CLEVELAND, Miss. — Recently, the 11th year of the nationally acclaimed Most Southern Place on Earth workshops for K-12 educators wrapped up its final week. The workshops are produced by the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Landmarks of American History grant program. Videos, photos, and educational resources from the workshops are available on the Delta Center’s website at deltacenterdsu.com/mostsouthern.
Across one week in June and another in July, over 70 K-12 educators from throughout the U.S. participated in these immersive, Mississippi Delta-based experiential learning workshops. By engaging with scholars and community storytellers illuminating the history and culture of the region, the NEH Most Southern participants become educational and cultural ambassadors for the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area, carrying transformative lessons and insights back to their own school communities, families, and friends.
“We were proud to host yet another impressive cohort of NEH Most Southern scholars,” said Dr. Rolando Herts, director of the Delta Center. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, NEH provided options for presenting the workshops virtually. Ultimately, we postponed until this summer, because the workshops create powerful opportunities for Delta community members to take pride in and share their cultural heritage stories in person.”
Both workshops opened with a community welcome reception at the Martin and Sue King Railroad Museum in downtown Cleveland as they prepared for an impactful and unforgettable experience.
When asked why he wanted to attend, Ryan Scott, a high school teacher in the Mississippi Delta said, “Teaching the kids here, and having learned so much about the world they live in, I see how much they don’t get to see themselves in the curriculum they’re taught.”
Many participants had never visited the South before attending the workshops.
“This experiential learning program is about power of place,” said Lee Aylward, who co-directed the workshops with Dr. Herts. “You have to be here on the ground to really experience and learn about the Mississippi Delta. You need to feel the heat and humidity, smell the dirt, hear sounds of nature, and interact with the people of the Delta.”
Over the course of the workshops, educators had the opportunity to visit historically significant landmarks throughout the Mississippi Delta. They discussed various events and topics that are critical to understanding the Delta’s – and the nation’s – culture and history, including the Great Migration, poverty, religion, the Flood of 1927, agriculture, the Civil Rights Movement, foodways, the Blues, and the Delta Chinese, Jews, and Italians.
A July workshop participant reflected, “I put my feet in the Mississippi River, sat in the courtroom where Emmett Till’s murderers were tried, and toured Mound Bayou. All these experiences and more moved knowledge from my head to my heart. Physically being in an area expands your worldview. Now, images from the internet are replaced with actual experience. It’s invaluable.”
These educational opportunities were enriched by first-hand accounts from those who experienced important historic events, several of which are not commonly found in classroom textbooks. Examples included Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Charles McLaurin, 1969 Delta State sit-in participants Maggie Crawford and Lula Orsby-Jones, and Reverend Wheeler Parker, the cousin of Emmett Till whose brutal lynching sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement.
The visiting scholars also learned about present-day cultural life in the Mississippi Delta through community engagement events that the Delta Center arranged in collaboration with various partners.
In June, they attended Delta State University’s first-ever Juneteenth celebration sponsored by the Office of Academic Affairs and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. Workshop participant Kesiena Willis from Indianapolis, Indiana, honored African American ancestors by singing Negro spirituals “Give Me Jesus” and “Deep River” during the program.
On Mound Bayou’s Founders’ Day in July, the educators attended a screening of the documentary “Promised Land: A Story About Mound Bayou” at the Delta Health Center with support from the Mound Bayou Civic Club. An earlier community screening was held in June at Delta State with support from the City of Cleveland. Both screenings were supported by the Mississippi Humanities Council. The film was produced by Red Squared Productions from Jackson.
“The conference at Mound Bayou was unlike anything I’ll ever experience again – incredible,” said a July participant.
After visiting the National Civil Rights Museum and the Stax Museum in Memphis, both June and July cohorts stopped in Clarksdale and watched StoryWorks Theater perform powerful excerpts from the Hair-Itage Project, a project funded by the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area.
“I was uprooted in Clarksdale by the theater/writing/art group of collaborators,” said a June participant. “I would drive through Clarksdale and understand it to be another modest Mississippi hamlet, but I would have been completely wrong. It makes me wonder how many other towns are the same way – a little rundown on the outside, but golden within.”
The NEH scholars also experienced a historic panel discussion at the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, a principal site of the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument recently designated by President Joe Biden. The panel featured Emmett Till’s cousin Reverend Wheeler Parker with Keena Graham, superintendent of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument, and Benjamin Saulsberry and Reverend Willie Williams of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center and Commission. The Mississippi Delta Film Academy and Spring Initiative youth organizations attended and documented the July panel session. Afterwards, the NEH Scholars visited the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Glendora and the Emmett Till Statue in Greenwood.
A July participant remarked, “I have researched the Emmett Till case for years, but there is no substitute for hearing the story from Wheeler Parker, standing in front of the Bryant Grocery, and sitting in the Tallahatchie courthouse. I’m a huge proponent of experiential learning, and I’m leaving with many ideas of ways to incorporate additional experiences in my curriculum.”
NEH Most Southern Place has a national alumni network of over 700 K-12 educators who have gained greater awareness of the Mississippi Delta’s cultural heritage significance. Based on aggregate data from summer 2023 post-workshop surveys:
– 100% of participants agreed that the workshops increased their appreciation of the unique culture and stories of the Mississippi Delta.
– 94% of participants agreed that the workshops helped them understand how to incorporate place-based approaches into teaching and learning in their classrooms.
– 95% of participants agreed that their teaching will be different because of what they had learned and experienced during the workshops.
The Delta Center serves as the management entity of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area and is the home of the International Delta Blues Project and the National Endowment for the Humanities Most Southern Place on Earth workshops for K-12 educators. For more information, visit www.deltacenterdsu.com.