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Mississippi Arts: Mississippi...

Mississippi Arts: Mississippi Encyclopedia catalogs Magnolia State culture

By: Susan Marquez - April 3, 2024

  • Thirteen years in the making, The Mississippi Encyclopedia is most comprehensive volume ever written about Mississippi.

Imagine a comprehensive collection of cultural contributions of a state that has been in existence for over two hundred years, all compiled into a single edition book. Of course, the book would be huge: 1,500 entries by 650 authors. With 1,451 pages, the book would weigh nine pounds. And imagine how long it would take to gather and compile all those entries into that big book. 

Thirteen years in the making, that book exists, and it was published in 2017 by the University Press of Mississippi. The Mississippi Encyclopedia is most comprehensive volume ever written about Mississippi, covering the expected topics: every county, every governor, numerous musicians, writers, artists and activists. There are essays on agriculture, archaeology, the civil rights movement and the Civil War. 

“It is our hope that this book gives people pleasure through browsing,” said Ted Ownby, who along with Charles Regan Wilson served as senior editors for the book. “Someone may be looking up something and find several other topics of interest in doing so. Unlike the internet, where people can get distracted by emails and such, a book can hold someone’s interest for a longer period of time as the reader explores what lies within the pages. There will be a lot of surprises.”

The project began, as all do, with an idea. Seetha Srinivasan, former editor in chief of University Press of Mississippi and now director emerita, took her idea to Ownby and Wilson. Former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat and his chief of staff, Andy Mullins, energetically supported it. Wilson, along with Ownby and Ann Abadie of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, became involved in 2003. Glenn Hopkins, then dean of UM’s College of Liberal Arts, and Dan Jones, former chancellor of the university, also backed the project.

The first encyclopedic treatment of the state since 1907 also covers drama, education, the environment, ethnicity, fiction, folk life, foodways, geography, industry and industrial workers, law, medicine and music.

Native Americans, nonfiction, poetry, politics and government are included, as are the press, religion, social and economic history, sports and visual arts.

The late Peggy Jeanes, editor emerita of Mississippi History Now, contributed to the encyclopedia. When interviewed about it soon after the The Mississippi Encyclopedia was published, Jeanes said the book “conveys what Mississippi is. It’s like a box of chocolates. You can open it, but it’s hard to close it. It is such a remarkable work.”

As the players in the project came on board, the next step was funding. First came an appropriation from the Mississippi Legislature. Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mississippi Humanities Council and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History helped sustain the project, as did funding from the University of Mississippi’s College of Liberal Arts. Funding also was provided by a major grant from the Phil Hardin Foundation and gifts from Lynn and Stewart Gammill and other supporters from the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Between $125,000 and $150,000 was raised for the project, Ownby said.

“This book is not necessarily a celebration, defense, nor critique of Mississippi,” Ownby explained. “Instead, it studies how things happened and how people reacted to those events. There are examples of people thinking about events and their interpretation of them.”

Coordinating a book of this magnitude took very deliberate planning. Ownby explained that they relied on the expertise developed by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which had extensive experience with similar encyclopedia projects, especially the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (1989) and its update, The New Encyclopedia of the Study of Southern Culture (2006-2013), a series of 24 clothbound and paperback volumes, both published by the University of North Carolina Press.

The editors of The Mississippi Encyclopedia identified thirty leaders in their fields to serve as subject editors. Further suggestions for topics came from other sources, including authors, editors, colleagues and friends.

“Each topic editor was a scholar,” Ownby said. “Each sent a list of 30 to 40 topics for consideration, and often they sent a list of potential authors.” Once the book’s topics were chosen, managing editors Andrea Driver and Odie Lindsay worked with the editors and associate editors to consult with authors.

Jeanes, who wrote four of the entries in the encyclopedia, said she learned about the project at an annual Mississippi Historical Society meeting where Ted Ownby spoke and encouraged those in attendance to visit the Center for the Study of Southern Culture website. 

Much of the 13-year gestation of The Mississippi Encyclopedia was spent just updating entries. At its publication, those involved with the book admit that in some sense the book is already outdated.

“Even so,” Ownby mused, “the idea of trying to include everything and everybody is daunting. There are people, groups and events that identify as Mississippian, and plenty of other stories and perspectives. I thought I might be defensive at first if people pointed out what didn’t make the book, but now that it’s published, I don’t feel that way at all. What we have is a really big book that people can learn from and enjoy, and even think about what would be there.”

Choosing a favorite entry for Ownby is much like a parent choosing a favorite child. “The truth is, I love all the entries,” he said. “Our writers did a great job with both the obvious topics and the most obscure and interesting ones as well. I love that there are entries that don’t conform to what most people may think about Mississippi — like the one about Euna Lee, a woman whose works were published in New York literary journals and who started a literary cultural exchange between the United States and Latin American countries.”

Another favorite is about  Juanita Harrison, a black woman who wrote My Great Wide Beautiful World, an autobiographical book about her travels around the world. “I love learning about all the wonderful authors this state has produced,” said Ownby, “as well as the many musicians, like Wadada Leo Smith, a jazz artist who grew up in Leland. At age 15, his band director allowed him to do a jazz version of Fever during the halftime show of a football game. He went on to become one of America’s great jazz trumpeters, involved with dozens of albums, including his boxed set, Ten Freedom Summers.”

Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, said the book is a great reference resource for anyone who wants to know more about anything to do with Mississippi. “I have used it to look up a court case I was curious about,” Rockoff said. “The book is amazing. All 82 counties are in there, and it lists all the facts. I love that it’s written by scholars. The encyclopedia pulls together in one place the historical and cultural significance of our state.”

The Mississippi Encyclopedia is available at independent bookstores throughout the state, as well as online. Ownby, sometimes accompanied by Wilson, has been touring the state for book signings and talking about the book.

The encyclopedia can also be found online at Mississippi Encyclopedia Online. The website has featured entries and a search bar where you can seek an entry on the subject of your choice. 


This article was first written for the ‘sip magazine and edited for this publication.
About the Author(s)
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Susan Marquez

Susan Marquez serves as Magnolia Tribune's Culture Editor. Since 2001, Susan Marquez has been writing about people, places, spaces, events, music, businesses, food, and travel. The things that make life interesting. A prolific writer, Susan has written over 3,000 pieces for a wide variety of publications.