For the 24th time the lives of nearly-forgotten people buried in Friendship Cemetery have come alive through evening tales told by local high school students standing among tombstones.
There is the story of a woman who married three times in a decade and then opened an ice cream parlor in Columbus. The story of a well-heeled Columbus man whose wife left him for William Faulkner. And the story of a 19th-century Lowndes County sheriff who lost a leg in the Mexican War. There are others, too. They all are told dramatically in the dark and in costume beside candlelight.
The stories are factually-accurate monologues written and recited by Mississippi School For Mathematics and Science students. The annual event — known as “Tales from the Crypt” — began last week. Nearly 1,200 people have taken the tour. The last 2014 production begins at the cemetery at 7 p.m. Friday.
Chuck Yarborough, a history teacher at MSMS, coordinates the project. The school’s junior U.S. history students take part. This year, there are 59 students involved in recreating the lives of former Columbus residents.
“History is compelling and we benefit — for the better — from learning about it,” Yarborough said. “That’s why people keep coming back.”
Each school year in August, Yarborough distributes to his students a list of new names culled from the headstones in Friendship Cemetery. Students choose a name, research the life of that person and write a research paper. Then, in January, each student produces a script that illimunates their subject’s life and times. The top 10 are chosen to be presented at Tales From The Crypt. The purpose is two-fold, Yarborough said.
The community has the opportunity to learn about its own history. The students, meanwhile, learn to navigate through archives and historical documents in order to recreate an unknown life and understand the past.
The students enjoy the challenge.
Harper Panter, a MSMS junior from Gulfport, tells the story Annie Barry Neilson, a music teacher at Franklin Academy, the first public school in Mississippi. Panter said the project was anything but boring because the subjects are “real people who walked and lived and died on planet Earth.”
“It’s something you can relate to,” she said.
Maggie Hollister, a junior from Starkville, tells the story of Mary A. Shoeneman, a Yazoo City native who caused a family crisis by marrying a German immigrant and moving to Columbus. For Hollister, the fact that the life she researched and portrays was not a famous one, was inspiring.
“Most history projects center around the lives of famous people,” she said. “We picked a random name, found the gravestone and told an interesting story.”
Even the students whose subjects were not chosen to be part of the Tales from the Crypt production walk away understanding history a little better.
Coby Anderson, a junior from Hernando, chose the name, James Thornhill, to research. The nuts and bolts of Thornhill’s life Anderson tracked down did not warrant a full-fledged telling. Anderson, though, while walking through Friendship Cemetery on Thursday night, said he was impressed by the experience.
“He was 27 years old and had a wife and three kids and died in the Civil War,” Anderson said of Thornhill.
Anderson wondered why Thornhill was not buried with the rest of the Confederate soldiers at Friendship Cemetery. His theory: Thornhill did not die at the Battle of Shiloh.
It’s small moments like that — examples of students understanding why history lays the way it does — Yarborough cherishes. He hopes Columbus residents do, too.
“The community we have today is a product of personal interactions — positive and negative, good and bad — that took place between real live people,” he said.
The cost to attend Tales from the Crypt is $5 for adults and $3 for students. Half of the money raised goes to the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation. The other half goes to charity. The tour lasts a little less than an hour.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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