Written by Clara Turnage

The Mississippi Historical Society presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to Charles Reagan Wilson, retired University of Mississippi professor and former director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, on Feb. 23 at the society’s annual meeting.

Wilson, who retired in 2014 after more than 33 years at Ole Miss, said the award is special because of his longtime involvement with the society.

“I started attending the Mississippi Historical Society annual meetings almost as soon as I came to Mississippi in 1981,” he said. “I have very fond memories of those meetings and the people I met. I developed some deep friendships with other historians and people from other universities across the state and the South.

“For that organization to give me the award after being involved with it so many ways over the years – it means all the more to me.”

Wilson led the Southern studies program from 1991 to 1998 and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture from 1998 to 2007. During that time, he helped establish both the Southern Foodways Alliance and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, which has since changed its name to The Alluvial Collective.

Katie Blount, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, was in the second class of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture back in the early 1980s. She called Wilson “one of our state’s most distinguished historians.”

Wilson has a love of Southern oddities, a fascination with death rituals and a passion for teaching, Blount said.

“Distinguished scholar, gifted writer, authority on Southern culture and history, collector of gewgaws, entranced by death – I still don’t feel like I’ve given you a full picture of the mind of Charles Wilson, but I’ve done the best I can,” she said.

Wilson has written a number of books on Southern history and culture but said that his proudest achievement is his work on the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, an encompassing look at what cultures, traditions and history make up the Southern identity.

“That encyclopedia was our signature piece announcing to the world that we were an institute that was serious about looking at the South and provided research and teaching,” Wilson said. “The South has had a rich history, and out of that has come a rich culture, world-class artists, musicians, chefs, writers.

“It’s important to study this rich heritage to see where we are today and to see where we want to go in the future.”

Charles Reagan Wilson gives an acceptance speech Feb. 23 during the Mississippi Historical Society’s annual meeting, where he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

After the first encyclopedia – of which Wilson was the managing editor – published in 1989, Wilson swore to never work on another, Blount said. In the early 2000s, however, he and colleagues at the center and at the University of North Carolina Press began work on a new encyclopedia that, by its publication in 2013, had grown to include 24 volumes on different subjects relating to Southern culture.

The encyclopedia shaped not only Wilson’s leadership on campus for nearly a decade, but influenced the center itself, he said.

“All of that came out of that encyclopedia really established the center’s approach, its focus on history, music, art and culture,” Wilson said. “With the center, I hope it will continue to be a place where people can come to cross boundaries and lines that can divide us.

“I hope the center will always be a place where people with all sorts of views will be able to come together and promote a better future for the South.”

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