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History museums years in the making


JACKSON -- Two museums telling the story of Mississippi are opening on the eve of the state's bicentennial, culminating years of planning.

Many people deserve credit for pushing the projects from vague concepts into see-it-and-touch-it reality. High on that list is former Gov. Haley Barbour.

During his final year in office, in 2011, Republican Barbour persuaded lawmakers to approve $38 million in state financing for the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum -- two entities under a single roof. The plan came with a provision that money also had to be raised from private donors.

"The civil rights struggle is an important part of our history, and millions of people are interested in learning more about it. People from around the world would flock to see the museum and learn about the movement," Barbour said in his 2011 State of the State address.

Ground was broken in 2013 for the two new museums , which are a short walk from the current state Capitol and the Old Capitol Museum in downtown Jackson. They open Saturday.

Ideas for a general history museum and a civil rights museum had been developing for years on parallel tracks.

The civil rights museum, in particular, was the subject of debate.

Democratic Sens. Hillman Frazier and John Horhn of Jackson were among the sponsors of a resolution that lawmakers adopted in the spring of 2006, creating a study committee for a civil rights museum somewhere in the capital city. Months later, Barbour sent committee members a letter saying he supported them and wanted to join their effort to create a "world-class museum."

Some wanted a civil rights museum to go on the campus of private, historically black Tougaloo College in north Jackson, which was a haven for activists during the civil rights movement. Others suggested an appropriate place would near Farish Street, a once-thriving black business district in downtown Jackson.

Talk of a general history museum intensified after 2005, when Hurricane Katrina damaged the roof of the Old Capitol, which had long displayed historical artifacts. The Old Capitol closed for restoration, and then reopened in early 2009 with exhibitions focusing on how government works and the importance of historic preservation. Many artifacts were put into storage, and some will again be on view in the new, much larger Museum of Mississippi History.

Hundreds of people have helped create the new museums -- architects, designers, construction workers, archivists, researchers, display builders and others.

Hank Holmes started working on the museums as director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History from 2005 until February 2015.

Katie Blount succeeded Holmes as department director, and she and many staffers brought the museums project to fruition. Among the key staffers are department deputy director Robert Benson, museum division director Lucy Allen, museums' site administrator Cindy Gardner, history museum director Rachel Myers and civil rights history museum director Pamela D. C. Junior.

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson and Democratic former Gov. William Winter recommended to Barbour that the two museums be built side by side. Former Jackson Mayor Kane Ditto, president of the Archives and History board, led private fundraising efforts.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has promoted the museums, and he signed a bond bill in 2016 that included $16.6 million for them.

Myrlie Evers Williams, the widow of slain Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers and herself a former national leader of the NAACP, was also instrumental in promoting the museums. During groundbreaking, she said they will show "who we are, where we have been, where we are today and where we are going."

Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .