Every summer since 1980, Mississippians and others have gathered in New York City’s Central Park to eat catfish and peach cobbler, listen to blues music, and celebrate and preserve Mississippi’s culture. The event began when several homesick Mississippians organized the New York Society for the Preservation of Mississippi Heritage to combat the negative misconceptions about each other possessed by southerners and New Yorkers. The picnic also provides Mississippians living in New York City the opportunity to meet one another and to celebrate their common heritage. From about five hundred attendees the first year, the picnic has grown to attract several thousand each summer and has become a reunion and recruiting event of sorts for alumni from various Mississippi colleges and universities.
Featuring many of the characteristics of a University of Mississippi tailgate party, the picnic begins around noon and lasts throughout the afternoon. Attendees can enjoy fried catfish, hushpuppies, and other Mississippi delicacies as they listen to musicians performing on stage and visit various booths promoting Mississippi cultural activities and tourism, some with the help of the Mississippi Development Authority. Various contests are held, with prizes awarded in such categories as best dessert and best hat and to the winner of the watermelon seed-spitting contest. The 2015 picnic celebrated the eightieth anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth with an Elvis look-alike contest.
The 2016 picnic was canceled after the legislature passed HB 1523, the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act, which some observers perceived as discriminatory. According to organizers, “For almost four decades, the Mississippi Picnic in Central Park has consistently celebrated the best of Mississippi, without regard to race, religion, or gender orientation. We took pride in sharing our rich heritage and diversity with the rest of the world through these annual gatherings. Any law such as HB 1523 that discriminates against even a single member of our community cannot be tolerated, and therefore we have decided to stand up for all Mississippians by canceling the 2016 picnic in the park.”
- Denise Gee, Southern Living (June 1998)
- New York Mississippi Society website, www.thenyms.com