Quick. Why did John R. Lynch get a street around Jackson State University named after him? Who is Forrest County named after? How about Duling Avenue in Fondren? Or Alcorn State University?
Don't know? Don't care? Not so fast.
The truth is, a virtual fount of new knowledge—or trivia, depending on how you look at it—awaits if one does a bit of digging into our historically famous, infamous, and sometimes downright obscure place names. Often, you will learn that just because someone was heroic enough, at the time, for a park, a street or even a reservoir to be named after him or her, it doesn't mean that history will always be so kind. Other names will just crack you up.
Of (Some of) The People
The No. 1 entry on the famous/infamous list has to be Andrew Jackson—a hero to many and a shameless robber and killer to others. Our city is named after the seventh president of the United States. Andrew Jackson was first in many respects: the first president to marry a divorced woman, the first to appoint a "Cabinet," the first to be nominated at a national convention, and the first populist president—meaning he wasn't a member of the aristocracy; he was a man of the people. Or, at least many of the people.
Jackson was an enemy to Native Americans, however. He led the "Indian Wars"—the Creek War and the First Seminole War—and signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, leading to tribes' forced evacuation from 100 million acres of their land along the Trail of Tears. In addition to having the capitol city of Mississippi named after him, Jackson is immortalized in a large bust statue tucked behind the Mississippi Museum of Art.
Madison County is named for James Madison, fourth president of the United States, the "father" of the U.S. Constitution, a federalist and a strong proponent of the separation between church and state. Wedged in between Montgomery and Clay counties, Webster County is named for Daniel Webster, an American statesman and a Whig who, as U.S. secretary of state, supervised the enforcement of the brutal Fugitive Slave Act. Newton County is named after Sir Isaac Newton, he of the flowing locks and falling apple. And don't forget Franklin, Hancock and Jefferson counties.
Enemies He Had None
Many Mississippi place names are downright obscure. For instance, Belzoni, a small town in the Delta, is named for a six-foot-seven-inches-tall Italian archeologist, Giovanni Battista Belzoni. Belzoni was also a magician, a barber, a Capuchin monk and a circus strongman ("The Great Belzoni") who discovered six tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.
Closer to home, Hinds County is named for General Thomas Hinds, a former soldier and congressman from Mississippi, who fought with Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. He was defeated by George Poindexter (as in Jackson's Poindexter community and Poindexter Elementary) for governor of Mississippi in 1819. Hinds and Andrew Jackson together negotiated the purchase of land from the Choctaws, a chunk of which became Hinds County, which was named after him in 1821. That year, he also helped choose the present city of Jackson as the state's capitol. He was then elected to Congress in 1827.
Rankin County is named for Christopher Rankin, a U.S. congressman from 1819 to 1826. As reported by The National Intelligencer March 16, 1826, upon the death of Rankin, Mr. Owen, a representative from Alabama, said, "all who knew him were his friends—enemies he had none." Rankin County was created in 1828 from a portion of Hinds County after 31 residents of that side of the Pearl River petitioned the Legislature for their own county seat for convenience sake. The new county seat, Brandon, was named for Gerard C. Brandon, Mississippi governor from 1828-32. Before the white man came, the present site of Brandon had been a major hub of activities for Native Americans, with more than 50 Indian settlements in the area.
Native Americans populated Mississippi long years before the arrival of the white man in the early 1540s when Spaniard Hernando DeSoto is credited with discovering the Mississippi River. What became northern Mississippi was at one time home to the Chickasaws, while the Choctaws lived in the central and southern areas of the state. The Natchez, Biloxi and Pascagoula tribes also lived in what would become the southern part of the state.
Mississippians readily recognize those Indian tribal names as the origin of place names all over the state: Chickasaw County in the northeast, Choctaw County not too far southwest of it and Natchez—the city on the Mississippi River bluffs, understood to mean several things—"warriors of the high bluff," "hurrying men" or "men running to war." Biloxi is said to mean trifling or worthless, or in other instances, "turtle." The city and its casinos thrive on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, along with Pascagoula, which means "bread nation."
Yazoo County and City are named for another tribe of Indians whose name is said to mean "to blow on an instrument." Sartartia, in Yazoo County, comes from an Indian word meaning "pumpkin place." The Tombigbee River that flows through the northeast corner of the state comes from the Indian itumbi-bikpe, meaning "coffin-makers." "Tadpole place" is Yalobusha County, while Coahoma County means "red panther" and Copiah County "means calling panther."
Amite, which is a Mississippi county and river, as well as a Jackson street, was derived from the name the French gave the river—in commemoration of the friendly manner in which they were received by the Indians. The Natchez Trace was named for the same Indian tribe as the city, its southernmost point.
Several other intriguing meanings of Indian words used in Mississippi, the reason for their choice in the first place now long forgotten, include the Chickasaw County town of Okolona, "much bent"; Pachuta, a Choctaw word for "Possum Creek"; and Noxubee, "stinking water." The origins of these place names, along with many others—not only Indian words—were gathered by Henry Gannett, chief geographer for the United States Geological Survey from 1882-1914.
Taking Their Stand
Some places in Mississippi are named after the infamous, such as Forrest County, the home of Hattiesburg and the University of Southern Mississippi. The county is named for Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. The county was carved out of Perry County in 1906, and named for the famed Civil War calvaryman, and wealthy Memphis businessman, who started the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tenn., in May 1866 to terrorize Southern blacks who tried to claim their rights during Reconstruction.
The Ross R. Barnett Reservoir, which was named for the controversial 52nd governor of Mississippi, was completed in 1965 by impounding the Pearl River between Madison and Rankin Counties and has 105 miles of shoreline. The Pearl River Valley Water Supply District was the state agency created to construct and oversee the 33,000-acre reservoir and—according to Mary Merk, with Jackson City Planning—was the state agency that chose to name the reservoir after Barnett.
Barnett, of course, is remembered for the defiant stand he took during the controversy surrounding James Meredith's seeking admission into the University of Mississippi Law School in 1962, which would make him the first black student at the college. During a television speech, the governor said: "No Caucasian race (has) yet survived social integration. We will not drink from the cup of genocide." He pledged that no Mississippi school would be integrated during his term as governor. Barnett's rhetoric won him much support and approval among white Mississippians who were overwhelmingly opposed to integration of any kind.
Today, driving north from Jackson on Interstate 55, a green traffic sign points one way to the Ross Barnett Reservoir and the other to the historically black Tougaloo College, where much of the Civil Rights Movement was centered in the 1960s.
Resistance to Tyranny'
The ebullient Mississippi U.S. Sen. James Eastland has been a favorite honoree in the state—from Eastland Drive in Pearl to the James O. Eastland Federal Courthouse at 245 E. Capitol St. in Jackson to the James O. Eastland Law Library at Ole Miss. But even as blacks and whites alike file in and out of the buildings named for the late Doddsville plantation owner, history remembers the man as a strident racist and one of the most outspoken opponents of civil rights. He is renown for his statements concerning the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared school segregation to be unconstitutional. Eastland called Brown illegal and proclaimed that "resistance to tyranny is obedience to God."
Eastland did not mince words when it came to his feelings about the races mingling. He testified to the U.S. Senate 10 days after the Brown decision came down: "The Southern institution of racial segregation or racial separation was the correct, self-evident truth which arose from the chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction period. Separation promotes racial harmony. It permits each race to follow its own pursuits, and its own civilization. Segregation is not discrimination. … Mr. President, it is the law of nature, it is the law of God, that every race has both the right and the duty to perpetuate itself. All free men have the right to associate exclusively with members of their own race, free from governmental interference, if they so desire."
Eastland also withdrew his son and daughter from the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington because one black child had been admitted into kindergarten there. Eastland, then the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, is also known for making deals with the Kennedys. For instance, in order to get President Kennedy the conservative judge Harold Cox—Eastland's roommate at Ole Miss—to the federal district court, Eastland promised Robert Kennedy that he would help get Brown lawyer Thurgood Marshall a judgeship: "Tell your brother that if he will give me Harold Cox, I will give him the n*gger." Cox got that seat and, ironically, presided over the federal conspiracy trials in the Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner case, which led to federal prison time for some of the Klansmen.
It is a particular irony that the name of a man who so opposed federal presence in Mississippi of any kind now adorns the federal courthouse building in Jackson.
Real Heroes Please Stand Up
Lest one think that all Mississippi does is immortalize scoundrels by naming our institutions after them, it's important to note that within Jackson there are a number of streets, bridges and schools named for demonstrably heroic people—then and now.
A portion of U. S. Highway 49 that runs northward out of Jackson was re-named in honor of civil rights martyr Medgar Evers, who was shot in the back at his home at 2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive near what is now known as Freedom Corner—the intersection of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards. In addition, Evers has two public buildings named in his honor, the downtown post office (named by Congress) and the library near Freedom Corner (named by the city).
Last December, Ineva May-Pittman petitioned the Jackson City Council to consider renaming the Jackson International Airport as the Medgar Evers International Airport. After much debate, including chants that renaming the airport somehow "opened old wounds"—a compromise was reached in January. The airport will now be called the Jackson-Evers International Airport. At about the same time, in his home county of Newton, Evers was also being honored. City officials declared the interchange at I-20 and Mississippi Highway15 the Medgar Evers Memorial Interchange. Evers, who grew up in Decatur, attended Newton schools.
Several other African Americans have their names honored in Jackson. Cool Papa Bell Drive—named after Starkville native James "Cool Papa" Bell, a Hall of Fame outfielder who played for five teams in the Negro National League—leads to Smith Wills Stadium off of Lakeland Drive. There is Isaiah Montgomery Street in downtown Jackson, named for a former slave of Jefferson Davis. In the 1880s, Montgomery led a movement to establish a black community in the Delta. Mound Bayou is still there, and his house is a national historic landmark.
Jackson has J.R. Lynch Street, named after John Roy Lynch, a Natchez house slave whose main chore was fanning the dinner table. Born into slavery in Louisiana, Lynch moved to Natchez after he was freed and studied photography and became a justice of the peace.
During Reconstruction, Lynch was elected to the state Legislature and was briefly speaker of the house. In 1872, Lynch became Mississippi's first black U.S. Congressman and at 25, the youngest man yet elected. He was re-elected once, but was defeated in 1880 after Reconstruction ended and blacks were forced out of office and under Jim Crow rule. In 1884, he was the temporary chairman of the national Republican Party.
The McCoy Federal Building at 100 West Capitol St. in Jackson provides some karmic balance for the Eastland Courthouse a few blocks down the street. Dr. A. H. McCoy was a dentist, business leader and once president of the state NAACP. Born into a prosperous black family in Jackson, he was educated at Tougaloo College and then the Meharry Medical College in Nashville. In 1938, he founded the Security Life Insurance Company. McCoy, like many prominent blacks, though had to face down a determined enemy; after he stood up for civil rights, his home was fired into by a group of angry whites, with a bullet only barely missing his toddler daughter. In 1982, 12 years after his death, a group of black Jacksonians asked Hinds County Supervisor George Smith to help them name the first federal building in the nation after an African American.
Nearby at 528 Bloom St., the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center is named for the first black city councilman, who served from 1893 to 1899. The Smith Robertson Elementary School opened in 1894 as the first school in the city for black children. Writer Richard Wright is the school's most famous alumnus. The school closed in 1971, the year that the Supreme Court forced Mississippi to integrate its public schools.
The Politics of Naming
Naming, and re-naming, public buildings, streets, bridges and other facilities can be a contentious process—probably because different people have different heroes. However, the reason given is often technical. For instance, much of the opposition to re-naming the Jackson airport after Evers focused on the fact that the name would be confusing because Jackson would no longer be part of the official name under the original proposal (much as Washington is not in the name the Ronald Reagan National Airport).
In 1999, city council members Kenneth Stokes and Ben Allen came to odds over the issue renaming. Stokes wanted three Jackson bridges renamed after black ministers, but other council members wanted the renaming of the bridges to be postponed until the city revamped its renaming process, making it more formalized. Stokes accused the other council members of racism, and Allen responded that the accusation was "ridiculous." Still, the bridges were re-named and the city got a more formalized renaming process that is in use today.
"Most states have certain formalized rules. It is done consistently," said Merk of City Planning. She explained that the Jackson process is a long one. "Renaming doesn't happen overnight."
So how do Jackson streets get their names? "In residential areas, the development process is such where land is subdivided and the developers choose street names. The process changes as years go by," Merk said. "Streets aren't named arbitrarily. City Council has a committee. Individuals can request a name change. There is an expense involved. You have to take into consideration emergency factors, such as making sure ambulances know how to get to newly named streets. "
The fee has seesawed back and forth since 1999 when the City Council voted unanimously to reduce the cost of petitioning to rename a street from $100 to $50. Then in 2001, the council decided to raise the cost from $50 to $150, and also added a variety of stipulations to the renaming process.
A School By Any Other Name
Schools in Jackson, like in many places, are often named to honor educators. Duling School, now home to Jackson Public Schools' Career Academic Placement Program, is on Duling Avenue in Fondren. Both are named in honor of Lorena Duling, who taught in the Jackson Public School System for 53 years, until 1942. She was also the first principal in Jackson to provide free lunches to underprivileged children, using her own money for years until the school board decided to finance school-lunch programs.
Lanier High School and Lanier Avenue are named for William Henry Lanier, born a slave in Huntsville, Ala., in 1851. Lanier became president of what was then Alcorn A&M College, now Alcorn University (and named for Whig James Lusk Alcorn, the state's 21st governor who supported rights for African Americans, saying the alternative was that the road ahead would be "red with blood and damp with tears.") At one point in his career, Lanier served as principal of Smith Robertson School.
According to Spann Elementary School principal Darlene Harmon, her Northeast Jackson school is named for Rankin County native and Millsaps graduate Pearl Spann in honor of her dedication to educating young people. Spann's Web site says Susie Pearl Spann taught continuously for 47 years until she retired for health reasons.
Built in 1966, Callaway High School is also named for an educator—Robert M. Callaway. Minnie Dameron Sykes Elementary School is named for a Jackson Public Schools classroom teacher whose career spanned 28 years. The school was built in 1951. Brinkley Middle School, located in the Medgar Evers Historic Neighborhood District, is named for Samuel Manuel Brinkley, an African American educator. Brinkley was teaching principal at Hill School, Jackson Public School's first organized junior high school for African Americans.
From the Ross Barnett Reservoir to Spann Elementary, it is clear that much—much history, emotion, planning, pride, even ignorance—is behind the choices of names for public institutions in the state and the city.
There's a Chinese proverb that says, "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names." Or, perhaps, the beginning of wisdom is to at least know why things are called what they are.
For instance, much of the opposition to re-naming the Jackson airport after Evers focused on the fact that the name would be confusing because Jackson would no longer be part of the official name under the original proposal (much as Washington is not in the name the Ronald Reagan National Airport).
Contrary to what you often see written in the media (even the Washington Post consistently gets it wrong), the name of the airport is now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, as can be seen here. :-)
- Tim Kynerd
...Hinds County is named for General Thomas Hinds,... who fought with Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. He was defeated by George Poindexter... for governor of Mississippi in 1919.
So... Hinds was more than 107 years old when he ran for governor?
Hinds and Poindexter ran for governor in 1819 with Poindexter serving in that office from 1820-1822. Governors served three-year terms at that time rather than the contemproary four-year terms.
Oops, thanks, GDI. I'll fix the typo in the above copy as well.
And it sounds like the Washington airport has as much of a clunker of a name as Jackson does now. Still, nice to see Evers in it.
Otherwise, all, please share other name origins. There was no way to hit them all, of course. Go crazy.
The Mississippi Geneological Society has a webpage of Gannett's 1902 compilation of place names. Its far from exhaustive but fun to look at.
My only nitpick was that I thought Hinds was only a Colonel, not a General. That's what I've seen in some history books, if you can trust them. ;)
I've never heard any serious discussion of how my hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi got its name. Even the town's only history, The Red Clay Hills of Neshoba, says no one really knows. But the same book says that before Philadelphia was founded another had been founded earlier by a native of Camden, New Jersey. He named his little town Camden in honor of his old home. Now that I live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it's so obvious. Camden, NJ is right across the Delaware River from Philly. Philadelphia, MS was probably named because it was right next to Camden, MS, I suspect. Can anyone else shed any insight into this?
- Mark Michalovic