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Benson, John L.: Oral History

Mr. John L. Benson of Moselle tells the story of his family and his great-grandfather, Isom Benson, who donated land in Jones County for building Benson School for African-American children during Jim Crow segregation.

Click here for the video.

This oral history was conducted by April Grayson in Hattiesburg, MS.

The Free State of Jones

Little is known about how Jones County got its nickname “The Free State of Jones,”but there have been many rumors and theories. One with the backing of publication in the Magazine of American History was an article written by G. Norton Galloway, Historian of the Sixth Army Corps, titled “A Confederacy within a Confederacy.”The only problem with his story is that there is no citing of authorities and Mr. Galloway left no information to contact him. He claims in his article that in the latter part of the year 1862, a convention assembled in Ellisville, Jones County, Mississippi, and passed an ordinance seceding from the State of Mississippi and from the Confederate States of America. He even gives the exact words of the ordinance: “Whereas, The State of Mississippi has seen fit to withdraw from the Federal Union for reasons which appear justifiable, and whereas, we, the citizens of Jones claim the same right, thinking our grievances are sufficient by reason of an unjust law passed by the Congress of the Confederate States of America, forcing us to go to distant parts, etc., etc., therefore, be it resolved. That we sever the union heretofore existing between Jones county and the State of Mississippi, and proclaim our independence of said State, and of the Confederate States of America—and we call upon Almighty God to witness and bless the act.”

Due in part to Jones County’s sparse population, the majority seemed to be against state secession, and Jones County elected suspected Anti-secessionist J.D. Powell to represent Jones at the Secession Convention. When the time came to vote, Powell voted for secession. Powell was hanged in effigy and abused so much that he did not dare return to the county for some time.

Jones County sent troops to the Confederacy. Three full companies and a great part of four more were formed on her borders. Some deserted and returned to Jones County claiming that they would not fight for the rich men while they were at home having a good time. In the latter part of 1862, the famous “Newt Knight Company”was formed, with Newt Knight as Captain, Jasper Collins First Lieutenant, and W. W. Sumrall Second Lieutenant. Several of those who deserted from the Confederate army joined this company, which numbered when it was organized about sixty men, but later was increased to about one hundred and twenty-five. Its members came from various parts of the country. Mr. Galloway claims Newt Knight was the president of the secession of Jones County from the State of Mississippi. The company made raids against Confederate forces, and it is rumored that the company swore loyalty to the Union Army. They had secret headquarters on the Leaf River and fought many battles in Laurel and Ellisville.

There are other theories as to the nickname. It is true that Jones County was for a period of time without administration around the time of the Civil War due to small population and the lack of pay for administrators. It is suggested that one county member (unclear who) rode to Jackson on horseback and took the oath of office and came back and seceded the county from the state. Another version of the origin of the title is that it was given to the county by the citizens of neighboring counties who lived near the Gulf coast and along the line of what is now the Mobile and Ohio railroad, because of the entire freedom of the citizens of Jones County from the arbitrary rules of society and the restraints of fashion recognized elsewhere. They went to church barefooted, dressed in any way they saw fit, and carried their guns to use in case any game might cross their path.

Newt Knight’s legend has generated most of the rumors surrounding “The Free State of Jones,”but, rumors aside, police cars in Ellisville to this day still bear the nickname.

Laurel

In 1882, the town of Laurel, Mississippi, was founded when John Kamper built a mill in order to provide timber for the completion of the Northeastern and New Orleans Railroad. The work force in the mill was primarily black. In 1891, Kamper sold the mill to then-Iowa based Eastman-Gardiner Company. Brothers George and Silas Gardiner, brother-in-law Lauren Eastman, and brother-in-law Wallace Rogers moved to Laurel to run the enterprise. As an escape from the oppression of sharecropping, blacks moved to Laurel because the lumber mills paid well.

Sources:

Payne, Cleveland. Laurel: A History of the Black Community, 1882-1962.

Triangle Housing Project

“Built in 1940 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Recovery Program, [the project] was bounded on the east by South Fourth Avenue, on the west by Maple Street and on the south by Jefferson Street.” It was within walking distance of downtown Laurel. It was inhabited by hard-working, working-class families who felt lucky to be selected to live in the new apartments. The development had a basketball court and a large picnic and activity field used for concerts, carnivals and ball games. On Sunday mornings, the families would walk along Jefferson and Maple Streets to church services at Saint Paul Methodist Church and Saint Elmo Baptist Church. In its time, it was considered a desirable and wonderful place to live.

Sources:

Laurel Remembrances by Cleveland Payne published in 1996, which was a compilation of columns written by Cleveland Payne for the Laurel Leader-Call from July 1994 to May 1995.

Laurel Colored Schools

There were four schools for the black children in Laurel known as the Laurel Colored Schools: Kingston/Nora Davis, Sandy Gavin, Southside Elementary and Oak Park High School. The children and teachers would walk to school along the two-mile long sidewalk of Maple Street.

Sandy Gavin was Laurel’s first black school to be built of brick and was a source of pride for the community. “It’s (sic) grounds covered an entire block between South Fifth and South Sixth Avenues and Madison and Monroe Streets.” In the early 1920s, upon learning that Laurel spent approximately one third of the amount to educate black children as it did white children, Laurel socialite and philanthropist Mrs. George S. Gardiner made a proposal to donate $10,000 for the building of a Negro school if the black community would raise $10,000 and the City of Laurel would contribute $10,000. The purpose of the proposal was to mobilize the black community and shame the city into acting more responsibly. By 1924 the community had raised the money and the school opened in 1925. The building is no longer used.

Voting Rights Act in Jones County

(Jones County) (1965) After passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Laurel Leader Call reported that while 99.9 percent of whites in Jones County were registered to vote, only 8.8 percent of blacks were registered. By August 20, 1965, the US Department of Justice had set up a registration office in the conference room of the Laurel Post Office run by a seven man team of voting examiners. In a ten day period, the registrars recorded more than 1,000 black voters.

Sources:

Laurel Remembrances by Cleveland Payne published in 1996.

Hubbard, Ed

Hubbard was born in 1867 and eventually became one of the founding members of the Saint Elmo Baptist Church in 1895. In 1902 at the age of 35 he served as the head sawyer at the Eastman-Gardiner Company’s “big mill”and was the founding pastor of the Second Baptist Church. In 1921, Hubbard became a missionary in Liberia, West Africa, where he founded the Hubbard Industrial Mission. In the mid-20s Hubbard returned to Laurel for speaking engagements where he spoke to a large white audience and was introduced by Judge Stone Deavours.

Sources:

Laurel Remembrances by Cleveland Payne published in 1996.

Freedom House of Laurel

Laurel’s Freedom House was the center for a voter-registration drive in Jones County and was located at the home of Eberta Spinks in 1965.

Price, Leontyne

Leontyne Price was the first successful black female opera singer and was born in Laurel, Mississippi, on February 10, 1927. She grew up in Laurel, Mississippi, and graduated from Oak Park High School (now only elementary, 1205 Queensburg Avenue Laurel, MS 39440) in 1944. She also sang in the choir at St. Paul’s Methodist Church (517 Jefferson St., 601-428-7613) in Laurel, Mississippi. Throughout her career she would return to this church to do an annual Christmas Concert. She was discovered by a wealthy white patron that her mother worked for. In High School she sang soprano with the Oak Park Choral Group and performed in numerous school concerts, at churches, in community programs, and in solo recitals, singing and playing the piano. Price enrolled at the College of Education and Industrial Arts (Central State College) in Wilberforce, Ohio. At Central State, Price studied music education, hoping to become a music teacher if becoming a performer failed. Price won a four-year scholarship to the esteemed Juilliard School of Music in New York City and left for New York in 1949. She appeared in many of Julliard’s operatic productions. During one of her performances she was seen and heard by composer Virgil Thompson. This performance gave her the start to her career. Virgil Thompson asked her to sing the role of St. Cecelia in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which was her first appearance as a professional. From then on, Price began touring the United States and Europe as a professional singer.

Throughout the 1950’s, Leontyne Price broadened her career as an opera singer by starring in a number of works in recital halls, opera stages, and on television. In February 1955, with Samuel Barber on piano, she made her television debut as Floria Tosca in an NBC-TV Opera Company production of Puccini’s Tosca, and in 1956, she starred in NBC’s production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. The following year, Price made her opera house debut as Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites at the San Francisco Opera House. On July 2, 1958, she debuted in London at Covent Garden, and two years later, she played Aida to a packed house at the venerable La Scala on May 21, 1960, becoming the first black singer to sing a major role at this citadel of opera.

Leontyne Price achieved one of the greatest artistic victories of her career on January 27, 1961, when she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. This performance ignited a 42-minute ovation, one of the longest in the Met’s history. Critic Harold Schonberg wrote: “Her voice was dusky and rich in its lower tones, perfectly even in its transitions from one register to another, and flawlessly pure and velvety at the top.”In 1961 Musical America voted her Musician of the Year with a poll of editors and critics all over the country. In 1964, she was awarded the Presidential Freedom Award, and the following year, she won the Italian Award of Merit. Price also was chosen to open the Met’s 1966-1967 season as Cleopatra in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Over the years, Leontyne Price has won fifteen Grammy Awards for vocal recordings, and she has been on the cover of Time and twenty-seven other magazines. In addition, she was the only opera singer to be represented in the list of “Remarkable American Women: 1776-1976” in Life Magazine’s Bicentennial issue in 1976.

In 1999 Price was inducted into the Mississippi Musician’s Hall of Fame and in 2000 she was the recipient of the Mississippi Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.