Thirty-two snapshots form one big picture

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 1, 2009

There’s a lot more to Vicksburg than being the location of a key struggle — many say the key struggle — in the War Between the States.

A key strength of the now-completed Riverfront Mural Project — perhaps the key strength — is that the 32 panels reflect that reality.

Together, Robert Dafford and his team, have crafted images diligently and in great detail that tell us and anyone who cares to visit who we are.

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The panels centered on the Flood of 1927, the 1953 tornado and those featuring scenes of shelling from the river, the loss of the Sultana and combat and memorials in what is now the Vicksburg National Military Park show us what we’ve survived.

The panels honoring the Rev. Newit Vick, the Sisters of Mercy, the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, Rosa A. Temple High School and Carr Central High School show us we’re spiritual people who value service to others and education.

The panels featuring innovators in the arts and leaders in industry and government — Joseph Biedenharn and Coca-Cola, Willie Dixon and the Blues, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, inventor and evangelist R.G. LeTourneau and former Gov. Kirk Fordice and Mrs. Pat Fordice — say we’re a place where talents and ideas can be nurtured.

The panels with scenes from Gold in the Hills, the Miss Mississippi Pageant, the old Koestler’s Bakery, festivities when President McKinley visited and the “Big Jitney” say we’re a sociable people, who like to have fun.

And the panels depicting downtown in 1900 and commerce by river and rail show our legacy as a transportation hub.

And there are more.

Thirty-two snapshots form one big picture.

As compelling as the murals themselves is the story of how a single comment evolved into an eight-year commitment that most would have believed unlikely and Nellie Caldwell, the person most directly involved, might have called impossible.

Mrs. Caldwell, a very nice person but certainly with no reputation as a community activist, met Laurence Leyens shortly after Leyens’ installation as Vicksburg’s new mayor. In conversation, she mentioned to him that she’d recently been to Paducah, Ky., and that town’s frontage on the Ohio River had a concrete floodwall, similar to the wall in Vicksburg on the Yazoo Canal. But, she said, the Paducah wall had been attractively decorated by a mural artist named Dafford and, further, that it was an idea worth considering for Vicksburg.

Newcomers might not know it, but since Vicksburg was founded in 1825 and even before, “City Front” has had several incarnations — from busy, bustling and bawdy in the early years to desolate, overgrown and crime-ridden for much of the last half of the last century.

Instead of nodding and putting the notion on some kind of to-do list, or brushing Caldwell off by explaining that the Army Corps of Engineers owns the floodwall, Leyens formed a Riverfront Mural Committee, more or less on the spot, and named her chairman — the title she relinquished with mixed emotions last Friday when the last panel was unveiled.

I love to ponder what Mrs. Caldwell’s reaction would have been at that moment she first spoke to Leyens.

• More than a half-million dollars would be raised, almost every penny from private sources.

• A dozen or more artists would need housing and food for extended periods.

• Meticulous research and design would be part of each project, involving hours of hunting for photos and documents.

• Programs for 32 dedication ceremonies would have to be planned, organized and conducted with music, speaking, refreshments and decorations — and alternate venues in case of rain.

• There would even be a firestorm of controversy over how the historic murals would merge with the initial, modern mural of Vicksburg artist Martha Ferris.

The mural project was a big deal. It is a big deal. And it will be a big deal for years to come.

We should smile. Our photo has been taken. We can look at it and see who we are.