and a pride of place that turns an ordinary visit into a sociable event, with a menu that includes plenty of friendly people and maybe an old-fashioned cherry soda and a slugburger or two. (Don’t worry, they’re named for the nickel—the so-called slug—they used to cost.)
There are plenty of grand historic mansions in Holly Springs, but what is even more impressive are the stories of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a vocal anti-lynching advocate and early Civil Rights heroine, and Rust College, an historically-black institution of higher learning founded on the grounds of a former slave market. World-class accomplishment, whether civil rights or education, is a Holly Springs hallmark.
The world will and should long remember both the courage and carnage of those groundbreaking days at the University of Mississippi in 1962, but you may want to forget all the preconceived notions you may have about the “ole” in Ole Miss and Oxford, which today is a progressive university community thriving in its 21st century paradoxes. It was really only fitting that Barack Obama make history here in the 2008 presidential debate. Oxford today is a place where Southern culture is a deep and all-inclusive experience and where historic homes share the stage with happening clubs and restaurants.
Columbus made its own special strides in creating a rich and vibrant African-American community from the earliest days of settlement. Today, while the bustling mecca of Catfish Alley exists only as marked memories, several historic homes built by African Americans and some of the churches that began life as brush arbors still stand to inspire.