We have been staying near Hattiesburg, Mississippi for the last week and have wandered into the city nearly every day: to go bike riding, go grocery shopping, do the laundry, attend church. So I can tell you a little bit about Hattiesburg, also called “The Hub City.”
Hattiesburg was founded in 1882 and is named after Hattie Hardy, the wife of the civil engineer William Hardy who founded the town. The city emerged as a hub of the lumber and railroad industry, with abundant longleaf pine forests in the area. Hattiesburg is about 60 miles north of the Gulf Coast. Today the city has 50,000 residents with a metropolitan area population of around 150,000.
Hattiesburg is home to two universities: The University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey University. The University of Southern Mississippi was established in 1910 and today has 15,000 students. It is a public university. William Carey University is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Church and was established in 1911 as a women’s college. William Carey is co-educational today and has a special degree in Christian Missions. Both campuses are beautiful and modern.
Hattiesburg has been hit hard by natural disasters in the last 10 years. First, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused extensive damage to buildings and killed 24 people. Power was out for 14 days and thousands of evacuees from the coast streamed into the area, making things even more difficult. You can still see damage from Katrina – buildings that were heavily damaged and have not been rebuilt or demolished. On September 12, 2012, Hurricane Isaac hit Hattiesburg. Although the winds were not severe, Hattiesburg got 17 inches of rain in three days and had extensive flooding. On Sunday, February 10, 2013, Hattiesburg was hit by an EF4 multiple-wedge tornado that destroyed two high schools and several buildings on the University of Southern Mississippi campus as well as many other homes and businesses in the area.
All these natural disasters made us think of Tuscaloosa and the difference in the response between Hattiesburg and Tuscaloosa. In Tuscaloosa they had one huge tornado and the people pulled together and rebuilt a city that was more vibrant than before. Three years later Habitat for Humanity is still working to rebuild homes (15 this year) in Tuscaloosa. In contrast, Hattiesburg has been hit by three natural disasters in the last 10 years, and the city seems beaten down. There is a five mile long strip of new stores and restaurants (the same chains you will find everywhere) development on 98W and lots of new homes, but the city itself is rundown with many buildings that have been abandoned. The Habitat for Humanity affiliate here in Hattiesburg has remodeled a kitchen damaged by Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
The history of Hattiesburg with civil rights and desegregation is interesting. In 1955 Korean War veteran Clyde Kennard applied to the University of Southern Mississippi. Kennard was urged to apply to one of the traditionally black universities, but his home was in Hattiesburg and he persisted, applying again in 1956, 1957, and 1959 despite having his car bombed, his credit cut off, and spending time in jail. USM leaders were so determined to keep the university segregated that they framed Kennard for several crimes and had him sentenced to a maximum security prison for seven years. He was released on a “temporary suspended sentence” in 1963 when the national media found out he had colon cancer that was not being treated in prison. He died shortly after his release.
Civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer was also from Hattiesburg. He was the leader of the Forrest County NAACP and the most prominent civil rights leader in the area. When a $2 poll tax was imposed on black voters to keep them from voting, Dahmer offered to pay the tax for anyone who could not afford it. In 1966, in the middle of the night, his house was set on fire by the KKK. Dahmer held off the White Knights with his rifle while his wife, three children, and elderly aunt escaped through the back of the house. Dahmer died as a result of the fire.
Forrest County Registrar Theron Lynd prevented blacks from registering to vote for years. In 1961, 30% of the population of the county was black but less than 1% of them had been allowed to register to vote. The white population had nearly 100% voter registration. In 1961, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against Lynd and he became the first southern registrar to be convicted under the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for systematically violating African American voting rights. Although the courts finally decided that Lynd was no longer discriminating against African American voters in 1967, black voters in Mississippi are still struggling today for the right to vote.
Hattiesburg is a “Certified Retirement Community” which means they have good hospitals, a low cost of living, good weather (aside from those occasional natural disasters), and resources for those who are retired. We have been delighted with the weather here – temperatures in the 70’s or low 80’s every day in October with lots of sunshine. The University of Southern Mississippi also offers all kinds of programs to the community as well as a “senior learning center” where retirees can take classes. There are beautiful parks and the DeSoto National Forest surrounds Hattiesburg and extends down to the Gulf. The Longleaf Trace is a wonderful resource that is well-used by the community.