‘Ole Miss’ is a derogatory term

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, September 10, 2015

Jack Mayfield holds an esteemed reputation as Oxford’s resident historian, and for good reason. His regular column “A Sense of Place” provides longtime and newly arrived Oxonians with a hearty dose of local history that is good-humored and informative. He has rightly earned the respect and affection of many in the Oxford community.

His latest column on Sunday, Sept. 6, titled “The origin of the name ‘Ole Miss’” aimed to inform incoming students how the University of Mississippi received its nickname. What followed was a play-by-play of yearbook committees, fond student recollections and, in closing, a quote from Coach Vaughan, who observed that Ole Miss is a “synonym” for the University “that goes back to 1896.”

A freshman couldn’t be blamed for thinking “Ole Miss” is nothing more than a pet name for UM, created by students who wished to express their love for their time at the school. That’s because Mr. Mayfield dodged the real meaning of the name. He barely hints at a darker underlying meaning, admitting quickly that “Ole Miss” was “derived from the plantation days in Mississippi” before quickly focusing attention back on Miss Elma Meek, the creator of the nickname. One is left with the impression that while “plantation days” had something to do with the name, “Ole Miss” represents the fondness of Miss Meek, her peers and approving professors for the University.

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Instead, “Ole Miss” was the name Mississippi’s slaves, who comprised well over half the state’s antebellum population, gave to the plantation mistress. This was no term of endearment: important research has shown the plantation women exercised incredible violence in their treatment of slaves, especially within the closed confines of the household where physical and emotional abuse went unrecorded. Like “Master,” “Ole Miss” represents to many members of our community cruelty, turmoil, anger and pain.

This sort of historical evasion misrepresents the past. Mayfield would do a better service to Oxford, especially its newly arrived students, by exploring the entire truth about our local history, as painful as it may be. “Ole Miss” doesn’t just derive from the plantation  the term is inseparable from slavery. After all, the 1890s gave a nickname to another important Southern institution that sounded a lot better than “separate but equal.” Let’s treat “Ole Miss” with as much critical engagement as we do “Jim Crow.”

Elias J. Baker