A cool breeze breaks the still of the Mississippi air, and I reach for my jacket. Night is closing in around me, and the heat of the day is giving way to the crispness of autumn. I pull out my phone and glance at the screen. It’s a few minutes before 8 o’clock. I quicken my pace, half-jogging up a hill as my destination comes into sight.
“The Grove” is a 10-acre park in the middle of the University of Mississippi campus. On most days it’s a peaceful sanctuary – a place where you can find students reading, sharing a meal, and tossing Frisbees. But on seven weekends in the fall, The Grove is transformed from a quiet park into the best tailgating grounds in America. Even in the midst of losing seasons, sixty thousand-plus Ole Miss faithful rise early on those fall Saturdays. They put on their Sunday best, mix their whisky Hot Toddies, and make their way to The Grove.
At every Southern school I’ve been to so far – Georgia, South Carolina, Texas A&M – people have told me stories about The Grove. Upon learning about my trip, the general consensus is: “If you want to experience football in the South, you have to go to Ole Miss.”
Getting a tent on The Grove for a football Saturday is not an easy task. In the old days, people used to drive their cars right up onto the grass, park in an open spot, and tailgate out of their trunks. For big games, the cars would start showing up at 5 in the morning. While cars are now banned, the first-come-first-serve policy remains.
The scene now unfolding before me is the conclusion of a day-long effort that began early Friday morning. At 9 AM, university officials allow people to enter The Grove and claim their spots. In the past this has been an orderly process. “Most years I show up sometime in the early afternoon and am able to get a pretty good spot,” one woman told me.
This year, with the Rebels entering Saturday’s game as the #3 team in the country, demand for tailgating on The Grove has skyrocketed. “Before the Alabama game two weeks ago, I was walking to class at 9, and it was mayhem in there,” one student told me. “Everyone was sprinting around. There were some small fights about who got to spots first.”
Once a would-be tailgater finds an open spot, they will position blue and red trashcans to mark their territory. For the next eleven hours, they or someone in their tailgate will protect the plot. An unoccupied spot is fair game for late-comers. People bring laptops, books, speakers, footballs, baseball gloves, playing cards – anything to stay somewhat entertained. By mid-afternoon many people settle in for naps or simply stare at the scene around them. At one point during a walk through The Grove, I stopped in an open area and started reading the campus newspaper. Within thirty seconds, a man came over to make sure I wasn’t trying to steal his spot.
Companies have sprung up to help people reserve spots on The Grove. For $15-$20 an hour you can hire someone to watch your spot. For $300, you can skip the process altogether and have someone reserve a space and set up a tent for you. This year, the companies have been swamped with business. The co-owner of Rebel Yell, one of the tailgate services companies, told me that he had to turn away customers this week because he wouldn’t be able to find enough open spots. “It’s been crazy this year. I know that a lot of the other companies have stopped taking orders for the rest of the season.”
I slow as I enter The Grove. A mile away at The Square in downtown Oxford, the night is well under way, but here the scene is quiet. People are milling about, ready for their day on The Grove to come to an end. A few students are tossing a football. Others are lying on blankets, sharing a picnic. A policeman nearby notices me and glances at his watch: “Don’t get trampled,” he says smiling.
At exactly 8 o’clock a horn sounds in the distance. I step off the main path and join a group of confused-looking Tennessee fans. For a moment the calm remains. Within twenty seconds a line of cars, which have been banned all day, comes into view. The cars are allowed 15 minutes to deposit tents, chairs, and coolers. People begin sprinting to cars, unloading the equipment. A minute or two later, the first wave of runners – people without cars – makes it to The Grove. Shortly after them, come teams pushing dollies stocked high with tents and chairs. These are the hired hands. They make up to $150 per tent to run the tent in and set it up. They go from spot to spot, depositing equipment. All around me tents are being raised. The once serene park is now a city – the grass replaced with blue, red, and white canvas.
Within an hour the calm returns. The cars pull away, taking their occupants off towards the bars and restaurants downtown. The students, many of whom have been there since morning, return to their dorms and apartments eager to celebrate the weekend’s arrival. The Grove, vacant aside from a handful of security guards, is quiet again. Washed in the glow of the streetlights, the pop-up city waits.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Mississippi. I’m a Jewish kid from New England. In 2012, 81% of people in my hometown in Massachusetts voted for Barack Obama. In Mississippi the percentage was 44. The states are opposed on issues as diverse as gun rights, abortion, immigration, and prayer in schools. At one point on my drive to Ole Miss, I scanned through seven straight Christian radio stations. In 24 years of living in New England, I don’t recall ever hearing Christian radio.
In some ways, driving through the Delta felt like entering another country. Friends warned me to drive under the speed limit because cops would target a Prius with Massachusetts plates. One family member told me that when traveling in Mississippi a man told him that there are two things he needed to understand about the area: “fifty percent of people don’t believe the South lost the war, and the other fifty percent don’t believe it’s over.”
The history of the University is entangled with the Confederacy. The school closed its doors during the Civil War as 135 of 139 students went to battle. Their battalion, known as the University Greys, suffered a 100% casualty rate (injured or killed); those who survived fought until the final days of the war. To this day, you can see Confederate flags at tailgates across campus. Until 2010 the school’s mascot was “Colonel Reb,” a figure whose outfit looked like those of plantation owners during the slavery days. Though he no longer walks on the sidelines, a man dressed like “Colonel Reb” still roams The Grove taking pictures with fans on Saturdays. In 2009, the school tweaked its fight song in an attempt to prevent fans from chanting, “The South will rise again” at the end of the song.
On the surface, the culture in Oxford was foreign and intimidating. Even the dress code reminded me of my outsider status. “On game days we wear our Sunday best,” the campus tour guide explained, “because we used to wear our Sunday best to send the men off to war and on Saturdays we send our men off to battle.” When I got back to my car, I rifled through my luggage in search of something suitable for “Sunday Best.” I ended up settling on a dark pair of jeans and a flannel shirt – at least it had a collar. In an attempt to blend in, I started saying “y’all” and tried adding a little twang to my voice.
On Friday night, thousands of people lined the mile-long stretch of road from campus to downtown to watch the Homecoming parade. I felt like I was in a movie from the 1950s. My school didn’t even have a Homecoming queen let alone a parade with convertibles and an announcer.
As I spent more time at Ole Miss, however, I began to recognize familiar themes. The fancy clothes and elaborate celebrations were not that different from the traditions I’ve seen across the country. Is painting your chest that much different from wearing a suit? Like anywhere else, the adherence to tradition was a way of connecting the generations. The Homecoming parade was supposed to feel like 1950 because there is power in continuity. The old-timers standing next to me at the parade smiled as they watched young-girls holding hands with the current cheerleaders. Perhaps they too had adored the pageantry of Ole Miss when they were young. Or maybe their smile held the memory of a parent or sibling – people with whom they had once shared celebrations like this.
My northern readers might decry these traditions as outdated. They might claim that they are reminders of a darker time, a time when segregation was the law of the land – when racism and hatred were institutionalized. But asking a community to revoke all of its traditions is asking it to denounce its past. There are certainly parts of Mississippi’s past worth denouncing. The same can be said about Massachusetts and New York and every other state in the Union. There are also parts of Mississippi’s past worth celebrating. “People hear Mississippi, and all these negative connotations come to mind. Once you come here and meet people, you realize that it’s not like that,” one man told me. “The school’s a lot different than it used to be. We’re aware of the problems of the past, but we’ve been proactive. I don’t see racism around very often any more,” said another.
The success of the Ole Miss football team serves as a marker for that change. The last time the Ole Miss football team was 7-0 to start the year was 1962. That year the Rebels went undefeated and won their third national championship. 1962 was also the year that the first African-American – James Meredith, an Air Force veteran who would go on to become a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement – attended Ole Miss. Though Meredith applied eight years after Brown v. Board of Education, it took a US Supreme Court ruling for him to gain admission. It then took President Kennedy’s threat of federal troops for him to be allowed on campus. Once there, Meredith’s presence set off a wave of rioting that resulted in two deaths and hundreds of injuries. It took five hundred US Marshalls to hold off the mobs. Meredith persevered, graduating in 1963 and helping to pave the way for desegregation across the South.
Over fifty years later, Meredith is now a celebrated figure in Oxford. He has received standing ovations at football games and is a source of pride on campus tours.
For my part, I was welcomed with open arms and glasses of sweet tea everywhere I went. When I told people I was from Massachusetts, the response was overwhelmingly positive. “Oh wow! What brings you down here? Have you tried catfish? You’ve got to have some of this fried chicken.” Despite my modest attire — and in reality wearing jeans is not that unusual in The Grove — I was invited into tailgates with crystal chandeliers and oil paintings.
When I asked people what they thought about the north, the reactions were positive. The conversations never turned towards politics or religion. Everyday CNN and Fox News enforce the idea that Mississippi and Massachusetts are different. They highlight our divided past and focus on our disagreements for the future. But by the end of my southern exposure in Ole Miss, I felt oddly at home. The people I met became less strangers and more friends. There’s far more that binds us than keeps us apart.
The Grove is more than just a spot for tailgating – it’s more than a place for college football. The Grove is a gathering ground for the community. On good years and bad, The Grove offers a place for people to celebrate the simple things – family, friends, the changing of the seasons. “I don’t go to games. Coming here is an event – it’s what people around here do on Saturdays,” one woman who has been coming to the same tailgate for twelve years told me.
On Saturday night, the Rebels soundly defeated Tennessee 34-3 to remain undefeated. The win guaranteed that in 2 weeks, when Auburn comes to Oxford, The Grove will be just as packed and getting a tent will be just as difficult. But whether Ole Miss won or lost, The Grove would still be special.
Leaving Mississippi on Sunday as I drove north to Tennessee, I couldn’t stop smiling. Mississippi may have a troubled past and I’m sure there are troubling aspects of its present, but there is also something beautiful in its pride, in its willingness to change but not forget. There is something beautiful in the welcoming spirit of the tailgates, in the easy conversation that flows between would-be strangers in The Grove. There is something beautiful in cars lining up on Friday night to ensure that everyone can celebrate together on Saturday.
Be sure to check back next week as I travel to Tennessee to watch the Volunteers take on their rival the Alabama Crimson Tide.