When President Bill Clinton nominated William Ferris as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1997, the cultural scholar decided to attempt on the national stage what he had done in Mississippi.
As a founder of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, Ferris spent years allied with a far-flung school of revisionist scholars changing the idea of the South, giving the public a textured view of artistic, literary, and folk traditions to transcend the stigma of violent white supremacy. From a university better known for football—and the 1962 race riot in which two people died, and federal marshals escorted James Meredith as the first black student at Ole Miss—Ferris hosted a statewide blues radio show and organized publications and conferences that re-imagined the South. Then, too, in the easy manner of one homeboy to another, he persuaded B.B. King to donate his collection of blues records to the center’s archive.
The major feat came in 1989, weighing in at 1,634 pages, or the size of a small tom turkey: The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (University of North Carolina Press), which historian Charles Reagan Wilson, a colleague at Ole Miss, edited with Ferris.
“This is a big, serious and ambitious book that has the virtue of avoiding what might be called the Southern Living disease, in honor of that relentlessly cheerful magazine devoted to depicting the region as one endless festival of barbecue, boiled shrimp, football Saturdays, and good old Nashville music,” Howell Raines wrote in The New York Times Book Review. “To be sure, the encyclopedia makes its ritual bows to hog-killing and mamma’s biscuits, but there is intellectual spine to this work.”
The Encyclopedia explored a regional psyche in the cameos of story-tellers, politicians and less obvious myth-makers, ranging from quilters, bluesmen, and outsider artists to writers, photographers, and historians. One of its many essays, “The Mythic South,” ran 47 pages. The vision of a cultural tapestry was a far cry from H.L. Mencken’s “Sahara of the Bozart,” a scorching 1917 essay that gave a cracking backhand to the South, as he harrumphed, “When you come to critics, musical composers, painters, sculptors, architects, and the like, you will have to give it up, for there is not even a bad one between the Potomac mud-flats and the Gulf.”
As the idea of Faulkner and Elvis, Louis Armstrong and Flannery O’Connor, Ma Rainey and Huey Long sharing common cultural property took popular hold, Ferris used his position at NEH to launch a funding stream to develop regional centers that would explore “the land and its various inhabitants, connections that have influenced the country’s myths, ideas, artistic expressions, and politics. Americans’ sense of place in its rich and varied expression remains of vital importance as we move toward an increasingly multicultural society that is itself part of a larger global culture.”
Institutions that pursued Ferris’s agenda with Clinton-era NEH seed funds include Center for the Study of the Southwest at Texas State University, The Great Plains Center at University of Nebraska, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers University-Camden, and New Orleans Center for Study of the Gulf South at Tulane, among others.
After his NEH tenure, Ferris moved back south, to Chapel Hill as a professor of history at University of North Carolina and associate director of a southern studies center there. He resumed writing but with an autobiographical approach.
The South in Color: A Visual Journey, just published, is his third book in six years with UNC Press, each exploring a more personal South. Ferris began taking pictures when he got his first camera, for Christmas 1954, at age 12. “I worked with my camera in the South for more than six decades,” he writes. “I witnessed violent social change during the 1960s and 1970s. My photographs track race relations in the South, a region where racial hatred and violence refuse to disappear. As a child my understanding of race began on the farm where I grew up in rural Mississippi in the 1950s.”
The Ferris family farm outside of Vicksburg thrived well enough for William Sr. and Shelby Ferris to comfortably raise two sons and three daughters, who appear in photographs as buoyant teenagers. Billy, the eldest son, went off to a New England prep school before enrolling at Davidson, a small liberal arts college in North Carolina in 1960.
The civil rights movement invaded Ferris’s life in his undergraduate years at Davidson.
“Davidson was segregated,” Ferris recalled in a telephone interview with The Daily Beast. “Several of my friends and I began to organize a desegregation effort. We participated in civil rights meetings, both in the area and in places like Illinois. A lot of it was done through the YMCA. At one of the YMCA meetings I had an epiphany when I discovered Walker Evans’s photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I was stunned by the power of photography. Some were in Mississippi, in my hometown of Vicksburg. It made me realize that these beautiful, moving images were done in the world I had grown up in and where I was headed. The camera became my way of exploring the unknown and the forbidden, breaking through the barriers of the South.”
“These early photographs are in some way obliquely and in other ways directly shaped by those experiences in the early ’60s when the civil rights movement altered our lives in Mississippi.”
On a trip home during college, says the 74-year-old Ferris, “My siblings and I and several friends in Vicksburg met with COFO”—Council of Federated Organizations, a front line activist group. “The meeting was in the black Catholic Church. My father said, ‘Well, I’ll go with you.” Which for a white Mississippi farmer was most unusual. That first evening Bob Moses was there.”
Moses was a movement leader from Harlem. He had a Masters in Philosophy from Harvard and a legendary charisma. For several years Moses organized communities in south Mississippi, weathering arrests and death threats in some of the most violently resistant towns. He was a pivotal figure in organizing the demonstration at the 1964 Democratic National Convention of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, who challenged the all-white state delegation. This was deeply upsetting to President Lyndon Johnson (as depicted in Bryan Cranston’s memorable performance in the LBJ bio-pic, All the Way.)
“At one point in that church meeting,” continues Ferris, “Moses looked across the table at my father and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever had a civil conversation with a white Mississippian.’ At the time when I was trying to understand my own role in all of that, photography became a part of how to somehow deal with the complexities, and capture the life going on around me. It led to my career as a folklorist, recording and honoring and documenting traditions like those I grew up with. I felt others had been there ahead of me when I discovered Eudora Welty’s photography, and later the work of William Eggleston and William Christenberry, in the seventies.”
In the early ’70s, Ferris taught at Jackson State, an African-American university in the Mississippi capital. He moved from there to a faculty position at Yale but in the late ’70s decided to head back south, taking the position at Ole Miss. In 1978 he published his first major book, Blues from the Delta, which grew out of his dissertation in folklore at Penn. Meanwhile, the photographs and interviews that began with his focus on the folkways of rural Mississippians broadened through his academic encounters with writers like Ernest Gaines, Eudora Welty, historian C. Vann Woodward, photographers like Evans, William Eggleston and various Southern painters.
In his previous book, The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists (2013), Ferris distills the interviews into flowing monologues. In one of them, the novelist and man of letters Robert Penn Warren, who taught at Yale, remarks on “the difference between the South and the North. Nobody tells any tales up North. There is gossip. But no one just tells a tale for a tale’s sake.”
Did the former NEH chairman, now ensconced at Chapel Hill, share that view?
Ferris gave a mild chuckle. “There is a certain kind of story that Southerners tell, a genuine gift of the gab. Robert Penn Warren had it and loved to hear others tell a story. There’s something I feel when I’m in the South, a gut laughter that these stories evoke. It’s very rarely felt anywhere else, you hold your side you’re laughing so hard. When you look at the South and say what makes it different, story-telling is a part of that and a key for why you have this powerful literary tradition coming out of the South. These are writers who grew up listening to stories, and a sense of humor in the South in which tall tales are cultivated and inspire a writer to take that to a different level.”
In The South in Color: A Visual Journey, Ferris captures scenes of people at work, worship and in casual moments; many of the photographs from the ’60s and ’70s find people shy or uneasy before the lens, registering a great distance between the popular culture and ordinary people, a distance that has narrowed greatly in the age of Facebook, iPhones, and selfies.
The book is not a work of photo-journalism focused on riots, demonstrations, or news event. But the subtle message of the faces Ferris photographed tell their own story of unease, and comfort, in racial proximity. The African-American faces in these pages reveal degrees of ambivalence. Many of them smile for the lens of the young man they know. In images going back to the early ’60s, the eyes of white and black folk also betray intimations of suspicion, and harsh countenances, mingled with downhome geniality.
“In these photographs, each person rises like a phoenix and reawakens my earliest memories,” writes Ferris. “As a child on the first Sunday of each month, Mary Gordon took me to services at Rose Hill Church, where I learned traditional hymns and spirituals. Ten years later, I recorded, filmed and photographed those services.
“Childhood friendships on the farm shaped my understanding of race and my commitment to record both black and white people as a way to honor and preserve their history,” he writes. “When machines replaced mules as a means of farming, many families on the farm moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Aurora, Illinois, where they sought better lives. These photographs are my way of honoring them and the world in which they lived.”