Released June 21, 2003

SOUTHERN MISS ANTHROPOLOGY STUDENTS
STUDYING HATTIESBURG'S HISTORICAL RICHES
By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG - When Lillie McLaurin first started selling newspapers out of her home on Mobile Street, her neighborhood was both alive with opportunity and awash in activity. Restaurants, clothing stores, churches - all the ingredients of a vibrant, thriving community - lined the street that made her home the center of the economic and cultural universe for many African-Americans in Hattiesburg.

Fifty years later, at the age of 90, McLaurin is still going strong, selling copies of the Hattiesburg American from a stand that sits in her doorway. Only the neighborhood has changed.

"I started selling newspapers fifty years ago, and I stuck with it because I liked meeting new people," said McLaurin, surrounded by stacks of checks, subscription receipts and unpaid bills clustered around the couch she uses as an office. "You can learn a lot from people if you listen."

Now, anthropology students at The University of Southern Mississippi are trying to do the same. As part of a research project known as "ethnography," 13 students from the Department of Anthropology and Sociology are spending time with the residents of the Mobile-Bouie Street district to absorb as much of their rich history as possible.

"Anthropologists usually go to far-off lands and study exotic people and their cultural knowledge and practices," said Dr. Jeffrey Kaufmann, associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of the Mississippi Ethnographic Field School. "But the great thing about anthropology is that it is possible to do an ethnography on the street over from where one lives."
Starting June 16, students from Southern Miss extended their class project into the homes of a few Mobile-Bouie Street residents. For two weeks, these teams of students will help the residents with their chores, have conversations, build rapport and make friendships, Kaufmann said. "They will observe and gather knowledge about what living in the Mobile-Bouie area has been like for the resident."

From this research and observation, the students are planning a scrapbook of memories, both past and present, which they will present to the Mobile-Bouie Street Association, City Hall and Southern Miss.

In addition to helping, listening and learning this week, senior Pat Huff of Natchez constructed an extensive genealogical tree for McLaurin - no small undertaking considering her long lineage.

"Once it was completed, with all the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, from a historical and human sense, the scope of her involvement in that neighborhood is so impressive," Huff said.

Anna Warren, 23, of Magee, said her host was slow to warm, but once she did, "Ms. Lillie began to trust us with things you felt she wouldn't just tell anybody."

A historical black neighborhood and the site of the 40th anniversary of Freedom Summer (1964), the Mobile-Bouie Street district is almost as old as Hattiesburg itself. Once a bustling center of commerce and entertainment, the area changed rapidly and considerably after desegregation, Huff said, as "the black dollar" was able to go beyond the Mobile-Bouie Street neighborhood.

"I guess you'd call it 'creative destruction,'" Huff said. "That means when one thing is destroyed, another is created, and you just hope that the thing being created outweighs the thing being destroyed."

Although McLaurin readily admits her neighborhood looks nothing like what she remembers when she first started selling papers, she has seen signs of recent improvements. "I was able to get a burger over here for the first time in years," McLaurin said, referring to a treat Warren had brought her from a new local eatery this week. Asked if she thinks Mobile-Bouie Street is poised for a return to its former glory, McLaurin nodded her head firmly as if to say "of course."

"I hear they're fixing up the Eureka school," she said. "That tells me the city cares about what's going on down here."

Wielding a flyswatter she uses to ward of flies and to "give whippings," the former nursery-school owner who attended Jackson State University to study elementary education can still cast an imposing posture, as Warren was quick to learn.

"It was sort of intimidating at first," Warren said, "and then you realize that these are important people who lead extraordinary lives. Some of them are so advanced in years that it's important we preserve some of their experiences for future generations."

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July 15, 2003 2:29 PM

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