UM, Ecru Partners work to tell the story of MB Mayfield
By Abigail Meisel
University of Mississippi Communications
Tucked away in a broom closet in a University of Mississippi classroom, MB Mayfield received a fine arts education in the 1950s the only way he could at the time.
A folk artist, the ecru native was unable to enroll at UM because he was prohibited by state Jim Crow laws. He was hired as a janitor at the university in 1949, when the director of the art department, Stuart Purser, discovered his work while walking through Ecru. The friendly professor had hidden it in a broom closet, where Mayfield could keep the door ajar, set up his easel, and work in tandem with the other students.
Decades later, academic historians team up with members of the ecru community to shed light on Mayfield’s story and showcase the breadth of his work.
“MB Mayfield’s superpower was his imagination, his ability to see beauty in everyday life, to see the extent of the human condition in the crevices of rural Mississippi,” said Brian Foster, former assistant professor of sociology and studies from the South to the UM who worked on the project.
“That same imagination helped Mayfield navigate Oxford and the University of Mississippi at a time – the late 1940s and early 1950s – when neither place freely welcomed blacks. Mayfield not only survived this reality, but he found ways to create life and art in the midst of it. “
Mayfield became one of the main folk artists of the 20th century. His work is exhibited in numerous galleries across the country and the university has several of his paintings in the collection of the University Museum.
Gloria High, a longtime friend of Mayfield, and Jeannie Thompson, a school archivist and librarian who was recently elected ecru alderman, began campaigning to save the deteriorating Mayfield house in late 2019. They presented to the businessman Ken Nowlin the idea of restoring the Mayfield residence. as a historic house and museum.
They quickly established a working relationship. Nowlin bought the house and moved it from its original location in downtown Ecru, along the Tanglefoot Trail.
When the university’s M Partner initiative, a flagship program of the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement, began operating in ecru in the fall of 2020, the Mayfield Project quickly became a focal point for community collaboration- campus.
With the support of archives from Thompson and the university, the Nowlin family is restoring Mayfield’s Ecru house and turning it into a museum and cultural center that will include his work and personal belongings.
During the spring semester of 2021, professors from the Transactional Law Clinic at UM School of Law, the Integrated Marketing Communications Program at the School of Journalism and New Media, and the Departments of Southern Studies and Sociology and anthropologists worked closely with community leaders to make the museum an entity, conduct oral history interviews with people who knew Mayfield, and develop a marketing campaign to promote the museum.
Arch Dalrymple III’s history department has built on these efforts this summer and fall.
Thompson, who completed postgraduate archival training at both Ole Miss and the University of Southern Mississippi, received advice on starting a home museum from scratch from several professional organizations. , including the African American Museum Association.
She works with four UM doctoral students in history to create an inventory of Mayfield’s personal and professional possessions, including correspondence, magazines, financial documents, old exhibition posters, manuscripts, works of art. and even cassettes.
They meticulously sort through thousands of artifacts, the first step in their cataloging.
“We started the treatment by listing the items to create an inventory and we are finishing the first level preservation efforts,” said Thompson, who is leading the treatment effort. “Once the graduate students completed the inventory lists, we developed series titles and drafted the finding aid for the collection.
“These efforts will guide future researchers in the use of these materials. The contributions of graduate students on research topics in Mayfield’s papers have been extremely helpful as I design exhibits and interpretive spaces in the future Mayfield House Museum.
The painstaking work is carried out by graduate students and Thompson in two offices at Bishop Hall on the Ole Miss campus. This is an opportunity for them to broaden their skills and their spectrum of experience.
The students are Monica Campbell, of Jonesboro, Arkansas; Paul Mora, of Clovis, California; Chuck Savage, of Little Rock, Arkansas; and Robrecus Toles, of Oxford.
“We have an evolving public history curriculum, including a new course we will be offering in the spring of 2022,” said Noell Wilson, chairman of the history department. “It is important to give graduate students in history as many choices as possible for their future careers.
Toles begins the doctoral program in history this fall.
“One of the manuscripts that I dealt with was an unreleased short story by Mayfield called ‘Peace Be Still’, which he wrote in the early 2000s,” he said. “The story describes how he lost his father and half of his siblings to tuberculosis, and then he contracted the disease himself.
“He has recovered, but with the departure of his father and siblings, most of the work of managing the family has fallen on him. It consumed his adolescence.
The sorting process is “very meticulous,” Toles said.
“I also know that working with archives you have to choose what is archival among all the personal documents, correspondence, manuscripts and art,” he said. “You choose the objects that will one day enter the museum. It is a great responsibility.
Once the initial inventory is complete, Thompson hopes all of Mayfield’s personal papers will be organized by December so the team can begin assembling exhibits and interpretive materials. The provisional goal of opening the museum is summer 2022.
“I hope to continue to work in partnership with the university as we finish the work and open the museum,” she said. “I would really like to see a formal service learning partnership where we have a graduate assistant who works as a paid intern and gets experience running a house museum.
“It could be a great opportunity for both the museum and the university to offer a real world experience and to make this museum a cultural center for the community.”