M. B. Mayfield, a Northeast Mississippi folk artist, was probably the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, although he never registered there. He is significant for his art, for unofficially integrating the school, and for a life in which he overcame segregation and stereotype without openly fighting them. He used his art and gentle personality as tools for achieving his goals in a hostile world.
Mayfield (M. B. was his full name) was born on 26 April 1923 in Ecru, Mississippi, a small town near Pontotoc. His father died before the boy turned three, and his mother, Ella Tabitha Judon, raised him and his eleven brothers and sisters, many of whom did not live to adulthood. He had a twin brother, L. D. The Mayfield family owned a farm of about one hundred acres on which they raised cotton. Mayfield began drawing as a child. He attended a one-room schoolhouse in Ecru through eighth grade but had no further formal education.
As a teenager, Mayfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his father and five siblings, so he took the diagnosis as a death sentence. He was bedridden for eight years and became depressed and introverted, but he began to paint, using a watercolor set his mother purchased. As he recovered toward the end of that period, Mayfield began to sculpt, using native clay he dug and mixed. He made large heads of famous people, including Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and boxer Joe Louis.
Mayfield’s mother displayed the Louis head on the family’s front porch, which faced a major highway. One passer-by who took a keen interest was Stuart Purser, the chair of the new art department at the University of Mississippi. Purser spoke with Mayfield’s mother, looked at more of the young man’s work, and in June 1949 offered him a job as janitor. Mayfield accepted. Purser gave Mayfield some oil paints and supplies and the bus fare to Oxford, and he began work in October 1949.
After Mayfield finished his chores each day, he would retire to a broom closet off Purser’s classroom. With the door ajar and an easel set up, Mayfield would listen to the lectures and complete the assignments just as the official students did. The other students gave him encouragement, supplies, and sometimes friendship. The shy Mayfield enjoyed working in the closet, which he called “my little private one-student classroom.” Years later, he painted a picture of himself painting in the classroom closet. That and other images from youth and childhood, including his father’s funeral, became the principal subject of his art. He called these depictions “memory scenes.” He also painted fine landscapes, portraits, and still lifes.
Mayfield worked and painted at the university for two and a half years. During that time, students and townspeople (including William Faulkner) raised money to send him to the Art Institute of Chicago to see a Van Gogh show. After Purser left the department, Mayfield briefly moved back to Ecru before returning to the university in 1954 under the art department’s new chair. However, Mayfield’s mother became ill, and he left Oxford to care for her.
After a short period in Wisconsin, he moved to Memphis in 1958 to take another art-related janitorial job, this time at the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery (later Memphis Brooks Museum of Art). Mayfield worked there for twelve years and threw himself back into painting. He had a one-man exhibition at the gallery and won first prize in the amateur division of an art competition. Mayfield left that job to buy a house in Ecru and paint full time with the help of an agent who sold his work. The Pontotoc Historical Society featured an exhibition of his work. The University of Mississippi also hosted a Mayfield exhibition and has several of his paintings in its museum collection. In 1987 he wrote a short autobiography, The Baby Who Crawled Backwards, which he self-published in 2004. Other autobiographical pieces remain unpublished.
Mayfield died of a heart attack on 3 June 2005 in Ecru. Although proud of his artistic abilities, Mayfield shunned the spotlight and did not enjoy parties or large gatherings, even in his honor. He dismissed the idea that he had integrated the University of Mississippi. Speaking of James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first African American to register as a student at the university, Mayfield said, “I didn’t accomplish the things he did. He was the one who took the punishment.” The two men never met.
- Bryan Doyle, Daily Mississippian (8 June 2005)
- M. B. Mayfield, interview by Steve Cheseborough (February and April 1998)
- David Magee, The Education of Mr. Mayfield: An Unusual Story of Social Change at Ole Miss (2009)
- Jennifer Southall, Southern Register (Winter 2004)
- Neta Gooch Stringer, interview by Steve Cheseborough (April 1998)