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MSU Libraries documents African American legislators in Mississippi with historical, online ‘Against All Odds’ exhibit

December 9, 2020
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Contact: Landon Gibson

STARKVILLE, Miss.—The first African American men to serve on Mississippi’s state legislature during and immediately after Reconstruction are showcased in a Mississippi State online exhibit.

Titled “Against All Odds: The First Black Legislators in Mississippi,” the exhibit documents the lives of over 150 African American men who worked in the state legislature leading up to 1894. The site features more than 800 newspaper clippings, dozens of portraits, quotes from primary and secondary sources, and biographies. Created by DeeDee Baldwin, an MSU Libraries assistant professor, it is accessible at http://msstate-exhibits.libraryhost.com/exhibits/show/legislators.

As a hobby, Baldwin, a history research librarian, contributes to websites that help document cemeteries by uploading pictures of gravestones. Her interest in this project was sparked in a predominantly African American cemetery in Macon several years ago when she discovered the grave of Isham Stewart, a man born in 1810—which she notes “is old for an African American headstone in the South.”

Baldwin’s interest in this grave, fueled by her passion for genealogy, led her to the online genealogy site ancestry.com where she found someone had uploaded a picture of Stewart. She contacted the source and discovered the picture came from the composite photo of the 1874 Mississippi Legislature.

“It blew my mind that his headstone was just flat on the ground in the middle of the woods and he was a former state legislator in Mississippi,” Baldwin said.

She began researching the legislator and learned he represented Noxubee County in the House of Representatives from 1870-1873 and his district in the Senate from 1874-1877. He also was a delegate at the 1868 Mississippi Constitutional Convention.

Baldwin said the difficult process of finding that information made her curious about others in the composite picture, so she began researching all the African American men from the Reconstruction era that served in Mississippi’s legislature. She used her findings to create the digital exhibit that features alphabetized personal information pages. Pages include photos, biographical information, newspaper clippings, links and book excerpts. From this research, she received emails from some descendants of these men, which led to the procurement of even more information she was able to add to her online database.

“It’s all about honoring these men and making a hard-to-find part of the historical record more accessible to people who want to research it. I would love to see more librarians, archivists and historians take on projects like this. It is so rewarding to get emails from descendants of these men and to see their legacies passed from generation to generation,” Baldwin said.

Earlier this fall semester, Baldwin was the guest speaker during the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s “History is Lunch” presentation and was also featured on the latest MSU Libraries episode of “Cultural Conversations” available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HFUTv5OyZMQ&feature=youtu.be.  

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.