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Analysis: 2 crowns, 1 gas mask show Mississippi complexity

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

Two of Mary Ann Mobley’s dazzling crowns sat delicately on a shelf. The doe-eyed beauty won the smaller, golden-hued crown as Miss Mississippi 1958 and the larger, platinum-toned one a few months later as Miss America 1959.

Next to the crowns, in a temporary display last week at the state Capitol, sat a military-issued gas mask used during the 1962 riots over court-ordered integration the University of Mississippi — an outbreak of violence caused by people enraged over James Meredith’s success in becoming the first black student to enroll in a school that was the bastion of the state’s segregated power structure.

Organizers of the display that included the crowns and the gas mask said it was an unintentional juxtaposition of historical items, but it was jarring nonetheless. And it spoke volumes about the complexity of Mississippi history.

The state Department of Archives and History brought dozens of artifacts to the state Capitol last week for a one-day display that provided a small preview of attractions to come at museums under construction a few blocks away.

The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum — two entities under one roof — are scheduled to open for the state’s bicentennial celebration in December 2017.

Several lawmakers took time to study the displays that included historical maps, land records, photographs and even an original handwritten copy of Mississippi’s first constitution adopted in 1817.

Rep. Chris Brown, R-Aberdeen, was all smiles after seeing an 1823 map that showed his home of Monroe County as the only named county in northern Mississippi. An image of this map is on the Archives and History website (http://bit.ly/20LOIOf ).

Rep. John Faulkner, D-Holly Springs, said he was fascinated to read an 1816 handwritten petition to the Mississippi territorial legislature, requesting the emancipation of an enslaved woman named Mary and her five children. She was the widow of Ben Vousdan, a former slave who was freed by his master in Adams County in 1802. Although Ben and Mary Vousdan were married and lived as free people, she and their children were still technically enslaved when he died in 1816. On Dec. 10, 1816, the territorial legislature granted the petition and freed Mary Vousdan and her children.

Faulkner, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus, said he has always been fascinated with history, even with the nation and state’s troubled past with slavery. After reading the documents about Mary Vousdan, Faulker said: “I had a proud moment.”

Information about Mary Vousdan is available online (http://bit.ly/1K2VMlL and http://bit.ly/20LSlni ).

Among the other items on display at the Capitol last week were a red and blue letter sweater commemorating Ole Miss’ 39-7 victory over Texas in the 1958 Sugar Bowl; lithographs of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, three civil-rights workers who were abducted and killed by Ku Klux Klansmen in Neshoba County in 1963; and a lunchbox used by Democrat Cliff Finch, who won the governorship in 1975 by campaigning as a champion of the working man.

The current Miss Mississippi, Hannah Roberts, was there to meet legislators, and she beamed as she put on white gloves to hold Mobley’s pageant crowns.

The largest artifact on display was a 20-star American flag that flew in 1818, after Mississippi became the 20th state to join the union in 1817. The flag flew briefly: On July 4, 1819, a 21st star was added for Illinois.

The 20-star flag is preserved and displayed in a frame. It and a copy of the 1817 constitution will tour the state starting late this year, and through much of 2017, to mark Mississippi’s bicentennial of statehood.

— EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS, Associated Press

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