For the twenty-seventh time, this year 41 students at MSMS will explore history as well as honor people buried in historic Friendship Cemetery by attempting to uncover and tell their life stories as well as the story of this community’s historic development.
The Egyptians believed that when you said a person’s name aloud you were granting that person immortality. And William Faulkner has written that “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” Additionally, Edward Ayers, a Pulitzer-prize finalist and Historian at the University of Virginia, argues that all history is local history writ large.
Recognizing a convergence of these three beliefs, for 26 years, students at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science have honored those buried in historic Friendship Cemetery and explored their regional and national relevance by attempting to uncover and tell their life stories and place them in the context of their times.
The project has been a successful partnership between MSMS, the Columbus-Lowndes County Library, and the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation (formerly the Columbus Historic Foundation). It has received national and regional awards while also gaining recognition through imitation and publicity throughout the country.
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour once said that Mississippi needs examples of excellence to which to aspire. Tales from the Crypt has proven to be one such example.
The research and dramatic performance project is the brainchild of founding MSMS faculty member, Mississippi Master Teacher, and long-time Columbus resident Carl Butler. For the past 15 years, the program has developed further under the direction of MSMS History teacher Chuck Yarborough.
This year 67 11th grade US History students at MSMS are participating in research and development of the project.
Following an introduction to the project and a brief overview of Columbus history, each student selects the name of a person buried in Friendship Cemetery (from a master list of over 100 – not previously researched) who died in the nineteenth or early twentieth century (prior to 1930). Students then visit the gravesite of their research subject in order to begin the research process.
During the fall semester, each student conducts primary and secondary source research in the local archives of the Columbus/Lowndes County public library (which are phenomenal as a result of our county having the only county Department of Archives and History in Mississippi in the late 1970s), the Lowndes County courthouse records, the special collections at nearby Mississippi State University and the Mississippi University for Women, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, and additional archives as revealed by each student’s work.
From their research, students write a research paper exploring the life of their research subject and placing their subject in the larger historical context of their day.
"If You Know It, Tell It!"
Mississippi's Pulitzer Prize winner Eudora Welty said there is a Mississippi saying, “If you know it, tell it!”
In early January, student researchers begin to do exactly that! Each student will develop a character and write an original monologue script conveying the student's interpretation of significant events which influenced and were influenced by their research subject. Mr. Yarborough as well as previous Tales participants assist students as they develop their character for audition.
In auditions, 9 or 10 students will be selected based upon dramatic performance potential and historical accuracy. These students will develop their characters further and hone their performances in production teams with fellow students, under the direction of their MSMS History teacher. (Students who are not selected to perform their character continue to participate in the project as production team members. These students also learn parts as narrators/guides for the performances during evening tours.)
This year during Columbus' 2016 Spring Pilgrimage, MSMS students will perform the 26th annual Tales from the Crypt by candlelight in Friendship Cemetery. Performers will tell their stories on the gravesite of the individual researched and student guides lead groups of tourists through the cemetery, introducing them to Columbus and Mississippi History.
Incorporating dramatic performance into a History research program, MSMS has created an opportunity for students and their audiences to explore our cultural and mental roots from different viewpoints. Tales from the Crypt performances create a space in which the performers and the audiences are allowed the freedom to twist and play with their conceptions and where they are temporarily free to create new realizations and new levels of understanding.
Tales from the Crypt performances will be March 30, April 1, 4, 6, & 8, Spring 2016.
Annually, between two and three thousand visitors tour Friendship Cemetery and experience the performances! As a community service project, admission is kept low so entire families can afford to come enjoy the show – only $5 for adults with a discounted price for students.
The affordable admission covers performance costs and usually generates a small profit. Half of the profits from the project are donated to projects selected by the students. In 2016, Tales students donated over $6,600 to charitable causes including the Columbus Boys & Girls Club; the Fisher House Foundation; the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation; and the Jaceman Project.
In 2011 Tales students donated $2,500 to the Mississippi Red Cross for Disaster Relief in the wake of spring tornados. The 2010 and 2009 Tales students donated $4,500 to Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s Mississippi Edition to support that radio program’s emphasis on Mississippi’s culture and politics. The remaining half of the profits is donated each year to the area non-profit Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation to support its on-going local preservation and historical education efforts.
Other recent donation recipients have included the Palmer Home for Children in Columbus; funds for an historic marker at the childhood home of Richard Wright in Natchez, MS; funds to purchase a slave record manual and other resources for the Columbus/Lowndes Country Archives; and funds for an historic marker at the downtown Jewish business complex in Port Gibson, MS.