The Trouble With ‘Ole Miss’

Historians in the News
tags: education, Confederacy, Mississippi

Jemar Tisby has an unusual problem for a graduate student: He is so troubled by his university’s widely used nickname that he refuses to use it. A black doctoral student in history at the flagship public university of a state that is 38 percent black, Tisby speaks all 11 syllables of the official name, the University of Mississippi, to avoid saying Ole Miss. He can’t take full pride in this campus because it embraces the nickname. He won’t buy Ole Miss swag.

His reason: “Ole Miss” is what enslaved people called the wife of their owner. The term, to Tisby, evokes the degrading hierarchy of plantation life. It “harkens back to a day when black people were considered property, and is a constant reminder that the university, the state, and the nation at large has yet to reckon with its racist history,” he says. 

That reckoning may be coming. The University of Mississippi is at an inflection point in its decades-long struggle to disentangle itself from racially offensive symbols. It retired the Colonel Reb mascot, silenced the football staple “Dixie,” disavowed the Confederate flag, lowered the Confederate-themed state flag, and placed its Confederate statue on a path to relocation. Now some students, professors, and outside scholars are calling for the university to finally confront what some describe as “the third rail”: its name.

The university’s leaders know the nickname is a problem. Their own consultants told them that years ago. They’re also keen to promote a more inclusive environment at an institution that remains plagued by racist episodes. But they face pressure from wealthy alumni who oppose changing symbols, as well as from within a campus Greek system that is also perceived as wedded to Old South traditions. The university has responded by acting like the problem doesn’t exist.

There are no sit-ins about changing the Ole Miss name, no marches, no shouting into megaphones, at least not yet. This emergent confrontation is still a small collection of voices. What they want is to puncture the silence that preserves the status quo.

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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