Hattiesburg, Mississippi

I am in Mississippi for a few days working with teachers at a Gilder-Lehrman workshop. I am doing some content lectures on Colonial America and working with Leah Colby, who runs a Teaching American History grant in Savannah. A former elementary school teacher, she is a very engaging and knowledgeable pedagogy specialist–the epitome of what the folks at Gilder Lehrman call a “master teacher.”

This is my first visit to the Magnolia State. I flew into Jackson airport (thus the choice of yesterday’s “Song of the Day”) and drove down Route 49 to Hattiesburg. In the process I got a glimpse of central Mississippi and saw some of the state’s rural poverty. I also got confused by a strange looking directional sign at a traffic circle near the airport.

I was a bit disappointed that I was not going to experience this region of the country as a “place.” In his book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz cites a 1995 letter written to the editorial page of the Richmond Times : “The South is a place. East, West, and North are nothing but directions.” I wanted to experience this “place,” but my only exposure to it was the Jackson airport and the inside of a Hilton Garden Inn hotel room and conference room. Last night I sat in my hotel room (there wasn’t even a picture or painting of Mississippi on the walls) and watched Conan O’Brien host his first Tonight Show. I could have been anywhere in the world. The local news anchors did not even speak with a southern accent! This is all a sad commentary on the way that corporate capitalism and cultural nationalism has now made it possible to travel somewhere without really experiencing it as a distinct place.

My disappointment subsided, however, when I met the thirty or so teachers I am working with. Almost all of them are native Mississippians. Those who are “transplanted” to Mississippi are originally from places “as far a way” as Alabama and Kentucky! It is safe to say that there are no “Yankees” in the group. (In fact, I have been called a “Yankee” more than once by these teachers, especially when I mispronounced “Hattiesburg”). These teachers remind me that there are still many “rural Enlightenments” in America. The teachers are bright, engaged, hospitable, and rooted. They love SEC football. They cheer on the University of Southern Mississippi baseball team, which just advanced to the NCAA Super Regional for the first time ever. They argue over their loyalties to “Ole Miss,” Southern Mississippi, and Mississippi State. They care for their students and want to be better teachers despite the fact that many of them have limited resources.

And then came the highlight of the my two days in Mississippi. Tonight some of the teachers took us out to get barbecue at award winning Leatha’s. (They have a website at http://www.leathas.com/, but it does not seem to be available at the moment). I have never been to a barbecue joint quite like this. (In fact, I do not think I have ever been to a barbecue joint before). Leatha’s is located on a dirt driveway off of Route 98 in Hattiesburg behind an RV dealership. The interior of the restaurant is unimpressive. In fact, it reminds me a bit of the brown wood-paneled family room in my 1960 split-level in Mechanicsburg. One of “Miss Leatha’s” (pictured on the left) daughters served us some ribs, pulled pork, and pecan pie. The food was incredible. Our utensils came wrapped in a white towel (no mini-wipe packages here) and the chairs in the place were the kind of folding chairs that one might find at a church social in a church basement. Leatha’s daughter controlled the floor, moving back and forth between tables making sure everyone had what they needed. In the end, it was one of the best “dining out” experience I have had in a while–both in terms of food and service. Leatha’s is a must stop you ever find your way to Hattiesburg.

I leave Mississippi tomorrow after a few more lectures. I am not sure when I will return again, but I am glad that I did get a bit of local flavor.