Agencies seek to preserve state heritage

Emily Wagster Pettus

Culture Club isn’t just a 1980s British band featuring guys who wear makeup. In Mississippi, it’s the nickname that leaders of some state agencies have jokingly given themselves.

Executives from the Arts Commission, the Library Commission, the Humanities Council and the Department of Archives and History meet regularly to discuss ways to preserve and promote the state’s heritage, from literature and music to visual arts and oral histories.

Arts Commission director Malcolm White tells The Associated Press that the groups started collaborating after Hurricane Katrina walloped the state in 2005. As other agencies worked to rebuild roads and bridges and private contractors cleared away tons of debris, the Culture Club looked for ways to preserve the arts, culinary traditions and folkways that are unique to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

One example of Katrina recovery was the redevelopment of a Pass Christian Public Library to replace a facility destroyed by the storm.

“We’ve had a great, long list of things that we have done together since ‘05,” White says.

In 2007, for example, the Arts Commission and other agencies produced a series of concerts featuring the music of the late William Grant Still, who was born in 1895 in Woodville and composed more than 150 pieces, including symphonies, operas and ballet scores.

The Department of Archives and History sponsors “History Is Lunch” programs at its headquarters in downtown Jackson, featuring presentations by historians, authors and artists.

The Library Commission promotes summer reading programs for children and teenagers, provides audio books and other material for blind people and provides online tutorial services to help people prepare for academic or career tests.

The Humanities Council records oral histories from a wide range of Mississippians, and excerpts from those interviews air periodically on Mississippi Public Broadcasting radio programs.

“Mississippi’s contribution to the humanities is beyond measure,” the Humanities Council says on its website. “Our state has given the world such literary giants as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Richard Wright; international opera soprano Leontyne Price; acclaimed artists Walter Anderson and Theora Hamblett; Oscar and Tony winners actors Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones; and popular culture icons Elvis Presley and Jim Henson — the list is endless. Equally important are the contributions of everyone who reveres and cherishes the study of our human experience.”

While it is important to revere and cherish the human experience, the Culture Club agencies have been working with tighter budgets as the state economy struggled the past few years. Legislators who are doling out public money often want to know that promoting the state’s culture is good for the economy. White says it is, and he points out that tourists come from around the world seeking bits of Americana that aren’t in big cities or theme parks.

Multiple agencies, including the Arts Commission and the Mississippi Development Authority, have worked together to create the Blues Trail and the Country Music Trail, with metal markers that provide information about the state’s musical heritage. The signs are erected at recording studios, juke joints, musicians’ birthplaces and other significant sites.

White says the Culture Club’s newest project is to develop a literary trail.

“Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright — you know the list,” he says.

White says the planned literary markers and the existing Blues Trail and Country Music Trail markers are part of “the rebirth of taking our culture back.”

“All these new things are happening,” White says. “We start to brag about something we have here, and that becomes this economic attractor.”

 

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