The Center for the Study of Southern Culture began in the mid-1970s. Dedicated to strengthening humanities teaching and scholarship at the university through the exploration and documentation of the American South, a committee of the school’s faculty and administrators began planning the Center for the Study of Southern Culture in 1975. In 1976 the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the University a consultant grant to aid in the planning, and in November of 1977 a three-day Eudora Welty symposium, featuring the author herself, marked the opening of the Center.
Since the 1970s, the Center for the Study of Southern Culture has been one of the hallmarks of the university, and its graduates include writers, scholars, musicians, filmmakers, teachers, organizers, businesspeople, lawyers, ministers and many others who make the university proud. Throughout its history, the Center has emphasized its academic program as the foundation of its work. A National Endowment for the Humanities curriculum grant led to the creation of a Bachelor of Arts program in Southern Studies, which now enrolls 40 undergraduate majors, and the University of Mississippi supported the program through the appointment of faculty working in the Southern Studies Program and in a home department.
In 1986 the University established the Master of Arts program in Southern Studies. It remains the only Southern Studies MA program in the world, and now enrolls 30-35 students. Students benefit from a combination of courses in Southern Studies and courses from a range of other classes and encouragement to pursue interdisciplinary work. Since the 1980s over 300 students have completed Southern Studies degrees, and many more University of Mississippi students have taken Southern Studies classes.
Faculty and Scholarship
In 1978 William Ferris was named director of the Center, and under his 20-year tenure, the University of Mississippi became internationally recognized as a leader in the examination and study of the South. Much of that recognition came with the award-winning Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, published in 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press and edited by Ferris and Charles Reagan Wilson, with Ann Abadie and Mary Hart as associate editors. The Encyclopedia helped identify the Center as an institution that studies all people, places, and topics in the South and helps disseminate the best contemporary scholarship.
Charles Reagan Wilson became Center director in 1998, when President Bill Clinton appointed Ferris chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ted Ownby, a member in the Southern Studies and History departments since 1988, became the Center’s third director in 2008.
In 1997 James and Madeleine McMullan added to the strength of the program by establishing an endowment to support two additional joint Southern Studies professorships, one in literature and the other in sociology and anthropology. The Southern Studies faculty now consists of faculty members in history, English, sociology and anthropology, documentary studies, and a postdoctoral teaching fellow in foodways.
Documentary Studies has long been a particular strength of the Center, and David Wharton heads this program now, working with Southern Studies students who learn how to use photography and oral history to document individuals and communities. In 2011 Southern Studies formalized a partnership with the university’s Media and Documentary Projects program, which had already worked closely with the center to make foodways films and to teach courses in documentary film-making. The Gammill Gallery in Barnard Observatory provides a venue to display faculty and student work, as well as photographs from across the region.
The Center remains a hothouse of ideas about the American South, as seen in the production of publications for a wide audience. In 2013, the Center will complete the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, a series of 24 paperback volumes to be published by the University of North Carolina Press. In addition, Center staff have partnered with the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the Mississippi Arts Commission, and the University Press of Mississippi to produce the Mississippi Encyclopedia, which is also set for publication in 2013. The Center’s book series, New Directions in Southern Studies, published by the University of North Carolina Press, will publish innovative new interdisciplinary studies on the region. Center faculty have long shared the goals of leading current scholarship while also understanding past scholarly approaches, and they continue help to set our publication agenda through their works in history, literature, anthropology, and documentary studies.
The Center’s outreach projects are part of its distinctive character, bridging the gap between scholarly research and broad audiences interested in the American South. The Center has long sponsored or cosponsored annual events such as the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, the Oxford Conference for the Book, and other public events large and small. A recent partnership with the Department of History and the African American Studies Program has led to the Gilder-Jordan Lecture Series in Southern Cultural History.
The Southern Foodways Alliance was created as an institute of the Center in 1999, and its annual symposium brings enthusiastic students of food to campus each fall. With a mission that “documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South,” the SFA has an active oral history program, has produced over 30 documentary films on foodways, and encourages thoughtful discussion of food and culture through publications, public events, and university classes.
The Center has long been associated with the study and presentation of Southern music, especially the blues. Living Blues, which moved from Chicago to the Center in 1980, remains the premier blues journal, and the Blues Today Symposium, which the Center inaugurated in 2003 with a keynote address by critic Stanley Crouch, helps support its work. The University’s Blues Archive attracts scholars from around the world. Highway 61, a weekly radio program on the blues, is produced by Media and Documentary Projects, and the Sounds of the South radio spots, based on music entries from the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and narrated by Charles Reagan Wilson, play on public radio stations. In 2012, the Music of the South Symposium, an occasional event, celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Southern Studies MA program with a conference and concert, all staffed by student and faculty alumni of the program.
Other new initiatives are addressing the contemporary South, including sponsorship of symposia on the Global South. In 2004 the Center began new efforts to explore connections between the humanities, economic development, and public policy in the South with the Future of the South Symposium. Funded in part by a challenge grant from the Hardin Foundation, the first event, entitled “The American South: Then and Now,” has been followed by symposia on community-building in the South, the humanities and Hurricane Katrina, the one-year anniversary of the Gulf Oil Spill, and events that featured individuals such as journalist Cynthia Tucker and Children’s Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman.
The Center has long spread news of its work through its newsletter, the Southern Register, edited until her retirement by Associate Director Ann Abadie and now by Associate Director for Publications Jimmy Thomas, and recently also by an active use of online media, led by Associate Director for Projects Becca Walton.
Since the 1980s Center faculty and staff have often taught summer programs for teachers, and in 2012 it will lead a Gilder-Lehrman Institute program on Race and Ethnicity in the Modern South. The Center for the Study of Southern Culture continues to build on its history in helping to chart ways into the South’s future.