I spent the better part of the last week in Mississippi, primarily in Jones County and mostly in the town of Laurel, a town of some 18,000 inhabitants. Laurel is an almost two hour drive north east from New Orleans and about 1.5 hours south east of Jackson, the state’s capitol city.
Frankly I was surprised by what I found. I found it to be very intriguing, very interesting. Why, you may ask.
A state with 3 million people finds itself often at the bottom of a variety of different rankings of the 50 states. US News & World Report in its 2021 ranking had Mississippi ranked 49th of the 50 states using 71 different metrics summarized in 8 categories. For example, it had the state 50th in health and 43rd in education.
Yet, my guess after my visit is that this may be a case where you “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Let me explain what I mean.
I could feel a hop in the step of the people in Laurel. Something is happening there. Something that is worth looking into.
The physical evidence is in the downtown where the streets have been repaved, new sidewalks, roundabouts, shops and buildings being refurbished. Orange construction signs and cones everywhere.
Beyond that, retail shops and restaurants downtown are coming alive. There is not a vacant store in downtown. Starbucks just arrived in downtown!
On the flip side of “progress” the town really values its history. The Central Historic District of the town with its 161 acres of homes is on the National Register of Historic Places.
It is a town that is proud of its progeny. Tops on that list has to be Ms. Leontyne Price, world renowned legend, who was the first African American soprano to be a leading performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She is revered here and there is a park dedicated to her with a huge picture of her stretching more than two stories tall.
It is also abuzz about its current TV notables. Home grown Ben and Erin Napier have the 6-year hit on HGTV called Home Town. Many of you may already watch this. It takes place in Laurel Mississippi.
The town also has a history of entrepreneurial innovation. Laurel was founded by entrepreneurs in the lumber and milling business. that was followed by exploration in oil and gas. The town is still the center of that industry in Mississippi. William Mason figured out what to do with the sawdust from the lumber mills, transforming it into particleboard. The largest manufacturer of transformers in the world resides in Laurel. Sanderson Farms is the country’s third largest chicken producer. Thermo-Kool makes walk-in refrigerators for many of the top restaurants across the country. I visited Central Creativity which has produced pre-arranged classroom lessons, laboratory work, field trips, STEM and STEAM workshops, and more that they ship to school districts and parents all over the United States.
The leadership of the town is proactive. While I was there the Mayor called together all organizations that had anything to do with early learning in order to create a new initiative for the toddlers in the community during those crucially important early years.
I met with the leaders of the school system. The President of the School Board has been doing it for more than 6 years and is also the Pastor of the Agape Church located in downtown.
The Superintendent of Schools is a “can do, call it like you see em” woman who is starting her 5th year. They have much to be proud of, taking a school district that had schools rated F by the state to this year where no schools received an F rating. The district as a whole is celebrating its progress, having moved from an F to a C grade for the first time this year!
Interestingly, the Laurel School District this year decided to significantly alter their school year calendar, starting school in the last week of July and running for 9 weeks in a row and then taking a 2 week break or intersession. The first week of the break is devoted to students that are lagging behind, focusing on the students who need extra time and attention to catch up. The second week is a break for both students and staff, recognizing that everyone needs a break to recharge their batteries. We will see if it helps, but it is innovative for sure.
Each of these leaders is African American. The town is 61% black and 36% white.
Another interesting fact about Jones County where Laurel is situated is that it is the only county in the deep south to my knowledge that seceded from the Confederacy as portrayed in the 2016 movie “The Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey.
Mississippi has a special spot in my heart. In 1964 – 100 years after Jones County seceded from the Confederacy — I traveled from Massachusetts to Mississippi on my spring break from college to help rebuild a Black church that had been torched and burnt to the ground. If you will recall during that year more than 24 churches were set on fire in Mississippi. I will never forget the experience.
On top of all this, the town has the Loren Rodgers Museum which is the first and best Museum in Mississippi. It is an absolute gem. Its ongoing collection with changing exhibitions are something to behold. My favorite right now is there quilting exhibition.
And did I mention that gas is $3.30 at the pump! One half of what it is in California!
One of the interesting eye openers to me was the way that the people in Laurel think about fuel costs, and how this view affects their views on climate change and the Ukrainian crisis. To them they are all tied together.
This area is oil and gas territory. Almost all of the homeowners and property owners in town get a monthly check of some small amount, but nevertheless a monthly check from the oil companies for the right to drill underneath their properties. Oil is viewed as something that is important to their economy and jobs. They feel that right now our nation should be encouraging the oil and gas industry to develop and produce so that we do not have to rely on importing oil from OPEC nations. This in their view would lower the cost of gas and significantly hurt Putin’s attempt to takeover Ukraine. They realize that this approach, in the short term, would not help our efforts to combat climate change.
Bottom line, things are happening in Laurel Mississippi. I found it an interesting and exciting place to be.
7 thoughts on “Mississippi”
This piece on Laurel was interesting and thank you for sharing its history. In 1967 I spent several months on-site in Jackson with your former employer, Booz, Allen. We studied the state of public education in the State of Mississippi. It was an eye-opening project. I would love to meet and pick the brain of the woman who is Superintendent for Schools. Yahoo and way to go for her progress in raising the quality of education.
This was a wonderful post! So much hope in it! I learn something new every time I open up your blog!! Safe travels to your next adventure!
Sounds like a super great place. Wouldn’t it be great if Biden had Laurel’s views.
Thank you for sharing another of you wonderful adventures. It is so full of hope for the people and the town.
Your article on Laurel is so informative, interesting and full of hope. Thanks 😊
I never knew about your ventures down there in the 60s. Must have been a little scary.