What weighs in at around nine pounds and contains more information about the state than most ever thought possible?
Published in 2017, it’s The Mississippi Encyclopedia, and by the numbers alone, it’s the most comprehensive publication ever on all things Mississippi. It comes in at 1451 pages, with over 1500 entries penned by 650 authors. There are entries on all 82 counties, all 64 governors, as well as essays on Mississippi’s musicians, writers, artists, and activists.
There are essays on agriculture, archeology, the Civil Rights movement, the Civil War, drama, education, the environment, ethnicity, fiction, folk life, foodways, geography, industry and industrial workers, law, medicine, music, myths and representations, Native Americans, nonfiction, poetry, politics, government, the press, religion, social and economic history, sports and visual arts–gathered together in an all-inclusive reference book published by the University Press of Mississippi.
It’s the first encyclopedic treatment of the state since 1907, and according to the senior editor of the book, Ted Ownby, the encyclopedia is already outdated. “History is ever-evolving, and there are so many topics that didn’t make it to the book.”
Ownby is the William Winter Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, teaching courses in history and Southern Studies. He co-edited the book with Charles Regan Wilson. The Kelly Gene Cook Sr. Chair of History and Professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, Wilson taught there from 1981-2014. He worked extensively with graduate students and served as Director of the Southern Studies academic program from 1991 to 1998, and Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture from 1998-2007.
The Mississippi Encyclopedia project began with a germ of an idea. Suggestions came from Seetha Srinivasan at the University Press of Mississippi. Former Ole Miss Chancellor, Robert Khayat, and his chief of staff, Andy Mullins, energetically supported the idea. Wilson, Ownby and Ann Abadie, all at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the time, became involved in 2003.
As players came on board, funding for the project was necessary. The Mississippi legislature appropriated some funds, and grants came in from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mississippi Humanities Council, University of Mississippi’s College of Liberal Arts and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Funding was also provided by a major grant from the Phil Hardin Foundation and generous gifts from Lynn and Stewart Gammill and other supporters of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
With funding in place, it was time to get the book written. That was a major undertaking. Coordinating a book of this magnitude took very deliberate planning. Ownby explains that they relied on the expertise developed by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which had extensive experience with similar encyclopedia projects, most notably The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (1989) and its update, The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (2006-2013), both published by University of North Carolina Press.
It took 13 years to produce the book, with much of that time updating things. 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,” says Ownby. “Each sent a list of thirty to forty 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 Lindsey worked with the editors and associate editors to work with the authors.
Entries are alphabetized, beginning with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a Gulfport High graduate who went on to be one of the most recognized figures in American basketball. The last entry of the book is Zig Ziglar, a motivational speaker and business person from Yazoo City who is known by millions the world over.
“It is our hope that this book gives people pleasure through browsing,” says Ownby. “Someone may look 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 are a lot of surprises to be found.”
Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, says the book is a great reference resource for anyone who wants to know more about anything to do with Mississippi. One of the authors in the book, Peggy Jeanes, says that she likes that 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.”