U.S. Sen. James Z. George did many things. Known as Mississippi’s “Great Commoner,” he was a successful politician in the early 1800s, fought in the Mexican War under Jefferson Davis, would later become a lawyer and also work for the Supreme Court of Mississippi.
More than a century after his death, people are discussing all of the work he did again.
George’s efforts as the chief architect of the Mississippi Plan disenfranchised African Americans and laid the foundation for the country’s Jim Crow laws. In 1920, though he had no direct connections to the school, the University of Mississippi constructed George Hall in his honor.
George Hall is one of the locations for the six contextualization plaques, which will be unveiled in a March 2 ceremony. George’s great-great-great granddaughter Kate Kellum is the associate director of institutional research and assessment and assistant professor at the university. It was Kellum who filled out the form for George Hall to be considered in the contextualization process.
“I, among other people, made sure that building was up for consideration mostly because I knew some of the history; you know, it’s my family’s history,” Kellum said.
Much of George’s legacy includes the Mississippi Plan, which Charles Ross, UM director of African-American studies and history professor, said was a series of laws, scare tactics and violent oppression to intimidate African-Americans and keep them from voting to ensure the Democratic party remained in power.
“This was a very bitter, bloody – kind of a mini-Civil War – that took place in Mississippi in the middle of the 1870s,” Ross said. “He represented one of the more racist viewpoints, ideologies, repressive thought processes of almost anyone of this time period.”
Ross was part of Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter’s committee on contextualization, which found that George not only crafted the Mississippi Plan but also owned slaves, participated in movements for secession, served in the Confederate army and chaired the Mississippi Democratic Executive Committee.
“I think his actions indicate how he felt about black people,” Ross said. “I don’t think that he felt like African Americans had any rights in being equal, any rights in voting, any rights in probably owning land- that they needed to be subjected back to the status of almost slaves, of second-class citizens.”
Jeffrey Jackson, associate professor of sociology, referred to George as an important figure of Mississippi history. Jackson, also a member of Vitter’s contextualization committee, said George was a part of a widespread effort to remove the federal protection and consequently limit the voting the rights of African-Americans.
“We know it (the Mississippi Plan) now as Jim Crow,” Jackson said.
According to Jackson, there would be poll taxes or tests given to blacks but not to other people. When they failed the tests, they were disenfranchised.
“Those policies that J.Z. George and others created in the 1870s and then became enshrined in the law of the state in 1890 in the new constitution were the legal basis for separate-but-equal, and he was the architect of that,” he said. “Those laws remained in place until 1965 with the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, so white Mississippians considered him a hero.”
Jackson said George retained white rule over a black majority in the state.
“As a sociologist, what I would say is he was able to preserve white supremacy as a political and economic reality in the state,” Jackson said.
According to Jackson, former Chancellor Dan Jones wanted to understand the campus climate in regard to historical symbols and names as well as racism and racial concerns so he began the plans for future contextualization on campus in his 2014 Action Plan.
“The chancellor wanted to understand why we still have this problem of racism and is there anything that the university is doing to contribute to that,” Jackson said. “In other words, the theory was that perhaps by being a university that for so long has embraced symbols of the Confederacy, perhaps we’re actually attracting white supremacists to our campus.”
When Vitter took Jones’ place, he followed the lead and eventually formed the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context. The committee recommended a contextualization plaque for George Hall, explaining the history of the man behind the building.
Kellum said context determines how people behave and that context changes as times change.
“We, as an institution, or we, as a society, have to continue to evolve and behave in ways consistent with our current environment rather than hold on to behaviors that were appropriate in a previous environment,” she said. “I’m not saying forget history, but history has a place, and it may not be on the names of our buildings or in the middle of our circle. I think in textbooks, in museums, in libraries.”
This article was submitted to The Daily Mississippian from a reporting class.