Experiencing the loss of a sibling for the first time after his sister—one of nine siblings—recently passed away following a heart attack, Roscoe Barnes III prayed to his Lord for some good news, anything to lift his spirits. On Nov. 17, 2022, he checked his email and came across a message from Dr. Stuart Rockoff with the Mississippi Humanities Council.
“Roscoe, I am very excited to inform you that the Council has chosen you to receive our 2023 Humanities Partner Award!” the email began. “You will be recognized at our 2023 Public Humanities Awards Gala, to be held Friday, March 24th, at the Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson.”
Barnes had to reread the email before the news finally registered with his brain. Immediately, surprise and gratitude overwhelmed him so much that he burst into healing, joyful tears.
“I had no idea that that type of recognition would be given to me,” Barnes told the Mississippi Free Press. “I just felt so grateful because somebody appreciates the work that I’m doing.”
The Humanities Partner Award honors a person or organization that has worked with the council to broaden its scope and reach new audiences. Barnes, a cultural heritage tourism manager for Visit Natchez, will receive the 2023 award for his work in helping the Mississippi Humanities Council reach new organizations in Natchez and in supporting efforts to preserve Natchez’s Black history.
“It’s a bit of encouragement. It lets you know that you are not forgotten, that the work you’re doing matters, that somewhere, somehow the work you’re doing is having an impact,” Barnes said. “People see it, people recognize it, and that hit me like a revelation.”
‘Reclaiming and Highlighting’
Since the 1990s, the Mississippi Humanities Council has recognized outstanding achievements with the Public Humanities Award, calling for nominations in their newsletters and website before convening and discussing the submitted names. Afterward, the council narrows down the list to a selection of recommendations that are sent to the executive committee, who votes to determine recipients.
“In each case, these folks have really gone above and beyond and truly fulfilled our philosophy of the humanities is for everyone,” Mississippi Humanities Council Executive Director Dr. Stuart Rockoff told the Mississippi Free Press.
Other award winners this year include Dr. Ebony Lumumba for the Humanities Educator Award; Dr. Rebecca Tuuri for the Humanities Scholar Award; Jeanne Luckett for the Cora Norman Award; and the Utica Institute Museum for the Reflecting Mississippi Award.
“Dr. (Ebony) Lumumba, who is the chair of the English department at Jackson State University, has done an extraordinary job of leading a book-discussion group at Parchman Prison and has led them through the works of the great writer, Jesmyn Ward,” Rockoff explained.
Due to its success, the book-discussion program will expand to two other prisons in the state with other scholars being brought in to lead the groups.
A former student of Booker T. Washington created The Utica Institute Museum in 1903 to educate rural Black Mississippians. The institute became part of Hinds Community College’s Utica campus 40 years ago, in an effort to reclaim and lift up its legacy.
“They’ve done a museum. They’ve done a speaker series and bunch of different activities to call attention to it. So for us, that is a wonderful example of reclaiming and highlighting an important part of our state’s history that for too many Mississippians was unknown,” Rockoff said.
Dr. Rebecca Tuuri, an associate professor of history at University of Southern Mississippi, has served as a scholar for the Council’s traveling Smithsonian exhibit about democracy in America. Tuuri discusses the importance of civil-rights history and how the struggle for voting rights played out in those communities she visits.
Jeanne Luckett is the person behind many different exhibits highlighting Mississippi’s history and culture such as those of Medgar and Myrlie Evers at the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, one celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides and displays at the International Museum of Muslim Cultures.
Lifting Up Black History in Natchez
Rockoff met Roscoe Barnes during the Mississippi Writers Trail marker unveiling for Anne Moody in Centreville. Rockoff began talking to him and learned the work he was doing with Moody’s seminal memoir, “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” at the Wilkinson County Correctional Complex. Barnes worked at the correctional facility as a chaplain during a time when the council was becoming involved in prison-education efforts.
“I heard that he was getting ready to take a position at Visit Natchez, so we said, OK, this is someone that could be a really great partner,’ and from the moment he landed in Natchez, he’s been extraordinary for us,” Rockoff said.
Barnes wrote at least six different MHC grants connected to organizations like the Dr. John Banks House, the Rhythm Night Club Memorial Museum and the Natchez Museum of African American HIstory and Culture. Rockoff said the tourism manager has been key in helping to lift up really important aspects of African American history in Natchez.
“He helped connect us with the leadership at Wilkinson County Correctional Facility,” Rockoff explained. “We just celebrated the ending of the first semester of four credit courses, which Southwest Mississippi Community College taught there, that we funded. And so that’s another after-effect of Dr. Barnes.”
Barnes said this award makes it clear that Mississippians’ stories are being told, that people of color are being recognized, that history is being made and honored.
“Sometimes, we are criticized by certain people. Sometimes, you hear people saying that not enough is being done or little is being done to tell other stories, to tell the stories of African Americans, … but this award makes it clear to me that efforts are being made to tell the full history of Natchez, “ the cultural tourism manager said.
‘Change Is Happening’
The 2023 MHC Public Humanities Award ceremony will take place on March 24, 2023, at the Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson. Executive Director Stuart Rockoff said a reception will proceed the program recognizing recipients and offer food, drink and music.
Barnes said that a number of friends and colleagues have informed him that they will attend the ceremony to support him and that he is still getting used to accolades of this nature and shares credit for his accomplishments.
“None of my work, none of the achievements, would be possible without the support of the Visit Natchez team, our partners, and the support of Dr. Rockoff and his staff,” he said.
“I do what I do with passion,” Barnes said. “I do it out of love. I do it out of concern. I do it because it’s required of me, and I’m driven. I love making history. … I’ve been blessed to be creative, and as someone who is creative, I never run out of ideas.”
Rockoff wants people to understand that others across the state are doing important work to move Mississippi forward as well—by wrestling with our challenging past, facing the truth and building connections.
“We should embrace our past no matter how dark, no matter how ugly, but we should also be willing to affect change,” Barnes said. “Change is not only possible, but change is happening. It’s happening. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we have to admit that we have had some accomplishments. (But) we still have work to do.”
The 2023 MHC Public Humanities Award Ceremony will be on March 24, 2023, at the Two Mississippi Museums at 5:30 p.m. To learn more about the Mississippi Humanities Council, visit mshumanities.org. Purchase tickets to the ceremony here.