Driving down Mobile Street in the historic district of downtown Hattiesburg, Mississippi—or cruising it via “street view” in Google Maps—you can see buildings wearing the vestiges of a bygone era.
City Pawn Shop.
A block over, on Main Street, there’s another more poignant reminder of the city’s—and America’s—past. In front of the Forest County Administrator building, a memorial honors slain civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer, whose home was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Dahmer, a local businessman and president of the Forest County chapter of the NAACP, was targeted by Klansmen for helping Black citizens register to vote, which is why his statue is accompanied by the quote, “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”
Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, voter suppression, violence, and intimidation were all hallmarks of Jim Crow, the morally bankrupt system that enforced racial segregation, legalized discrimination, and empowered white citizens to treat Black citizens as inferiors. And Jim Crow was a prominent resident of Hattiesburg.
Through the experiences of generations of Hattiesburg’s Black and white residents, William Sturkey, an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, tells a story about the rise and fall of Jim Crow in Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White (Harvard University Press, 2019).
A rich, multigenerational saga of race and family
Winner of the 2020 Zócalo Public Square Book Prize, Hattiesburg immerses the reader in the complexities of race relations, segregation, and activism, highlighting the stories behind those who struggled to maintain the “New South” and those determined to tear it down. Sturkey’s comprehensive narrative, alternating between Black and white chapters, examines the dynamics that shaped the city’s social fabric within the broader context of racial issues in the south and a national civil rights movement. It’s a thought-provoking journey that invites readers to reflect on racism’s historical roots and how they continue to influence contemporary society.
Reviews of Hattiesburg consistently praise the book’s detail and Sturkey’s storytelling prowess, noting that it’s a brilliant and compelling portrait. Publishers Weekly wrote, “Hattiesburg is not connected in the popular mind with civil rights history in the way of Selma and Montgomery, but Sturkey’s vibrant history makes a strong case that, to understand how the civil rights movement emerged, it’s essential to spend time there.”
Hattiesburg via Rochester
Presented by the River Campus Libraries and the Frederick Douglass Institute and Department of Black Studies, the 2023–24 season of the Neilly Series is dedicated to the creation of the Black studies department at Rochester. In celebration of the department’s inaugural year, the books highlighted in this season’s Neilly talks will feature Black authors and a variety of perspectives on racism, freedom, and the Black experience. The final talk of the series will be given by Rinaldo Walcott, a professor of Africana and American studies at the University at Buffalo, on March 21.
Sturkey is a historian of the post-1865 United States, specializing in the history of race in the American South. He teaches courses on modern American history, southern history, the civil rights movement, and the history of America in the 1960s. He has been widely recognized for his scholarship, teaching, and service, winning several major university awards, including the Hettleman Prize for outstanding early career achievement and the Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
Hattiesburg is Sturkey’s second book. His first, To Write in the Light of Freedom (University Press of Mississippi, 2015), is a coedited collection of newspapers, essays, and poems produced by African American Freedom School students during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. He is currently working on a biography of the legendary Vietnam War hero Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez.
All Neilly Author Series talks are free and open to the public, made possible by the Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Endowed Fund. For more information on William Sturkey’s talk, email Kim Osur, development manager at the River Campus Libraries.