(a 15 minute read)

Backroad Planet joined Jackson photographer Ashleigh Coleman for a preview of two Mississippi museums: the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Also on the itinerary, visits to the Smith Robertson Museum, the home of Medgar Evers, Bully’s Restaurant, and the Mississippi Supreme Court.

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We were guests of Visit Jackson, but all thoughts and opinions are our own.

Two Mississippi Museums

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Jackson was our third destination on a Civil War and Civil Rights themed road trip through Mississippi and Tennessee.

Our weeklong journey originated in Franklin, Tennessee, near the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway, where Jerry and I toured sites associated with the Battle of Franklin.

The next morning we hopped on the parkway and headed south into Mississippi to explore the national battlefields at Brices Crossroads and Tupelo.

Ridgeland, a suburb of Jackson, would be the southernmost point of our parkway drive. From Jackson, we would head north through the Delta, stopping in Greenwood before continuing to Memphis and back to our origin.

On an earlier Southern Mississippi road trip, my itinerary had carried me to select sites on civil rights and literary driving tours around Jackson, but my excitement was building upon this return, for two main reasons.

We would be attending a media preview of two brand new MIssissippi museums I had first learned about on the previous trip, and we would be meeting in person the Jackson photographer who had contributed one of Backroad Planet’s most popular posts.

Ashleigh Coleman

Photo Credit: Howard Blount

Jackson photographer Ashleigh Coleman and I first met online when she discovered a Mississippi backroads post I had published that gave an account of my visit to the ghost town of Rodney.

Ashleigh soon agreed to share her personal connection to Rodney in a stunning photo essay entitled The Haunting Town of Rodney, Mississippi. Upon publication, the post set several Backroad Planet records, attracting more than 7,300 pageviews in 24 hours, and retaining its popularity to this day.

Our mutual affection for Mississippi culture, history, and scenic beauty nudged us to discuss the possibility of collaborating in the future. Pulling into Jackson, that dream became a reality. We would tour museums, eat soul food, and remember slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers.

And our collaboration would continue the following day on a drive into the Mississippi Delta in search of Emmett Till.

All photos by Ashleigh Coleman unless otherwise credited.

A Tale of Two Museums

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Whether it was coincidence or divine intervention, media preview day for the long-anticipated openings of the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum happened to be the day our road trip itinerary led us to Jackson.

I could not have been more elated.

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Plans for a state history museum was already a done deal by 2006, when former Governor Haley Barbour endorsed legislative funding for the creation of a civil rights museum in Mississippi.

But it wasn’t until mid-2012 that the Mississippi Department of Archives and History announced that the two museums would be constructed simultaneously, sharing a common entrance and lobby at a prime location in the heart of downtown Jackson.

In celebration of the state’s bicentennial, the “Two Mississippi Museums” opened to the public on December 9, 2017.

Museum of Mississippi History

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I recommend that visitors begin their tour of the two museums with the Museum of Mississippi History. The museum interprets the state’s past from 13,000 BCE to present day. Although the struggle for civil rights is integrated in the state museum’s historical timeline, a thorough exposition of the Movement is reserved for the neighboring civil rights museum.

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More than 15,000 years of Mississippi history is vividly displayed through nine galleries featuring interactive exhibits and rare artifacts.

Drawing from the extensive archives of the MDAH, the museum houses such treasures as an 1818 twenty-star U.S. flag, an original Bowie knife, slave-made quilts, and prehistoric Native American artifacts.

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State history is well-documented through vintage photos, film footage, recordings, personal accounts, and other primary sources.

Follow this link to access my personal photos from the Museum of Mississippi History.

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

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The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is reported to be the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the United States, as well it should be.

In the early years while the concept of a state civil rights museum was being birthed, there were some who feared a whitewashed version of the struggle would be portrayed.

Not so.

This museum tells the truth.

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Visitors enter first into a large gallery that tells the backstory of the modern Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, covering the origins of the European slave trade, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow.

During Reconstruction, many black freedmen were elected to public office in Mississippi, even to high level positions such as lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and speaker of the house. Other black Mississippians were appointed to senate and house positions at the national level in Washington, DC.

It only made sense.

In the post-Civil War years, former slaves comprised more than half the state population, and newly-registered black voters outnumbered white voters by a substantial margin.

But equality and justice under the law would not last.

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The end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling by the Supreme Court, endorsing the doctrine of “separate, but equal,” gave birth to the passage of Jim Crow legislation. These discriminatory local laws in turn led to increased racial injustice and public lynchings.

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The first gallery is dominated by a symbolic tree. The branches of its canopy display exaggerated symbols of racial stereotypes from popular culture of the day.

Sadly, the tree is a lynching tree.

Beneath the tree’s branches, the names of more than 600 black Mississippians who were lynched during this period are etched into five memorial monoliths.

This dark period of the state’s history might today even be considered state-sponsored genocide when viewed through the lens of a turn-of-the-century governor.

“If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.”

Mississippi Governor James K. Vardaman, c. 1903

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With its wealth of content, the first gallery is a mere introduction to the struggle for racial equality in Mississippi that would ultimately impact the entire nation.

The heart of the museum is a central rotunda encircled by seven additional themed galleries. As visitors tour the dark radial galleries, they emerge each time into the light and music of the Movement.

Treasured artifacts in these galleries include a section of Vernon Dahmer’s bullet-ridden pickup truck, the .30-06 Enfield rifle that killed Medgar Evers, and the original doors from Bryant’s Grocery, the site of 14-year old Emmett Till’s fateful encounter.

This section of the museum was closed to the media on the day of our visit due to the installation of exhibits and a sculpture entitled “This Little Light of Mine.”

Ultimately, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum shares the stories of the courageous men and women whose strength and sacrifices fueled the Movement, some of whom also previewed the museum the day of our visit.

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One of those brave activists was Peggy Jean Connor, a co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and delegate to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, the year Fannie Lou Hamer delivered her moving testimony. Connor was a joint plaintiff in Connor v. Johnson, an unfair election districting case against the State of Mississippi that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. Connor prevailed when the court ruled the challenged state statutes unconstitutional.

Peggy Jean Connor passed away on January 13, 2018.

Civil Rights activists have praised the museum for its “honest depiction of Mississipi’s past.” After her visit, Myrlie Evers remarked, “I wept because I felt the blows, I felt the bullets, I felt the tears, I heard the cries, but I also sensed the hope in those children.”

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I love Mississippi, and although it is not my home state, I could not be more proud of its efforts to embrace all of its history . . . good, bad, and ugly. For in presenting the unvarnished truth through these state-funded museums, they have put Mississippi on the road to redemption.

The first time I viewed the museums was through a construction site chain link fence. The second time I was treated to a preview of select galleries. The next time I will fully experience Mississippi’s two museums.

The museums are open daily, except Mondays, and admission fees apply. The museums offer free admission on the third Saturday of each month.

MDAH staff welcomes donations of artifacts and other materials to better tell the story of Mississippi.

Follow this link to access my personal photos from the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

Smith Robertson Museum & Cultural Center

The City of Jackson’s Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center is another local institution that interprets the history of the African American experience in the Deep South.

The museum is located at the former Smith Robertson School. Founded in 1894, the “Mother School” was Jackson’s first public school for black students.

Smith Robertson’s most notable graduate was Richard Wright, author of Native Son and Black Boy, two works heavily influenced by his residence in Jackson during the mid-1920s.

Interactive exhibits trace the beginnings of Africans kidnapped from their homeland, bound in chains, transported across the Atlantic Ocean, and sold as slaves in the American South.

The narrative continues, interpreting the black experience through historical periods such as the Great Migration during the first half of the twentieth century. During this era, millions of black Americans fled persecution and fieldwork in the South seeking a better life with factory employment in urban centers of the North.

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Some exhibits merit little explanation.

One museum gallery is dedicated to the life of martyred civil rights leader and Jackson resident Medgar Evers.

The first part of the exhibit focuses on his formative years and how he was influenced by his parents. Even as a boy, Medgar’s family called him “the saint” for his practice of self-discipline and clean living.

Visitors are invited to leave written reflections of their experience in the gallery by answering the question, “How would you make Mississippi better?”

The museum is open daily, except Sundays, and admission fees apply.

Follow this link to access my personal photos from the Smith Robertson Museum & Cultural Center.

Medgar Evers Home

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I was privileged to have a private tour of the Medgar Evers home on my previous visit to Jackson. The home interior remains staged as a set from the location shoot of the 1996 motion picture Ghosts of Mississippi.

The most poignant location on the property at 2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive is the driveway where Byron de la Beckwith assassinated the NAACP Field Secretary with a single rifle shot to the back just after midnight on June 12, 1963.

The Medgar Evers Home is a marked destination on the Mississippi Freedom Trail.

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A life-sized statue of Medgar Evers is situated on the property of the Medgar Evers Library, less than a mile from his home.

Bully’s Restaurant

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I typically list dining options at the bottom of my posts, but when visiting Jackson, not dining at Bully’s Restaurant is not an option.

It is an imperative experience.

Greta and Tyrone Bully are the smiling faces and driving forces behind the best soul food in Jackson.

In 1982, Tyrone and his father decided to expand their family corner store business. So they built the brick building from the ground up and soon opened the restaurant to provide hot meals for area factory workers. Greta joined the venture when she met her future husband ten years later.

Hole-in-the-wall restaurants are my favorites, and Bully’s fits the bill with its unpretentious rustic decor

Bully’s first cook back in the day was a neighbor lady named Ma Pearl. She taught Tyrone how to cook all of her recipes and insisted that he not modify them in any way.

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Today, everything is cooked fresh and made from scratch, with a menu that features soul food classics such as smothered oxtails, turkey wings, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, fried green tomatoes, fried okra, mustard greens, and even chitterlings.

With a lineup like that, it should come as no surprise that Bully’s received the James Beard Foundation America’s Classic award in 2016, an earned distinction “. . . given to restaurants with timeless appeal, each beloved in its region for quality food that reflects the character of its community.”

But then Bully’s has been recognized by Southern Living, the Food Network, and countless other media outlets for their excellence in country cuisine.

When in Jackson, be sure to stop by Bully’s, open daily, except Sundays, from 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM for an authentic taste of local flavor.

Carroll Gartin Justice Building

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Sometimes opportunities not on our itineraries present themselves. Such was the case with our after hours tour of the Carroll Gartin Justice Building. This four-story classically styled limestone structure is situated in downtown Jackson adjacent to the State Capitol Building.

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Completed in 2011, the Gartin Justice Building houses the Mississippi Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and the State Law Library.

Portraits of former justices line the walls of the upper floor gallery.

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Our impromptu tour of the justice building was courtesy of Ashleigh’s husband, Associate Supreme Court Justice Josiah D. Coleman.

The highlight of our tour was visiting Justice Coleman’s fourth floor private office and viewing his collection of memorabilia, vintage photos, and library of antiquarian books.

The Carroll Gartin Justice Building is open to visitors Monday through Friday, from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, except for legal holidays.

Follow this link to access my personal photos from the Carroll Gartin Justice Building.

Jackson by Night

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An evening stroll through downtown led us past a Jackson institution, the historic Mayflower Cafe.

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This Greek-inspired seafood and steak restaurant was founded by the Kountouris family in 1935, making it the oldest operating dining establishment in the capital city.

The restaurant was also a movie location for Ghosts of Mississippi and The Help.

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After a full day touring museums, eating soul food, and honoring heroes of the Movement, it was time to say goodnight to Jackson, and return to our boutique accommodations at the Old Capitol Inn, conveniently located across the street from “Two Mississippi Museums.”

In the morning, we would drive up into the Delta in search of Emmett Till . . . .

Click here to book your stay at the Old Capitol Inn on TripAdvisor!

Click here for more Jackson lodging options on TripAdvisor!

Backroad Planet Collaborations with Ashleigh Coleman

If you love Ashleigh Coleman’s photography, you will want to continue the narrative.

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In our second collaboration, we went searching for Emmett Till on a Mississippi Delta pilgrimage. Along the way we discovered the gravesite of Civil Rights leader Rev. George Lee, toured Greenwood’s Baptist Town, visited locations from the motion picture “The Help,” unearthed legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, walked a Tallahatchie bridge, slept in sharecropper shacks, and ultimately uncovered traces of the teen martyr whose death gave birth to the modern Civil Rights Movement.

The Haunting Town of Rodney, Mississippi: A Photo Essay Backroad Planet

In her first guest post on Backroad Planet, Ashleigh shared her intimate connection with the ghost town of Rodney, Mississippi with haunting images from a bridal shoot and a seasonal flood.

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We Would Love to Hear From You

We enjoy dialogue with our readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever visited Jackson, Mississippi? If so, we would love to hear about your experience. We invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and we always respond!

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Ashleigh Coleman is a southern photographer, based in Mississippi, whose work engages the landscape surrounding her. While Ashleigh attended the University of South Carolina to study art history, English, and Russian literature, her passion was always photography.  After a stint in the gallery world, Ashleigh (re)turned her full gaze to photography and to applying her understanding of the theory of defamiliarization—seeing afresh that which is familiar and commonplace—to what she photographs, whether it be an old building, a field with shadows, or people she meets along the way. You can connect with Ashleigh at her website, InstagramFacebook, and Pinterest. If you are interested in purchasing a limited edition fine art print of Rodney, please email Ashleigh for more information.
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Howard Blount is founder and editor of the travel web site Backroad Planet. He has traveled internationally since boyhood and lived abroad in Mexico, Chile, and Paraguay. Now his passion is navigating the roads-less-traveled of this amazing planet in search of anything rare and remote. On the stuffy side, “Mr. Blount” has been a writer, consultant, and published author with the likes of Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill. Recently retired from a 35-year career as a middle school teacher, Howard enjoys spending his time on anything that includes mountains, waterfalls, dachshunds, gospel choirs, books, restored classic movies on Blu-ray, HDTV, autumn, sandhill cranes, hot springs, Florida springs, rain and other gloomy weather, log cabins, cracker shacks, abandoned sites, unearthed history, genealogy, museums, documentaries, To Kill a Mockingbird, scenic and historical sites, castles, cathedrals, the Civil War, cold sheets, National and State Park Passports, quotes, the Rambos, Dionne Warwick, Steely Dan, Doobies, Diet Pepsi, Fish City Grill, anything Apple, all things British, Jesus, and lists. And on a random note, Howard is a fourth cousin once removed to Truman Capote.