History has always mattered deeply to the people of Hattiesburg. Although the town is relatively young, its early founders turned to history as they shaped the direction of the city and the region. Like many white southerners, they turned to the Confederacy: the names of Forrest and Lamar Counties are a nod to that era, as is the Confederate monument that currently sits outside the county courthouse. That monument draws the eye up, commanding passersby to look up to it and its lost cause. Unlike a memorial, it was not placed in a cemetery or laid in a place that might facilitate reflection. Instead, it towers over us, menacing to some but unnoticed to others, as a sign of not just who Hattiesburgers actually are, but rather of who they should strive to be.
The nation is at war over its history. From military bases to statues, America is once again locked in struggle, asking who and what matters most to our shared past as citizens of opposing views battle over the direction of our future. Recent calls for justice arising across the country are not necessarily new. In the wake of the Charleston shooting in 2015, the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017, and now the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, they are renewed calls. Key to the debate over racial reconciliation and redress is the question of symbols, a question that the Mississippi Legislature undertook on June 27 when it voted to adopt a new state flag. Though some Mississippians did not see need for the change, many others have rejoiced that a symbol long recruited to advance white supremacy no longer flies over state grounds. Whatever your view of the flag, no one can deny that its history also includes its usage as a symbol of white terrorism.
Of course, many such symbols still remain. For anyone who doubts the continued presence of Confederate honorifics in our state, the Mississippi Free Press maintains a running database and interactive map of all such “monuments, buildings, counties, municipalities, highways, and other locations.” It’s safe to say their list is incomplete.
Last month, amid these debates over the remaining Confederate symbols in America, Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker called for a new dialogue on the city’s Confederate monument, a dialogue that would illuminate its long history and help to inform those who will determine its future. As Mayor Barker noted, this grey obelisk was never a benign or neutral artifact – not when it was built in 1910 and not today in 2020. It means too much to escape our notice now.
We’re here to help answer Mayor Barker’s call.
Who are we? This question has two answers. The first is that we’re two of Hattiesburg’s most recent historians, having published books about the Hub City in 2014 and 2019. As trained researchers in the field, we embrace an opportunity to help educate the public and an obligation to bring historical fact to bear on civic debates. Part of that responsibility includes sharing aspects of history that some citizens may not know or may not even want to know. This is often the case. But as historians, we remain constantly aware that the story we tell is not our story, a story authored by one of us like a John Grisham novel. Rather, it is a story that belongs to us all, and one that the sources themselves already tell.
We’ll say more about that later. But the second answer is that we are a chorus – a duet, if you will – of internal and external voices. On the one hand, Morris is a white Mississippi native, whose ancestors were present at the time of statehood, fought for the Confederacy (27th Mississippi Infantry from Perry County), and, yes, owned slaves. Morris is also a local boy, Hattiesburg-born and raised, whose grandfather Toxey owned a shoe store downtown for 30 years, and whose father, also named Toxey, practiced medicine here for another 40.
Sturkey, on the other hand, came to Hattiesburg from elsewhere. Drawn to history by his own experiences with race in another part of the country, he came to Hattiesburg to study the city’s famous Civil Rights Movement, but in that process discovered something even more profound about Southern history. He has been in Hattiesburg plenty and lived here for a year, much of which he spent in the archives. Sturkey is also a product of the South’s deeply complex history. He is biracial, both white and black, and his family history also includes a Confederate ancestor who fought in the 46th North Carolina Infantry. The first generation in his father’s family to be born in the North, Sturkey is not from the South, but he is of the South.
Part of the reason we divulge these backgrounds is credibility. We share that family heritage of Confederate service, though our identities could never be wholly defined by any monument. Our complex family histories led each of us to pursue education as a means to find answers about a past that continues to shape all of us today. Morris earned his Ph.D. at Cambridge and Sturkey at Ohio State. We’re very different people, whose paths were guided by varying passions and ambitions, but whose search for truth ultimately converged in the history of Hattiesburg. Neither of us have discovered all the solutions that lie in our shared past, but we do know a great deal about Hattiesburg’s history, and we invite you to join us for several columns that we hope will help teach those who yearn to learn more about the heritage of the Hub City. Writing together, we believe that this joining of voices ensures a respect for local opinion, even as it invites a wider perspective on the issue. Moreover, we believe it brings greater credibility to our position, as it requires us to test and weigh our sources and claims from multiple angles.
Now, we didn’t get all dressed up with nowhere to go. We’re partnering with The Pine Belt News not just for the responsibility stated above, but because of the unique situation that Hattiesburg faces. As readers know, on June 15 the Forrest County Board of Supervisors voted to place the monument issue on the November ballot, and on June 16 the Hattiesburg City Council passed a unanimous resolution in favor of its relocation. Unlike in other cities and counties, voters here will thus vote directly on the issue, with the Board of Supervisors acting on that preference. For those voters who want to learn more, we hope to take you on a short journey through Hattiesburg history as you continue to think so carefully about its future.
Here’s what you can expect. Following this introduction, articles will appear in The Pine Belt News once per month (in August, September, and October) exploring the history of the monument in detail, from the context of its origin to the present day, presenting our sources in a clear and transparent manner. We’ll cover the politics of its construction, trace it through time, and end by examining the many arguments that surround it. By the end, there should be no further ambiguity regarding this monument’s history, only choices left concerning its future.
As historians, we are acutely aware of the public trust placed in our work, a privilege that cannot be overstated – we promise, therefore, to bring a respectful tone to this discussion. You won’t find any trolling, name-calling, spurious claims, or mischaracterized positions here: we believe that serious public debate should be better than that, and we aim to uphold our end of the bargain. We also understand that folks here feel passionately about their history, and we promise to respect those views and to take them seriously.
William Faulkner famously wrote that “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” How true his words ring today – and yet, here we have a chance to let the past truly become the past. For yes: the two of us do believe that relocating the monument – not destroying it – is the best resolution, and over the next three months, we’ll explain why. But until then, we hope you’ll join us on this journey. For only by traveling together into the past can we chart a course for a more just and equitable future.
Dr. Benjamin Morris is the author of “Hattiesburg, Mississippi: A History of the Hub City” (The History Press, 2014). Professor William Sturkey is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White” (Harvard University Press, 2019).