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Historic Sites of the Civil Rights Movement in Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Bobs M. Tusa, Ph.D.
University Archivist, University of Southern Mississippi
August 1999

1. FREEDOM HOUSE (COFO AND MFDP HEADQUARTERS) -- 507 MOBILE STREET destroyed by fire September 17, 1998

In 1964 - beginning with Freedom Day (January 22) and continuing through Freedom Summer - Mrs. Lenon E. Woods, the owner of the Woods Guest House at 507 and 509 Mobile Street, allowed the state civil rights organization the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to use a vacant portion of this historic two-story hotel as its headquarters for civil rights activities or Freedom House.

The building had been built between 1895 and 1900 as a hotel for African Americans in a racially segregated society. It was located in the heart of Mobile Street, the "main street" of Hattiesburg's African American community - a bustling center of small businesses, restaurants, and movie theaters, patronized not only by local African Americans but also by Black service men from nearby Camp Shelby.

Several Mobile Street businessmen and women played prominent roles in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Two of them who are alive today and who have been honored for their historic roles are Mr. J.C. Fairley and Mrs. Peggy Jean Connor. Mr. Fairley was the co-owner of Fairley's Radio and TV Repair at 522 Mobile Street and was the vigorous President of the Forrest County NAACP in the early sixties. He was responsible for the liberation of Clyde Kennard from Parchman Penitentiary, a leader in the Freedom Summer activities, and the leader of the successful 1966-1967 boycott of downtown white-owned businesses for more equitable hiring practices. Mrs. Connor was the owner of Jean's Beauty Shop at 510 Mobile Street. She served as state Executive Secretary of the MFDP and Treasurer of the Freedom Summer project in Hattiesburg.

Dr. Howard Zinn, Boston University professor and faculty advisor to the national civil rights organization the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) describes in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964) the interior of the Freedom House staffed by legendary SNCC Field Secretaries Robert Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer and furnished with the late 19th century marble-topped mahogany furniture of the Woods Guest House.

During Freedom Summer 1964, the Hattiesburg Freedom House was the bustling headquarters of the Hattiesburg and Palmer's Crossing project, the largest Freedom Summer site in the state. Under the direction of SNCC Field Secretary Sandy Leigh, over 90 volunteers and approximately 3,000 local people organized Freedom School classes for the largest number (650-675) of students in the state, voter registration instruction and canvassing of local African American neighborhoods, the refurbishing and furnishing of two buildings to serve as community centers, and the work of visiting teams of attorneys, doctors, nurses, folksingers, and the Free Southern Theater repertory troupe.

In addition to housing COFO headquarters and a Freedom Library of books donated by Americans from all over the country, the Freedom House at 507 Mobile Street also served during 1964 as the Hattiesburg headquarters of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), an alternative grass-roots political party which registered over 80,000 Black Mississippians and challenged the all-white delegation to the regular Democratic Party's Presidential nominating convention in Atlantic City in August 1964 and later the all-white Mississippi representation to the U.S. Congress. The two challenges were led by Fannie Lou Hamer from the Delta and Victoria Jackson Gray from Hattiesburg.

Victoria Jackson Gray also ran on the MFDP ticket for the U.S. Senate seat then held by Senator John Stennis. Gray's campaign headquarters were located in the Woods Guest House at 507 Mobile Street.

2. HATTIESBURG MINISTERS UNION HEADQUARTERS (MASONIC LODGE NO. 115) -- 6TH AND MOBILE STREETS

This building at 522 Mobile Street (the northeast corner of 6th and Mobile Streets), constructed in 1950 and still standing, housed J.C. Fairley's Radio and TV Repair business and the Negro Masonic Lodge No. 115 (identified by the cornerstone). While the Freedom House at 507 Mobile Street housed COFO and MFDP headquarters, this building at 522 Mobile Street was the headquarters of the Hattiesburg Ministers Union, which later became part of the Delta Ministry.

Local African American ministers Rev. L.P. Ponder and Rev. J.E. Cameron helped to organize this group of pastors turned civil rights activists. Working with the National Council of Churches, the Committee of Free Southern Churchmen, and the national headquarters of the Presbyterian Church, the Hattiesburg Ministers Union oversaw the arrival, lodging (cots in the back room), meals, showers (Mr. Fairley rigged a temporary shower stall), and civil rights activities (voter registration canvassing and picketing the Forrest County Courthouse) of hundreds of Protestant pastors and Jewish rabbis from all over the country, especially during Spring 1964.

From 1964 to 1966, Rev. Bob Beech, a Presbyterian minister from Illinois, headed the Hattiesburg Ministers Union and then the Delta Ministry office in Hattiesburg, both from his office in the Masonic Lodge building. He moved to Hattiesburg with his wife and sons; another son was born to them while they were here; and he became a beloved member of the Hattiesburg community,

3. FORREST COUNTY COURTHOUSE - MAIN AND EATON STREETS

The Forrest County Courthouse was the object of the Civil Rights Movement activists in Hattiesburg. Although the U.S. Constitution guaranteed American citizens the right to vote, in actuality in many areas of the South including Forrest County, local registrars of voters implemented procedures designed to keep African Americans from registering to vote. The right to vote was the single most important objective of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. In the early sixties, only 50 Black citizens of Forrest County were registered to vote in spite of the fact that thirty per cent of the population was Black.

In addition to paying a poll tax (later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court), citizens trying to register to vote had to complete a voter registration form (thereby requiring literacy as a prerequisite to voting, later declared unconstitutional) and to read and interpret a passage of the Mississippi state constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar. Local businesswoman Victoria Jackson Gray began her civil rights activism by organizing literacy classes in which she used as her textbooks the Mississippi voter registration form and the state constitution.

Historian Neil McMillen notes that "Mississippi ... permitted fewer blacks to vote for Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 than had been eligible to vote for William McKinley in 1896. ... Whether field hand or college professor, domestic servant or physician, a black Mississippian could rarely meet the exacting standards of the county courthouse" ("Black Enfranchisement in Mississippi: Federal Enforcement and Black Protest in the 1960's," Journal of Southern History, Aug. 1977, 351, 354).

Beginning on Freedom Day, January 22, 1964 and continuing throughout the Spring, a "perpetual picket line" of peaceful demonstrators, many of whom were church pastors flown in from all over the country by the National Council of Churches, marched in front of the Forrest County Courthouse for African American voting rights. Civil Rights Movement leaders came from all over the country to join with local African Americans and march peacefully with picket signs in front of the Forrest County Courthouse.

Today, not only do African Americans in Mississippi enjoy the same voting rights as white citizens, but the state of Mississippi has more Black elected officials than any other state.

4. HATTIESBURG COMMUNITY CENTER - APPROXIMATELY 1100 DEWEY STREET destroyed by fire in the late sixties

Herbert Randall's Freedom Summer photographs document children and teenagers helping to refurbish a house and yard located across Dewey Street from True Light Baptist Church to serve as a center for community activities in the Mobile Street area of Hattiesburg.

5. PALMER'S CROSSING COMMUNITY CENTER - OLD AIRPORT ROAD demolished

The community center was established in a building located across from the Hi Hat Club (still standing, but barely) to serve as a center for community activities in Palmer's Crossing.

The community centers functioned during Freedom Summer as sites of Freedom School libraries and exhibit areas for the artwork of Freedom School students, as auditoriums for touring folk singers like Pete Seeger and meetings of local adults planning civil rights activities, and for centers of health care service and advice provided by visiting doctors and nurses. COFO envisioned the future of the community centers after Freedom Summer as centers where local people could congregate and discuss issues of concern to the entire community. ********************************************************************************************************

During Freedom Summer 1964, the following African American churches in Hattiesburg and Palmer's Crossing hosted Freedom Schools, adult voter registration classes, meetings of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, performances by touring folk singers like Pete Seeger and performances of the Free Southern Theater traveling repertory group, one of whose members was actress Denise Nicholas. Members of the congregations provided lodging, food, and protection for the civil rights workers and volunteers who came from out of state to assist local African Americans to achieve full voting rights. The ladies of the churches also assisted with the Freedom Schools and community centers and provided lunches for Freedom School students. ********************************************************************************************************

6. BENTLEY CHAPEL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH -- 514 ASHFORD STREET

7. MORNING STAR BAPTIST CHURCH - 1406 ELIZABETH AVENUE

8. MT. ZION BAPTIST CHURCH -- 901 SPENCER STREET

9. PRIEST CREEK MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH -- OLD AIRPORT ROAD, PALMER'S CROSSING

10. ST. JAMES CHRISTIAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH -- 408 EAST 7TH STREET

11. ST. JOHN UNITED METHODIST CHURCH -- 121 SULLIVAN DRIVE

12. ST. PAUL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH -- 215 EAST 5TH STREET

13. TRUE LIGHT BAPTIST CHURCH -- 1101 DEWEY STREET ***************************************************************************************************************************





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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT IN HATTIESBURG

Historians regard the Civil Rights Era of the 1960's as one of the three most important periods in the domestic history of the United States, the other two being the Civil War and the Great Depression.

Hattiesburg and Palmer's Crossing (now part of municipal Hattiesburg) were important centers of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, especially during Freedom Summer 1964. Hattiesburg was the largest Freedom Summer site in Mississippi, with over ninety volunteers from out of state, 3,000 local participants, and 650-675 Freedom School students.

The beginning of the efforts of Hattiesburg's African American citizens to obtain full voting rights and economic opportunity can be dated to the return of World War II veterans in the 1940's and to the continuing legal efforts of the Forrest County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A period of international awareness began in the 1960's when national civil rights organizations concentrated their united efforts in Mississippi and other Southern states.

The Movement started in Hattiesburg with the arrival in March 1962 of two young African Americans from Pike County named Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes. They were staff of the national civil rights organization the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had come to Hattiesburg to organize a voter registration campaign. They were housed by prominent African American businessman Vernon Dahmer, who would lose his life in 1966 when his home was fire-bombed. Also in the early 1960's Victoria Jackson Gray, a native of Palmer's Crossing who grew up in Hattiesburg, began offering citizenship classes to local African Americans, using as her textbooks the Mississippi voter registration form and the state Constitution.

In 1964 the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which included SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Mississippi chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), launched the state-wide voter registration drive known as Mississippi Freedom Summer. In Hattiesburg the headquarters of COFO, all of whose staff in Hattiesburg were the college-age men and women of SNCC, the headquarters of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the U.S. Senate campaign headquarters of Victoria Jackson Gray were located at 507 Mobile Street. Nearby the Negro Masonic Lodge at 6th and Mobile Streets housed the Hattiesburg Ministers Union.

Freedom Summer really began with the South's first Freedom Day, January 22, in which hundreds of Forrest County African American residents, supported by out-of-state volunteers including fifty pastors from the National Council of Churches, stood all day in the rain waiting to enter the Forrest County Courthouse in order to attempt to register to vote. Demonstrations continued in front of the Courthouse throughout the Spring.

In July and August 1964, while voter registration activities continued, COFO workers, volunteers, and local residents established Freedom Schools in seven African American churches -- Bentley Chapel United Methodist Church, Morning Star Baptist Church, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Priest Creek Missionary Baptist Church, St. John's United Methodist Church, St. Paul United Methodist Church, and Truelight Baptist Church. Mass meetings were held at these churches and at St. James Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Church members opened their homes to the volunteers, housing and feeding them at the risk of violence and economic reprisal.

The Freedom Schools offered classes in subjects like civics and Negro history which were not taught in the Black public schools. Palmer's Crossing Freedom School students authored the "Declaration of Independence" that was adopted at the state-wide convention of Mississippi Freedom Schools held in Meridian in August 1964 and included in the platform of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that same year. There were so many students enrolled in local Freedom Schools - an estimated 650-675 - that the state Freedom School director, Dr. Staughton Lynd, professor of history at Yale University, called Hattiesburg "the Mecca of the Freedom School world."

Theater and folksingers were also part of Freedom Summer. The Free Southern Theater, a touring repertory company starring among others Denise Nicholas, gave performances twice in Hattiesburg of plays like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Ossie Davis' Purlie Victorious. The Mississippi Caravan of Music, including legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, performed in Hattiesburg in support of African American rights.

Everything was filmed and taped and recorded by representatives of the American and foreign press. The success of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States is attributed by historians directly to the awakening of the conscience of Americans who watched what happened in Mississippi on the nightly television news programs and read about it in their newspapers.




Created by: Bobs M. Tusa

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Revised: August 26, 2003