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“Gene Taylor: South Mississippi’s Choice for U.S. Congress, 1989-2011” on exhibit at USM’s McCain Library and Archives

Wed, 01/31/2024 - 11:52am | By: Lorraine Stuart

An exhibition drawn from the extensive papers of former U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor maintained by the University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) Special Collections is open for viewing through March 22 in the McCain Library and Archives building.

Rep. Taylor, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1989-2011. After graduating from Tulane University, he served 10 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. He entered political life as a councilman for the city of Bay St. Louis in 1981. He served in the Mississippi State Senate from 1984-1989, and in 1989 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for more than 21 years as representative for the 5th (1989-2003) and 4th (2003-2011) Congressional districts. Rep. Taylor also did graduate study in business administration at USM.

As a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Taylor exercised Congressional oversight for conflicts from Kosovo-Bosnia to Iraq and Afghanistan. In the advent of armed conflicts, he defended the Constitutional role of Congress in declaring war and the maintenance of active military bases in the homeland when others were calling for their closure. He was widely known for his support of military servicemen, leading legislative efforts to provide protective gear to troops and to increase benefits to active-duty troops and reservists.

As a former Coast Guard serviceman, Rep. Taylor was particularly interested in shipbuilding. He is credited with revitalizing U.S. commercial shipbuilding in Mississippi and beyond through the establishment of a federal loan program in 1993. Other efforts to increase economic development in his district focused on the military industry.

During his tenure, Rep. Taylor faced not only the challenges of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath, but the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 on his district.

“I have never said this publicly, but when Hurricane Katrina struck South Mississippi, I was grateful that I was no longer a freshman member of Congress,” he said. “When Katrina hit, I was the senior guy in the Mississippi House delegation. Thankfully, along the way I had gotten over being intimidated by senior officers of the Armed Forces. I did not hesitate to call on them for their help.”

Rep. Taylor praised members of National Guard units from across the country who came to Mississippi to aid in recovery efforts following the storm, per his request at the time. More than half of Mississippi’s National Guard members were deployed to Iraq at the time the storm hit, requiring the need of additional assistance for local responders attempting to alleviate Katrina’s impacts to residents and local businesses.

“It’s impossible for me to fully express how great a job the National Guard did in the aftermath of Katrina,” Taylor said. “One example was in my hometown of Bay St. Louis, where as a result of the storm, almost every street was blocked by downed trees, telephone poles and the remnants of people’s houses. Help could not get in, and those needing help could not get out.

“I knew from my old days as a Bay St. Louis councilman that there were then over 60 miles of streets in the city, almost all of them blocked. Within three days of their (out-of-state National Guard soldiers) arrival, the National Guard had cleared a path of at least one lane of traffic down every street. That was a remarkable achievement that probably resulted in saving lives after the storm.” Following immediate recovery efforts, Rep. Taylor continued to advocate tirelessly for those who had lost homes and businesses in the storm.

The exhibition highlights major themes of Congressman Taylor’s tenure with select documents and artifacts. A listening center and research table are also installed in the gallery to allow visitors to spend more time learning about the congressman’s perspective on the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina. Augmenting the archival material are recent quotes provided by the former U.S. representative.

The papers, which measure over 120 feet, recently underwent detailed processing, an intensive procedure of arrangement and description. A finding aid providing a folder-level description is available. 

“The material that is being exhibited in the gallery is only a slim fraction of the entire collection,” said USM Professor Lorraine A. Stuart, head of Special Collections. “Having the Gene Taylor Papers available for research presents incredible opportunities for University of Southern Mississippi’s students and faculty. By featuring them, I hope to raise awareness of this very rich resource. The papers have amazing depth for those interested in the legislative process. as well as specific historic events and economic development in the State.”

The exhibit is open by appointment Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. For individual, group, or class viewing, please schedule a time 24 hours in advance.