Evidence Reveals Ole Miss Named for Train, Not Antebellum Reference

unnamed-1
Ole Miss most likely refers to a train that traveled from memphis to New Orleans and might have stopped in Oxford.

This is the second segment in a two-part series on the evolution of the term “Ole Miss.” The piece is written by Dr. Albert Earl Elmore, a noted scholar who holds degrees from Millsaps College and Ole Miss Law School with a Ph.D in English Literature from Vanderbilt.

The History of the Name “Ole Miss”

The controversy about “Ole Miss” as a name for the University of Mississippi was conceived in innocent ignorance and perpetuated by the misinformation of the Internet.

Let us begin with the Internet misinformation that appears in the endlessly consulted Wikipedia entry for the name Ole Miss: “The student yearbook was published for the first time in 1897. A contest was held to solicit suggestions for a yearbook title from the student body. Elma Meek, a student, submitted the winning entry of ‘Ole Miss.’ Meek’s source for the term in unknown. Some historians theorize she made a diminutive of ‘ole Mississippi’ or derived the term from ‘ol missus,’ an African-American term for a plantation ‘old mistress.'”

An article published on May 13, 1939, in the Ole Miss student newspaper, the Mississippian, demonstrates that much of this is pure mythology. The unnamed student author of that article got in touch with the living members of the original board of editors, including the members of the committee that was established to find a name for the yearbook. Not one of them mentioned a contest to find the name. Instead, the committee asked people in the community for suggestions.

A poetess named Mrs. Coppleman of Okolona suggested the name “Cotton Boll.” A committee member named J.A. Mills got in touch with a local family and “asked the Misses Meek of Oxford ” for their ideas. One of the Meek sisters, Elma, suggested “Ole Miss,” and Wills took her suggestion back to the committee. “The name appealed to us at once,” said Mrs. Maud Morrow Brown, a committee member who was still living in Oxford in 1939. because her husband, Calvin was a member of the University faculty, “and it was adopted.”

unnamed-2
Sheet music for Ole Miss Blues written by W.C. Handy who played parties at the University of Mississippi.

Maurice Fulton, who served as one of the student business managers, suffered a failure of memory by attributing the suggestion to the wrong person but agreed with Mrs. Brown that “those of the board who were present at the meeting which was to make the selection voted heartily for (the ‘Ole Miss’) selection.”

There is not a shred of evidence that Elma meek was a student at the University of Mississippi when she offered the suggestion. She apparently had attended during the 1894-95 year but then dropped out. Her name appears nowhere in the 1896-97 yearbook. There is not a shred of evidence that she herself ever appeared  before the selection committee. There is not a shred of evidence that J.A. Mills , who solicited her suggestion and relayed it to the committee, offered any arguments on behalf of Elma’s suggestion, either hers or his own. The name “Ole Miss” was offered, it met with immediate and unanimous favor, and it was “heartily” approved. Those are the known facts.

The 1939 article went on to interview Mrs. meek herself. This is where the plot not only thickened, but curdled. “Miss Meek, who today resides in Oxford, took the name from the Ante-Bellum ‘Darky,’ who knew the wife of his owner by no other title than ‘Ole Miss,’ and of how she suggested it because she thought it connoted the tribute due the womanhood of the old South.”

However, as soon as the unnamed student reporter quoted Miss Meek herself, it became immediately clear that the originator of of the “Ole Miss” name was referring, not to antebellum plantations but to the plantations of her own day.

In her day, sharecropping was the norm. “I had often hear old ‘darkies’ on Southern plantations,” she was quoted as saying “address the lady in the ‘big house’ as ‘Ole Miss.’ The name appealed to me, so I suggested it to the committee and they adopted it.”

Elma Meek never lived during slavery. There is no way she could have heard slaves talking. She was born somewhere around 1878, well after the Civil War had ended some 250 years of American slavery.

Even if Miss Meek knew the name had previously been used for the wife of the Ole Massa on antebellum plantations, there is not a shred of evidence that she intended to invoke that association. Even if she did, there is not a shred of evidence that she conveyed any such idea to J.A. Willis or that he, in turn, conveyed it to the committee, which so immediately and heartily approved it. Even in the most unlikely event that all these things did happen, where is the evidence that this information was passed down, year to year, from class to class, generation to generation.

unnamed-3
Another depiction of the Ole Miss train that transversed the entire length of Mississippi.

On the contrary, the immediate approval by the selection committee suggests that there was no need for any explanation. The main competition was “Cotton Boll.” How in the world would “Cotton Boll” have separated the yearbook of the University of Mississippi from the yearbooks of the University of Alabama or the University of Georgia?  Every sound and suggestion of “Ole Miss” ties the name to the oldest university in the state of Mississippi while clearly distinguishing it from all of its rivals.

The evolution of the name from yearbook title only to university title as well supports the idea that students naturally associated the name with the state of Mississippi and its flagship university.

For 12 years, from 1897 through 1908, every yearbook called itself “Ole Miss” without ever using that term in reference to the university as a whole. year after year, the football scores appeared in the yearbook. In every case, the football team was called “Mississippi,” never “Ole Miss.”

In 1909 a dramatic change occurred. On the first full page of the yearbook for that year appeared a drawing of a train with the name “OLE MISS” written in white inside a circle on the train’s black-metal face. My earlier essay on W.C. Handy (here) documents that he would soon write about a train called “The Ole Miss” that ran from memphis to New Orleans, transversing the entire length of Mississippi . It is the state of Mississippi that is clearly invoked in the name of that train.

In the 1909 yearbook, for the first time ever, the name Ole Miss was applied to the university as a whole  in the “ATHLETICS” section. That section opened with “FOOTBALL Yells” and “College Songs.” The second of the two football yells referred to Ole Miss in its opening lines: “Hurrah, ‘Ole Miss,’ we’ll raise a song to thee./ Hurrah, ‘Ole Miss’ we’ll ever loyal be;/ We’ll put aside all care today and join the Jubilee,/ While we shout for Mississippi.”

Of the four College Songs, one referred to Ole Miss in its chorus: “here’s to ‘Ole Miss,’ the school we love,/ Here’s to the Red and Blue;/ Here’s to the men who wear the ‘M’/ Here’s to our roster true.”

Yet another reference of the same kind appears in the 1909 yearbook. A 1902 graduate named Marvin Holloman Brown wrote an essay in which he pretended to re-live, but admitted at the end he was only imagining, a game between Mississippi and Vanderbilt : “What a victory we felt was ours can be appreciated only by one of Ole Miss’ devotees!”

unnamed
Another blues number by W.C. Handy referencing Ole Miss.

The next step in the evolution of the name appeared in the 1912 yearbook. There, for the first time, the name appeared without quotation marks and in a context other than athletics. Under the photograph of a graduating senior, appeared the caption: “it will probably be long in the future before Ole Miss will have another John Kyle.” the senior class history used the name free of quotation marks three different times: 1. “Everybody who has ever heard of Ole Miss knows our history from Alpha to Izzard.” 2. “About this time we came to Ole Miss — said school is grateful — and took these classic old shades by storm.” 3. “Long live Ole Miss, and may her days of prosperity be numberless as the sands of the seashore.”

The final name in the evolution of the name appeared in the 1915 yearbook. There, for the first time, the name appeared on a sports uniform. A picture of a basketball player shows Ole Miss written across the front of his jersey. In a cartoon of a student reading in his room. an Ole Miss pennant shows the female players holding a huge pennant bearing the name Ole Miss, and a baseball player is pictured with Ole Miss sewn on his jersey.

Nor was the name restricted to athletic teams. In these yearbooks, the school orchestra was photographed above its title, “The Ole Miss Orchestra.”

The current administration has suggested that the name “Ole Miss” should be restricted only to “appropriate” uses, although that initiative seems to have been wisely abandoned. There is nothing inappropriate  about using this venerable old name to refer to the University of Mississippi in all its functions, just as our neighboring institution, Louisiana State University, refers to itself in all its functions as LSU.

Both schools are using traditional shortenings of their names in a way that is not only appropriate but highly appealing to an overwhelming majority of their graduates and supporters.


The winner of six grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he is the author of essays on Faulkner and Fitzgerald as well as the 2009 book, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Echoes of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer.

Dr. Elmore, after years of research, has unearthed both the words and music of the classic, but long-forgotten song “The Ole Miss Blues.” Dr. Elmore has written two essays on the topic; the first on the song itself, a poetic and colorful work by the composer W.C. Hardy, who was also a scholarly professor of music as well as a famed performer. Click here to review this post.

Dr. Elmore’s second essay traces the history of the phrase “Ole Miss” arguing persuasively through historical references that the term “Ole Miss” referred not only to the state of Mississippi generally, but specifically to a Memphis-to-New Orleans train that may even have stopped at the Old Oxford Depot. (recently restored as a Conference Center) where it could have dropped off many returning Ole Miss students.

A copy of the sheet music is attached with his essay. Dr. Elmore is currently working with local Blues scholars to combine the words with the music to create a true “Ole Miss Blues” song to perform at athletic and other campus events.

10 COMMENTS

  1. While I applaud the research, I have to take issue with the characterization “conceived in innocent ignorance and perpetuated by the misinformation of the Internet”.

    When I was a student at Ole Miss in the early 70’s, I went to the library and researched the origin of Ole Miss. What I found was an article from the student paper (if memory serves, from the 30s or 40s) that informed me that “Ole Miss” was the name used to refer to the senior lady of a farm or plantation. That may even have been the source of the train’s name.

    The connotations was that Ole Miss made sure everyone was taken care off. She was also the hostess who made sure that all were welcome. This was a most Southern expression of the words alma mater, which means fostering mother.

    I sincerely wish that people didn’t still try to make “Ole Miss” into something racist in the 21st century. But even so, I would choose the image of a fostering mother, over that of a train.

  2. A key theme that runs through the two essays is “a Memphis-to-New Orleans train that may even have stopped at the Old Oxford Depot” suggesting thereby a linkage between the train and the name for the university. However, the Memphis to New Orleans train did not pass through Oxford. It would have passed to the west through Batesville. There was never a railroad that ran directly from Oxford to Memphis.

  3. To echo the comment by Bob Hovious, what was the source of the train’s name? Could it be the woman of the plantation?

    The last two paragraphs really fall apart. LSU is an acronym. The comparison is rather silly.

  4. Anyone who has travelled extensively knows that there are so many people who have never been to Mississippi, but they have negative views of our state. A poll showed about 75% thought Ole Miss was an affectionate name for the school. We may need to rethink using the University of Mississippi because of the negative thoughts so many people have of Mississippi. Now, can we stop wasting time and money on names and symbols? Just build some nice dorms so the students can live on campus. Put money into great faculty who are not bent on changing Ole Miss into a bland school.

  5. Oh, wow. A few things, in no particular order:

    1. Am I correct in that the argument is because this song about a train was written years AFTER the yearbook was named “Ole Miss” that the nickname for the school ISN’T potentially tied to the Antebellum South, even if the yearbook might be?

    2. Regarding Meek’s quote, do you know anything about sharecropping in the late 1800s? She never said a thing about slaves. Where do you think black people went after the Civil War? And why is her comment dismissed because she wasn’t born until after the war?

    Regardless of whether the selection committee knew Meek’s rationale, she didn’t get the nickname from a damn train. Can we agree on that, class? Everyone? Bueller? OK.

    3. Comparing Ole Miss to LSU is a bit of a stretch considering Ole Miss is not a natural abbreviation of the University of Mississippi and LSU is LITERALLY THE INITIALS OF LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY.

    4. “Both schools are using traditional shortenings of their names in a way that is not only appropriate but highly appealing to an overwhelming majority of their graduates and supporters.”

    An overwhelming majority, eh? For someone so consumed by the need for evidence as this piece implies, show us those numbers. For someone so consumed by proof, where’s yours? This isn’t about whether Ole Miss is or isn’t an appropriate nickname. This is about the importance of historical and contexual responsibility in journalism.

    At the end of the day, what does any of this prove? That the reason we’re negatively portrayed in the media is because of what, a misinterpreted nickname? That 1962 didn’t happen? That Confederate flags weren’t ever flown in the stadium? That we didn’t have an offensive mascot? That there isn’t a need to distance ourselves from Old South symbolism that suggests to the rest of the world nothing has changed in Mississippi in 150 years?

    This isn’t historical context. This is an embarrassment. It doesn’t reflect the university I graduated from nor does it contain one shred of substantial or ethical journalism.

    Wake up tomorrow and try again. For the sake of the university, if nothing else.

  6. I found no historical evidence for a train named Ole Miss operated at any time by any railroad in or out of the state of Mississippi. If anyone has a link to that evidence, please post it in this comment section.

  7. I am so sick and tired of everyone portraying Mississippi as still being a state that approves of slavery.
    Wake up people, Mississippi wasn’t the only state that had slaves. How about Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee etc.

    Also, Ole Miss doesn’t stand for a plantation mistress, its just a shortened version of Ole Mississippi. Or Old Mississippi. Sayings and words change with time.

    The people that started all this crap are the ones that hated us already. They are just trying to justify their hatred and get more people on the band wagon.

    I have absolutely no racism in my heart. I love all people equally no matter their skin color, gender, finical status or any other LABEL we as a society choose to put on people. That being said, I am proud of Ole Miss and the school will forever be Ole Miss in my heart.

    Changing the nick name of the School isn’t going to stop the hatred and it sure as hell isn’t going to make it so slavery never happened. Stop dwelling on the past and look to the future. I’m not saying forget the past, I’m saying stop living in it. The only way to make the future better is to move forward. If you are constantly dwelling on the past then your present and future are going to be miserable!

    Sorry for the rant but I’m done with this crap. Stop trying to make Ole Miss mean something it doesn’t.

  8. One more thing. How many songs refer to the Mississippi river as “ole mississippi”? The good ole Mississippi river?

    Google good ole mississippi in quotes. I wasn’t alive when the name was adopted so I can’t give you facts but this is what it has always meant to me.

LEAVE A REPLY