The Velvet Ditch
December 4, 2019
Back in Mississippi after realizing I missed Paris, Mississippi last week. As I plotted my path from Paris, Arkansas back here, I picked Oxford as a place to stay given that Paris is 15 miles from here and there no places to stay in Paris. When you see my photos, you will understand way.
As my earlier posts probably made clear, my impression of Mississippi was that Natchez was a disappointment, Jackson was no place to be and the Delta, while overwhelming in terms of size and the topography, was difficult to see because of the poverty I saw. Oh, and there was Tunica with its 8,000 slots and 5,000 hotel rooms for people that probably can't afford to gamble.
Given that, I did not expect much of Oxford.
I WAS SOOOO WRONG.
Oxford is affectionally called the "Velvet Ditch." As an Ole Miss publication defined the term:
Dating back to the 1950’s, this is a phrase used to described Oxford; meaning it’s a place that is “easy to fall into and hard to crawl out of.” From the beautiful university campus with red-brick buildings to the vibrant downtown area full of local shops and restaurants, many people quickly fall in love with Oxford and never want to leave.
I think the best word to describe my reaction is "stunned." I drove into Oxford last night so I really didn't see much. This morning I headed out for a walk and - what is this place? Here is a slideshow of the houses I came across - these are within an easy walk to the grounds of Ole Miss. Notice the magnolia trees - I believe these are the first ones I have seen in Mississippi.
Soundtrack by LeAnn Rimes who was born in Pearl, Mississippi.
Before I describe my experience further, here's some basics about Oxford.
Background and Figures
Oxford and Lafayette County were formed from lands ceded by the Chickasaw in the Treaty of Pontotoc Creek in 1832. The county was organized in 1836, and in 1837 three pioneers—John Martin, John Chisom, and John Craig—purchased land from Hoka, a female Chickasaw landowner, as a site for the town. They named it Oxford, intending to promote it as a center of learning in the Old Southwest. In 1841, the Mississippi legislature selected Oxford as the site of the state university, which opened in 1848.
During the Civil War, Oxford was occupied by federal troops under Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman in 1862; in 1864 Major General Andrew Jackson Smith burned the buildings in the town square, including the county courthouse. In the postwar Reconstruction Era, the town recovered slowly, aided by federal judge Robert Andrews Hill, who secured funds to build a new courthouse in 1872. During this period many African American freedmen moved from farms into town and established a neighborhood known as "Freedmen Town," where they built houses, businesses, churches and schools, and exercised all the rights of citizenship. Even after Mississippi disenfranchised most African Americans in the Constitution of 1890, these former slaves continued to build their lives in the face of discrimination.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Oxford drew national attention in the Ole Miss riot of 1962. State officials, including Governor Ross Barnett, prevented James Meredith, an African American, from enrolling at the University of Mississippi, even after the federal courts had ruled that he be admitted. In late September 1962, President Kennedy, following secret face-saving negotiations with Barnett, ordered US Marshals to accompany Meredith, while Barnett agreed to use Mississippi Highway Patrol to keep the peace. Thousands of armed "volunteers" flowed into the Oxford area. Meredith traveled to Oxford under armed guard to register, but riots by segregationists broke out in protest of his admittance. That evening, cars were burned, federal marshals were pelted with rocks, bricks and small arms fire, and university property was damaged by three thousand rioters. Two men were killed by gunshot wounds. The riot spread into adjacent areas of the city of Oxford. Order was finally restored to the campus with the early morning arrival of nationalized Mississippi National Guard and regular U.S. Army units, who camped in the City.
As of the of 2010 Census , there were 18,916 people (2017 estimate of 23, 629 people), with 8,648 households residing in the city. (As a reference point, the population in 1990 was 10,000 people.) The racial makeup of the city was 72% White, 22% African American, 1% Native American, 3% Asian, and 1% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino people of any race were 3% of the population. The average household size was 2.09.
The median income for a household in the city was $38,872, and the average household income was $64,643. The per capita income for the city was $29,195. About 12% of families and 33% of the population were below the poverty line.
My Oxford Walkabout
I needed some breakfast this morning and saw a place called "Big Bad Breakfast" on Google Maps about a 0.7 mile from my hotel (yes, I broke down). After about 2.5 miles, I got there. Three words - shrimp and grits. Never had better.
I figure, with butter on that biscuit, probably only about 2,500 calories. :) Worth every one.
And I met a friend there!! He was happy to see me - although I have a feeling he is happy to see everyone.
Yeah, like my slicked down hair? Ten weeks without a haircut requires drastic measures.
Convinced I should walk of a few hundred calories, I continued my walkabout - the downtown area is charming and full of one-of-a-kind stores and bars - nothing generic for Oxford. It is not Greenwich, but I'd put it up against almost any other downtown of a city of Oxford's size. I also walked around the campus - took in the infamous "The Grove," and the circle which is the center of campus. Very pretty.
The soundtrack is by David Ruffin - yes, of the Temptations. He was born in, I kid you not, Whynot, Mississippi.
As you see in the slideshow above, there is a Confederate statue dead center in the middle of campus. The new plaque in front tries to put it in perspective. I'm sure it is a difficult issue to walk by that statue and realize how recently things were so radically different. And that perhaps they are not all better yet.
I headed over to the bike store where I had taken my bike for a repair. I'm not sure what has happened to me, but I seem to just dive into to talking to strangers. I asked the gentleman who repaired my bike, "What's the deal with Oxford. It is unlike anything else I've seen in Mississippi."
Turns out I found the right gentleman to ask. Not only had Mike grown up in Oxford, but he was on the police force for 30 years, half of that time as assistant chief or chief. He confirmed that Oxford is the outlier in Mississippi. I think the term he used was "oasis." The description he gave is the same one we have for Charlottesville; the town is growing because people who went to school here have gone off, made their money and they want to come back. The Velvet Ditch. When I asked about the number of nice cars being driven by the students, he said that Ole Miss is a favorite of Texas kids; he said that the airport gets busy at the end of holidays with kids flying in on Daddy's jet. He talked about how Ole Miss is trying to replace the "rebel" as the mascot but the things they have tried (a bear, a shark?) have not gone over too well. Regarding the real estate market, it says that it ebbs and flows with the state of Ole Miss football. Now that's an SEC effect!
After this busy day I was sitting outside by the firepit – one of those new type with the glass and the propane fed flames. I started talking to a young man and somehow we got on the topic of the Delta and the blues. He was born in Cleveland, Mississippi – in the Delta. He went to his car and got a coffee-table book about the Delta blues. It had photos of everyone! Bobby Rush, Ike Turner – and his mom and dad. He told me that his dad had taught him how to play the guitar (his dad was so good he could play the guitar with his mouth). It was so cool to put a real person together with the blues that I heard so much about in Memphis.
No blog post about Oxford is complete without a discussion of (1) John Grisham and (2) "Hotty Doddy." Mike provided the answer to (1); I I went to Google to find the answer to (2).
Mike said that Grisham lived on a big place outside of town. Built a baseball field there. (That sounds familiar.) . Loved to go to Ole Miss basketball games. (That, too.) Over time the real estate between the town and Grisham was developed, and he felt squeezed in. Boom - off to Albemarle County he went.
Ole Miss and "Hotty Toddy," there just can't be one without the other. While Rebel fans shout it anytime they get the chance, fans from other schools often wonder what the saying and chant even mean.
There's no definitive answer to the question of the origin of the saying. One of the more popular suggestions is that it originated after the Virginia Tech Regimantal Band called The Highty Tighties, derived from a cheer used throughout World War II, associated with the description of a warm alcoholic drink or a term that referred to the perceived sentiment of the Ole Miss student body. Funny how drinking is so often involved.
While The Highty Tighties didn't officially receive their name until 1919, the regimental band actually dates back to 1892. The Virginia Tech Regimental Band website states:
By 1919, the Regimental Band began to be known as the Highty-Tighties. The origin of the name has been hotly debated for years — some claimed it was part of a cheer, others claimed it sprang from a trip to Richmond where the Corps and Band marched in honor of Field Marshal Foch, the supreme allied commander of WW-I. Supposedly the drum major had dropped and then recovered his baton while rendering a salute in front of the reviewing stand and someone in the crowd yelled hoity-toity. Southwest Virginia slang had supposedly turned this into Highty-Tighty.
As an official Ole Miss reference, the first documented evidence of the phrase (then written as "Heighty! Tighty!") appeared in a November 19, 1926 copy of the student newspaper, The Mississippian.
Gosh A Mighty!
Who in the h--l are we?
Rim! Ram! Flim! Flam!
Ole Miss, by D--m
Since 1926, the cheer has passed down from generation to generation of Rebels fans. Today, only the spelling is different than it was in 1926.
Most importantly, it's the answer to "Are You Ready?"
Are You Ready?
Hell Yeah! Damn Right!
Hotty Toddy, Gosh Almighty,
Who The Hell Are We? Hey!
Flim Flam, Bim Bam
Ole Miss By Damn!
Beside that "Hotty Toddy" is also a way one Ole Miss fan greets another. It's no different than an Alabama fan saying "Roll Tide." While it's commonplace to hear "Hotty Toddy" in the Grove and at Ole Miss games.
If you really want to hear the answer to "Are You Ready?" in its full glory, be in the stands at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford five minutes before kickoff. Every home game, before the start of the game, a secret celebrity guest appears on the Jumbotron to hype up the crowd and ask, "Are You Ready?"
All I can say to that is WAHOOWAH!