Farmers. Writers. Entertainers. Politicians. Soldiers. Native Americans. Europeans. Asians. Africans. Catholics. Protestants. Jews. Muslims. You. Me.
The “Melting Pot” of America has been prevalent and played a large part in the history of Mississippi. And nowhere can one find this mosaic of diverse people and cultures better displayed, explained and cherished than at he Old Capitol Museum in Jackson.
“Our mission here is to make it clear to all Mississippians that all parts of our state’s history are theirs and shared by all,” said Donna Dye, executive director of the museum division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which includes the Old Capitol Museum. “All the people and cultures have made contributions.”
The Old Capitol Museum contains 5,000 square feet of permanent exhibition space. Broken up into separate rooms, the exhibits cover everything from the 16th century and the ways of the Native Americans through to the later 20th century, including territorial and early statehood periods, the road to secession, the Civil War and Reconstruction and the civil rights movement.
Just a few of the 10,000 catalogued items include a 16th century Native American canoe, personal belongings of General Santa Anna of Mexico, Jefferson Davis, Mississippi River discoverer Hernando DeSoto and others, flags and artifacts from the U.S.S. Mississippi, Jim Crow era signs and vintage agricultural equipment.
The Old Capitol itself is a historical and architectural marvel. Built on the Greek Revival style, it features Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns, decorative molding and bas-relief ornamentation. The focal point of the interior is the Rotunda which reaches 94 feet above the marble floor. The building cost a then-whopping $400,000. Though renovated in 1959, the Old Capitol remains today much the same as it did in the 19th century.
The Old Capitol opened its doors in January 1839. Over its history the building has seen many significant happenings — passage of the first law in the U.S. granting property rights to married women (1839); the victorious return of Jefferson Davis and the Mississippi Volunteers from the Mexican War (1847); passage of secession (1861); establishment of the first state-supported college for women (1884); and, adoption of Mississippi’s present Constitution (1890). The facility stood vacant and decaying from 1903 to 1917, with cables running the length of the building to keep the walls from collapsing. There was some talk of razing it. However, it was made into state offices instead, which it remained until opening as a state museum in 1961. Today the Old Capitol entertains about 75,000 visitors annually.
In addition to the building and exhibits, the Old Capitol also offers other cultural and educational events such as concerts, symposiums, workshops and awards programs. One of these is the Third Annual Mississippi Cultural Festival to be held April 24. Entitled “Old Worlds — New South: 1850-1900,” the event will celebrate with song, dance, story-telling, crafts and historical reenactment life in Mississippi in the later half of the 19th century.
Since history doesn’t stop, neither does the work at the Old Capitol. The new archives building is funded and construction is scheduled to begin this year. When it is finished, the Old Capitol will utilize the old archives facility adjacent to the museum for storage, freeing up needed space. Finally, a new 15,000-square-foot museum has already been designed, and Dye said she plans to seek funding for construction from the Legislature in 2000. The new museum will house the Old Capitol’s exhibits and will be located just behind the Old Capitol so as not to mar the building’s front on State Street.
Dye said these moves aren’t intended to make room just for room’s sake. The aim is better, not bigger.
“Right now, we are being forced into some tough decisions,” she said. “We might have two or three pieces we would like to display in an exhibit but we only have space for one item. Because of Mississippi’s diversity, we want to make sure we include everything. But we have used up all the space available.”
Dye said the building was also in dire need of some attention. After the new museum is completed, plans are for the Old Capitol to be temporarily closed for repairs and restoration.
“I think Mississippi deserves the best of everything,” Dye said.
Far from just reveling in the past, Dye said she hopes the Old Capitol will be seen as a resource in the next millennium.
“I would like to think that Mississippians who experience the museum would have a better understanding of the contributions of Mississippi, the fascinating history all around us, and that understanding would help with decisions for the future in things like job training and education,” she said. “With that understanding I hope we would not repeat the mistakes of the past, but repeat some of those things that were positive and exciting.”