After living in places like Paris and New Orleans, William Faulkner in the 1920s returned to his native Mississippi. He came home to capture in his novels and short stories the experiences of local people in what he referred to as his “postage-stamp” corner of the world. Often preoccupied with “Greek column history” or focusing on an imagined past that never existed, historians did not follow Faulkner’s lead in plowing the fertile fields of “nearby history.” The North Mississippi Women’s History Project was undertaken in the belief that when more fully and expansively written, Mississippi history will be as compelling and as richly nuanced as are Faulkner’s masterpieces. This project is a modest effort to comprehend more fully Mississippi’s historical richness, especially from the perspective of women.
This project’s first effort seeks to document the history of Mississippi women through studying and recording their experiences in the hill county of William Faulkner’s birth. The work of this project uses traditional historical documents but also joins the citizens of Union County in generating new knowledge through oral interviews of (mostly) elderly women and their families. The project merges new knowledge with traditional sources to create a vivid picture as well as an historical account of women’s lives in Mississippi over the twentieth century. Our aim was to produce a template by which to continue to study women’s experiences on a county by county basis.
We chose Union County, the birthplace of William Faulkner and located in the hill country of North Mississippi, to develop our template because the northeastern section of this state has been understudied in comparison to the Delta and other parts of Mississippi. Carved from portions of Tippah and Pontotoc and a small section of Lee County, Union County was organized by the Reconstruction government in 1870. Racially mixed, the hill area has a different racial and cultural topography from the Delta. Although a racial hierarchy was firmly intact and whites assumed racial superiority, African Americans had a higher rate of land ownership than did their counterparts in other parts of the state. Furthermore, New Albany was a railroad town which meant that women on county farms could sell their eggs and chickens to town merchants who then shipped them off to Memphis markets. Later, New Albany would be an inroad for industrialization in north Mississippi.
During the academic year of 2005-2006, my students and I had the privilege of interviewing over eighty individuals from Union County. Almost all were women, and their ages ranged from 50 to 115. Most were over 70. In interviewing these women, my students and I sought to record for future generations the unique stories of rural southern women whose lives traversed most of the twentieth century. We felt a special urgency to record the stories of women who came of age before World War II.
The staff of the Union County Heritage Museum proved to be generous and enthusiastic partners in our work. Jill Smith, director of the Museum and a graduate of the University of Mississippi, spoke to the spirit of our endeavors when she answered the question of why she felt driven to help us capture the stories of those whom we were recording:
Well...the oral tradition is part of it. We like a good story, you know. We want...human drama, life, and people with perspective on it. They can tell some wonderful stories that we all just intrinsically know are part of our human experience that needs to be carried on....Their perspective through the years of wisdom and living and hurting and loving and all those things blend into some of the best stories you’ll ever find. They may not ever make it to Hollywood, but we know they’re good. We have a sense of community and a sense of place. We know how important it is for those who are going [to] come after us to maintain this or there will be a great loss. There’ll be a great loss.
Looking at the past from the angle of these women’s vision refocuses historical questions. It places ordinary and daily life at the center of the historical stage. Most Union County women who grew up before World War II took for granted days of unrelenting and backbreaking work. Both black and white, they were grateful for having been born when they were because they grew up knowing how to “make do.”
Union County women “made do” as they performed tasks that involved intricate skills handed down from their mothers. They were home manufacturers who turned hog fat into lye soap and feed sacks into clothes. They cut patterns from newspapers or “whatever was wide enough to make the pattern” as Samuel Hickman put it. They transformed their summer vegetables and fruits into canned goods and dried food for the winter. And at the same time, they stood ready to drop their own work when husbands or fathers needed their labor to plow, hoe, or harvest the cash crop. As the oldest (documented) person in the world with an intact memory, 115 year-old Betty Rutherford Wilson recalled plowing alongside her husband when in her twenties.
Beneath their stories of modesty lies a bedrock of strength and community building that historians of the South are only now beginning to see as pivotal to understanding the region’s culture. Take ninety-year old Macy Visor Ferrell, for example. Mrs. Ferrell at first hesitated to speak with us, saying that she was “just” a farm woman and housewife and did not know any history. Likewise, Edna Miller, 96, wondered “why on earth” we wanted to interview her because her life, she insisted, had been consumed by her home and farm. These women’s reservations stemmed from how history has been taught. Written from the perspective of power and politics–and this is especially true of Mississippi’s history–the voices of women like them were never heard.
Interviews with Mrs. Ferrell, who is black, and Mrs. Miller, who is white, in fact, offered an elaborate tapestry of social, religious and economic history over four generations. These two women are representative of Union County women born before World War II. Although they grew up in racially segregated communities, their lives are parallel in important ways. They were the backbone of their churches. Mrs. Ferrell taught Sunday School for fifty-six years, and the members of the Mother Board at her Zion Chapel Missionary Baptist Church raised money with bake sales for a new school in 1951 when they became convinced that children of their race were not getting an adequate education. Mrs. Miller stood ready to deliver her pies and cakes to neighbors and church folk at times of bereavement, and for several decades she made floral arrangements from her own garden each Sunday for her church. At the same time, she and her husband developed one of the most successful dairy farms in Union County. Both Mrs. Ferrell and Mrs. Miller embodied the role of “good neighbor” so highly prized in southern rural society.
Our interviews revealed intriguing information regarding interpersonal racial relationships. Both blacks and whites had finely calibrated ways of evaluating each other. Members of each race could and did signal their approval or disapproval of each other according to aspects of character. For both blacks and whites, there existed a spectrum of “really good” to “mean and low-down” along which they placed each other. Accordingly, in describing the actions of whites during the weekend in 1925 in which her first cousin was lynched, Macy Visor Ferrell reflects highly refined nuances in her memories of the behavior of whites.
Union County was an early site of industrialization in the northern part of Mississippi. Finding the population of Union County “intelligent and hungry,” Paul Rainey from Ohio launched both a furniture factory and a shirt factory in the first decade of the twentieth century. His ventures failed, but they would set the stage for later factories to be established in the area. By the time of World War II, husbands of white women, when asked what they did, commonly referred to themselves as “gophers.” They took their wives to the factory in the morning, returned to the fields to work during the day and then would “go-for-her” at the factory at quitting time. The practice of rural white farm woman going into the factory to raise cash for the family while the husband continued to farm emerged as one of the most important but overlooked patterns setting the stage for north Mississippi’s prosperity.
During World War II, Union County’s white women who worked in factories–black women would not be hired in the county’s factories until the late 1960s--sewed enough uniforms to put a shirt on every soldier’s back. As many of her former classmates labored in the factories for the war effort, New Albany native Martha Rogers served as one of General Dwight Eisenhower’s assistants at the European Theatre Headquarters throughout the war. At the Casablanca Conference in 1943, Rogers was one of the five individuals entrusted with recording the top-secret meeting at which Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt planned the strategy for ending the war. Rogers’ uniform now rests on a mannequin in the Union County Heritage Museum as a testament to her valor as well as a reminder that a Union County woman was commissioned to help Eisenhower administer plans to end World War II. Her uniform speaks to the reality that this “postage stamp corner” of Union County was intricately related to world shaking events.
The interviews here are as broad in topics as were the lives of individuals we interviewed. Listen to the joint interview of two old friends Christine Gaines and Earline Ray and hear the meandering, stream-of-consciousness conversation and dialect captured in William Faulkner’s stories. Pay close attention to the interviews of Macy Ferrell, Mattie Bruce, and Betty Rutherford Wilson and hear echoes of faraway times when their ancestors were brought by force to Mississippi. Read Betty Gammel’s memories of her childhood and realize the stunning degree of poverty in her sharecropper family as she recalls the terror of finding new clothes–they were for her unborn sister–because the only new clothes she had ever seen before in her home were shrouds. Elizabeth Gladney remembers the fun of working at her father’s New Albany store and humorously recounts seeing the first woman in downtown New Albany with dyed hair and make-up. Almost all the women, if married, recall details of a home wedding or one in the minister’s study with a simple church dress or suit as the wedding attire. Formal white-gown church weddings did not enter New Albany society until the 1950s; announcement of African American women’s weddings did not appear in the New Albany Gazette until the 1970s.
Samuel Hickman recalls the arduous work his mother performed to generate cash for his family by washing white people’s clothes in three outdoor wash pots. Jean Dillard, the keeper of club women’s institutional memory, describes the volunteer work of dozens of Union County women over several decades. Sherra Owens discusses the pioneering work of the Home Demonstration program. Listen to the pathos in Margaret Rutherford Ledbetter’s voice as she remembers being told of the death of her brother George, a New Albany favorite son, in the Pacific. And then enjoy listening to how Tomboy Margaret accepted the challenge of jumping off the Tallahatchie River Bridge three times when her brothers and their friends proved chicken. Read the interviews of Betty Rogers Innis and see how a young New Albany girl on Alabama Street fantasized about faraway places and peoples by having access to the library of her aunt who lived upstairs. Then note the contours of her life as an adult in the Philippines, first as a Methodist missionary and then as a woman married to a native Filipino, a Methodist obstetrician struggling to meet the medical needs of his people.
Listen to the interview of Robby Ray and meet a woman who self-consciously chose to stay independent and unmarried. Learn of the importance of New Deal programs in enabling women like her to lead comfortable lives in small southern towns as “bachelor women.” Hear Norma Fields as one of the town’s “Washington girls” describe leaving New Albany in 1942 to work in the nation’s capital wearing saddle Oxfords and a homemade pleated skirt and then returning home at Christmas so dolled up in red heels, red hat, and red gloves that her parents did not recognize her at the train station. And then learn how Fields as a married woman agreed to have the additional baby her husband wanted in exchange for his buying her a washing machine. Hear Macy Ferrell recall how as a ten-year old in September 1925 she accompanied her mother to the home of her Aunt Allie Ivy to tell her that her son, seventeen-year old L.Q. Ivy, would be burned at the stake in a lynching that still grieves the hearts of many Union Countians, both black and white. Then read William Faulkner’s short story, “Dry September,” and note in his story of a lynching a point at which literature and history meet. These stories will bring the reader closer to understanding our vanishing and sometimes vanquished past. They point to patterns of meaning and ways of living that have stirred the imagination of people around the world who have read Mississippi’s writers and listened to its musicians. Now in telling their own stories, these women offer dramatic testimony that the state’s writers and musicians inherited rich raw material with which to spark the world’s interest.
Elizabeth Anne Payne
Department of History