On Sept. 21, 2018, Oxford and University of Mississippi community members flanked Meek School of Journalism and New Media Dean Will Norton as he denounced a Facebook post by Ed Meek, the school's top donor and namesake. The Mississippi Free Press examined emails that show that, at the time, Norton knew more than he publicly admitted about the circumstances surrounding the inflammatory post. Screencap courtesy University of Mississippi.

‘The Fabric is Torn in Oxford’: UM Officials Decried Racism Publicly, Coddled it Privately

The UM Emails
Part I
Part IIPart III

This is Part I of a three-part investigative package.

“Goddamn, this is literally like being in the Congo jungle,” prominent white Oxford, Miss., real-estate businessman and University of Mississippi athletics donor Blake Tartt III said. He was panning his phone’s video camera around the corner of Courthouse Square and Van Buren Avenue, filming young African American college students who were socializing after the University of Mississippi Rebels suffered a devastating loss to the University of Alabama.

The video, which Tartt shot shortly after midnight on Sept. 16, 2018, is one of many items that the Mississippi Free Press examined in a trove of university records that anonymous whistleblowers from a group called “Transparent Ole Miss” obtained through public-records requests and shared with this publication. The documents include thousands of pages of emails between university employees and wealthy donors whose financial support administrators coveted.

Multiple sources familiar with the university’s inner workings described an atmosphere of fear, intimidation and duplicity, in which administrators publicly speak to the future even as they actively work to keep the current generation of students’ desires for greater inclusivity at bay. Sources told the Mississippi Free Press both on the record and on background that some UM leaders are seeking to appease the older, whiter, wealthier alumni who pine for the University of Mississippi to return to the glory days of their youth—a time when all-white squads of UM cheerleaders carried Confederate banners onto the football field while the sounds of “Dixie” rang out among the elms, magnolias and oak trees in The Grove.

The records often speak to the fearful climate that the sources (who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal) described. Repeatedly, the emails show sexist, homophobic and racist remarks that went unchallenged in interpersonal communications—unless those remarks became a public-relations issue. 

In 2018, then-Meek School of Journalism and New Media Dean Will Norton denounced school alumnus, founding donor and namesake Ed Meek for an offensive Facebook post that featured images of tightly dressed Black women on The Square in Downtown Oxford. But days before Meek’s post, Norton had already received copies of the photos from Tartt, the white alumnus whose financial support the dean was actively seeking at the time. Tartt is an executive of the Houston, Texas-based business New Regional Planning, which also has an Oxford branch. 

In email correspondences on Sept.  16-17, 2018, Tartt complained to Norton about the abundance of Black revelers on Oxford Square.

‘Black Hookers Are Working on Jackson Avenue’

“You know Oxford and Ole Miss have real problems when Black hookers are working on Jackson Avenue. The African American visitors from other towns were competing for her affection. It made me sick,” Tartt, who was a member of the Meek School Board of Visitors at the time, wrote at 1:27 a.m. on Sept. 17.

Tartt’s emails to Dean Norton included the “Congo jungle” video and the two photos that Meek would later use in his now-infamous Facebook post. Norton, the son of a Christian missionary father, was born and spent part of his childhood in the Belgian Congo. But in the email exchanges, he did not rebuff Tartt’s comment. Instead, the journalism dean wrote that he, too, had a number of misgivings about the direction of “the culture” in the north Mississippi town and across the country.

This still is from a video UM donor Blake Tartt sent then-journalism Dean Will Norton in September 2018, showing Black UM students and local residents enjoying a night in Oxford. Tartt narrated the video, saying that being on The Square that evening was “like being in the Congo jungle.”

Three days later, Ed Meek, who also received an email from Tartt containing the photos, posted them to Facebook. One of the photos showed an African American woman student in a short black dress with cleavage visible; the other was a side view of another Black student in a short, tight pink dress.

“I hesitated until now to publish these pictures but I think it important that our community see what the camera is seeing at 2 a.m. after a ballgame,” Meek wrote in his Sept. 19, 2018, Facebook post, urging Oxonians to “protect the values we hold dear that have made Oxford and Ole Miss known nationally.”

Meek took the Facebook post down within hours, but not before more than 600 people had commented, calling his remarks racist and sexist. Then-UM Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter also put out a statement that day, condemning Meek’s post for having an “unjustified racial overtone”—remarks Dean Norton would echo the next day, decrying Meek for his “reprehensible” words.

While Condemning Meek, Officials Kept Tartt’s Role Quiet

Neither in his public condemnations of Meek, though, nor in private meetings with school faculty did Norton reveal that he had already been in possession of the photos at the time Meek posted them, that Tartt had shot them, or that the Houston donor had sent the emails about the women in the photos and other Black students on the Square.

Instead, Norton and other UM officials would continue to court Tartt’s favor and financial support for UM journalism-school projects for the next year and a half, ignoring a number of derogatory emails, including ones that compared Black celebrity tennis player Serena Williams to an ape.

Speaking to the Mississippi Free Press on condition of anonymity, several sources who were familiar with the two meetings that took place the day after Meek’s Facebook posts confirmed that other members of the UM administration and faculty were aware that Tartt, not Meek, was the original source of the photos.

One of the Sept. 20, 2018, meetings took place among Meek School faculty; the other in the administrative building, the Lyceum. Sources said that Chancellor Vitter, Provost Noel Wilkin and Chief Legal Officer Erica McKinley were among those in the Lyceum.

The sources said Norton was present at both meetings, but did not mention Tartt nor his email exchanges with the donor he had been courting.

The Mississippi Free Press obtained a five-minute audio recording from the end of the journalism faculty meeting. Several sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, helped identify the speakers in the recording.

Ed Meek’s fateful Sept. 19, 2018 Facebook post featured two black women on The Square.

The recording began late in the meeting, with a man urging his colleagues to demonstrate that the school creed (which begins, “I believe in respect for the dignity of each person…”) is more than just a series of words that UM faculty and administrators recite. Then, Rachel West, a marketing communications instructor and the chief executive officer of HottyToddy.com—a local online news publication that Meek had started and then transferred to the journalism school earlier that month—spoke up.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this post was premeditated. He has been on me since Sunday to put this on Hotty Toddy, and I refused to do it,” West said of Meek.

Meek had apparently sent the photos to her in an email on Sept. 16, sometime in the hours after Tartt would have shot them,  pitching a story about prostitution, crime and fights in Oxford.

“So I want you all to understand my observation is the following: This was not a knee-jerk reaction. This was intended. And I told him not to do it,” West continued. “And I told him I certainly wasn’t going to be associated with any format that did it.”

It took the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer in the room, Black Associate Professor Alysia Steele, to ask the obvious question: “Who took the photos?”

Four seconds passed.

“I believe Blake Tartt (did). … Ed did not take the photos,” West said, as murmurs broke out in the room.

Then, Anna Grace Usery, Hotty Toddy chief editor, cast a note of doubt about who took the photos, but confirmed that Meek had received them from the Houston businessman.

“I’m not sure if Blake took them, or if someone sent them to Blake, and Blake forwarded them to Ed (Meek),” Usery said.

Dean Norton remained silent while West moved on. She pointed out that it is “not news that fights break out after a football game.” Other faculty members noted that there were fights among students of “all demographics” after UM’s loss to Alabama that past Sunday, both on campus among tailgaters in The Grove and on the Square. Others pointed out that “all kinds of girls” at the school wear skimpy, tight or revealing clothes.

“The email (from Meek) referenced that there were these girls who were turning tricks, and the attachments and photos in this email, of course, looked at the police records to see if by chance there had been any prostitution arrests, and there were not, and I draw a hard line in the sand—,” Usery began to say near the end of the meeting, before several others in the room began speaking at once, cutting her off.

Then, the dean of the journalism school spoke up.

“Has anybody here not said what they really want to say?” Norton interjected.

“I have a question. What am I going to tell my students? In 20 minutes, in my ethics class, I’m going to be facing a room full of students who want to know what’s going on and what’s the position?” asked one faculty member, whom Mississippi Free Press sources identified as journalism professor Kathleen Wickham.

Norton did not answer the question.

“Well, I think that we’ve heard what you all have said here,” the dean said, ending the meeting even as confusion clearly hung in the air.

Before Ed Meek transferred Hotty Toddy to the journalism school, the publication ran a three-part series on Tartt’s development projects in Oxford. This article shows Tartt (right) posing with UM historian David Sansing (left) and James Meredith (center), who became the university’s first Black student in 1962. Screencap Hotty Toddy.

Norton said he would “huddle” with two of the school’s assistant deans, Deb Wenger and Jennifer Simmons, to “develop a plan” that he would share with the faculty later via email. 

“And if you don’t think it’s strong enough, or if you think it’s too strong, you’ll let us know,” Norton said.

Reached by phone on July 17 of this year, Meek told the Mississippi Free Press that he “would rather stay out of it.” He confirmed that Tartt had sent him some photos of people on The Square that night, but said he did not know if they were the same photos he posted on Facebook days later.

“I got several sets of photographs from several different people. … I do not know that he is the one who took the photos, and I have no reason to think he did,” Meek said.

The former namesake for the journalism school did acknowledge that he had heard “rumors” that the photographs were Tartt’s. Meek said he was not aware of the email exchanges between Tartt and Norton in which the Houston developer identified himself as the photographer.

Neither Norton nor Tartt has responded to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Norton: Meek Post ‘Reprehensible’

On Sept. 21, 2018, the day after the faculty meeting, Norton recorded a video statement condemning Meek with more than a dozen community members standing behind him. The journalism school dean quoted and concurred with Chancellor Vitter, calling Meek’s post “reprehensible.”

“In every class we teach, we ask our faculty to make a statement that the School of Journalism and New Media is committed to diversity in the classroom,” the dean said solemnly, reading from a prepared text. “That holds true in our publications and in our various organizations and components. This includes helping our students to develop a sensitivity to language and image that may create an appearance of or contain actual bias. It’s a foundational principle of good journalism. It’s our responsibility. We take it very seriously.”

“This is the saddest day of my life,” Ed Meek wrote on Facebook on Dec. 27, 2018, as the journalism school took steps to remove his name from the building.

Norton then revealed that the faculty had met with and was considering a number of responses, including removing “Meek” from the journalism school’s name. The dean had already privately asked Meek to join public calls to remove his own name from the school building, according to emails Norton sent to colleagues. 

The school had named the program for the alumnus after Ed Meek and his wife, Becky Meek, gave a $5.3 million gift in 2007 to help found the then-new facility. The Meeks pulled the endowment last year, redirecting it instead to CREATE, a Tupelo-based community foundation, which is affiliated with several news publications in Mississippi, including the Daily Journal in Tupelo.

Months after announcing the name change, in April 2019, Norton told The Daily Mississippian that UM’s journalism school “would have been one of the wealthiest journalism schools in the country” if they had kept Meek’s name, because the name change meant losing out on future funds, including millions from Meek’s estate that would have gone to the school upon his death.

It was “not a small decision,” Norton said. He rejected the notion that it amounted to a “rebranding,” though.

“We don’t look at it as a rebranding because our brand is the same, we think,” the journalism dean told the campus newspaper.

Will Norton and the ‘Klan Hood’ Quip

On graduation day in May 2018, about five months before the Meek controversy erupted, assistant marketing professor Jennifer Sadler gathered with other journalism faculty on campus who were getting ready to form a processional and walk into The Grove for the spring convocational. 

Sadler, who is African American, was standing next to Norton.

At graduation ceremonies, faculty and administrators wear a doctoral hood, a type of academic regalia that wraps around the back of the neck and hangs over both shoulders in the front. The colors on the hoods represent the university where the wearer earned their doctorate. 

Sadler, who had a master’s degree and was not wearing a hood, expressed curiosity about Norton’s gold hood. “What kind of hood do you have?” Sadler asked the dean.

“Oh, this?” the white dean said to the Black faculty member. “It’s my Klan hood.”

Some nearby faculty members laughed awkwardly. Others froze in silence. Sadler was taken aback, but laughed it off and joined the processional. 

She taught at the journalism school over the summer and then left the university for a job at Columbia College in Chicago. Only later did she find out that Norton had apologized to the school faculty for his remark after the provost learned about it, she said.

Jennifer Sadler left her teaching job at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media in 2018. Photo courtesy Jennifer Sadler.

Sadler shared that story with the Mississippi Free Press last month, corroborating an account that another person familiar with the incident had described earlier. 

“It didn’t really surprise me. I had been at Ole Miss for a couple years at that point, and I guess at some point, things just stop surprising you. So it didn’t surprise me, but it wasn’t the joke that needed to be made at all,” she told the Mississippi Free Press.

Norton could be insensitive about issues related to race at other times, too, Sadler said. 

“Dean Norton was not going around in a Klan hood calling people the n-word or anything like that. It’s the subtle things that get said in private conversations, just the things that are underlying—deep-rooted,” she said. “I don’t care how many Black people you were around when you were growing up. Somebody didn’t teach you something.”

Sadler recalled her meeting with Norton in his office on the day she informed the dean that she was leaving the school and taking the job in Chicago.

“We talked about it, and he was really supportive of me and the direction I wanted to go,” she told the Mississippi Free Press. “But his first reaction to hearing about me leaving was, ‘Oh, we can’t afford to lose a Black faculty member right now.’ But then he said it was a good opportunity, you should go for it.”

But still, Sadler said, his initial reaction stuck in her mind.

“It wasn’t based on my body of work or what I had contributed or anything like that,” she said. “It was like, ‘Ah, we can’t afford to lose another Black person right now.’”

The former journalism-school faculty member said that, long before Meek’s Facebook post, it was no secret to Norton nor other members of the faculty that the school’s namesake sometimes said things that African Americans found offensive.

“He had done and said things like that for years, and nobody said anything or did anything. This man has been problematic for years. … (Norton) wouldn’t have endorsed taking Meek’s name off the building if there wasn’t public outrage about it,” Sadler said.

Sadler has seen some of Blake Tartt’s most offensive email exchanges with Norton, she said, but she does not necessarily believe the former dean truly agreed with the Houston businessman’s rants.

“Dean Norton is in a really strange position at his job because he is responsible for basically getting money for the school. So it’s not like he can ruffle any feathers in his mission to get money, and most of the money is going to come from wealthy white people,” Sadler said. 

“When you put it all into context, he probably was not saying anything—or brushing it off, or slyly agreeing—in hopes that this person would either fund or provide access to people who could fund the school,” she continued. “Now all of that is also really problematic, because you have people that are willing to put profit over people and not really push back at all.”

After the Meek situation became a public debacle, though, Norton could not ignore it, she said, and had to make a public statement. She cited public pressure as the differentiating factor between Norton’s response to Meek and his continued private courting of Tartt, whose role was not public.

“I think the only way that anybody would’ve said anything about Blake Tartt is if it had been public before that meeting,” Sadler said, noting that she had “no idea” about Norton’s emails with Tartt until the spring of 2020, when someone emailed her copies of them after the school responded to Transparent Ole Miss public-records request.

“I’m not saying any of this was OK,” she continued. “I’m just saying that whiteness protects whiteness. They keep establishments in place, and Ole Miss is very protective of its endowment and money.”

‘She Looked Like an (Ape)’

Throughout Norton’s 2018 email exchanges with Blake Tartt, the dean never directly expressed overtly racist or sexist viewpoints himself, but would  be accommodating to Tartt, whom he had been courting as a potential source of funding for future Meek School projects. The university provided copies of emails from Norton’s personal Gmail address, which he used for official university business in addition to his university address.

Transparent Ole Miss, one of the two whistleblower groups, obtained the documents through months of public-records requests. The other group, Ole Miss Information, also sent copies of the emails to a number of UM faculty members and to this publication. Ole Miss Information consists of at least three individuals, each of whom goes by the name of a character in George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, “1984”: Winston Smith, Julia Dixon and Emmanuel Goldstein. Blake Tartt is a 1984 UM graduate.

“Smith” told the Mississippi Free Press that they chose the names to reference “a regime where truth doesn’t matter as much as blind loyalty to the leader and where covering up the truth has become instinctive.”

Sources say that university officials’ efforts to appease the romantic nostalgia of deep-pocketed alumni have often come at a cost, leaving minority students and even employees on the campus feeling unsafe or ignored, while making it more difficult for Mississippi’s oldest university to attract new students and talent. And efforts to squelch dissent have created a culture of fear, the sources said.

Over the years, Norton has amassed a reputation as a progressive-minded school leader. But his emails with Tartt support sources’ claims that UM officials are often willing to tolerate bigotry while in pursuit of money for the university.

On Sept. 8, 2018, African American tennis superstar Serena Williams lost the U.S. Open Final to 20-year-old Naomi Osaka after an umpire penalized her, claiming she had been coached during the second set of the game—a code violation. Williams disputed the charges, saying she did not cheat and that the umpire was judging her more harshly than umpires routinely judge male players. Frustrated at his refusal to relent, Williams smashed her tennis racket on the court.

The next day, Tartt sent Norton an email expressing his disgust with Williams’ behavior. He attached a link to a news story about the incident.

Blake Tartt used an ape emoji to refer to Serena Williams in two Sept. 9, 2018 emails with Will Norton.

“She looked like an (ape),” Tartt wrote, using the ape emoji in place of the word. “Serena simply cheated, then broke her racket and then complained. … We are a lawless society and she should stand for a scale. She got beat fair and square by the Japanese lady.”

The idea that African Americans are comparable to primates is a centuries-old racist trope designed to dehumanize Black people and justify less-than-human treatment. Months earlier, in May 2018, ABC axed the revival of Roseanne Barr’s self-titled sitcom when she sent a tweet comparing former Barack Obama administration official Valerie Jarrett, a Black woman, to a cross between the “Muslim Brotherhood” and the “Planet of the Apes.”

But after Tartt invoked the ape trope, Norton replied that the news article about Serena Williams was a “great story, showing how messed up we are.” He offered a gentle answer to the wealthy potential donor’s email.

“We need to have mercy and forgiveness,” Norton wrote simply.

The appeal by the missionary’s son to Christian ethics did not seem to faze Tartt.

“I wish you could have seen her (ape)-like behavior,” the businessman wrote back, once again employing the ape emoji. “No class. It did nothing to help a women’s cause. (sic) Interesting times.”

At the time of those emails in early September 2018, Tartt was just days away from a visit to Oxford, where Norton and other school officials planned to shower the potential journalism-school donor with attention and treatment that they hoped would help elicit a sizable donation from the Houston businessman. After all, Tartt had already given thousands to other UM departments over the years, including large gifts to the athletics department.

‘He Gives Money’

Norton was far from the first UM official to sing Tartt’s praises. Tartt’s website for the Oxford branch of his Houston, Texas-based real-estate business, New Regional Planning-Oxford, features a number of testimonials filled with effusive praise for his business acumen, mostly from UM officials. 

“One of the things that I love about Blake is he does all of the four things we want people to do to help us: he gives money, he gives his time with the kids, he hires our kids and he also recruits kids to come to Ole Miss,” reads University of Mississippi School of Business Dean Ken Cyree’s Tartt testimonial. At the time, and into 2019, Tartt served as president of the UM School of Business Real Estate Advisory Board.

Norton offered the longest testimony, though, in which he called Tartt “a visionary” and “the consummate niche marketer.” 

Blake Tartt’s NRP-Oxford website features praise from UM Business School Dean Ken Cyree, pictured. Photo courtesy UM School of Business.

“In brief, Blake Tartt III is our ideal of an involved Ole Miss alumnus with a passion for our university and the Oxford community,” the journalism dean said in the promotional blurb.

People familiar with Norton’s funding pursuits told the Mississippi Free Press that the dean was then looking for funding for the expansion of Farley Hall, the building that houses the journalism program, and for a new program that Tartt himself had proposed.

In 2017, multiple sources said, Tartt pitched the idea of adding a real-estate marketing program to the journalism school’s Integrated Marketing Communications program, and the real-estate businessman said he would fund the program. Norton agreed, and set faculty members on a quest to find an experienced professional “capable of making significant contributions in the fields of real estate promotion and development,” reads a UM job ad that the Mississippi Free Press examined. The ad said that the job would entail “classes on topics such as real estate promotion and branding, real estate acquisitions/transactions, and an ability to teach courses on a wider range of IMC topics.”

The journalism school ultimately hired Lloyd “Chip” Wade who, up until that point, had taught finance in the business school. In the fall of 2018, he taught IMC 591, which university records listed as a “Real Estate Promotion” class. For the time being, though, it was just a one-time, special-topics class in the journalism school.

Other emails show that, on Sept. 18, 2018, Norton, Wade and Tartt were coordinating on a trip to Texas A&M to explore collaborating with that school’s real-estate program and to better understand “the opportunities within an academic real estate program focused solely on promotion and marketing within the real estate sector.”

Tartt, the ‘Divided American’

UM officials had already treated Tartt to a good time in Oxford in August 2018, weeks before he would return for the Alabama game. In a late August email, Tartt indicated that school officials had made him feel like he was back at the “Ole Miss” he remembered from long ago.

In between conversations about UM and Oxford, Tartt frequently sent Norton stories about politics and current events. 

On Aug. 29, 2018, four days after U.S. Sen. John McCain died from cancer, the Houston businessman emailed a Washington Post story to the journalism dean about a debate over whether or not to rename the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., for McCain. It is currently named for segregationist U.S. Sen. Richard Russell, a Georgia Dixiecrat who served in the chamber from 1933 to 1971, where he was an ardent foe of extending civil rights to Black Americans.

“Blake, this will begin to turn a lot of conversations around,” Norton replied, without explaining.

Tartt responded that he was “not sure what conversation you refer to,” and then said that McCain, who ran as the Republican nominee for president in 2008, “spit in TRUMPS (sic) face” by requesting that the president not attend his funeral. McCain was “bitter in death” and still finding ways to divide America even after he died, Tartt wrote.

Norton ignored Tartt’s comments about McCain, pivoting back to the debate over potentially renaming the Russell Building. His reply foreshadowed the events that would unfold weeks later in the wake of Meek’s Facebook post.

“The conversation I am referring to is the big emphasis that if someone had politically incorrect attitudes, he should have his statue torn down, or his name taken off a building. The trend will begin to be, keep history as it is,” wrote the dean who, weeks later, would signal his agreement with calls to take Meek’s name off the journalism school’s building.

Over the next two days, the two men continued emailing back and forth about a range of political topics in the news at the time. Norton emphasized the cultural and political divides in America—and his fear for the future.

“I happen to agree that America is extremely divided,” Tartt replied on Aug. 31. “I have some African American tenants in Houston. I am trying to sell a shopping center on Tuesday. They are working to extort money and not abide by the lease. Most likely I will end up paying them to get my deal closed.”

Tartt signed the email, “Divided American.”

“Basically you currently are dealing with folk who are trying to take advantage of a situation,” Norton replied.

‘America Will Be Very Sorry’

In several correspondences with colleagues and associates in the trove of documents the Mississippi Free Press examined, Norton expressed critical views of President Donald Trump, and did so at times during exchanges with Tartt. But early on, the dean often seemed to take a more positive view of the president in reply to Tartt’s pro-Trump praises.

After Tartt praised Trump for “the best economy in 18 years” in an Aug. 31, 2018, email, the journalism dean responded by insinuating that most criticisms of the president are rooted in issues with his personality, amplified by a reckless media—not substantive issues.

“Blake, he has done so much good that does not get reported,” Norton wrote about Trump. “However, his antics distract folk and they concentrate on silly stuff.”

The exchange came after a week in which Trump had been heavily criticized for mocking recently deceased Sen. McCain, a Vietnam war veteran and former prisoner of war, and over reports from journalist Bob Woodward that Defense Secretary James Mattis had ignored an erratic order from Trump to assassinate Syria’s president. Woodward is famous for his Watergate reporting, which helped bring down Richard Nixon’s presidency. 

Even before all of that, during summer 2018, Trump had drawn considerable criticism for separating immigrant families and locking up thousands of children, including infants, in what several experts described as “child concentration camps.”

In his Aug. 31, 2018, emails with Tartt, Norton favorably compared Trump to Richard Nixon, who resigned the presidency in disgrace in 1974. Trump supporters should acknowledge his weaknesses, Norton wrote, but “America will be very sorry when Trump is out of office.”

“[T]o get things done, you have to have a guy who is not afraid to insult people,” the often Trump-critical dean continued. “Unfortunately, that is all the media focuses on, and they just want to eliminate him. That is what they did to Nixon also. I can find nobody who says good things about Nixon. These two guys transformed the office of the president.”

‘Overtaken by the Wrong Elements’

Just over two weeks later, Tartt joined Norton for the football game against Alabama on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. After a disappointing outcome, Norton dropped Tartt off at The Square in downtown Oxford, where he filmed the video with the “Congo Jungle” remark and shot the photos that he would send to Norton and Meek the next day.

At one point in the video, which Tartt sent to Norton on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, the camera aims at a group of Black women in tight skirts. 

“Check it out, there’s some nice rushees over here in front of us. There’s some Chi-Os over here in front of us,” he said, likely referring to the predominantly white Chi Omega sorority.

 “And there’s a mean motherf*cker,” the Houston donor continued, as he turned the camera toward a passing car with three Black men in it, one slowly driving around The Square and through the crowd.

“I took this picture,” Blake Tartt wrote in an email he sent to Dean Will Norton days before Ed Meek made his Facebook post using the same photo.

Tartt’s attitude changed markedly as a group including four white students, a man and three women, passed by, holding hands as they walked through the crowd: “Hey my man. Hey girls!” Tartt narrated.

The alumnus did not seemed bothered that the three white women he greeted wore tight bottoms no longer than the dresses that the Black women he would later describe as “hookers” wore, nor that two of the white students wore tops that showed off their midriffs, or that one wore a cleavage-revealing top.

After sending Norton the video, Tartt sent him a photo showing two Black women from behind, including one in an orange top and tight black pants, and another in a short pink dress.

“Big Problem!” Norton replied.

A little over two hours later, Tartt sent another email, this time with a student who would show up in Meek’s post: a Black woman in a tight, black dress that revealed cleavage. Tartt wrote that he took the photo from the steps of The Chop House while he was checking on a piece of property he owned in The Square shortly after the bars closed.

“All may think I am living in the past and not progressive enough. I happen to know what happens when a place is overtaken by the wrong elements,” Tartt wrote.

Tartt grew up in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston and its suburbs. The county was majority white during Tartt’s youth. It became a “majority-minority” county in 1990 and, by 2010, the city was 41% Hispanic and 33% white. Refugee settlements in the area also helped drive the population boom there.

“For all the movement for total inclusion, social engineering does not work. This has all made me very sick,” read Tartt’s last email of the night on Sept. 16, 2018.

Norton responded the next morning.

‘The Fabric is Torn in Oxford’

“Blake, I have been really disappointed for a long time with the way this culture is going,” Norton wrote to Tartt early on Sept. 17, 2018. The journalism dean then turned to the topic of that month’s biggest political story—the confirmation hearings for now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

Norton said he was “appalled that something stupid someone did as a teenager should rise to challenge him during confirmation hearings for the justice of the Supreme Court,” referring to the fact that California-based research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a party in the 1980s. 

The dean told Tartt he was going to “stop putting things up on Facebook” or doing commentary.

The Sept. 24, 1962, issue of Sports Illustrated featured cheerleaders carrying Confederate flags onto the football field. Image courtesy Sports Illustrated.

“I have been trying to bring people together, and they do not want to be together,” Norton wrote.

Tartt emailed back minutes later, mostly ignoring the dean’s complaints about the Kavanaugh hearings and his failure to facilitate unity on Facebook. By Monday morning, he was still fixated on the sights he had witnessed in The Square over the weekend.

“Unfortunate but I am ill from Saturday. What took place Saturday after you dropped me off on The Square was sad and sick,” Tartt wrote. “I was up until 3:30 a.m. touring my property. The fabric is torn in Oxford. (Mayor) Robyn (Tannehill) and the board of aldermen have let it go to (sic) far and my belief is it can’t be fixed. They are not qualified to deal with the problem.”

Despite the post-game fights in The Square and in The Grove that evening, police did not make arrests in Oxford or on the campus that weekend—a point Tartt made in his emails to Norton and that Meek would also make in his public Facebook post two days later.

“20 years of change and you have the pictures to see where it has taken Ole Miss and Oxford,” Tartt wrote to Norton. “Again, not going to bother you with the issues any longer. It is not fair. You do an EXCELLENT JOB. … Thanks for always being my friend.”

Minutes later, Norton told Tartt that it made him “weep what folk have allowed to happen” to the town’s athletics programs.

“I cannot tell you how much energy it takes to get up to do what is necessary for students who want to make something of themselves,” Norton wrote. 

‘Do Not Talk About Removing Ole Miss’

The revelations about the emails between Tartt and Norton come as a university initially built by slaves is once again making moves to cleanse itself of its racist and white-supremacist past. 

In the 1980s, students and activists successfully began pushing the school to stop using the then-omnipresent Confederate flag at UM sports events. In 2016, UM’s band stopped playing “From Dixie With Love,” an athletic fight song that mashed up “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a favorite tune of northern abolitionists, with “Dixie,” a song that served as the unofficial theme of the Confederacy. 

The school also retired its mascot, the plantation-owner-like Colonel Reb, in 2003, replacing him in 2010 with the poorly received Rebel Black Bear (some Col. Reb defenders insist he was modeled after “Blind Jim Ivey,” a Black man who sold goods as a beloved vendor on campus in the early half of the 20th century). In 2016, Chancellor Vitter announced the current Landshark mascot.

In 2015, UM joined other colleges and universities across the state in removing the Mississippi State Flag, which contains the Confederate emblem, from its flagpole. The flag’s removal came in the wake of a Confederate flag-waving white supremacist’s massacre of nine African Americans at a historic church in Charleston, S.C. That was five years before the Mississippi House and Senate voted to retire the state flag in June 2020. Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bill at a time when the U.S. was already in the midst of a sea change when it comes to confronting issues of systemic racism.

While UM has made visible changes, emails in the trove of documents this publication examined show that school officials, fearful of a revolt among donors, continue to push back against other efforts—like a push to retire the school’s nickname, “Ole Miss.” Behind the scenes, leaders in the school’s development office have sought to tamp down concern over the growing voices among students and faculty who oppose its continued use. 

In his 1999 book, “The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History,” UM historian David Sansing claimed UM student Elma Meek (no relation to Ed Meek) first proposed the name as the title for the school’s yearbook in 1897, and that it referred to “a title domestic slaves in the Old South used to distinguish the mistress of the plantation house from the young misses of the family.” 

The book does not cite the source of that information, though, and Sansing’s explanation remains in dispute—especially among alumni who are emotionally wedded to “Ole Miss,” which is dominant in UM’s branding.

A crowd of UM fans gather while the band performs in The Grove in 2013. Three years later, the UM band stopped performing “From Dixie With Love,” its take on the unofficial Confederate theme song. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

In a Sept. 27, 2019, email, UM Vice Chancellor for Development Charlotte Parks urged members of the development team “to make sure that student callers do not talk about removing OLE MISS,” referring to student representatives who made fundraising calls to alumni on behalf of the office. 

That email came four minutes after she received a forwarded email that a donor and alumnus had sent to the UM Annual Giving office and then-interim Chancellor Larry Sparks earlier that morning. Craig Murray had received a fundraising email, and emailed the university to make sure the school knew he had no intention of donating.

“Not a chance… not a dime,” wrote Murray, who said he was discontinuing his alumni membership after 37 years.

He listed a number of grievances against the school, citing its decision to abandon Colonel Reb, efforts to remove a Confederate monument from the center of campus, the loss of “Dixie With Love,” and a sociology professor whose left-wing tweets had angered a number of alumni. He even praised Ed Meek for recouping the money he had given to the journalism school.

“The representative that called me last night told me that in her university orientation class that is required for freshman year, the professor talked about the next step is to remove the words ‘Ole Miss,’” Murray wrote. “Please stop the non stop political correctness it’s ruining our once great institution.”

Four minutes after receiving a copy of Murray’s email, Parks told her team that anyone worried the school might retire “Ole Miss” had nothing to fear.

“There is no way that we will get rid of OLE MISS whether or not faculty talk about it,” she wrote.

A fight over changing “Ole Miss” would have seemed almost unimaginable, though, when Blake Tartt first stepped foot on campus as a student at the dawn of the 1980s. During his student years, he witnessed the emergence of a devoted push among Black students and others intent on bringing the era of the school’s Lost Cause renaissance to an end.

Continuing reading the “The UM Emails: Part II.”

Editor’s Note: In the reporting of the UM emails series and follow-up reports, the MFP did not confer with members of either of our boards or any donors associated with the University of Mississippi  to avoid conflicts of interest.

Also see:
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Decisions, Process, Motives Behind Ashton Pittman’s Series On UM Emails

Read full UM Emails reporting series to date:

1.  ‘The Fabric Is Torn In Oxford’: UM Officials Decried Racism Publicly, Coddled It Privately
2. ‘The Ole Miss We Know’: Wealthy Alums Fight To Keep UM’s Past Alive
3. UM’s ‘Culture Of Secrecy’: Dean Quit As Emails Disparaging To Gay Alum, Black Students Emerged
4. ‘Appalling’: UM Provost Decries ‘Hurtful’ Emails About Black Women, Gay Alum
5. Ole Miss’ Coddle Culture: Ole Miss Will Stay ‘Ole Miss’ Without Radical Shift
6. EDITOR’S NOTE: The Decisions, Process, Motives Behind Ashton Pittman’s Series On UM Emails
7. Perpetuating Patterns: It’s Time To Build A Better University Of Mississippi
8. After UM Emails, Dean Plans ‘Anti-Racist’ Training, Donor Changes to ‘Remake Our School’
9. ‘Ole Miss’ Vs. ‘New Miss’: Black Students, Faculty On How To Reject Racism, Step Forward Together

 

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