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Oxford Enthralls as a Beacon of Southern Culture and Charm
Southern Spotlight: Best College Towns
In 1988, Lyn Roberts moved to Oxford to attend the University of Mississippi School of Law and took a part time job at Square Books, the independent bookstore in town. Once she finished school, Roberts arranged to stay while she figured out a plan.
Nineteen years later she’s still working there and is now the general manager.
Wayne Andrews and his wife moved to Oxford several years ago from Memphis and they immediately saw their social calendar start to fill up. With art galleries, author appearances and lectures at the university, among many other things, there was something to do every night. Andrews, the director of Yoknapatawpha Arts Council and The Powerhouse Community Arts Center, is busier now than when he lived in a much bigger city.
“It’s everything Mayberry was but with a New York pace,” he says. “There’s more to do here than most major cities.”
Though Bill May, Alumni Association President of the University of Mississippi, lives in Newton, which is three hours from Oxford by way of Mississippi back roads, he goes on university business and to see his daughter, a senior, several times a month. His wife and two other daughters also attended the university.
“We are what you’d call eat up with Ole Miss,” May explains.
That same sentiment is shared by many of Oxford’s nearly 20,000 residents. It’s the kind of artsy, open, welcoming place that gets under your skin.
“Because of the legacy of William Faulkner, it has sparked an interest. He’s the first writer in the South to write about this corner of the South,” says William Griffith, curator of the Nobel Prize-winning author’s Oxford home, Rowan Oak. “No one had done that before he did. All of the sudden it was OK to write about the South.”
Many writers, as well as other visitors, come from all over the world to see Rowan Oak. They will arrange a visit while they’re in town to speak at the university or have a book signing at Square Books.
Several notable writers also call Oxford home including John Grisham, who made his first author appearance at Square Books when his debut novel, A Time to Kill, was published. Today he funds the Renee and John Grisham Southern Writer-in-Residence, an endowment for the English department at the University of Mississippi.
Having the university in town is one reason there is such a draw for not just students and writers, but also retirees, artists, filmmakers, musicians, food lovers and readers.
Andrews says it’s because the university attracts diverse people looking for a creative outlet, which keeps the community exciting and helps it grow. All of this, he says, while still maintaining the small-town, Southern atmosphere.
“Oxford is a town that identifies itself very strongly as a Southern town. It’s got some signs of the old South,” says Mary Beth Lasseter, associate director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. “There are lots of different aspects to the South and it’s all in one tiny town.”
The Southern Foodways Alliance, which is housed by the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss, the first center for regional study in the United States. This group of oral historians, documentary filmmakers, writers, chefs and academics see that Southern culture, particularly where food is concerned, is properly studied, documented and celebrated. The organization is in its 13th year. As what SFA does becomes more widely known, the center is finding that some students have started coming to Ole Miss specifically for this program, rather than happening on it after they’ve enrolled.
“Food is becoming more and more covered in classes,” Lasseter explains, which makes sense in a town where the independent dining scene is so prevalent. “The SFA helps feed the Oxford food scene. Oxford has been a great asset [to the SFA].”
Part of the food scene is the Midtown Farmer’s Market held on Saturday mornings.
“People want to eat food that they know is produced in a sustainable way,” says Jason Hoeksema, assistant professor of biology at Ole Miss and board member for the Midtown Farmer's Market. “If something is local it’s likely to be sustainable and taste better. We’re happy to provide a marketplace where small farmers can make a living and Oxford citizens can find food and they know where it’s coming from.”
The market is open on Saturdays through the end of October so fans in town for a home football game can pick something up to eat while tailgating in the Grove, a spot on campus where celebrating before and after a game is an art. Sports Illustrated has rated tailgating at Ole Miss as one of “The 100 Things You Gotta Do Before You Graduate”.
“Tailgating in Oxford is unlike anywhere else in America,” says May. “It’s a big family reunion.”
Though home football games are a big draw, Oxford also gets many visitors throughout the year at events such as the Oxford Film Festival, the Southern Foodways Symposium, the Blues Today Symposium, the Music of the South Conference and the Oxford Conference for the Book.
Oxford is named for the English university town of the same name. To pay tribute to the other city across the pond, the Mississippi counterpart owns two red double decker buses that are used to shuttle people around during monthly art gallery crawls, weekend historical tours, home football game days and the arts festival each spring.
The attention that Oxford and the university got in 1962 for the enrollment of James Meredith, the first African American student to attend Ole Miss, seems to have faded into the background. Today, the student body is increasingly diverse. While Oxford still has evidence of the past’s influence, the university is also home to the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
It’s become a true place for how a state and a community can grow from what it was to what it can be,” says May. “Almost 50 years later this university is helping people coming together.”
Oxford and Ole Miss continue to have a strong relationship, each feeding off the other’s strong points.
“Oxford is an easy place to live and it’s an easy place to have a high-quality life,” says Hoeksema. “A traffic jam is if you have to wait behind three cars at a stoplight. That frees up a lot of time to enjoy life.”