‘Hattiesburg’ book hits store shelves today

By BETH BUNCH,

 “Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White” reaches bookstores across the nation today. Its author, William Sturkey, is an assistant professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but spent time at The University of Southern Mississippi.

Sturkey served as a visiting adjunct professor in the history department at Southern Miss during the 2011-2012 academic year.

“I’m not from Mississippi, but I’ve spent my career studying Mississippi as well as the rest of the South,” Sturkey said during a telephone interview Tuesday.

“I’d already been doing (research) for a couple of years (for the book) before the time spent on campus. But that was just an opportunity for me while I was in graduate school to move down there for a year and really sort of engage in a higher level of research that I would have had to be there for. It’s one thing to go for a month; it’s another to spend nine months in the city.”

Sturkey was initially intrigued by the Freedom Schools, the topic of his first book (“I Want to Become Part of History:’ Freedom Summer, Freedom Schools, and the Freedom News”). He was interested in writing a long historical narrative of Hattiesburg’s Freedom Schools and what happened.

“I chose Hattiesburg because it had the biggest Freedom School system in the state that summer,” Sturkey said. “I got into the topic and a lot of things were happening in the literature and different areas. I learned about Hattiesburg and my approach was initially to sit down and explain where the Civil Rights Movement came from in Hattiesburg and that ultimately became the book.”

During his time in Hattiesburg, Sturkey did a good bit of research, much of it at the McCain Library, but also found a good number of things in the Cook Library as well. 

One of the things that he found valuable to him in his writing was the Oral History Collection at Southern Miss, “because of how far back its reach went.”

“While it started in the 70s, they were interviewing people who had been in Hattiesburg for 60-plus years by then,” Sturkey said. “The reach really went back to the early 20th Century and you just couldn’t find that everywhere, so the structure of the book couldn’t necessarily be replicated in every single Southern city, so that was really essential.”

The book, published by Harvard University Press, is described as a rich, multigenerational saga of race and family in Hattiesburg, that tells the story of how Jim Crow was built, how it changed, and how the most powerful social movement in American history came together to tear it down.

“This is not just a book about black people,” Sturkey said. “When I talk about race in Mississippi it’s very much also a book about white Hattiesburg.”

He explained that the book is divided racially by chapter with six  chapters covering the perspectives of each community – the black community and the white community. 

The books starts off with Capt. Hardy in 1880, then a black family in the second chapter and shifts throughout. He said there’s mention of WSF Tatum, Louis Faulkner, the Hattiesburg Chamber of Commerce, T. S. Jackson and some of the local white powerbrokers. 

“I also give you the perspective of African Americans, so those communities are in constant competition with each other as Hattiesburg moves through much of 20th Century America,” Sturkey said.

The author believes that race relations since the era of Jim Crow have gotten better.

“You know things are different now,” he said. “I don’t think it’s exactly what folks expected necessarily, but things are definitely better in terms of having access to greater socio-economic ability.”

At UNC, Sturkey teaches courses on African American history and the Civil Rights Movement. 

“My interests lie in the history of race in the American South,” he said. “UNC Chapel Hill has always been a wonderful place to pursue those interests.”

The book is not Sturkey’s first dealing with the history of the American South. 

His first book, To Write in the Light of Freedom, coedited with Jon Hale, brought together the newspapers, essays, and poems produced by young black students of the Freedom Schools during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964.

In a description of his latest book, Harvard University Press writes:

If you really want to understand Jim Crow – what it was and how African Americans rose up to defeat it – you should start by visiting Mobile Street in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the heart of the historic black downtown. There you can see remnants of the shops and churches where, amid the violence and humiliation of segregation, men and women gathered to build a remarkable community. 

Sturkey introduces readers to both old-timers and newcomers who arrived in search of economic opportunities promised by the railroads, sawmills, and factories of the New South. He also takes readers across town and inside the homes of white Hattiesburgers to show how their lives were shaped by the changing fortunes of the Jim Crow South.

Sturkey reveals the stories behind those who struggled to uphold their Southern “way of life” and those who fought to tear it down—from William Faulkner’s great-grandfather, a Confederate veteran who was the inspiration for the enigmatic character John Sartoris, to black leader Vernon Dahmer, whose killers were the first white men ever convicted of murdering a Civil Rights activist in Mississippi. Through it all, Hattiesburg traces the story of the Smith family across multiple generations, from Turner and Mamie Smith, who fled a life of sharecropping to find opportunity in town, to Hammond and Charles Smith, in whose family pharmacy Medgar Evers and his colleagues planned their strategy to give blacks the vote.

The 438-page hardcover book includes 16 photographs and one map.

Sturkey is tentatively scheduled to be in the Hub City and give a talk at the Hattiesburg Library Oct. 16 and 17, although plans for the program have not been cemented.

The book will be available at all national chains. 

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