Archives and History taps five more as state superstars
None of them will be there to be toasted, hear the applause and pick up a trophy, but Evelyn Gandy, James Hardy, Aaron Henry, Elvis Presley and Ida B. Wells certainly deserve to join the roster of Mississippi superstars. The five lived very different lives, but the Mississippi Department of Archives and History — which tapped them as its 2016 Hall of Fame inductees — could not have chosen better.
Wells is senior in the group. And she is listed here first because, well, she was a journalist.
Wells was born in 1862 way up in North Mississippi at Holly Springs, where today a museum tells her story. Freed from slavery as a toddler, she was able to grow up and attend Rust College, which is still going strong in Holly Springs, and become a teacher.
Discrimination — she purchased a first-class train ticket but was denied the seat for which she paid — pushed her into journalism in Memphis. Her targets were unequal school funding and segregation and she advocated economic boycotts and women’s rights.
When three of her friends were lynched, she amplified her quest for justice. She was one of two black women who signed on as organizers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people when that organization was born in New York in 1909.
Presley needs no introduction. Another person from North Mississippi who rose to prominence in Memphis, the singing of the King, who was initially told he had no talent, still defines an era in American life. It still sells, too.
Each year, more than 80,000 people pay the $17 admission charge to visit his birthplace in Tupelo. There’s no exact count, but he’s believed to have sold between 500 million and 600 million records in America alone, which puts him second to The Beatles and ahead of Michael Jackson — and his career only lasted 22 years.
Aaron Henry was not the most vocal civil rights leader, but he was determined and long-serving. A veteran and a pharmacist, Henry quietly became a force in the state, starting in the Delta about 1951 and culminating with 14 years in the state House of Representatives. He was the E.F. Hutton of Mississippi: “When Henry talked, people listened.”
Dr. Minion Morrison of Mississippi State penned the most recent and most complete biography. “Henry’s story is ultimately one about political mobilization — how citizens and their leaders organize and act to acquire political power and access when their demands of grievances are not addressed,” Morrison writes at the outset of his book.
In the global history of medicine, the name of Dr. James Hardy is prominent. In 1955, University Medical Center opened in Jackson as a teaching hospital with Dr. Hardy as chairman of surgery.
Eight years later, Hardy and his team performed the first lung transplant. The next year, the team implanted the heart of a chimpanzee into a dying man — three years before the first human-to-human heart transplant. While those moments formed the headlines of his career, he also wrote 24 books and 466 papers. Every transplant of every kind that has taken place in the world since has built on the pioneering research of Dr. James Hardy.
And we come to Evelyn Gandy, who was born in Hattiesburg and graduated from law school at the University of Mississippi in 1943. It’s likely she was told many times, “Women don’t go to law school.” The first woman was not admitted to Harvard Law until 1950, but by then Gandy had not only established her ability, she was in the third year of her first term as a member of the Legislature.
Gandy continued public service as assistant attorney general, commissioner of public welfare, treasurer, insurance commissioner and lieutenant governor — where she held sway over a chamber full of senators who could be, well, brutish. “Miss Evelyn” was tall, delicate and genteel. White gloves, soft voice. And they listened to her.
Portraits of Wells, Presley, Henry, Hardy and Gandy will be added to the 136 already displayed in the stately Old Capitol. For years to come, troupes of school kids will scramble off their buses, scramble through the museum, eat their sack lunches and scramble back onto the buses. They will glimpse at the portraits, perhaps pondering for an instant who these people were and why their pictures are on the walls.
The answer is pretty straightforward: They were people of vision who encountered obstacles, but didn’t stop. And because they didn’t, they made Mississippi, America and the world better for all of us.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at email@example.com.