Columbus in Mississippi – Southern gem on the Tombigbee River

Because Columbus was spared in the American Civil War, many of the most notable antebellum houses in the southern states can still be found here today (Deutschlandradio / Rudi und Rita Schneider)

It’s a sunny day on the Tombigbee River in Columbus, Mississippi. The Tombigbee rises southeast of Memphis, Tennessee, and meanders through the flat country in countless meanders. While Hernado de Soto crossed the Tombigbee on this bank as early as 1540, the city of Columbus was not established until 280 years later. And another 90 years after the company was founded, Tennessee Williams had taken his first steps into life in a gingerbread house on Main Street, just 300 meters from the banks of the Tombigbee. Typical of this architecture popular in the southern states, we reach the front door through a cozy covered porch with two rocking chairs.

In Tennessee Williams’ baby room

Behind the more than 100-year-old oak door, Leigh Yarborough awaits us as we enter the room where everything began for Tennessee Williams.
“We believe this was Tennessee’s mother Edwina Williams’ bedroom, where she went into labor with him. After giving birth in the hospital, this room may also have been Tennessee’s baby room. The bed and other furniture are consistent with the style at that time.”
The room is flooded with light, the sun has an easy time as the bedroom is in the corner of the building and has large windows on two sides. Those are strange moments when you stand in a room where the first pictures of a person’s life film took place. A film that from this point on unstoppably runs frame by frame in a wide variety of locations with all its highlights and sometimes catastrophes.

Yellow wooden house with black beams.  The roof, windows, front door and some decorations are red.  In front is a typical southern porch.

In this house in Columbus, Misssisippi the author Tennessee Williams grew up (Deutschlandradio / Rudi & Rita Schneider.)

We now want to take a walk through the time film of the city of Columbus with Chuck Yarborough. He is a professor and teaches, among other things, US and Afro-American history. Our first destination is again the banks of the Tombigbee River.

“That was where the ships docked. The busy military road between Nashville and Columbus crossed the Tombigbee River over this bridge. From here you could get to Mobile and New Orleans by water.”

Many antebellum style houses

Before 1860, the sound of the ships loading innumerable bales of cotton was mixed with the sound of the railroad that connected Cincinnati to Mobil on the Gulf Coast. It was supposed to run through the middle of the city, but the city council decided against it because they feared that the railway would frighten horses and pregnant women. The line was therefore led past the side of the city. That sounds strange, but, in hindsight, it was a happy decision. Columbus was therefore not a strategic target in the civil war, the city was spared by the Union troops. This, in turn, is why we can still visit many of the Southern States’ most notable antebellum homes here today.
“The Pratt Thomas house is a wonderful example of Greek Revival architecture. When the film ‘Gone With the Wind’ premiered, the Hollywood film crew toured the country. One of the opening galas was held in this house and Clark Gable was The rumor has it that every young lady who was at the party at the time later claimed to have been kissed by Clark Gable in the back garden.”

They’re not just elegant mansions, all of which could be backdrops for Hollywood and Southern episodes. Chuck Yarborough is like a living library. He reports on each of these houses from the family saga. Ahead is “White Arches”.
“The construction of ‘White Arches’ was completed just before the Civil War. The family had a 16-year-old daughter. And because most young men of marriageable age had enlisted in the army, they held a ball in the winter of 1861-62 for their daughter to give her a chance to find another young man for life.It was a cold night and they say she danced every dance she had on her card.Between dances she always thought of that Balcony cooled briefly. It was cool outside, hot inside. She caught pneumonia from which she died a short time later. It was a terrible misfortune for the family. They left the house and never returned to Columbus. “

Stories like novels

The Civil War swept the country and almost every family was affected, Chuck says as we approach a Greek Revial-style house called “Twelve Gables.” In April 1866, Chuck recounts, four ladies met in the front living room and decided to decorate the graves of 1,400 fallen Confederate soldiers in Friendship Cemetery the following day. After some discussion, they decided to decorate the graves of Union soldiers as well. The initiative of these four ladies was the birth of “Memorial Day”, which was officially introduced two years later as a day of remembrance for the fallen of all wars in the United States. Consequently, our further way leads to the Friendship Cemetery.

“As we wander through the Friendship Cemetery, the tombstones tell us the story of Columbus. Here in front is the tomb of Jerome Wolmersdorff, he was a member of the city council. About his story, but also about most of the other personalities and dynasties that have their whole novels could be written. My students have done an extensive project to document all these stories, which has won many awards. It has been published in all sorts of papers, including the New York Times and the Anchorage Alaksa Daily News.”

Stories like novels, including those by African American personalities. Robert Gleed, for example, was an escaped slave who was captured in Columbus and sold back into slavery under the laws of the time. When the slaves were freed after the Civil War, he returned and founded a number of businesses, including the first African American penny savings bank. He became the first African American City Councilman and the first African American Mississippi State Senator to represent Lowndes County.

African American History

African American life pulsated in Catfish Alley.
“Catfish Alley was so named because the fish was caught in the Tombigbee River and was primarily sold by African American fishermen here on this street and also served in restaurants in various delicious variations. We are standing in front of ‘Sally’s in the Alley’. Sally Jones ran the restaurant until her death in 2012. The restaurant has been under African American management for more than 100 years and serves what we call ‘soul food’ on Catfish Alley.”

As we continue our walk, we come to a building that also has an interesting story to tell. It’s a school. And what happened to her was what some students may have dreamed of. Today we might say we are facing Franklin Academy 4.0, let’s start with Franklin Academy 1.0.
“It was a wooden building that burned down to the ground in 1840. It was replaced with a new wooden building that burned down in 1880. That building was then replaced with a ‘Gothic Revival’ brick building that, you guessed it, burned down in 1930 . The third school that burned down was followed in the same place by the Colonial Revial ​​building that we see before us. This is still Franklin Academy, our free public school in Columbus.”

university for women

Another school also made history in Columbus. We meet in front of the university building. The main entrance is surmounted by a tower topped with an owl as a symbol of wisdom. Professor Bridget Pieschel is waiting for us below the tower and tells us about the founding of this college with historical significance.
“Founded in 1884, it was the first college for women in the United States. Many young men had died in the Civil War, and the legislature wanted to ensure that a good education for women was a basis for families to have a secure livelihood .”
As we wander around the campus with Briget Pieschel, we learn interesting facts about the special role of this college in the emancipation of women. Bridget invites us to visit the room where the heart of the college beat until 2002, the auditorium. In 2002 a tornado smashed right over the building and caused terrible damage. The roof could be renewed, but inside it looks as if the tornado drove through the building only yesterday. Bridet uses the old stairs to the stage. Sunbeams streaming through the stained glass windows create colorful patterns on the stage, which is littered with broken glass. To the side is a dusty piano that is missing some keys.
“This is the original stage. There is also the original piano at the back. This is where the students heard the daily announcements every morning and sang the school songs. At the beginning there were 341 female students. Plays, for example by Shakespeare, or concerts were also performed here . The students always looked behind me at the stained glass window of the Sohia.”

Sunbeams filter through the stained-glass windows of Mississippi University for Women's auditorium, creating colorful patterns on the stage, which is littered with broken glass.

Shards in the auditorium of Mississippi University for Women: In 2002, a tornado smashed right over the building and caused terrible damage (Deutschlandradio / Rudi and Rita Schneider)

At the back of the auditorium lies the college’s large regulator clock on the floor. The clock apparently stopped on the day in 2002 when the tornado ripped through the building with its destructive energy. The clock face shows 18:52. For the students she measured the time up to this day. The Measure of Time; At the end of our hike through Columbus we change location again and visit another clock that is still ticking after such a long time. It hangs on the wall in Tennessee Williams’ birthplace.
This house has been a vicarage since Tennessee William’s time and for generations to come, with changing families of pastors. While we listen to the ticking of the clock, Leigh Yarborough tells of a total of three unusual visitors, who in turn opened up interesting temporal windows into the history of the house and the people who lived in it with their stories.
“I was very fortunate to have three ladies visiting us who lived in this house themselves during their childhood years. One lady came with her childhood friends. Her father was the priest in his late 70’s. Another lady came with hers Granddaughter, she spent her childhood here from 1939 to early 40’s A lady called Ormend Grey-Caldwell came to visit us a few months ago, she lived here from 1930 to 1939. It was so interesting, so many of these ladies, often funny ones too Find out details, including how the individual rooms were used at the time.”
For each of these ladies, it was the lived reality in this house with all its different perceptions and facets over the course of the decade. Tennessee Williams, who experienced this house only in his early childhood, once said: “Reality is like a torrent teeming with non-swimmers.”

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