College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Professor Elizabeth Payne: Blazing a Historic Trail

Tracing lives of courageous women who helped build Mississippi

By Jo Dale Mistilis courtesy of The Oxford Enterprise

“Fortune’s children are those whose work and pleasure are the same,” said Winston Churchill.

Dr. Elizabeth Payne is, indeed, a child of Fortune. Her work – a professor of history at the University of Mississippi, author and documentary filmmaker – is definitely her pleasure. And people’s histories, which she calls humanity, are her passion.

She was founding director of the McDonnell-Barksdale Honors College at UM from l997 to 2003 and played an integral role in securing the resources necessary for making the Mississippi History Project a reality.

“Martha Swain and I gave our project the name while we were doing research for our book, “Mississippi Women/Their Histories, Their Lives,” Payne says. “Through Martha, I met Jan Hawks with Women’s Studies, who was with us in the beginning and, sadly, died the next year. Marjorie Julian Spruill worked on the book, too.”

In 2002 Payne left the Honors College and joined the University’s history department.

A year later the fascinating collection of stories, paying tribute to the endurance and accomplishments of many Mississippi women whose lives are examples of great courage, was published.

The Mississippi book was a model for authors who later published “Tennessee Women/Their Lives and Times.”

Payne grew up in Nettleton and graduated from the former Mississippi State College for Women. Strongly influenced by her family’s Methodist faith, she went to Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, thinking she wanted to be a minister like her great-grandfather, a Methodist preacher and circuit rider.

“It was a wonderful experience,” she says. “‘The History of Liturgy’ opened my eyes and for eighteen years I went to the Methodist church and the Episcopal church.
Now I am Episcopal.”

She later earned a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

At UM Payne worked with her co-authors at the University Museum to produce a documentary about women’s lives in the l930s, covering all socio-economic segments and races. The documentary has been sent out to all high school teachers of American History and American Studies.

“At the start, the response was slow,” she remembers, “but we started convincing women to come with their friends and help us with a breakthrough. I had read Anthony Walton’s book, “A Mississippi History,” which took place near New Albany.

A young African American boy from Chicago, attending Brown University, he made friends with a white girl from Mississippi who sparked interest in the book.”

In Union County Mrs. Macy Visor Ferrell, age 91, gave Payne valuable information to begin the documentary, and for two months they strung out telephone conversations because she didn’t want Payne to come to her house.

“Before I attended the first service at Zion Missionary Baptist Church to see her,” Payne says, “I was questioned by the church board. After they understood my project, one of the deacons said, ‘Well, we think this is a good idea and we’ll help you.’ He got up during the service and said, ‘She’s doing God’s work.’ So Miss Macy invited me to her house, talked freely and was cordial; we’re still friends.”

“She told me that I’d have to come on Wednesday or Friday because she does ironing three days a week for the community,” Payne adds.

Betty Rutherford Wilson, at age 115, was documented as the oldest living person with an intact mind. “When we interviewed her,” Payne said, “we asked her who owned her family as slaves.” Her granddaughter’s answer “turned out to be my husband’s great grandfather, so I was taken aback and offered to stop the interview. Miss Betty reminded me that neither my husband nor I had owned their family, and she wanted to continue the interview.”

Her grandson, gracious and accepting, said, ‘I’d like to meet your husband. When can we have a homecoming?’ Unfortunately, our homecoming was at Miss Betty’s funeral several weeks later.”

Currently, Payne is working on a book she sees as a tribute to Anne Firor Scott, who was a founder of the Women’s History project.

In her spare time Payne enjoys cooking, having lunch with women friends, doing things at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and gardening. She is looking forward to a book signing at Square Books in the near future, and plans to teach for several more years.