Week 10: Oxford Residents Reflect on Racial Changes

By Kennedy Pope and Abby Vance

Joester Brassell, or better known as “Mama Jo,” still remembers what it is like being looked at differently on the Square. Not only was this normalized in the 1960s, but it is also still prevalent today.

“I do feel like we still have stores on the square that do not welcome black people in their stores,” Mama Jo said. “I guess they think that black people do not have money when my dollar is the same as their dollar.”

Growing up in the 1950s, Mama Jo shares how the stores on the Square were interpreted to her by her parents growing up.

“Neilson’s was there when I was a little girl, but I never went until I was grown,” Mama Jo said. “When your parents tell you not to be on the square, you just do not go.”

Mama Jo said that her mom even gave her a “whoopin’” one day when she went into a store she knew she wasn’t supposed to go in.

”When the older people who owned the stores died, their children went to school with me and inherited the store, things got to where it did not matter if you were black or white,” Mama Jo said.

Mama Jo said that it has been over 20 years since she has been able to go to the Square freely. “However, when I go in a certain boutique on the Square, they look at me real funny and ask if I am paying cash. I respond, ‘No ma’am, I am paying in credit card, thank you.’”

Mama Jo grew up going to Taylor Wing’s Elementary School, which was the segregated school at the time. When she was 12, Mama Jo began attending the integrated school in Lafayette.

“It was hard at first, getting used to new friends,” Mama Jo said.  “Even though some of my friends came with me, it was hard getting used to going to school with new people.”

While she was at Lafayette, Mama Jo remembers when blacks and whites started to date each other and the controversy that followed.

“I remember her momma and daddy tried to kill that black boy because they did not buy that,” Mama Jo said. “They told her she was not allowed to date boys like that.”  

While she was attending school, Mama Jo said that she did receive some opposition from a few students; however, she did have one best friend, Donna, who was white.

“We were two peas in a pod and it did not matter the skin color,” Mama Jo said. “As time went on everyone blended in as one and growing and learning to be friends with each other.”

Mama Jo and her now husband, Bo, have been together off-and-on since preschool. They remember going on dates to “The Cream Cup,” which was located on University Ave. near present-day Walgreens.

“I worked hard to take her out,” Brassell said.

The couple split during Mama Jo’s college years but re-kindled their relationship when she returned and got married in 1980. They have three children and are proud grandparents.

“When my children were growing up, it was if they were normal kids,” Mama Jo said. “My daughter did not care if her classmates were white or black.”

Because she grew up living with her aunt, Mama Jo learned a lot about cooking from her.

“My auntie was a cook at Lafayette Schools, and let me tell you she was a great cook,” Mama Jo said. “She formed me basically into what I am today.”

Mama Jo served as a cook for the Kappa Alpha and the Alpha Omicron Phi from 1985 until 1999. In 2000, Mama Jo started working as a cook in Sky Mart on College Hill until 2008, when the couple opened their own restaurant.

In 2008, Mama Jo and her husband opened Mama Jo’s Country Cookin in Oxford and have had great success.

“Mama Jo’s is the hidden gem of Oxford comfort food,” Matt Lee, accounting major at Ole Miss said. “The lunch platter is the greatest ever.”

Mama Jo’s Country Cookin is a restaurant that serves both black and whites happily, which is still not something that is very often on the Square today.

“God is so good, and He deserves all the praise,” Mama Jo said.

Another Oxford resident, Taylor McGlawn, was born and raised in Oxford and describes his experiences throughout the years.

McGlawn never experienced the integration process at schools since he graduated high school in 1966, which was a different childhood than Joester Brassell.

McGlawn was in high school during the arrival of James Meredith to Ole Miss and remembers this event clearly.

“I remember watching on the television Federal Marshalls escorting James Meredith and Meredith standing on those same steps where Ross Barnett said that no blacks would step on the University as long as he was alive,” McGlawn said.“It was pure chaos from people outside of the Oxford community.”

After James Meredith was admitted to Ole Miss in 1962, it became normalized for African American students to attend Ole Miss. In 1968, McGlawn started attending Ole Miss and graduated in 1971.

“There were only a handful of blacks on campus when I was there, but we were not treated any different,” McGlawn said. “The problem we had at the University was the outsiders.”

McGlawn said that by the time he graduated Ole Miss, the amount of African Americans attending Ole Miss started to grow.

“I don’t remember any bad experiences. Everything was just kinda given,” McGlawn said.

In 1979, just 12 years after interracial marriages became legal, McGlawn married his wife, Sheila, who is white. They had two children.

“Our kids had struggles growing up,” McGlawn said. “But it got better as time went on. Our parents weren’t very accepting of it at first, but over time, they have grown to accept it.”

Even though Oxford has dealt with racism in a different manner than other surrounding towns, the issue was, and still is, prevalent today.

“It’s just as alive today as we speak,” McGlawn said. “If you look around the city, it seems to say, ‘We love everybody,’ but if you go into the banks, government buildings and clothing stores, see how many minorities are there.”

Even though many decades have passed and laws have changed, Oxford has seen a tremendous growth in efforts to alleviate the tension of racism; however, there is still room to grow.

“After almost 40 years, the climate has changed,” McGlawn said.

 

 

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