Historian plans to write new book exploring Mississippians who did fascinating things
JUNE 5, 2023 BY REBECCA LAUCK CLEARY
After 35 years as a member of the University of Mississippi faculty, including 11 years as director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, history and Southern studies professor Ted Ownby is preparing to retire at the end of June.
During his time as a scholar, researcher and director at the center, it expanded its graduate programs to include a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Expression, updated its landmark Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and released The Mississippi Encyclopedia. He stepped down as director in 2019, having served in that role for 11 years.
When he arrived on campus in 1988, Ownby knew little about the center. By coincidence, he arrived at the same time as the first large graduate class of master’s students.
“My own specialty to that point, which was primarily my dissertation, relied on history and also some reading in anthropology,” said Ownby, who earned his bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. “Coming to an interdisciplinary program was exciting, but not something I felt prepared to do.
“I’ve gotten to learn from my colleagues and from other students, and learn from the freedom that the program gives. In coming in and immediately team teaching with colleagues who study literature and folk life and sociology and anthropology, it meant I was learning outside my field from the very beginning of being here.”
Some of those learning experiences took place with faculty such as Nancy Bercaw, Bob Brinkmeyer, Bill Ferris and Charles Reagan Wilson – the latter two also former directors of the Southern studies center – where they all encouraged one other to think about the possibilities of interdisciplinary work.
“Students have so much freedom in an interdisciplinary program that our job as faculty is to push them to do excellent work with whatever choices they make,” Ownby said.
More recently, he taught with Katie McKee, a professor of English and the center’s current director, who said everyone at the center will miss Ownby’s presence.
“We can take solace in knowing that he will continue doing what he loves: researching and writing about the complexities of ‘the South,’ however anyone defines it,” McKee said. “Ted leaves a legacy of serious, scholarly engagement, not only with abstract ideas about region, but also with people and the stories they tell themselves and others about who they are.
“Students love Ted for his steady support of their ambitions; faculty and staff love him for his steady presence in even the most aggravating of situations; and we all love him for his steadfast commitment to the center.”
During his time at the university, Ownby has taught many graduate and undergraduate courses, including Southern religious history, Southern cultural history, American intellectual history, Mississippi history, U.S. history survey, and seminars on methods, identity, autobiography, violence and peace, and the contemporary South.
He has directed more than 50 master’s theses and more than 30 doctoral dissertations, and also served as a member of 100 other graduate committees in Southern studies and history.
“What I love is seeing all of those alumni doing creative things in academia and far beyond academia,” Ownby said. “It’s not like the faculty and administrators got together and said, let’s create an environment in which we will stimulate creativity, but it just happened, and it is impressive to see.”
Chuck Ross, a history department colleague of Ownby since 1995, has served on more graduate committees with him than any other faculty member.
“Ted has been an invaluable faculty member when it comes to mentoring students,” Ross said. “Outside of the classroom, I’ve had the opportunity to play hundreds of rounds of golf with Ted, and his distinctive sense of humor and ability to stay calm during difficult holes makes him unique in our group of golfers.”
Ownby has authored three books: “Subduing Satan” (1990), “American Dreams in Mississippi” (2002) and “Hurtin’ Words: Ideas of Family Crisis and the Twentieth-Century South” (2018), all by University of North Carolina Press. He also is editor or co-editor of eight other books, including The Mississippi Encyclopedia (University Press of Mississippi, 2017).
One of Ownby’s recent accolades was being named the William F. Winter Professor of History in 2018. He said being connected with Winter is an honor it itself, as well as because the two previous individuals in that role were Charles Eagles and Winthrop Jordan.
“William Winter was so impressive in his work as a governor and so welcoming and kind as an individual,” Ownby said. “What having an endowed chair allowed is research trips. Beyond the name, it allows me to do research without having to ration or limit or rush my work.”
Ownby is working on a new book that asks big questions through individual narratives of obscure Mississippians who did fascinating things.
“I look forward to concentrating on the research and writing without all the other things like grading and deadlines and emails that I may or may not find interesting,” he said. “Like lots of people who retire, I’m looking forward to the freedom to control my own time.”