Everyone needs a hobby; it just so happens that Dr. John Pendergrass’s hobby has led to one of the largest contributions to ever be received at the McCain Library and Archives at the University of Southern Mississippi.
On Aug. 4, Pendergrass – who is a retired local ophthalmologist – donated more than 1,000 pieces of Mississippi-related political memorabilia to the library, most of which he had collected over the past 45 years. The collection includes buttons, posters, banners and pins ranging from Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential campaign to Evelyn Gandy campaign material and even items from the States Rights Democrats, with its presidential candidate Strom Thurmond and his running mate Fielding L. Wright.
“I’ve always enjoyed history, and I’m the kind of person that collects everything,” said Pendergrass, who also served as a flight medic in the Vietnam War. “It’s very easy for (this memorabilia) to get lost along the way; most family members of collectors do not have much of an interest in the items, and they tend to get frittered away, given away and ignored.
“But they’re a part of history, and they’re artifacts of history, and they deserve to be preserved. And that very same thing applies to many of the controversial Civil War monument memorials now – regardless of your views on that, they definitely need to be preserved and not destroyed.”
One of the displays Pendergrass is most partial to is the one showing the States Rights Democrats, otherwise known as the Dixiecrats.
“Not many of these buttons were made, and even fewer were kept, and they’re, relatively speaking, particularly valuable,” Pendergrass said. “The States Right Party was headquartered here in Mississippi, at the Heidelberg hotel in Jackson.”
There are also several items from civil rights icon Charles Evers, the brother of Medgar Evers. When Medgar was assassinated in 1963, Charles came to Mississippi from Chicago and led much of the civil rights activity in the Magnolia State for several decades.
“He ran for governor, he ran for senator, he was one of the first Blacks in modern history to be elected mayor of a city,” Pendergrass said. “A few of these items also are from James Meredith’s march against fear, that happened in the summer of 1966.
“James Meredith was going to walk from Memphis to Jackson, and on the second day he was shot in Hernando, Mississippi. Many other civil rights figures came down and picked up the baton and continued marching to Jackson.”
Another interesting display features items from President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1907 visit to Vicksburg.
“Many people know that he came to Mississippi in 1902 bear hunting, and refused to shoot a bear that had been captured and tied to a tree,” Pendergrass said. “And from that incident, the story of the Teddy Bear originated.
“He also made a second trip to Mississippi in 1907; he hunted in northern Louisiana and then took the ferry and came to Vicksburg and spoke. He was warmly welcomed there in Vicksburg. It’s really good to know that (these items) will be taken care of and preserved.”
Lorraine Stuart, who serves as head of special collections and curator of historical manuscripts and archives at McCain Library, said the collection is especially valuable to the library because of the wide range of topics it covers in such detail.
“We’re very strong in Mississippi politics, so this really speaks to that,” she said. “It’s really a visual chronicle of Mississippi political history from the 1890s forward.
“So there’s the interest in history, and in my opinion, you could really look at it as a history of how political campaigns are run. We have a lot of different flyers that are sent out, and when you get those, you just kind of discard them before the election. When you look at them as a corpus, you can see how issues evolve, how positions within the parties evolve.”
Currently, library officials are still in the process of preparing and inventorying the items.
“They’ll be preserved, and put on display for special occasions,” Stuart said. “We don’t like to expose things to too much light.”