The Lyceum: A Story of Prominence and Pain

By: Abbie McIntosh, Brianna Bynum, and Kathryn Abernathy

The Lyceum on a fall afternoon. Shot on November 29, 2017. Photo take by Abbie McIntosh.

When one thinks of The University of Mississippi they often visualize the Lyceum. Being the oldest building on the campus, the Lyceum was added in the summer of 1848 and has become a symbol for the University.

The Lyceum is the lone survivor of the six original buildings that were added to the campus and even though it is such a staple for the University’s image, it is in the process of being contextualized.

“Contextualization is a process by which university’s administration thought it was the best way to approach items on our campus, places on campus, locations, and buildings that kind of have a trouble past in which they clearly have divisive racial connotation to them”, Dr. Charles Ross, chair of the African American Studies Program and a member of the contexualition committee on campus, said.

Architect William Nichols, of the Olmestead Firm, designed the Lyceum and used slave labor to construct it when work began in 1846.

“That story needs to be apart of the overall history of that structure,” Ross said. “It’s the oldest structure on our campus, an administrative building, has six columns, it’s on t-shirts, it’s a symbol that represents the university on letterheads and corresponding literature, but the side of that the story about how this structure actually came about and the individuals that were directly involved in helping create it, and the sacrifices they made, that is something that is not apart of the mainstream narrative so that is why the particular building was included.”

Due to its longstanding history, the Lyceum has become such a prominent building. The building was used during the Civil War as a hospital for Confederate and Union soldiers and became an important place during the James Meredith riots.

James Meredith was the first African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. His enrollment sparked controversy and riots in October of 1962.

“The Lyceum was the centerpiece of the James Meredith riots because the registration office was in the Lyceum at that time,” Dewey Knight, Associate Director of Student Success and First-Year Experience, said. “In order to register for class he had to go into that building, and the two sides of people, people who supported his admission and those who didn’t, gathered and we got into this riot.”

Due to this association with the Civil Rights Movement from James Meredith and it’s historic 169 year old age, the Lyceum was named a United States National landmark in October of 2008.

“That’s the reason why when we restored it in 1999 and 2000, it took a year longer because when you do a historic restoration you have to put the building back to the original as closely as you can,” Knight said. “The sheer presence it bears on that circle, every student that has ever been to this university they identify with that building.”

Having this significant title has made it even more important for people to have the Lyceum contextualized.

“It’s not simply white southerners, but African Americans and other individuals that are very aware of the history of the confederacy, what it stood for and how it was created,” Ross said.

There have been discussions to place a plaque on the Lyceum that will tell the story of those individual slave workers who were rented out.

“Our committee has not been given the responsibility of making sure that these plaques are constructed and seen that those plaques are placed in certain locations,” Ross said. “Our committee was given the responsibility of coming up with the language.”

Ross said they gave the University’s administration their wording for the plaques this May and now it’ll be the administration’s job to make the plaque a reality and to tell this story of the Lyceum.

Ambassador and junior psychology and nursing student Amelia DeWitt is required to bring tour groups inside the Lyceum and say what it is. Once inside, it’s up to her what stories she wants to tell.

“I think people have the right to know what has happened within the Lyceum walls, and during the past three years of giving tours I have never had negative feedback about any of the stories I have told about the Lyceum,” DeWitt said. “It is an important part of campus, and most people are intrigued by the past of it.”

The University has been known to have controversial past when it comes to race and Ross is very adamant that the University needs to do more than just contextualize.

“I’m ambivalent because I think that contextualization has been used as a justification for not doing more,” Ross said. “People like myself that have been here for a number of years the one thing that is very frustrating is this continuing perception the University of Mississippi has, that it drags its feet and its reluctant and not very proactive on issues of race.”