Oxford Landscapes

       Selections from "Oxford, Mississippi: For Richer or Poorer"

                     By Katherine Aberle 

                           Spring 2015

Oxford is a beautiful town, and few universities elicit as much affection from their students and alumni the way the University of Mississippi does.  As the Oxford Public Housing Authority says at the top of its website, Oxford “is a nice place to live.” However, the state of Mississippi ranks fiftieth among all states in per capita income and fiftieth for the percentage of the population living below the poverty line. Though Oxford’s lovely square and beautiful streets surrounding the Ole Miss campus are an attractive destination for many Mississippians and visitors from around the country, Oxford’s poverty rate is among the highest in the poorest of American states. To most students at Ole Miss, poverty is largely invisible. Inequalities exist in Oxford and the divisions that separate one class from another are quite clear. We encounter the poor everyday—they’re the ones who provide services we tend to overlook.

Oxford is, of course, a college town. While many university students enjoy the dollar streams from wealthy parents, most students have limited cash.  Many student jobs pay only minimum wage. Yet, the college students at Ole Miss clearly identify with and are being educated to fit into a social class far-removed from that of minimum-wage or near minimum wage work that characterizes the lives of those who live below the poverty line. One does not have to see the BMWs and new SUVs along sorority row, or the bright red and blue dresses from Neilson’s and fashionable footwear from designer stores in Memphis on football Saturdays to know that Ole Miss students are not as a rule, suffering from intergenerational poverty.

 

My photo essay looked primarily at the residential spaces that mark class differences between Ole Miss students, professionals and academic employees of the University of Mississippi, and the residential spaces of low-income residents living in Oxford. These are the individuals that serve food in the dining halls; clean the hotel rooms for parents and relatives who come to visit during homecoming and graduation; work at the fast food restaurants; and ring up the cash registers at the stores around town. For many students, renting the luxury condo with the latest fitness equipment and comfortable lounge chairs surrounding the glimmering pool is a minimum standard of living. 

 

While the divisions I saw in my explorations were certainly class-based, race unquestionably plays a significant role in who belongs to which class.  Unmistakably there were African-Americans living in the luxury condos and suburban neighborhoods. African American students on campus were just as likely to be “dressed for success” with the trappings of future economic success already in evidence. At the same time, poor whites still suffer from the stereotypes and discourses that label them “white trash.” The invisible lines marking their social space is as unlikely to be breached by BMW-driving students. However, the spaces of the poor in Oxford are clearly more black than white, and the long traditions of racial discrimination has insured that the intergenerational effects will still show up as racialized space as well.

 

For my photo essay, I trekked through the luxury condominiums that primarily house Ole Miss students and the neat suburban neighborhoods that some faculty members and administrators call home. I also trekked through trailer parks and public housing sites that are largely ignored by the campus community.  One thing was evident as I ventured through the neighborhood. There was little interaction between the two worlds.

TRADITION V. RACISM- HOW DO STUDENTS FEEL?

A PHOTOETHNOGRAPHY 

 BY HEATH WOOTEN

FALL 2016

This photoethnography examines the Confederate symbols on the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) campus, and how students react to those symbols. There has always been a tension at the University of Mississippi related to the specter of the “Old South” and the "Confederate States of America." Mississippi, being the second state to break off from the United States during the Civil War, was wedged comfortably in the Confederacy. As a result, Ole Miss was imbued with a distinct Confederate flavor.  Even the campus’s administration building, the Lyceum, was built by slaves, and in the mind of many students, that fact still echoes today.

 

My photoethnography attempts to understand student’s opinions of these Confederate symbols. I used a combination of research methods including personal reflections on photos, short surveys, and one oral history interview with a student at the university. I took 15 photographs on a Canon Rebel camera. Several of the pictures were taken at night to avoid any disruption by the student body. Pictures were taken exclusively on the Ole Miss campus. Purposive sampling was used to reflect the racial and ethnic breakdown on campus and included Caucasian (75%) and African-American (15%) students. The other 10% came from students of other ethnic backgrounds. This projects serves not only to challenge my bias against Confederate aspects of Southern culture, but also to ask the question, “How does the student body feel about Confederate symbolism as tradition at Ole Miss?”

                                                                                         

Predictions:

Since coming onto the University of Mississippi campus in the fall, I have seen a shocking number of people sporting pro-Confederate flag and pro-South paraphernalia. Going off of this observation, I predicted an extreme pro-South sentiment running through the student body. My first time visiting the Grove on a game day, I was tempted to count the number of Confederate flags and Mississippi state flags (featuring the Confederate flag) flying from people’s tents. The chant “The South will rise again” was also commonplace. I was even offered a sticker asserting that the University should fly the state flag. In spite of the racist implications of these chants, students and adults alike often make reference to the University of Mississippi’s Creed. The Creed reads: “The University of Mississippi is a community of learning dedicated to nurturing excellence in intellectual inquiry and personal character in an open and diverse environment. As a voluntary member of this community: I believe in respect for the dignity of each person. I believe in fairness and civility. I believe in personal and professional integrity. I believe in academic honesty. I believe in academic freedom. I believe in good stewardship of our resources. I pledge to uphold these values and encourage others to follow my example.” The Creed almost seems hypocritical in light of “The South will rise again” because I have always associated the Old South with racism, yet the creed specifically notes the belief in dignity of the individual. Is that not contrary to racism? What do our students at this university really believe? Going into this project, I truly believed the majority of interviewed students would show a positive view of Confederate memorabilia, regarding them as an integral part of Southern tradition.

 

 The Confederacy and Ole Miss:

 

The University of Mississippi was founded in 1848 as Mississippi’s flagship university. 1848 was a year where tensions leading up to the Civil War were beginning to boil over into unabashed conflict. The university itself was significantly influenced by the outbreak of the Civil War—for every 139 students, only 4 remained while the rest became soldiers for the Confederacy. The ripples of this can be seen in the Confederate statue established at the circle that memorializes “Our Confederate Dead”, perhaps referring to the students who died in service to the Confederacy and the soldiers who died as a whole. A plaque was placed at the base of the statue in recent years in an attempt to contextualize the Confederate references as part of our regretful past. The statue also features original inscriptions that contradict the text of the plaque.The so-called “Dead House” is another Confederate symbol that may not exist in physical form, but is immortalized by a sign standing next to its former location. The sign mentions the many uses of the building and its history as a Confederate morgue.

 

James Meredith and Ole Miss:

 

In 1962, after being rejected admission two times, James Meredith became the first African American student admitted to the University of Mississippi. The student’s reactions were unfortunately not so positive, to put it lightly. Massive riots broke out, and a French reporter was killed. These events were immortalized in writing as The Ghost of Mississippi. On the other side of campus, a bench was dedicated in memory of the French reporter. Coincidentally, the bench is right next to the Dead House sign. This bench, the statue, and the sign accompanying the statue are attempts by the university to contextualize the events and race riots on campus. Strong Confederate sentiments, however, were used against James Meredith; some of those sentiments are still contrastingly displayed on campus.

 

Interviews:

 

In an effort to understand the in-depth opinions of students, I chose to interview a student at the University of Mississippi. Throughout my friendship with her, I have noticed her eloquence and articulacy. With this in mind and as I have never heard her opinions regarding this subject, I decided to interview her about those opinions. I did not want the pictures of my photoethnography to be used only to check my bias, but to also be used to supplement some questions asked in the interview. My interviewee had a very negative response to the Confederate symbols on campus. When shown my photographs of the university’s attempts at contextualization, she asserted that while the attempts were a good start, there was ultimately much more to be done to paint the proper image of the Confederacy on campus—an image she believed should ultimately be negative. She directly associated the symbols and the idea that they are “tradition” with racism. She also suggested that the university has not done enough to educate its students on the history of the Confederacy, and they should be required to read works such as The Ghosts of Mississippi by Wright Thompson or Beloved by Toni Morrison in Freshman Experience classes. I was surprised at her negative reaction to the Confederate symbolism. It seemed shocking in the light of the rabid support of the state flag and the chant “the South will rise again”. I suppose it was naïve of me to assume that most students would feel positively about the Confederate symbols on campus, but the spectacle of game day was enough to support my prediction.

 

Student Surveys:

I continued this inquiry into student opinion with a set of 20 surveys. The responses are included in the supplemental data. I was surprised to observe the amount of negative and neutral responses given by those identifying as Caucasian. Many responses included the word “hate,” and the strong connotation of that word added to my surprise. There was only one positive reply, and it’s worth mentioning that this individual provided inaccurate information on his/her response, saying that the students should be able to decide whether or not the state flag should be flown. The student body, however, already made that decision. That doesn’t discount his opinion, certainly, but as he was the only person out of 20 to respond positively, his opinion represents only 5% of the student body. Neutral votes represented 25%, and negative votes represented 70%. It seems the majority of students in my sample believe the Confederate symbols on campus carry a negative connotation.

Conclusion: 

Ole Miss is a university filled with Confederate symbolism and a distinct Southern flavor. As a university operating during the Civil War and the location of particularly nasty integration riots, I came in as a freshman with a negative opinion of Confederate symbols and memories represented around campus. I decided to do this project as a way to check my bias and attempt to understand the point of view of the other side. I also hoped to gain some insight into student opinion toward those same Confederate representations. I believe my opinion remains unchanged. The symbols on campus glaringly lacked the proper contextualization so that people would better understand the evil that was the Confederacy. One example of a lack of proper contextualization came for me in the sign for the Lyceum. The sign neglected to mention that the building was built with slave labor, and as one of the most important buildings on the campus, it seems unjust for its origin to not be properly recorded. Another example is the sign beside the James Meredith statue. As also pointed out in my interview with Jackie, it fails to mention the scale of the integration riots and that people died during them. It seems the majority of students also hold that opinion. 70% of students given surveys responded that they negatively perceived the Confederate symbols on campus. Only 5% of people from those same surveys had a positive point of view. My interview with Jacqueline reinforced a negative perception of the Confederacy. I believe overall, students generally have a negative perception of the Confederate imagery on the University of Mississippi’s campus, and efforts should be made to further contextualize those symbols and place them in an unambiguously negative light.

Supplemental Data 

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