The first time the editors gave a public talk about the print version of The Mississippi Encyclopedia, the first question was, “Will all of it be negative?” The answer was a polite no, but the question said something about the expectations some readers may have. Mississippi has appeared last on so many lists of state attributes that many residents and others might well wonder whether a heavy academic book on the state is likely to be a tome full of bad news. Others have assumed that such a book should be a celebration of the state and what its people have accomplished.

The Mississippi Encyclopedia is in fact neither a criticism nor a celebration, though its publication in print in 2017 by the University Press of Mississippi did occur as part of Mississippi’s bicentennial celebration. As an encyclopedia, it does not have a thesis, and it has no starting point except to begin with A and continue through Z. The Mississippi Encyclopedia attempts above all to be a scholarly work about life in the state, past and present. Through its choices of subjects, we hope to present not just problems but also the stories of people who addressed the problems. Instead of celebrating, The Mississippi Encyclopedia presents a wide variety of experiences and perspectives. The authors and editors have worked to display the diversity of the state, its people, its politics, its religions, its economy, its arts, and its geography and the dramatic ways all of these facets of life have changed over time. We have relied on and embodied the best recent scholarship and sought to present material that is clear and readable to scholars and nonscholars alike. In addition, many of the entries concern individuals or topics that had not previously been the subject of scholarly work, especially in relation to Mississippi, and we are delighted to have brought them some of the attention they deserve.

Many people have also asked how we went about organizing and writing an encyclopedia of this length. The answer is that we relied on the expertise developed by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, which has extensive experience with encyclopedia projects—most notably, the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 1989) and its update, The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (24 vols., University of North Carolina Press, 2006–13). Both of those projects offered models of scholarly, authoritative, inclusive, thorough, and well-written encyclopedias.

The first lesson of encyclopedia work is to rely on experts for suggestions about what to include and who should write those entries. In this case, those authorities included scholars who study Mississippi, many—though not all—of whom live and/or work in the state. The editors of The Mississippi Encyclopedia asked thirty leaders in their fields to serve as associate editors on the topics of agriculture, archaeology, architecture, the civil rights movement, the Civil War, contemporary issues, drama, education, ethnicity, environment, fiction, folklife, foodways, geography, government and public policy, industry and industrial workers, law, medicine, music, myths and representations, Native Americans, nonfiction, poetry, politics, the press, religion, social and economic history, sports, visual arts, and women. The associate editors suggested possible entries in those fields and in many cases wrote overview entries. Further suggestions came from numerous other sources, including authors, editors, colleagues, and friends. After the topics had been chosen, early managing editor Andrea Driver and subsequently associate editor Odie Lindsey worked with the editors to select and communicate with the authors and coordinate the nuts and bolts of the volume. Ultimately, more than six hundred authors contributed nearly fifteen hundred entries. Each of those entries was then reviewed by editors Ann Abadie, Charles Reagan Wilson, and Ted Ownby.

If there are perspectives that mark this work as being distinctive to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, they are an inclusive approach to the choice of people and topics, attention to cultural expression and cultural meaning, and scholarly concern for the present as well as the past. This project has been an ongoing part of life at the Center for more than a decade, and graduate students in the Southern Studies program contributed numerous entries, checked material, conducted research, and made suggestions.

County histories posed an intriguing challenge. Members of the project staff—primarily Southern Studies graduate students working under close supervision from the editors—wrote histories of each Mississippi county. We sought to provide similar information for all counties and, using the US Census as a starting point, to emphasize how populations and economies have changed.

James G. Thomas, Jr., associate director for publications at the Center and previously managing editor of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited text, gathered illustrations, managed contracts, and worked directly with the press on the book project. He and Becca Walton, the Center’s then associate director for projects, contributed to the print edition of The Mississippi Encyclopedia in numerous ways.

The University of Mississippi Law School and its dean, Samuel Davis, helped with the writing of law-related entries, and the university’s history department and its chairs, Robert Haws and Joe Ward, helped arrange to have some of their graduate students write entries.

This online version reprints all of the material in the print version of The Mississippi Encyclopedia, with some new additions. An online encyclopedia allows the editors and authors to keep up with Mississippians as they write new books, make new music, pass new laws, move into and out of the state, and modify their views. The online encyclopedia updates a number of entries, with material about new books, prizes, elections, deaths, and many other topics. It adds numerous bibliographic references and new illustrations, and it also allows us to correct a few errors readers found in the print version. An online version allows the Center for the Study of Southern Culture to add new entries, both topics we might have included in the print version and topics that become newly significant. Finally, this online version will include a few original documentary short films, produced by students working with the University of Mississippi’s Southern Documentary Projects, that allow encyclopedia topics to speak for themselves. Readers can look for new films in the future.

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The Mississippi Encyclopedia began with suggestions from Seetha Srinivasan at the University Press of Mississippi. Former University of Mississippi chancellor Robert Khayat and his chief of staff, Andy Mullins, energetically supported the idea, and Charles Reagan Wilson, Ann Abadie, and Ted Ownby of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture became involved in 2003. Both the dean of the university’s College of Liberal Arts, Glenn Hopkins, and the university’s new chancellor, Dan Jones, backed the project, as did their successors Dean Lee Cohen and Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter.

At the University Press of Mississippi, Press former director Leila Salisbury supported the project with great enthusiasm, and Craig Gill has set high standards and offered encouragement for more than a decade, first as the press’s assistant director and editor in chief and now as its director. On the editorial side, Anne Stascavage, Katie Keene, and Shane Gong Stewart have made significant contributions, and copyeditor Ellen Goldlust caught last-minute errors and improved awkward sentences.

The online version of The Mississippi Encyclopedia is a partnership between the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and the Mississippi Humanities Council, whose executive director, Stuart Rockoff, championed the project and arranged for its funding. Thanks to Randal Rust for his technical expertise. The Humanities Council helped support numerous Mississippi Encyclopedia events throughout the state, encouraging use, discussion, and possibilities for revision. James G. Thomas, Jr. has taken an especially significant role in the online encyclopedia, and Southern Studies graduate students Holly Robinson and Chelsea Wright Loper have contributed as part of their assistantship work. Thanks to colleagues in Archives and Special Collections in the J. D. Williams Library for their help in identifying new illustrations and making them available.

The original project began with an appropriation from the Mississippi legislature. Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mississippi Humanities Council, and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History helped sustain the project, as did funding from the University of Mississippi’s College of Liberal Arts. We have benefited greatly from the assistance of Mississippi Department of Archives and History directors Elbert Hilliard, Hank Holmes, and Katie Blount and Mississippi Humanities Council directors Barbara Carpenter and Stuart Rockoff. We are also grateful for the ideas and feedback we received from discussions about the Mississippi Encyclopedia at meetings of the Mississippi Historical Society and the Mississippi Library Association.

Members of the Advisory Committee of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture have supported the project both financially and in other ways. Thanks especially to Lynn and Stewart Gammill for their generous support for the project. We extend our gratitude to the Henry Brevard Family, Michelle Hyver Oakes, and John Sewell as well. Other Center friends who provided support include Nancy Ashley, Elizabeth Hollingsworth, Mary Lucia Holloway, Toni James, Albert and Eugenia Lamar, Keith Dockery McLean, Carol Puckett, Jack Rice, Elaine Scott, and Gerald Walton. At the Center, Sarah Dixon Pegues took care of financial issues.

We thank the family, friends, and students who have for years listened to us talk, think, and worry about this project. We also thank the readers who read closely and alerted us to possible corrections and new ideas. Above all, we express our gratitude to the authors and editors who have contributed to this encyclopedia.

The image of Mississippi we use for this book and online project comes from a plate designed by Roger Sturdivant in his glass studio in Florence, Mississippi.