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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Professor Emeritus of History, Dr. David Sansing

By Bonnie Brown
for hottytoddy.com

*The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is former history professor Dr. David Sansing. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

Dr. David Sansing, Professor Emeritus of History, was best known in our household years ago for writing the Mississippi history textbook. Little did I know that we would come to know him as such a notable educator, historian, prolific writer, and observer of all things Mississippi and Ole Miss. His latest book, The Other Mississippi: A State in Conflict with Itself, provides a glimpse into the Mississippi that is to be celebrated and provides some insight about the Ole Miss Mystique.

Dr. David Sansing.

Brown: You have had a very distinguished career as an academician, historian, and writer. I’ve read that you credit Nell Thomas, your 11th grade history teacher, for inspiring you to develop an interest in and passion for history. You graduated from high school in Greenville, went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history from Mississippi College, and your doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi. Everyone has an Ole Miss “story.” Please talk about your path to the Ole Miss campus.

Sansing: I was very fortunate to grow up in Greenville, because Greenville High School was like a first-rate prep school. I had wonderful teachers who instilled in me a thirst for knowledge and an intellectual curiosity that shaped my life. I developed a remarkable relationship with my history teacher Nell Thomas. She introduced me to the beauty and power of language. In high school I was small and couldn’t play athletics but I was a manager for the football team. One time our football team came up to Corinth for a game. We stopped on the way up and spent the night in Oxford. We had supper in a restaurant on the Square. We walked around and I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of the Oxford Square and when we went out to the campus I had the strangest feeling that someday I might teach here. My personal and emotional relationship with Ole Miss was revived in 1959 when I got my master’s degree from Mississippi College. I had spent a year in the Baptist Seminary in New Orleans but decided not be a minister and enrolled in graduate school at Mississippi College. I had not realized that I should look for a teaching job in the last few months of my enrollment at Mississippi College and when I graduated I did not have a job. I did not know what I was going to do. I got a job selling shoes at a shoe store in Jackson. I was living in Clinton at the time, and I call that year my “annus miserabilis.” But 1959 was a great year for Ole Miss football, and I listened to every game, every week, on the radio. Ole Miss football kind of rescued me from the emotional distress I was under because I did not have a teaching job. I developed a strong emotional relationship with the Ole Miss Rebels, and that football team helped me get through that bad year. Then fortunately, in 1960 I got a job at Perkinston Junior College and stayed there for ten years. While I was at Perkinston, I got a PhD in history at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1969. It was my dream to become a college history professor. A friend asked me where I wanted to teach, and I told him that someday I was going to teach at Ole Miss. He responded, “Now Dave, you know that Ole Miss is not going to hire somebody with a PhD from Southern Mississippi.”

During the Christmas holidays in 1969 my wife and I and our three children were visiting her family in Vardaman, and I told her that I was going to drive over to Oxford and the Ole Miss campus. On the way I came to a fork in the road, one road led to Oxford. I just had this overwhelming feeling, seeing that sign to Oxford, and I said to myself I’m gonna be there the rest of my life. So I drove on to Oxford. When I got to the campus, I drove around and asked someone where the History Department was. It was Christmas time and there weren’t many people around. But this person said it was in Bishop Hall. So, I drove around there, walked up to the building and the door was unlocked. I walked into the building, walked up to the third floor, found the History Department and the door was open. I walked into the office and there’s a man sitting at his desk. He got up and walked over to me, we shook hands and I said “I’m David Sansing. I just got my PhD in history at the University of Southern Mississippi. Someday I’m going to teach here in the History Department.” He said, “Really? I’m Joe Kiger, Chairman of the History Department. Come into my office and let’s talk.” So we went in there and we talked a little while. He was so nice to me.

It just so happened that my major professor at Southern Mississippi, John Gonzalez, was a college classmate of Porter Fortune who had also taught history at Southern and was then Chancellor of the University of Mississippi. I asked Professor Gonzalez if he thought I could get a teaching appointment at Ole Miss. He told me that he would talk to Chancellor Fortune about me. There just happened to be a vacancy in the Ole Miss History Department that year and Professor Kiger called me and said “Professor, I’d like for you to come up to Oxford for an interview because we have an opening in the History Department.” There was only one other person who interviewed for the position. The other person who interviewed was Dr. Martha Bigelow. She had taught history at Mississippi College and I had taken several classes with her. She and I were the only two applicants for the Ole Miss position. I will never ever forget when Professor Joe Kiger called me and said “Professor, I’d like for you to come up to the University and I want to offer you the position in our History Department.” I’ve been here ever since then. That was in 1970, and of course it transformed my life. When I came to Ole Miss, I felt like I was coming home. Oxford and Ole Miss was where I was supposed to be. I brought my wife Elizabeth and my
three children and we have lived happily ever after.

“The Other Mississippi,” is a compilation of Sansing’s essays, articles, and speeches throughout the years.

Brown: You have a new book out, “The Other Mississippi” which is a compilation of your essays, articles, and speeches throughout the years. I read the chapter about Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, the woman who was born a slave but achieved fame as a gifted singer and became known as “The Black Swan.” This story was new to me. Please talk about how you came to research her.

Sansing: Very few people know about her. In 1992 I wrote an illustrated history of Natchez with Sim Callon and Carolyn Vance Smith, and during the research for that book I discovered Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born a slave in Natchez. I delivered a lecture on her at a Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration, and it just so happened that a professor from the University of Paris was there. When he heard my lecture on Elizabeth Greenfield, he told me that he was having a symposium at the University of Paris the following year about famous Americans who had visited Paris and I was invited to present a lecture on the Black Swan. During that trip to Paris, I also went to London and while I was there I learned that Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, at the age of 29, had presented a command performance for Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace. The Black Swan was one of antebellum America’s premier divas.

Brown: What do you hope readers take away from this book?

Sansing: I hope they will discover, as I did, that some Mississippians may be hostile to outsiders, but Other Mississippians are admired for their hospitality. We are a poor state but we are rank near the top in charitable giving. What I want to do with this book is to help Mississippians and others to learn about “The Other Mississippi” that we can all be proud of.

Brown: Because you had such a grasp and understanding of Mississippi’s history, did you ever consider running for political office?

Sansing: I remember vividly, like it was yesterday. I’d been here at Ole Miss a few years and in one of my weaker moments, I considered running for public office, and I told a friend that I was thinking about it and he said “Dave, how much land do you own?” I told him I didn’t own any land. He then said if you’re going to run for office in Mississippi, you’ve got to own some land. To the relief of my wife, I soon abandoned that notion. I don’t know, I think it probably came from Nell Thomas and all those other high school teachers that I had in the 1950’s, I believe one of the noblest callings is teaching. It is to show others a path to where they want to go, and to help them, train them to accomplish what they want to accomplish in this life. My wife was a first grade teacher and three of my five grandchildren are spectacular teachers.

Brown: In an October 2015 interview with Errol Castens of the Oxford Citizen, you were quoted as saying “Perhaps no institution in American history has changed more dramatically and fundamentally than institutions of higher education. The university system bears little resemblance to its forebears. Everything has changed, except how we
govern it.” In your opinion, what supports this statement?

Sansing: Ole Miss is a perfect example. When it was established in 1848, like most other American institutions of higher learning, it was founded for the sons of the gentry. The University of Mississippi offered tuition waivers for parents who would sign a form indicating that they could not pay those fees. But at Ole Miss few if any antebellum students filed for those tuition grants because their parents would not admit that they were poor and could not pay for their son’s collegiate education. Higher education in early American history was for the elite. It was an elitist opportunity. They didn’t study subjects that would help them get jobs or work, it was a path to validate their place in society. They were the upper crust. But that has fundamentally changed. Ole Miss has gone from the college for the elites to a college that welcomes everyone. We have an international program here that takes Ole Miss to the world and brings the world to Ole Miss. That’s what’s changed. College used to be a mark of aristocracy now it’s a necessity to get a job.

Brown: You were friends with another notable native Mississippian, Willie Morris. Describe that friendship, when it began, and your shared views and love of Ole Miss and Mississippi.

Sansing: I think about Willie almost every day. My relationship with Willie Morris was one of the most endearing and enduring relationships I’ve ever had. I will never, ever forget the first time we met at a bar on the Square. We had met briefly at an event in New York, but didn’t have much of a conversation at that meeting. One day he called me up and said he wanted to meet me at the bar at what is now City Grocery. I was a little bit uneasy about it because he was the former editor of Harper’s, one of the great magazines in New York City and indeed in America. One of the most famous men in the country—and he wants me to come have a drink with him and meet me. I said, what am I going to say when I get there? When I got there, I wanted to talk about New York City, about what it was like living in that great metropolis. But Willie wanted to talk about Mississippi. He wanted me to update him on Mississippi history and talk about some of the governors that he admired. It blew my mind. Here I was sitting at a bar lecturing to Willie Morris and teaching him about recent Mississippi history because he had been living in New York City. I wondered about Willie. Here’s this guy, why did he leave Mississippi to begin with. He’s been changed, he’s not one of us anymore. But I soon realized that Willie never left Mississippi. He never really left this place. It was where he was from, and it was who he was and that night we developed a lasting friendship. I will say this about Willie, and I’m a little reluctant—but I want this to be known about him. Willie had a hard time when he came back home for several different reasons—psychologically, emotionally, and financially. He would have good times, but he would have some bad times. A lot of times during the bad times, Willie would call me and say “David, I need to be with you for a little while.” He’d come out to my house, and just sit there a while, we wouldn’t do a lot of talking, or I would go to his house. Willie had some hard times psychologically; his self-esteem was sometimes low. Willie and I became really dear, dear friends. One of my happiest moments was when he dedicated his book, My Other Oxford, which was about his year as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, England, to me and one of his friends at the other Oxford. Willie left Mississippi and the world a better place. It is so appropriate that when the Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson is over each year, the get-together at Hal and Mal’s is named in honor of Willie Morris. Willie Morris had the gift of making whoever he was talking to at that moment feel like they were the most important person in the world.

Brown: As a Mississippian and educator, you have seen the metamorphosis of race relations at Ole Miss and in Mississippi. It is sometimes said that history repeats itself. As an historian do you feel that race relations in Mississippi have changed significantly, and do you think that progress will be made such that Mississippi will eventually be viewed quite differently by the rest of the country?

Sansing: That is a profound question, and it is a difficult question. It is obvious that race relations have been literally transformed in Mississippi. Mississippi has more black elected public officials than any other state in America. Not percentage wise, but the total number of black elected public officials. That has transformed Mississippi, but the legacy of racial bias is still here. For all of the great struggle we have been through so far and for all the advances we have made, we are not there yet. I don’t know where “there” is.

Brown: We seem to still be associated with all things negative in terms of race relations.

Sansing: William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So the true goal then may not be to win the battle, but to never quit the struggle. When I get most discouraged about how far we have to go, I remind myself of how far we have come. That complexity is a result of the fact that we are all human beings, that we are loaded down with the complexity of life that’s just way beyond our understanding much less explanation.

Brown: You have spoken in the past about Mississippi having a “high rate of illiteracy, but there are more Pulitzer Prize winners per square mile in Mississippi than any other state.” What is your prediction for Mississippi’s future? Will Mississippi continue to finish last in education, health care access, and employment opportunities?

Sansing: From our beginning, we have been among the best and the worst. I think in our future we will remain where we are. There will be Mississippi, and then fortunately, there will be that place called “the Other Mississippi.” I’m glad I live in the “Other Mississippi.” I’m glad my family and my children live in the “Other Mississippi.”

Brown: Although you have retired from full-time teaching, you have been researching and writing. What is your retirement routine?

Sansing: Well, I’ll quote something that William Faulkner said a long time ago. Somebody asked Faulkner what were the people in Mississippi reading and he said they don’t have time to read books, they’re too busy writing books.” Since my retirement, I have been in the process writing a book. That’s what makes me want to get up in the morning.

Brown: So, that’s your bliss, that’s your joy?

Sansing: Faulkner’s answer about reading or writing was somewhat dismissive. He really didn’t like to be bothered by people. But I will say this: there are two things in my life that are compelling and overwhelming to me and that is my family and writing. I have three children and five grandchildren. If I don’t have a pencil in my hand, or if I’m not at my computer, I’m driving toward their house, or waiting for them to come to mine. I am of all men most fortunate. Good Lord, how lucky I am. I am probably the happiest, most content human being in the world. And I am fortunate to know that.

Brown: Anything else you’d like to add?

Sansing: One of the best things I’ve ever done was to learn from my family and friends the good things I needed to know. All of my life, I’ve been blessed with good friends who have left me better off by their friendship than I would have been otherwise. I am a man most fortunate. In the introduction to The Other Mississippi, I recall the happy memories of my four brothers and four sisters. We had problems, but there was a love and protectiveness in my family, and I am so indebted to them. I don’t know why or what it is, but all of my life people have wanted to give to me, they wanted to do for me, to help me and I don’t know why. I have often looked up into the sky and said, “Lord, I want to thank You.”

Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy.

For questions or comments, email hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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