Dispatches From the Field: Mississippi

By Thomas Duncan

Last semester, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Mississippi State University (MSU) and present my thesis at MSU’s Symposium of History Undergraduate Research. The symposium specifically focused on the topics of Southern history, the history of civil rights and historical memory. My thesis undertook a historical study of segregation academies, which were a stalwart tool of the massive resistance to civil rights. These private schools, which often received various forms of government support, admitted only white applicants in order to maintain school segregation. I discussed segregation academies in the larger context of several desegregation lawsuits, which challenged school segregation and government funded private school aid.

I was very excited to learn that my paper had been accepted to the symposium, but also a little nervous to take on the challenge of my first conference. One of the more difficult aspects of preparing for the symposium was condensing and synthesizing my argument from a longer work into a 20-minute talk. My advisor, Associate Professor Anzilotti, was extremely helpful and guided me through the process of summarizing my research into a digestible presentation.

The first day of the conference began with a panel discussion with MSU history professors and keynote speaker Assistant Professor Jennifer Murray (University of Virginia’s College at Wise) on graduate school and the future of historians. We discussed the importance of looking outside the academia for jobs as historians in order to expand the field and implement our skills in diverse ways. Professor Murray specifically encouraged us to look for historian jobs within federal and state government, and to be innovative and creative when imagining how to apply our historical training to future career goals.

The undergraduate attendees presented on the following day. Although I was nervous to read aloud, I felt that my presentation went well. The best part of the conference was listening to the other undergraduate presenters. Topics ranged from vicious slave tracking dogs, convict leasing, surgery in the 16th century, the family unit during the Civil War, and yoga’s transformation from an Eastern religious practice into a Western leisure practice.

One of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of attending the conference was meeting and talking to graduate students of MSU, all of whom gave valuable advice. Fascinatingly, one of MSU’s graduate students actually attended a segregation academy as a young boy. He told me one of the most memorable assignments at this school was a paper in which he was to describe “the pros of slavery.” This encounter underscored the importance of the conversations and dialogues taking place at the symposium.

I thoroughly enjoyed attending my first academic conference, but it would not have been possible without several important people. I would like to thank Professors Andrew Lang and Courtney Thompson of MSU for organizing the conference and giving me the opportunity to speak there, as well as Associate Professor Jim Giesen of MSU who provided feedback on my talk. I would also like to thank Associate Dean Richard Fox and LMU History Department Chair Elizabeth Drummond for helping me secure the funding that made it possible for me to attend. Most importantly, I would like to thank my thesis advisor, Professor Cara Anzilotti. She many edited drafts of my thesis, abstract, and conference talk, and imparted invaluable advice on historical research and writing.