UM Confederate Cemetery Rendering
The University of Mississippi finally got the green light on June 18, 2020, to move its rebel-soldier monument from the middle of campus to its near-barren Confederate Cemetery. Then, supporters of the move saw this rendering of UM's $1.15-million "cemetery enhancement" strategy, and controversy erupted. Rendering: University of Mississippi

The Past Isn’t Dead: UM’s Winding Road to a Fight Over a Statue and a Cemetery

OXFORD, Miss.—Swaths of chain-link fence with privacy covers now surround the rebel-soldier monument at the Lyceum in the center of the University of Mississippi campus, as well as the front of the  Confederate cemetery behind the Tad Smith Coliseum. Small groups of security personnel and campus police are together providing perimeter security since the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning voted on June 18 to move the rebel-soldier statue to the cemetery where at least 350 Confederate soldiers are buried in unmarked graves.

Amid uncertainty over funding, the cemetery already shows signs of construction underway on the cemetery to ready it for what will clearly be its main attraction—a 30-foot-tall Confederate soldier that many students, faculty and alumni have fought for approximately five years to relocate, with removal efforts beginning in earnest in early 2019. IHL boardbooks for June 18, 2020, show that it approved two companies to undertake the relocation plans—structural engineer W. Mark Watson and McCarty King Construction Company. Both companies are based in Tupelo and declined comment.

Despite signs that the relocation plans are moving ahead, a little-known strategy to create what many critics disparage as a “shrine” to the Confederacy in the cemetery, centered with the 114-year-old statue, is still roiling the north Mississippi state university 22 days after the close-held renovation plans and renderings went public just as IHL approved the relocation.

Since then, more than 150 faculty members from departments across the university have published open letters detailing their opposition to the cemetery renovation, and the Department of History is keeping a running list of entities who have spoken out against the plans.


UM cemetery protest
On June 20, 2020, students at the University of Mississippi marched around the Tad Smith Coliseum next to the old Confederate cemetery they fear will become a new shrine based on UM renderings. Photo by Paul Gandy

“We unequivocally oppose plans to renovate the Confederate cemetery and add headstones, actions that would distort the historical record and bind the University to its racist past rather than moving it forward,” 26 non-administrative faculty members of the School of Journalism and New Media wrote.

Opponents of the “shrine” plan want answers about just who turned their hard-fought victory to move the statue into an inviting, landscaped alternative space that could celebrate the “heritage” of the Confederacy even more dramatically than the statue that long greeted visitors to campus. A Mississippi Free Press investigation, published June 23, unveiled machinations of a “cemetery committee” that started meeting in early 2018 with at least one of the members pushing for upgrades including headstones for the soldiers there, although the graves are unmarked.

That report whetted the critics’ appetite to know more about how the plan quietly came about, who raised money for them and who pushed the “shrine” plan. More details have now emerged.

‘The Sensitive Nature of the Request’

In a June 9, 2020, letter to IHL, University of Mississippi Chancellor Glenn Boyce asked the board to add an agenda item to its June 17-18 meeting—the long-sought and delayed approval “to relocate a historic monument to the University Cemetery, to a more suitable location on campus,” he wrote about the Confederate Cemetery. U.S. Civil War soldiers were also interred there originally, but the federal government moved some of their remains in 1867, and friends and family claimed others within the same decade.

“Due to the sensitive nature of the request, I respectfully request that the item be added to the June agenda,” Boyce ended his letter of June 9.

Glenn Boyce
University of Chancellor Glenn Boyce asked IHL to vote on the statue relocation and cemetery enhancement plans at its June meeting. The renderings were not released publicly in advance. Photo: UM

As of that day, most students working for the state’s relocation to a seldom-visited and barren cemetery behind the Tad Pad had no idea that the removal was also already tied operationally and financially to the creation of a park with lighting, brick pathways and gardens that many now call a “glorification” of the Confederacy with the relocated statue as the main attraction for visitors. Some critics point out that the cemetery would be in full view of the facility where UM football players, many of them Black, practice.

But it wasn’t a new plan, or a cheap one. By the afternoon of the day IHL voted to approve the $1.15 million relocation and renovation plan, Vice Chancellor for Development Charlotte Parks sent out a letter from UM Campaign Planning Committee Chairman Jim Barksdale to fellow “Ole Miss alumni leaders, donors and friends.” In the letter that sources provided to the Mississippi Free Press, Barksdale asked recipients to “financially support this initiative” now that it had IHL’s go-ahead.

“We already have a $100,000 commitment, and I am asking you to consider a lead gift,” Barksdale wrote. “The total cost of relocating the statue, as well as providing necessary improvements and repairs to the existing cemetery, will be between $900,000 and $1.2 million.”

The 156-page proposal IHL approved the same day the university sent out that email said private funds would pay to ensure “that the University Cemetery will serve as a respected site for the Confederate Monument on the UM campus.”

“As one can see in the included renderings, the Confederate Monument will be accessible by a newly laid brick path surrounded by trees and enhanced with lighting,” the proposal to IHL explained. “Security cameras will be added in and around the University Cemetery to allow for continuous monitoring by the University Police Department. Within the walls of the cemetery, new headstones will be added to offer remembrance for the souls buried on the grounds along with a stone path to the existing marker in the cemetery.”

Ole Miss Monument Relocation Pledge Form
The “Ole Miss Monument Relocation or Cemetery Enhancement Pledge Form” gives a donors a choice between donating to one or both. The UM Foundation sent it out with a fundraising letter from alumnus Jim Barksdale right after IHL passed the proposal on June 18, 2020.

The university attached an “Ole Miss Relocation or Cemetery Enhancement Pledge Form” to Barksdale’s funding appeal. The form allows the donor to specify whether their gift is for “Monument Relocation” or “Cemetery Enhancement” and asks permission for including the donor’s name on UM foundation and development websites, a crowdfunding Ignite Donor Wall, in a university press release or in “feature stories funding the relocation.”

After the renderings went public on June 18, creating a loud pushback from students and faculty, sources associated with the university indicated that the private funding efforts for the $1.15 million could be paused.

Before the Mississippi Free Press received a copy of the fundraising appeal, a different source said that the people charged with raising money for these plans felt misled and that the donors who would eventually foot the bill did not know specifics of the enhancement plans connected to the relocation.

On July 10, after this story appeared on July 9, Barksdale called the Mississippi Free Press to say that he jumped the gun on agreeing to sign the fundraising appeal and has told Chancellor Boyce that he will not raise any more funds until he’s confident that he agrees with the plans, laying out what he would accept in this follow-up story.

“I was so excited that we’d finally gotten an agreement to remove the statue from the front of the circle there at Ole Miss,” he said. “I’d always regretted that it was there, and I don’t want to go into all that, but it was a happy day that we’d finally got this vote from the IHL. We’d been waiting on it for months. So I said, yes, I will sign it. So I did.”

During the phone interview, Barksdale said he saw the artist’s rendering of relocation grounds for the first time Friday, June 19. The two renderings are included at the very end of the 156-page report and proposal to IHL.

Upon seeing the renderings, “I immediately called Charlotte,” Barksdale said, “and I said ‘Charlotte, has my letter gone out?’ She said yeah, she’d sent it out. I said, well, please send them another—we need to stand down on this. I don’t like this embellishment of the cemetery. Just for the statue. All these markers and everything—it was way overdone, I thought.”

He also said during the interview that he had not seen the pledge form listing both the relocation and the enhancement donation options, but called back later to say that he had likely seen it before his fundraising appeal went out.

A Fight Over Headstones and Avoiding a ‘Minority Report’

A trail of documents show that the efforts to renovate the cemetery started as far back as April 2017, less than a year after then-Chancellor Jeff Vitter formed the now-defunct Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context, or CACHC, in order to properly and accurately contextualize historical sites on the University of Mississippi campus, including multiple memorials to the Confederacy and its soldiers and leaders, including slave owners.

Amid the immediate roar of disapproval over the cemetery plans that emerged on June 18 and the subsequent Mississippi Free Press story revealing more about the under-the-radar cemetery committee, Chancellor Boyce pointed a finger at the CACHC members, indicating that they were behind the renovation plan. But eight of its original 14 members quickly released a statement clarifying that the committee as a whole was not responsible for formulating or pushing any plans related to monument relocation.

Ole Miss Confederate Cemetery
The plan to place headstones in the Confederate Cemetery emerged in 2017 inside a committee then-Chancellor Jeff Vitter charged with developed a unanimous plan for contextualizing historic sites on campus with historic plaques, including its various Confederate-named buildings and memorials. But committee members pushed back. Photo by Donna Ladd

“We did not tie our work in any way whatsoever to the Confederate monument or its relocation,” the CACHC statement clarified. “ … “We were, in short, instructed not to make any recommendations concerning the Confederate monument. As a result, any recommendations we did make were in no way linked to the Confederate monument.”

Besides, the committee members wrote, the specific cemetery plans unveiled on June 18, 2020, came much later. “Moreover, because widespread demands on campus for (the statue’s) relocation—to the University’s cemetery or anywhere else—were not made until spring 2019, more than 18 months after the CACHC had been dissolved, our work was not designed to be tethered to any relocation plans,” the letter stated.

So how did the much-maligned cemetery renovation plans come about?

A key component of the cemetery plan indeed emerged in 2017 while the CACHC was still meeting and several months before then-Chancellor Jeff Vitter released his final report. Committee documents and emails show that long-time trial attorney and UM graduate Don Barrett suggested that the university sponsor an effort to add headstones to honor the Confederate soldiers buried there. He believed the U.S. National Cemetery Administration should provide the headstones at no cost to the university.

The cemetery never had headstones, UM Civil War historian April Holm told the Mississippi Free Press. “During the Civil War, the graves were marked with wooden boards that were lost to the elements before the end of the 19th century,” she explained. “Sources suggest these were simply carved with a number that once corresponded to a ledger, long since lost.”

Another member, Chuck Ross, suggested that the committee recommend that UM also honor U.S. Colored Troops from Lafayette County who fought with the United States during the Civil War.

Don Barrett
University of Mississippi graduate and trial attorney Don Barrett has emerged as a strong force behind placing headstones in UM’s Confederate Cemetery despite barriers. His idea was central to the “cemetery enhancement” strategy IHL adopted June 18, 2020. Photo: Barrett Law Firm

Other CACHC members did not embrace Barrett’s plan, seeing it as outside of the committee’s scope and mission of identifying and contextualizing all relevant sites on the University of Mississippi campus. But he was insistent, documents show, even indicating later he would submit a “minority report” on the committee’s work if the headstones were not part of the committee’s final report and saying in email, “I will express my specific objections in writing in the form of a minority report, being acutely aware that I have been a minority of one on all votes thus far.” Still, the possibility of Barrett speaking out publicly against CACHC’s other efforts put pressure on the group because the chancellor wanted it to produce unanimous recommendations.

During this time, the machinations regarding Barrett’s headstone plan were not public. Vitter’s final CACHC report, released July 6, 2017, mentioned that “a committee member” had approached him “concerning a potential project to contextualize the University Cemetery by placing headstones recognizing the Confederate dead in the University’s cemetery.” The full committee did end up recommending the headstone plan, Vitter’s report says. But because the public did not know that the cemetery was included in the CACHC’s scope, the headstone plan is relegated near the end of the report in “further recommendations,” alongside a recommendation about creating a marker for the U.S. Colored Troops. Barrett had wanted it closer to the front, committee sources say.

Vitter wrote that the committee had decided that adding the headstones and a USCT marker would “involve students, faculty, and community members researching and working together.” The result, the report said, would “not only promote reconciliation and healing but also inspire historical curiosity, inquiry, and reflection about the University’s many constituencies.”

“Such an effort is consonant with other campus efforts to contextualize the institution’s racist past,” the chancellor’s report added.

CACHC member John Neff, the recently deceased UM history professor, had offered a more nuanced summary of the headstones issue, though, when he emailed the full committee June 7, 2017, about debates over contextualization choices—basically whether to soften the description of former Confederates and white supremacists. He summarized the cemetery controversy later in the message.

“As to the cemetery markers/USCT marker, these were an offer made to the committee by Don Barrett,” Neff wrote. “Don presented the first idea, amended by Chuck Ross, as a way of gaining the value of a unanimous report to the Chancellor. In retrospect, it was presumptuous for the quorum of the committee present to vote and accept this offer on behalf of the whole. Too many were absent for us to have taken a binding vote on that issue, to accept the ‘deal’ on behalf of all.”

The CACHC report did not mention the additional renovation plans such as walkways and lighting for the cemetery that emerged publicly this year on June 18. The details of that plan were likely still ahead when Vitter’s report saw daylight in July 2017 with talk of the headstones buried near the back.

Asking the U.S., and a Senator, for Confederate Headstones

By February 2018, Chancellor Vitter had formed a smaller Working Group for the Cemetery Headstone Project to discuss strategies for the cemetery enhancement itself, including the headstone recommendation. Three CACHC members were also on the “cemetery committee”—Barrett, Andy Mullins and John Neff. An agenda from what is believed to be its first meeting, on Feb. 27, 2018, shows that other men on the committee were Leon Collins, Walton Gresham and Will Lewis. Barrett and Neff were co-chairs. A source close to the CACHC told the Mississippi Free Press that no formal announcement followed the formation of the cemetery committee. The university quietly published a webpage dedicated to the committee, which listed the Work Group for the Cemetery Headstone Project for the first time on July 20, 2018.

U.S. Sen Roger Wicker
U.S. Sen Roger Wicker’s office was integral to early conversations in 2018 about ways to get around historic blocks to placing headstones in UM’s Confederate cemetery. Photo: U.S. Senate

Emails of cemetery-committee members display the ways in which these deals have coursed forward through back rooms, gaining traction in the dark after facing resistance in the daylight.  Over ensuing months, headstone supporters started working to build powerful support, including in U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker’s office.

On April 9, 2018, Sara Amy Leach, a senior historian for the National Cemetery Administration (which Barrett wanted to provide the headstones) responded to a request from U.S. Under Secretary of Memorial Affairs Randy C. Reeves at the behest of Sen. Wicker, a graduate of UM and then its law school. She told cemetery committee Co-chair Neff in an email that “the University needs to undertake substantial primary research to identify the individuals and gravesites before it would be prepared to formally apply to NCA for headstone benefits.” Then she spelled out specific research tasks required.

Barrett and fellow committee member Will Lewis then wrote to James Mazol of U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker’s office on April 12, 2018, objecting to Leach’s response. They were especially opposed to her warning that the NCA would need “evidence that each individual was interred in an identified grave in the cemetery” in order to get government-issued headstones.

“The University wants to honor those buried there, and it is of no importance whatsoever to the University, nor will it be to the many alumni and citizens of our state, that the precise spot of each individual buried in the cemetery is unknowable,” the men wrote to Wicker’s aide. They called Leach’s insistence of UM providing evidence that the interred had not been removed in the 100+ years since initial burial “unfair,” saying she was insisting on “impossible requirements.”

“It matters not one bit that the headstone of a particular soldier may not be over the exact spot that his body was placed,” Barrett and Lewis wrote, then asking that Wicker step in and waive the NCA regulations that block the headstone plan.

That assertion is anathema to the scores of UM academics who have signed statements in recent weeks against the plans to renovate the cemetery and add headstones. “Headstone names could never be accurate. We have limited knowledge about which soldiers were buried in the cemetery and which remain there, and we know even less about where on the site they were laid to rest,” the June 22 statement by all U.S. historians at UM stated.

“The documents we would need to do this work simply do not exist,” the historians continued. “We have no way to accurately identify the occupants of the cemetery, let alone determine their location on the grounds. It would be disrespectful to the dead to install inaccurate headstones. Placing a headstone with one soldier’s name on it above the remains of an entirely different person (whose identity can never be known) would be a poor tribute to either one of them.”

“Ideally, we believe this monument should be removed from campus entirely, given its explicitly white supremacist origins. But if it remains on campus, it should not be glorified and the university should make it clear that it rejects the racist and hateful ideology this monument represents.”

Still, the cemetery committee received a draft of a letter of agreement between UM and the NCA on June 13, 2018. If the NCA and university together came to the conclusion that it was impossible to identify all graves, the draft said, “both organizations agree to work together to identify a mutually agreeable way to memorialize the remaining gravesites, including seeking amendments to legislative or regulatory authorities where needed.”

A subsequent draft wanted the NCA and UM to work together in “identifying all decedents as well as documentation of service to satisfy memorialization eligibility.” If they could not find all the evidence, they would agree to “work collaboratively to find a mutually agreeable way to memorialize the remaining gravesites.”

UM cemetery rendering
The second rendering in the proposal for IHL on June 18, 2020, showed an aerial view of what the new, enhanced Confederate Cemetery could look like with the relocated rebel-soldier statue as its main attraction. Rendering: UM

On Sept. 17, 2018, Deputy Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs of the NCA Ronald E. Walters wrote Sen. Wicker and copied Chancellor Vitter, saying that as UM finds records confirming individual Confederate soldiers’ eligibility for U.S. memorial benefits, “NCA is prepared to assist with memorializing those individuals in a manner consistent with federal historic preservation requirements and VA authority.”

For the next year, available documents show that the committee’s headstone efforts were focused on trying to identify individual graves and the viability of Barrett’s headstone plan. Then, on Sept. 6, 2019, science threw a curveball at the strategy.

UM archaeologists Tony Boudreaux and Stephen Miller did a magnetic gradiometer survey, which showed it would be impossible to locate the exact positions of soldiers resting in the cemetery, rendering adding individual markers an ahistorical act. The survey identified 19 rows of burials. They concluded that it might be possible to mark all the rows, but added that it likely would not be “feasible to accurately mark the locations of all individual graves….”

Ten days later, the university would be rocked with scandal after large donor and graduate Ed Meek posted Facebook photos of Black women immediately deemed racist, leading to the removal of his name from the School of Journalism. Weeks later, Chancellor Vitter resigned, and Glenn Boyce took that position amid protests and controversy after a non-transparent IHL selection process.

Then on Jan. 30, 2020, Professor Neff, the co-chair of the cemetery committee alongside Barrett, died. That’s when the power dynamics shifted, sources say.

Don Barrett: ‘A Minority of One’ on Confederate Memorials

On June 23, the Mississippi Free Press revealed that the cemetery committee had undergone a shift in power that a source close to the committee said resulted in a “shrine”-like renovation plan following the death of Neff earlier this year. Neff’s death left the statue relocation plans more squarely in the hands of the other co-chair, John W. “Don” Barrett, a Lexington trial attorney who did very well taking on the tobacco industry 22 years ago. A graduate of UM and its law school has long invested in his deep interest in preserving American Civil War iconography and history. Barrett has been intimately involved with the University of Mississippi for the last several decades and is a voting member of the Board of Directors for the University of Mississippi Foundation.

Reached by phone and text, Barrett has so far declined an interview about his role in either the CACHC contextualization or the cemetery committee’s work.

Barrett’s profound interest in the Confederacy and the South’s role in the Civil War clearly stems from his own family’s history, as he explained to The New York Times Magazine when he was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Mississippi in 1963. His ancestors came to Mississippi from Virginia and then South Carolina, following the southern migration planters followed then. He was proud of his family during the Confederacy, telling a story to the Times of his great-grandmother giving $80,000 to the Confederate Army after U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant used her plantation, Newstead, during the Vicksburg campaign, leaving it ransacked and destroyed.

“That’s the kind of heritage I come from—and I’m proud of it,” Barrett said in 1963.

Barrett has contributed to these interests in various ways including his donation of $100,000 to the Harry Owens Civil War Library at the University of Mississippi. Barrett has also worked to preserve Civil War Battlefields through his partnership with the American Battlefield Trust. The attorney was involved in the efforts to place a marker on the Gettysburg Battlefield to honor the service of the 11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment. He also participated in the restoration of missing headstones of 121 Confederate soldiers in Wesley Chapel Cemetery near Castalian Springs In Holmes County, where he grew up.

To conclude his request to Sen. Wicker about circumventing the NCA’s headstone regulations, Barrett even quoted Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who became a Ku Klux Klan leader during Reconstruction, which arose soon after the South lost the Civil War to terrorize Black people and fight to dismantle Reconstruction efforts. “General Forrest once said that artillery ‘was made to be captured,’” Barrett wrote to Wicker. “Well, these kinds of rules and regulations, which would yield such an unfortunate result in this case, are ‘made to be waived’ in an appropriate situation, such as the one before us concerning the University’s Confederate dead.”

Emails from Barrett to the CACHC display the divisions between himself and the rest of the committee, including on how to provide historic context to the various memorials, including building names that pay homage to Confederates on campus. When discussing the text of the contextualization plaque the committee recommended be placed outside Lamar Hall, named for Secessionist Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II, Barrett was quick to speak for other UM alumni when saying to Neff: “Your draft does just what everybody agreed would not be done: you have injected your personal viewpoint into this. Jen said that these ‘contextualizations’ would be just a telling of the facts; instead you have made it into a political statement.”

The plaque, however, is a straightforward recitation of facts about Lamar, including the good, the bad and the racist.

“His 1874 eulogy for abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner made him a national figure in postwar sectional politics. Anxious Northerners, fearful of renewal of sectional conflict, seized upon his assurances of Southern fidelity. Lamar’s national prominence obscured the active role he played in dismantling Reconstruction in Mississippi to the detriment of the state’s African American citizens,” reads a portion of the contextualization plaque placed in front of Lamar Hall.

L.Q.C. Lamar
The plaque for Lamar Hall caused disagreement among CACHC members over whether it was too “political” to address the darker parts of former U.S. Sen. L.Q.C. Lamar’s past. He was a U.S. Supreme Court justice, a slave owner, an avowed white supremacist and helped lead Mississippi into secession. Photo: Library of Congress

The plaque could have made Lamar look worse. From Georgia, Lamar was a graduate of the UM law school, a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, the author of the Mississippi Ordinance of Secession and the owner of the Solitude plantation, and the enslaved people who worked it, in Lafayette County. He funded the 19th Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, and he worked to help end Reconstruction after it, as well as served on the U.S. Supreme Court. Lamar believed in “the supremacy of the unconquered and unconquerable Saxon race,” as he proclaimed in a speech in Aberdeen, Miss.

Barrett argued that CACHC’s language about Lamar—who both Lamar Boulevard in Oxford and Lamar Avenue in Memphis, as well as a Mississippi county and an Arkansas bathhouse are named after—went too far. “I should add that the political viewpoint expressed here is not even remotely close to the viewpoint of the vast majority of the alumni of our University,” Barrett wrote Neff then.

“L.Q.C. Lamar is rightly seen by most Mississippians as a hero, a model of reconciliation, and a model for future generations to emulate.”

Jefferson Davis Has Entered the Debate

What they see as Don Barrett’s glorification of the Confederacy has emerged as a factor for some of the critics of both his headstones plan and the full “cemetery enhancement” strategy for which the university rushed out financial appeals the day IHL passed it.

For instance, Professor Anne Twitty, an outspoken critic of the “shrine” plan who served on the CACHC, tweeted on July 5 that mail for the Jefferson Davis Foundation is “c/ o Don Barrett.” She added, “Now we should ask why @OleMissRebels thinks the head of the ‘Jefferson Davis Foundation’ deserved to be in the driver’s seat.” Davis was the president of the Confederacy.

A search of Mississippi secretary of state records shows that Barrett incorporated and served as president of the Jefferson Davis Foundation, which is also listed there as the Beauvoir Foundation, starting in October 2012. He incorporated it as a nonprofit foundation to raise and disperse funds for Beauvoir, Davis’ last home in Biloxi on the Gulf Coast.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, Mississippi Division, owns the museum and “presidential library,” maintains a Confederate cemetery there and sells controversial books like “The South Was Right” by James Ronald Kennedy and Walter Donald Kennedy, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “the bible of the neo-Confederate movement.”

“‘The South Was Right!’ passionately argues for a second Southern secession,” the SPLC describes. “It defends antebellum slavery, describing relations between slaves and their masters as ‘very close and mutually respectful.’ It pillories what it describes as the ‘Yankee myth of history.’”

SCV, known for revisionist takes on the South’s role in the Civil War and its members’ tendency to deny that the South fought the war to maintain and extend slavery, requests that the Mississippi governor declare every April “Confederate Heritage Month,” a proclamation that is often easier to find on the Beauvoir website or SCV’s social-media channels than on official state channels.

Barrett was on the board of Beauvoir in recent years, resigning in 2014. Fellow board member Ed Funchess resigned with Barrett, calling the problem “philosophical differences” over the financial future of Beauvoir. By 2015, State records show that Bertram Hayes-Davis, a descendant of Jefferson Davis, had taken over the foundation as president. In late 2019, Bertram-Davis dissolved the nonprofit Barrett had established in 2012.

Barrett’s Teenage Racism Haunts Cemetery Debate

Another Barrett critic sent the Mississippi Free Press the 1963 New York Times Magazine article, “A Southern Teen-ager Speaks His Mind,” to challenge the viability of Barrett’s position as co-chair of the Work Group for the Cemetery Headstone Project. He was the 18-year-old in the profile.

Roughly two weeks before the assasination of President John F. Kennedy, writer Margaret Long made the journey to Mississippi to cover desegregation efforts shaking up the racist foundation of the Magnolia State. In her Times article, Long noted the paradoxical expressions of the young, white people gathering to oppose a desegregated South. They both shared an alleged affection for their black neighbors, yet expressed an inveterate revulsion to them and any attempts to fight for equality.

Among the “harsh and hating faces” that initiated Long’s journey stood an enthusiastic Phi Delta Theta pledge at the University of Mississippi—Don Barrett. The teenager’s extensive comments to Long are derisive, racist talking points many bigots still use today—from supposed scientific inferiority, to white paternalism, to myths about “loose morals” and welfare mothers.

Don Barrett NY Times article 1963
A 1963 New York Times Magazine article has haunted UM graduate and donor Don Barrett, who expressed virulent racism to the reporter. He says now that his Christian faith turned him away from those views.

“I feel, as do most of the white population of the South, that the negro is inherently unequal,” said a young Barrett, who went on to tout the goodness of the white South for taking African slaves into their care. “The white South has taken the neegra, fed, clothed, taught them how to speak and wear clothes and taught him Christianity. Still, look at ‘em, their illegitimacy rate!” he said.

In the article, Barrett made sure to clarify his position on racial dynamics in Mississippi then. He uses his own family as an example, sloughing off the idea that Black people had left the South in part due to the deprivation and brutality they experienced under white rule. When speaking about his uncle, a cotton planter and head of the Lexington Citizens’ Council, and his relationship with the Black servants under his employ, Barrett dripped with the white-paternalism excuse often used to defend subjugation of Black people.

“That’s ridiculous. It’s economic,” he said then. “The negro definitely was necessary to farming 20 years ago. My uncle owns a plantation where he had 60 families chopping cotton, borrowing money, depending on him—you know, old-style sharecropping. Ten of the 15 left live there now because they love my uncle and they depend on him, although he needs just five of ‘em. But he gives them Saturday-night spending money and everything and he could say, ‘Fred, go up the hill and kill me a big snake,’ or ‘Go cut off your head,’ and Fred would do it,” he said about one of the sharecroppers.

“They don’t help him. They’re an economic liability. He supports 10 families out of love and loyalty.”

Long noted that Barrett “described Negro pleasure in Government ‘modities’—short for “commodities,” the surplus foods poor people of all races on welfare received then—and the willingness of “many, many, many” simply to collect relief and ‘’modities’ rather than work.” All the Negroes on the Barrett place “get real butter and cheese” from the welfare office, and “we use Oleo,” Barrett told her.

The student also shared his thoughts on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “March on Washington,” which had occurred that August. “It wasn’t any different from what I see Saturday night in Lexington when they come to town to get drunk and cut up, except they’re happier in Lexington,” Barrett answered.

He also said he and a friend had driven to Oxford to watch the riots of white people trying to block James Meredith from entering UM in 1962. He blamed then-Gov. Ross Barnett, whom he also said was a hero for his hardline segregationist views. Barnett should have “Issued a call to white males of Mississippi to stand firm at the gate,” the young man said, adding that had Barnett “called the Citizens Councils and other responsible citizens” in to block Meredith, “you’d have seen 600,000 men mustered at the gate. I know all of Holmes County would have come, except a couple of scalawags.”

Barrett certainly would’ve brought this gun and stood with them, he said: “Yes, ma’am!”

In the article, he mentioned multiple family members in the Citizens’ Council; one of its primary goals during that time was to brainwash young white people into fearing Black people and embracing segregation, even sponsoring essay contests with cash prizes for the best pieces teenagers wrote against integration.

When asked about the 1963 New York Times Magazine interview, Don Barrett pointed to Michael Orey’s book, “Assuming the Risk: The Mavericks, the Lawyers, and the Whistle-Blowers Who Beat Big Tobacco,” to prove that he changed this views over the years.

The Mississippi Free Press reached out to Barrett for an interview about the article, as well as his role in the cemetery plans. To date, he has not made himself available for an interview, but texted a response when told about The New York Times piece surfacing again.

“Read my account of that in Assuming the Risk, by Michael Orey. That was 57 years, ago, young man,” he texted to reporter Christian Middleton. “What I said then was stupid, and frankly incompatible with my Christian faith, which I came to as an adult. So I have long since repudiated what I said then. Also, I believe that ANY sort of racial animus is incompatible with Christ’s teaching. So I have long since (before you were born) repudiated any type of racial animus, too.”

The 1999 book, “Assuming the Risk: The Mavericks, The Lawyers, And The Whistle-Blowers Who Beat Big Tobacco,” is about trial lawyers who took on the tobacco industry in Mississippi resulting in large payouts for both plaintiffs and their attorneys. Michael Orey features Barrett in the book, who went from a 15-year-old who lit a cross in a Black family’s yard to becoming a trial attorney representing African Americans against large corporations.

His best-known case was suing big tobacco on behalf of a young Black man in Holmes County dying of lung cancer. Barrett has since recounted the case as being heartbreaking and angering him about big tobacco.

‘Remember Confederate Soldiers, But Not Honor Them’

With the explosion of opposition in recent weeks to the cemetery renovations and headstones, it is easy to assume that the possibility of some sort of Confederate glorification being added to the cemetery as the statue relocated there was not known. But, as documents show, leaders at the University of Mississippi, as well as some political players and prominent alumni, have known about the headstones and other possible enhancements—and had a clear knowledge of the wishes of a large portion of faculty, staff and students who supported movement of the statue to the cemetery, but who condemn its glorification.

Students at the University of Mississippi protested the controversial monument-relocation and cemetery-enhancement plan that is roiling the university community. Photo by Paul Gandy

The Mississippi Free Press obtained emails that exhibit the longstanding efforts of the university community to have the Confederate monument properly relocated. Correspondence between biology professor Brice Noonan, a member of the Faculty Senate, and Paul J. Caffera of the University Ombuds Office discussed the input of 115 people in March 2019, quoting the opposition to “glorification” in great detail.

“I believe that the Confederate statue at the center of campus should be relocated,” one person wrote. “I believe that we should remember the Confederate soldiers. But we should also remember the suffering and the pain that the cause they fought for perpetuated. We should remember Confederate soldiers, but not honor them. Honoring history is a choice, and we must not place the defenders of oppression on pedestals. We can do better, the University of Mississippi can do better.”

Another person wrote: “I almost didn’t come to this school because of the awful history that goes along with the University. Taking the statues down would be a giant statement that the current University leadership repudiates that history.”

The University of Mississippi Ombuds, who report directly to Chancellor Boyce per their charter agreement, are the agency responsible for providing neutral solutions to complaints, concerns, or any other issues regarding the University of Mississippi that faculty, staff or graduate students wish to safely communicate.

The university ombuds received these emails from a wide variety of faculty, staff, students, and administrators following a pro-Confederacy march on Oxford and a rally at the Confederate Statue at the Lyceum by Confederate 901 and The Hiwaymen. They came to campus in 2019 to protest UM’s efforts to resolve and contextualize its ties to the Confederacy and the discontinuation of the school mascot, Colonel Reb.

Put simply, the “past is never dead” battle over a proposed cemetery “shrine” is only the latest in a long war at a university built by slaves, which is gradually trying to leave that past behind.

Email Christian Middleton at [email protected] and Donna Ladd at [email protected]

Read the MFP’s investigations of the plan to relocate the Confederate statue and enhance the UM cemetery and coverage across the state as efforts to move Confederate statues and memorials grow. See an infographic of Confederate memorials in Mississippi and report missing ones to [email protected]

CORRECTION: The above story originally said that Professor John Neff died in February 2020. He died Jan. 30, 2020. Also, after the story published, UM Civil War historian April Holm reached out to explain that language used to promote the headstones that indicates that they are “replacing” original headstones is misleading. During the Civil War, she said, the graves were marked with boards and probably only numbered without names. The above text has been updated with that information.

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