Anne McKee is a well-known southern historian and storyteller. In 2009, she released Historic Photos of Mississippi. Since then, the book has become a standard on coffee tables across the south, and it’s still gaining steam.
Southern Lit Review enjoyed a lively chat with the delightful Anne McKee, and we hope you’ll learn a bit about the fascinating state of Mississippi by reading the interview below.
SLR: Ms. McKee, you are recognized statewide as a passionate teacher of Mississippi history. Share with us one of the most interesting historical facts you discovered while putting this book together.
AM: I discovered the great joy of my life as a Mississippian. As I traveled the historic pathway of our great state, I found many of my family members — even as far back as the Revolutionary War. That was a shock. I learned some family members arrived to the western frontier (generalized name for the Mississippi territory) prior to statehood (1817). I am now, with the help of a new found cousin, linking our family with the history of the beginnings of Mississippi.
As I have traveled the state promoting the book, I walked the same ground and breathed the same air as the ones who journeyed before me. I now know more of their heartaches, joys, and accomplishments. I can relate to their lives as they sought to survive, prosper, and leave a legacy for those who would come later. I am one who came later. Now I want to leave perhaps a tiny footprint of my time, my place, and my Mississippi.
SLR: I admire the way you’ve used photographs to tell a sequential story about Mississippi’s colorful history. It’s not only a beautiful coffee-table book, it’s well-organized by era, and I’ve thumbed through it many times since it arrived.
AM: When I first sat at the computer to begin this adventure, these are the words that came to me and eventually they became part of the introduction to the book – displayed on the book cover:
Imagine a ride with the Mississippi mockingbird as it soars through the Mississippi skies. Beginning in the land of Elvis at Tupelo, one moves down to the Piney Woods of East Central Mississippi where the ground is covered with fragrant pine straw and Choctaw moccasins once walked the trails. Then turn south where the ocean waves swell upon sandy beaches and sea gulls hover and squawk in the breeze. Continue onward to the mansions of historic Natchez and the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta where the blues reigns supreme. Finally, swoop down toward Old Man River, the majestic Mississippi, and skim across its yellow waters. The waters have seen war and defeat, loss and love, heartbreaks and triumphs. No sentiments need speaking. Only the sweet songs of the mockingbird are required to understand a land whose beauty is second only to the strength of its people.
Once these words were written, I was ready to tell our Mississippi stories supported by original historic photos dated between 1860 and 1970.
SLR: Some of the photographs have really impacted me. Even though I’ve read extensively about southern history, I was surprised to see the image of Vicksburg on page 8, which shows hand-dug caves and makeshift shelters surrounding an antebellum home, “evidence of the plight of locals during the bombardment by Union forces.” That one image brought to life a specific event for me better than volumes of historical records could ever do.
AM: I love my state – the great State of Mississippi. As I began the research, I prided myself as a Mississippi historian, and I am, but I was so shocked to learn the history inside the history. By this I mean those tidbits that make the history come alive. For example, everyone has learned of Mississippi’s Civil War history, but did you know the plight of the family members who were left at home to survive?
I learned of a Mrs. Semmes who was left with extended family living at the home place, a planter’s style farm house – a large home for the time. She was responsible for children, grandchildren, three daughters in law, elderly aunts, invalid grandparents, and cousins. During the war, the family would come together in one place pooling their food and resources.
Word had arrived that the Yankees were headed their way. They soldiers were looting and burning houses, barns, crops, storehouses and slaughtering all hogs, chickens, turkeys, and anything of value – living on the land. When the soldiers arrived, Mrs. Semmes walked out to greet them. They advised her to bring out all family members — that they were about to burn the house. She immediately fell to her knees in prayer.
While she prayed, a glowing light seemed to encircle her. It alarmed the soldiers and they left her property without burning, looting, or taking anything.
As they rode out, the officer in charge asked Mrs. Semmes what she had prayed about. Did she pray that her house would not be burned? She answered that she had prayed for God’s Will to be done, but if it was His will that the house should be burned, she wanted it done quickly.
SLR: Likewise, the photograph from 1889 on pg. 22 which shows the last bare-knuckle championship boxing match in America. I never knew there was such a sport, much less that a match could last 75 rounds!
AM: I had not known of a bare-knuckle championship national boxing match held in Mississippi. I learned the match was held at Richburg, Lamar County. That location was selected because it was located near a train depot that ran service to and from New Orleans.
As you can see in the photo, there was a large crowd of men in attendance – not a woman shown in the photo. Most of the men wore the flat top straw hat known as a boater.
SLR: From your book, I’ve learned many things: that oxen were used to pull lumber wagons, that young children were hired as oyster shuckers, and that milk tents were set up to help people during the Great Flood of 1927. Discuss your thoughts about the power of photography and how you derived the idea to publish a photographic collection of Mississippi history.
AM: I declare many times that my work is “all about Mississippi.” And, yes, I am bragging, I suppose. I have many years of experience as a storyteller even back to childhood. My school friends would be playing tag or hanging from the monkey bars. I would be in a corner of the play yard telling stories.
I have been a professional storyteller for seven years. I’ve written short plays for children featuring historic creative artists from Mississippi – Eudora Welty, Robert Johnson, Elvis, Jim Henson, and Richard Wright. Through the art of drama, I teach the influences’ of each artist, their tenacity, and the accomplishment of their goals. I think it is important to teach our Mississippi students that they too can accomplish great things by uplifting the history and heritage of Mississippi artists. It’s all part of state pride. Therefore, I am always alert to creative opportunities that feature Mississippi.
Fall, 2008, an opportunity came to me. I received an email from Turner Publishing Co., Nashville, that requested the need of a Mississippi writer to author a book about Mississippi history based on historic photos. I signed the contract the next day. The book launched at the impressive MSU/Riley Performing Arts & Educational Center, Meridian, June 2009.
Since that time, I have participated with an unbelievable number of 129 book readings/signings, and they continue. I am now booking into 2012. I have traveled the state – schools, libraries, historical societies, churches, civic clubs, radio, television, festivals, restaurants, book clubs, and others. I have a power point presentation featuring several of the photos. I dress in the costume of the era that I feature on that particular day or by request and tell the stories of Mississippi.
I have learned that Mississippians of all ages are seeking their history – they want to celebrate their heritage and learn from the past.
SLR: Your hometown, Meridian, Mississippi, puts tremendous efforts into preserving their unique history. They maintain accurate archives and share collections of photographs with the public. What collections did you use to compile this publication and how did you decide to extend the book’s coverage beyond Meridian?
AM: The Lauderdale County Archives was invaluable with their photo collection, plus the stories, of original historic photos. In part, because of the archives director’s (Ward Calhoun) encouragement, I was emboldened to travel outside my Meridian home area to increase the research. I found that county archives, libraries, historical societies, private collections, and individual Mississippians were eager to assist me. All I had to do was call them and advise when I would be in their area – they would meet me day or night to research their photos.
Also, I did work with a publisher’s guidelines and the entire state was to be included, plus the publisher suggested historic web sites as well.
SLR: What is your favorite photograph in the book? Tell us about it.
AM: Oh, that’s difficult because of the many outstanding photos, but I will select page No. 25.
Caption: The lovely Kittrell sisters stand for a family photo beside Mom and Dad on the front porch of their east central Mississippi in 1889. To each side are potted petunias and what appears to be the red-flowering cypress vine, both annuals still popular among gardeners today. I selected this photo because it is a favorite of the school children that I visit. I tell them this family worked many months to put this photo together.
The photographer was a traveling camera operator who made appointments months ahead. The sisters are dressed in identical fancy dresses, each hoding a pearl-handled fan. Mom and Dad are seated in lovely matching wooden rocking chairs – probably hand-carved with ornate backs and arms. Dad has a walking cane in his left hand and Mom has a white hanky on her lap. No one is smiling but each has a serious, slightly pleasant, look upon their face. The family pet, a small terrier pup, lies in a place of honor at their feet on a small rug. Note the pup is not a hound dog, but a lap dog variety.
The house has the dog-trot style with the back area of shrubbery in view. The windows are glass with white curtains. The wood of the house seems to be unpainted. The children are awed by the preparation made in order to produce this family photo. It’s more than driving to Wal-Mart for a quick snap, snap.
SLR: What has been the most positive aspect of publishing this book? And in contrast, have you been surprised by any specific challenges as a writer?
AM: I am surprised about the continued interest of this book, however I know it is indeed perpetual – a collector’s book. I am surprised at the large number of photos that I discovered during the research – enough for at least two additional books.
I learned the many details involved while selecting the photos – the ones that would reproduce clearly or could be repaired in order to reproduce. The publisher was a great teacher – introducing me to quality paper and ink. Also, the publisher allowed me the final choice of the photos used and they paid the licensing fees with the details involved in copyright.
greatest challenge was the final selection of photos. I wanted to give a fair number of photos per each area of the state, but I really wanted to find photos that had never been seen in prior publications.
My subject is always Mississippi – plays, storytelling, short stories, history, newspaper columns, magazine articles – everything. I believe if we as Mississippians do not uplift our state, who will?
Thanks so much for the opportunity to “tell my Mississippi story.” Ask the readers to see my web site: www.annemckee.net. Perhaps I will see them one day out on a Mississippi road along the Piney Woods or at the Gulf of Mexico with the sun setting in the west.
SLR: Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts with our readers. I am excited to spread the news about your lovely book, and I hope folks will add this to their list of standby gift books for all those who love southern history.