A Book Marks the Spot: Mississippi Writers Trail, Chapter 1

The Mississippi Arts Commission believes the state’s greatest asset is its story. Now, along with our partners, we have embarked on a project that honors our greatest storytellers.

Similar to the Mississippi Blues Trail and other cultural trails, the Mississippi Writers Trail will pay tribute to the state’s most acclaimed and influential writers by recognizing their work through a series of historical markers placed across the state. These markers, shaped like an open book, will educate the public and highlight information about Mississippi authors; from legends such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty to award-winning contemporary writers like Natasha Tretheway, Richard Ford and Jesmyn Ward.

The Mississippi Writers Trail started out as many cultural projects do: an idea sparks, a conversation unfolds, momentum builds, partnerships form, and fundraising begins. The Mississippi Writers Trail received a huge boost when the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded its first Statehood grant of $30,000 to the Misissippi Humanities Council to fund the initial phase of the project. NEH’s Statehood Grants help fund state history and heritage projects that commemorate the 150th and 200th anniversaries of statehood.

Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities Jon Parrish Peede and Executive Director of the Mississippi Humanities Council at the unveiling of the first permanent Mississippi Writers Trail marker honoring Eudora Welty

Along with our partners Community Foundation for Mississippi, Mississippi Book Festival, Mississippi Humanities Council, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Mississippi Library Commission and Visit Mississippi, MAC prepared to launch the Mississippi Writers Trail at the 2018 Mississippi Book Festival with the unveiling of two marker prototypes in front of a live national audience (via CSPAN).

The Launch

On August 18, 2018, the Mississippi Writers Trail was featured as part of the opening ceremony for the Mississippi Book Festival as the first two prototypes for the Mississippi Writers Trail markers were unveiled. Dignitaries and members of the public packed into the State Capitol as CSPAN cameras captured the ceremony live for the world to see.

Holly Lange, the Book Festival’s director; Greg Snowden, Speaker Pro Tempore of the Mississippi House of Representatives; Bobby Morgan, representing the office of Governor Phil Bryant; and Jesmyn Ward, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the National Book Award for Fiction, one by one took the stage to say a few words about Mississippi writers and their legacy.

Perhaps the most poignant of those remarks came from Jesmyn Ward, who recited an essay written about her choice to return to Mississippi. Beautifully invoking the state’s natural beauty and the warmth of its people, Jesmyn stated:

“It is the beauty of the place. It is the fierce fight of so many here to do everything they can to make a better future for Mississippi that make me feel secure in my decision to return.”

These sentiments were followed by the unveiling of the Eudora Welty prototype by Mary Alice White, representing the Welty family alongside Craig Ray, executive director of Visit Mississippi and Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council. Jesmyn Ward and her family alongside U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, Writers Trail project manager Wanda Clark and MAC’s executive director Malcolm White unveiled the prototype of Ward’s future marker along the trail.

The First Marker – Eudora Welty

The first permanent Mississippi Writers Trail marker honoring Eudora Welty was unveiled on September 10 at the Eudora Welty House and Garden in Jackson’s historic Belhaven neighborhood. Officials and scholars spoke at the event, including National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman and Mississippi native Jon Peede, Governor Phil Bryant, Visit Mississippi Director Craig Ray, Mississippi Humanities Council Director Stuart Rockoff, Mississippi Department of Archives and History Director Katie Blount,  Jackon Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Welty Scholar and Millsaps College Professor Emerita Suzanne Marrs, and Chair of the Tougaloo College English Department and Welty Scholar Ebony Lumumba.

Executive Director of the Mississippi Humanities Council Dr. Stuart Rockoff served as emcee for the event

Suzanne Marrs, who wrote the text displayed on the Welty marker, spoke of the hallowed ground on which the marker was placed, the sense of place evoked in Welty’s prose and the humility the celebrated author often displayed (her Pulitizer Prize was stored in a closet). Jon Parrish Peede humorously recalled one of the greatest accomplishments of his federal career as unearthing one of the only, if not the only, film of Eudora Welty reading her work. Governor Phil Bryant took the opportunity to call NEH’s investment in the Mississippi Writers Trail “a very good investment.”

Leading Welty Scholar Suzanne Marrs makes remarks to the crowd.

National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jon Parrish Peede addresses the crowd.

Mary Alice Welty White, neice of Eudora Welty, surrounded by her family, did the honors of unveiling the marker with much fanfare.

Governor Phil Bryant and other dignitaries admire the first marker of the Mississippi Writers Trail.

The Mississippi Arts Commission is proud to have played a role in making the Mississippi Writers Trail a reality, and we are looking forward to placing many more markers around the state, honoring our greatest storytellers one book-shaped marker at a time.

Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities Jon Parrish Peede, Eudora Welty’s neice Mary Alice White, and MAC Executive Director Malcolm White

What’s next?

As work continues to select and prioritize authors, the Mississippi Arts Commission seeks funding to support the trail. If you would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to the Mississippi Writers Trail, please make checks payable to “Community Foundation for Mississippi” and include “Writers Trail Fund” in the memo line of the check. Please mail to the Community Foundation for Mississippi at 119 South President Street, 1st Floor, Jackson, MS 39201.

The Mississippi Writers Trail is a joint effort from the Mississippi Arts Commission, Visit Mississippi, the Mississippi Humanities Council, MS Department of History and Archives, the Library Commission and the Mississippi Book Festival with financial support from the National Endowment for Humanities.