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“Millsaps’ First Integrated Audience: Eudora Welty’s 1963 ‘Powerhouse’ Reading”

The 1960s were a tumultuous time for Jackson, Mississippi. The year 1963 alone saw sit-ins by Tougaloo students and professors to protest segregation, a mass protest march at the Jackson fairgrounds, the assassination of Medgar Evers, and the graduation of James Meredith from the University of Mississippi. It was becoming increasingly clear that racial injustices and disparities could not be ignored. 

Also occurring in 1963 Jackson was the annual Southern Literary Festival, hosted by Millsaps College. A notable speaker was Pulitzer-prize winning author Eudora Welty. Welty’s writing, which frequently explores the cultural and social intricacies of small Southern towns, often takes a subtle approach when writing about African Americans. Sometimes condemned for her obscurity, Welty has also been commended by author Toni Morrison for writing “about black people in a way that few white men have ever been able to write. It’s not patronizing, not romanticizing—it’s the way they should be written about.” 

Welty seemed to seek a balance between acknowledging African American presences and the racial dynamics of the South with the fact that she, as a white woman, could never fully understand the experiences of African Americans. There were times, however, when she took a stronger stance. 

She wrote the short story “Where is the Voice Coming From?” in 1963 following the assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers; her narrator was none other than the murderer himself, and she used this narrative perspective to explore the societal influences on racist thought. In 1966, she would write “The Demonstrators,” another story centered on the Civil Rights Movement. 

Dr. Michael Pickard, who graduated from Millsaps College and is currently a Millsaps professor of English and Creative Writing, has dedicated himself to Welty’s life and work in the past few years. 

“I think that Welty’s work represents an affirmation of human dignity and equality and an awareness of how the social life of the American South of her time did not extend equality and opportunity to everyone,” Dr. Pickard stated. “I think that Welty from very early years as a college student and adult forward through the very end aligned herself with the values of equality and justice and treating people as human beings instead of as categories.” 

When Eudora Welty was asked to give a speech and reading at the Southern Literary Festival in April of 1963, she refused to participate unless the audience could be integrated. 

Millsaps was not integrated at the time. African American students from Tougaloo College had been turned away from a Millsaps play just a few weeks before the Welty reading, and would be turned away again not long after as well. 

Civil Rights activist Anne Moody commented that she was one of the first students to desegregate Millsaps College – yet she was not a Millsaps student, but a Tougaloo student. She attended Welty’s 1963 reading and would return to Millsaps in 1985 to give a lecture of her own. 

Gayle Graham Yates, who graduated from Millsaps College in 1961, remembers Moody’s lecture in her book Mississippi Mind. 

Yates’s book recalls Moody stating, “In 1963, I was one of the first black students to integrate Millsaps. Eudora Welty was giving a reading. A Tougaloo student group with John Salter and Ed King had spoken with Miss Welty, and she said she did not want her readings to be exclusive. I love Eudora Welty. I had read her work. I had the opportunity to come here to hear her as one of the first black students. We came in. Millsaps did not make a fuss. We were very uptight. But there was not an incident. I spoke with Miss Welty. Now I am told you have one hundred black students.” 

It was not true that Millsaps had one hundred students at the time – it was less than that – but Moody commented nonetheless that she was “happy to appear [at Millsaps] as not the only black [there].” 

Welty’s reading, while having an inspiring audience, also had an interesting choice in story. Welty decided to read her short story “Powerhouse,” which she wrote after attending the concert of Fats Waller, an African American jazz musician. The story begins with racially charged language attached to the perspective of a white audience, then shifts to the perspective of the African American musicians and presences in the story. 

Dr. Pickard commented on Welty’s decision to read “Powerhouse,” “I think that she found Fats Waller, the performer, the musician, the human being, to be full of life and energy and vitality and I think she wanted to bring him to life, but I also think she wanted to show how the white audience of her time or how white concert-goers of her time responded to performers like Fats Waller.” 

Welty likely knew how she could offend audience members of both races in reading this story, but it was doubtlessly a very deliberate decision. 

“I think that she was very aware as she was giving her own performance to an integrated audience of how audiences respond to performers,” Dr. Pickard continues, “and I think [she] wanted to share with people who attended the Southern Literary Festival this story about just how an audience can reduce a performer to a set of stereotypes or cliches, and at the same time or while doing that to miss the vitality of the performance.” 

It is important to acknowledge that Welty does use discriminatory language in some of her work. It has been argued by some that she used such language to expose the prejudices she witnessed. She would revise some of her works later in life to better reflect the change in values that occurred over her lifetime. 

Welty’s 1963 reading, for all its interesting details, was nonetheless an important moment in Millsaps’ personal history of race relations. A positive moment amidst so many negatives, its place in history connects us to where we are in the present. Her reading took place in what is now the chapel in the Christian Center. 

“It means a lot that we’re still teaching and working in the building where this act of integration happened, and as we move into the future, with a new and beautiful Christian Center, that we not lose sight of its legacy and its history as a space in which not only this event happened – it happened in what’s now our chapel – but we also don’t forget the wonderful progressive, dynamic professors who worked here like T.W. Lewis,” said Dr. Pickard, “professors who were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement and in celebrating the values of equality and social justice that we associate with that time.” 

Two years after Welty’s reading, in 1965, a change in the college’s presidency and a policy stating that colleges that were not integrated would not be able to obtain any federal funding led in part to the official decision to integrate Millsaps, which was heavily supported by faculty. The decision made it the first private college to desegregate in Mississippi. 


Graves, J. Toby. “Desegregation of Private Colleges.” Mississippi Encyclopedia.,wanted%20to%20do%20so%20sooner. 

Marrs, Suzanne. Eudora Welty: A Biography. Harcourt, Inc., 2005. 

–,–. One Writer’s Imagination. Louisiana State University, 2001. 

McKinley, Laura. “Millsaps College and the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement.” Millsaps College, 1988. 

McHaney, Pearl. “Race Rights, and Resistance in Southern Literature in the Age of Obama.” American Studies Journal, no. 56, 2012. 

Mississippi History Timeline. 

Lowe, Maria. “’Sowing the Seeds of Discontent’: Tougaloo College’s Social Science Forums as a Prefigurative Movement Free Space, 1952-1964,” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 39, no. 6, 2009, pp. 865-887). 

Yates, Gayle Graham. Mississippi Mind: A Personal Cultural History of an American State. The University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Edward L. Chaney

    Rae Switzer’s article thoughtfully commemorates Eudora Welty’s 1963 reading at the Christian Center and her insistence to allow an integrated audience. As noted by Switzer, Tugaloo students attended at their own initiative and were not turned away as were others at an earlier event. These brave students were allowed entry out of deference to Ms. Welty.
    The first internally planned integrated meeting was held on Feb. 17, 1964. It was organized by the Millsaps chapter of the American Institute of Physics. William Hendee, Ph.D. (’59), Associate Professor of Physics, was the faculty sponsor and I was the student president at the time. Hendee already had established rapport with his counterpart at Tougaloo and unofficial discussions about holding integrated seminars on both campuses were underway. Tougaloo’s administration, faculty, and student body officially and actively promoted integration. Later that year an exchange program with Brown University, a traditionally white Ivy League school, was formalized. To show support for Tougaloo and the growing civil rights movement in Mississippi, the AIP chapter decided to host a joint seminar at an upcoming monthly meeting pending administrative approval. Meetings were routinely held in the forum room of Wilson Library, a relatively small space conducive to introductions and intermingling. We wanted to maintain that atmosphere for the joint seminar. As student spokesperson, I submitted a request to the administration and was pleasantly surprised when the seminar and venue were approved. We set a date, secured a speaker through NASA’s courtesy program, and invited physics students at Tougaloo.
    A few days before the seminar we were informed that a Millsaps policy required us to change the venue to the Christian Center chapel, a cavernous auditorium singularly unfriendly to a small gathering. The short notice left us with no time to appeal. We complied without protest and the seminar was held with little fanfare other than the unceremonious departures of a few Millsaps students when the Tougaloo students filed in. A total of about 30 students attended.
    I personally felt a sense of dismay and bad faith and requested a meeting with President Homer E. Finger, Jr. to seek understanding and clarification regarding the cancellation of the original approval; the unpublished policy behind the cancellation; and the exceptionally short notice about the new venue. He graciously agreed to meet with me. Finger held a Master of Divinity Degree from Yale and was a person with irreproachable integrity. I was confident he would be forthcoming. I began the meeting by stating my grievances and ended my statement by asking if the policy really existed, why was the original approval granted in the first place. He replied by reminding me that Millsaps was private and that policies regarding entry to its facilities by unaffiliated persons fell under the authority of the Board of Trustees. Segregation was the official policy. An exception had been granted for the Christian Center. (Apparently, this exception was new since Tougaloo students had been turned away prior to, and even after, Welty’s reading.) He went on to say that the institutional decisions behind my grievances were beyond his control. His affect seemed subtly apologetic. I sensed there was more to the story and gently pressed by arguing that the policy lacked moral or ethical standing. He then told me what, I believe, he did not want to say. The BOT had changed the venue out of concern that generous benefactors would withhold or scale back their donations. Initially, I was shocked that money was the determining factor. Clearly, my reaction was naïve. I was intimately familiar with the mentality of donors that might react punitively. Recognizing that further discussion would be useless, I thanked him for being frank and excused myself from the meeting. Afterward, I surmised that Finger had given the initial approval but later was overruled by the BOT.
    The Feb. 25, 1964 issue of the P&W published a report of the BOT meeting held a week after the seminar on Feb. 21. The article was on the front page, positioned prominently above the P&W banner. Near the beginning of the report was a statement strongly reaffirming Millsaps’ “traditional” segregationist policy and the BOT’s sole authority over this policy. Moreover, no change was foreseen. This policy was first articulated in a statement by the BOT at its meeting on Mar. 18, 1958, to reassure friends of the college during a period when integration was being openly debated in the press. While the 1958 policy was directed specifically toward student admission, the message was clear that the scope of the BOT’s authority was expansive. Apparently, this policy had not been published beyond the BOT’s minutes of the 1958 meeting. Otherwise, the reaffirmation would not have been necessary. Coincidentally, on the same page was a small article about the AIP seminar on Feb. 17 and a vote taken during a subsequent chapter meeting to hold future joint seminars in the Christian Center. No other joint seminars were held at Millsaps. However, at the initiative of Hendee, joint seminars were held at Tougaloo until he left Millsaps later in 1964.
    A great irony soon unfolded as changes unforeseen by the BOT suddenly became foreseen when the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 stipulated racial integration as a condition for receiving federal funding. Concern over wealthy benefactors abruptly became secondary.

    Edward L. Chaney (’65)

  2. Rae Switzer

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article! And how fascinating — as a student today, it’s hard to believe how many hoops had to be jumped through just so everyone could be included on campus gatherings, and not very long ago. In the Honors thesis I read by Laura McKinley, which studied the relationship between Millsaps and the Civil Rights Movement, McKinley similarly commented on the power some of the more generous donors could have in influencing certain decisions regarding race. It’s very interesting to hear from someone who was a student at that time and can speak from personal experiences. Thank you very much for your comment!

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