Dr. Albert Earl Elmore is a noted scholar who holds degrees from Milsaps College and Ole Miss Law School with a Ph.D in English Literature from Vanderbilt.
The winner of six grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he is the author of essays on Faulkner and Fitzgerald as well as the 2009 book, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Echoes of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer.
Dr. Elmore, after years of research, has unearthed both the words and music of the classic, but long-forgotten song “The Ole Miss Blues.” Dr. Elmore has written two essays on the topic; the first on the song itself, a poetic and colorful work by the composer W.C. Handy, who was also a scholarly professor of music as well as a famed performer.
In two previous articles, here, and here, I have argued against the mistaken belief that Ole Miss as a term for the University of Mississippi derived from “a name used by slaves to refer to the lady of the plantation” (The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History). The term derived instead from a name for the state of Mississippi as a whole and had nothing to do with slavery.
The present article will focus on a train called the Old Miss that was almost certainly the major reason for the name Ole Miss to undergo a sudden and dramatic change on the campus of the University during the 1908-09 school year. Before then, the name had referred exclusively to the yearbook that had been named the “Ole Miss” at its inception during the 1896-97 school year. During 1908-09, this same name — Ole Miss — came to be applied again and again, and for the first time ever, to the entire University.
Why? How could a train provoke such a sudden and lasting change? And was it the same train that the great W. C. Handy, Father of the Blues who often played for dances at the University of Mississippi, would write a famous song about in 1916?
At the turn of the century, in 1900, Memphis was a larger city than Nashville, Atlanta, or even Los Angeles. Among Southern cities, only New Orleans was more populous. The major newspaper of Memphis, the Commercial Appeal, served as the most influential journal of any kind throughout the heart of the South. Already rich and powerful, the great newspaper undertook in late 1908 to expand its circulation by charter-ing a couple of passenger trains on a daily basis from two different railroads. These trains were named the Old Miss and the Volunteer. The first served the state of Mississippi, the second the state of Tennessee.
These two trains continued a tradition begun around the turn of the century when the same newspaper had chartered first the Arkansas Traveler and then the Newsboy to deliver its papers into the states of Arkansas and Alabama. Apparently it was the news-paper itself that selected the train names, not the railroad companies from whom it rented.
According to an advertisement that ran on page one of the Commercial Appeal on January 18, 1909, “OLD MISS (Illinois Central) leaves Memphis for Jackson, Mississippi every morning, Sunday included, at 3 am. Takes passengers for Sardis, Grenada and all points in Mississippi below Grenada. Returning, Old Miss arrives in Memphis at 4:30 pm and takes passengers from all points on the IC north of Jackson.”
About a month later, on February 13, 1909, another advertisement, also on page one, declared, “By means of Old Miss and the News Boy, the Commercial Appeal covers 2/3 of Mississippi before 12 o’clock.” Such speed meant that not only newspaper subscribers but also train passengers were very well served by the new chartered trains of the great Memphis newspaper. The Volunteer ran from Memphis to Nashville, the Old Miss from Memphis to Jackson. It is not clear at this time whether the Old Miss may have continued, at least some of the time, below Jackson.
The Old Miss was clearly given its name to suggest the state of Mississippi, just as the Volunteer was named to suggest the state of Tennessee. The owners of the Commercial Appeal had no reason to associate either train with slavery, nor did they. Indeed many of the passengers on their trains were black, including W. C. Handy. Handy had moved from Florence, Alabama to Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1903 and thence to Memphis in 1905. Until he moved again — to New York in 1918 — Memphis was home to both his publishing company and his famous band, the same band that William Faulkner loved to listen to at dances in private homes around Oxford as well as on the Ole Miss campus.
Did Ole Miss students know about the Old Miss train? There can be no reason-able doubt that they did and that they rode it back and forth through Sardis to either Memphis or Jackson. Sardis was less than 25 miles from Oxford by connecting train. These same students were reading the Commercial Appeal in 1908 and 1909 as the most important newspaper in their whole region, and that great and influential journal was describing again and again, often on its front pages, the speed and reliability of the Old Miss train.
It can hardly be a surprise that the 1909 yearbook, recording the events of the 1908-09 school year, opens with a drawing of a train called the Ole Miss. On the face of the train, the word “OLE” appears above the number “1909,” identifying the yearbook’s date, while the word “MISS” appears below that date. Changing the spelling to conform to the title of their own yearbook would have been a natural and expected thing to do.
The train in the yearbook drawing is obviously intended to suggest speed, first in the speedlines drawn on its visible side and then in the steamy plume curling above those lines. Two creatures fleeing from the speeding train accentuate the suggestion of speed. One is the bird of time, the other Father Time with his famous sickle. The author of the drawing has penciled his own name, Boyd, below the train—almost certainly this was Addison Brooks Boyd of the Engineering Class, a native of Water Valley, Mississippi. The drawing is even more impressive because it’s in color, a rarity for that day. The brown-and-black train is inscribed in a striking red circle, with the background of the whole drawing a luminous green.
The last regular page of the yearbook, just before the Index and Advertisements, shows a passenger train in a long shot from the rear as it moves under a bridge and through a valley. Both logic and symmetry would dictate that the same Ole Miss train which has opened the yearbook is now closing it.
It is interesting and revealing that six of the yearbook’s advertisements are for businesses in Memphis. It is the only city besides Oxford that is represented by more than one ad. More remote than Memphis, Jackson is represented by just one. Clearly Ole Miss students spent a significant portion of their free time in the metropolis of Memphis, and it was trains that made this possible, especially the speedy Old Miss. They could be in Memphis by 4:30 and then catch the train home for campus at midnight.
It is even more significant that the 1909 yearbook is the very first in which Ole Miss appears as a name for the University as a whole. If a fast train is steaming through your state every day, delivering both passengers and headlined newspapers hot off the press, and advertising itself on its own front pages as the Old Miss, you’re going to take notice as a student at the oldest university in the state of Mississippi. You’re going to think that Ole Miss — by any spelling — is such a good name that it would be a waste of a golden opportunity to restrict it to your yearbook and not to use it for your university as a whole. If a train called the Old Miss can serve the state of Mississippi under that increasingly popular name, why not use it for the oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning in the very same state?
The 1909 yearbook that opened and closed with a picture of the Ole Miss train again and again uses Ole Miss to refer to the entire University. Here are five quotes from that yearbook, the middle three taken from football songs and yells in the Athletics section.
Throughout the Commonwealth the Alumni of OLE MISS are dominating and moulding public policy and sentiment, and it is they who are proving the most powerful factor towards ushering in the Greater University of Mississippi.
Oh, here’s to “Ole Miss,” the source of all our bliss! Hurrah, “Ole Miss,” we’ll raise a song to thee! Here’s to “Ole Miss,” the school we love! What a victory we felt was ours was can be appreciated only by one of “Ole Miss’s” devotees!
Clearly the abrupt spread of the name from yearbook to university during this one school year must have been influenced by that dashing new chartered train out of Memphis.
But even if we go back to the name of the yearbook that was selected in 1896, it had nothing to do with slavery. We saw in an earlier article that Elma Meek, who suggested it, was thinking of the Ole Miss in the big house on plantations of her own time, long after slavery had ended. Nor is there a shred of evidence that the yearbook staff who approved her suggested title for their yearbook had even one grain of awareness of what Elma Meek herself was thinking.
Indeed there is perfectly good evidence that that very first annual staff was not thinking like Elma Meek. When they published that first yearbook in 1897, what symbol of Ole Miss did they themselves select for their opening page? Was it a splendidly gowned, lily-white Ole Missis or Ole Miss in a rocking chair on the front porch of a Tara-like plantation, taking tea from her faithful darkie servants? Not at all! The symbol that appears on the first page of the 1897 yearbook is a drawing of the Mississippi River — the old Mississippi, the ole Miss.
How do we know, other than common sense, that the river the yearbook staff selected as its very first symbol for its very first yearbook was indeed the Mississippi River?
Because those students took the trouble to explain their intention by adding a caption underneath: “Down On the Mississippi Flowing.” Was their caption in any way a reference to the Ole Miss of any plantation of any period? Absolutely not! The quoted line is drawn from Stephen Foster’s lovely song, “Nellie Was a Lady.” In utter contrast to the lily-white Ole Miss of the plantation, the Nellie of Foster’s song is a lovely black woman mourned by her true love after his “dark Virginny bride” has met her sad and untimely death “down by the Mississippi flowing.”
More research remains to be done to determine whether the fast train chartered by the Commercial Appeal in 1908 is the same fast train —“The Fastest Thing Out Of Memphis” — that W. C. Handy wrote about in his “Ole Miss Rag” eight years later, reissued with words in 1918 as the “Ole Miss Blues.” Because Handy described his train as running from Memphis all the way to New Orleans and not just to Jackson, there may have been two different trains called the Ole Miss. Or the first train may simply have evolved a longer route between 1908 and 1916. The answer, when found, will only enrich this discussion. It will not undermine a single conclusion.
For the simple truth is that the name Ole Miss as a familiar and affectionate term for the University of Mississippi was born, not in the Ole Miss of slavery and not even in the Ole Miss of sharecropping, but in clear and documented associations with the state of Mississippi as a whole, first with the great river that gave the state its name and then with a fast train that traversed much if not all of Mississippi. These associations were clearly echoed by Ole Miss students in their early yearbooks. Whether there was one train or two trains called the Ole Miss, there is no doubt that W. C. Handy made some train of that name immortal with a song in 1916, a song that the University of Mississippi — Ole Miss — has either overlooked or ignored, to its enduring loss and detriment, ever since.