Intricately situated within the Mississippi Delta – an area of rolling fields, delectable barbecue, and the cradle of blues music – lies the much adored, yet nondescript Oxford, Mississippi.
Despite only hosting around 20,000 full-time residents, this quaint college town has roots predating the antebellum south. Oxford was founded in 1837, and named after the British town with the intention that it would attract the state university – which it did: much to the delight of Ole Miss students like myself.
Every discussion of Oxford must first begin with a cultural field trip through The Square. Accepted as the cultural and economic core of the town, The Square serves as a hub where vibrant nightlife, nationally-acclaimed shops and bookstores, and the best cuisine this side of the Mason-Dixon converge.
Oxford is known for its culinary grandeur, as visitors can choose from a diverse array of cuisines. Ajax, widely regarded as the crown jewel of Oxfordian cuisine, is as “down home” Mississippi as could be. Ajax transports patrons to Sunday lunch at their grandmother’s house, with over 20 choices of vegetables and entrees such as country fried steak and pork chops covering their menu.
While Ajax is undeniably delicious, my favorite spot to grab a bite is the Neon Pig. Neon Pig is subtle, yet acclaimed, and prides itself upon using ingredients only from the area. Their signature “smash burger” garnered the appellation of “Best Burger in America of 2015” by Thrillist, and they continue to not only satisfy the hunger of patrons, but the community as well.
Continuing down Jackson Avenue on our trip through Oxford, we make our next stop at the University of Mississippi – endearingly known as “Ole Miss.” Established in 1848, Ole Miss serves as the state’s flagship university. But to understand Ole Miss, you must first understand the history of the school, because in Oxford, the university and tradition are indistinguishable.
The university has a checkered past with race and civil rights, specifically when a sizable contingent of students took up arms in support of the Confederacy in the Civil War – there is now a statue on campus that memorializes, yet acknowledges the nefarious motives of these men. However, the darkest stain on the university’s history is the 1962 riots during the integration of the school’s first black student, James Meredith. Students fledged violent opposition to Mr. Meredith’s inclusion into their school, ultimately leading to the death of two civilians and the injuring of 300.
The university has taken monumental steps in correcting the sins of their predecessors, doing away with the singing of “Dixie” at football games, removing mascot “Colonel Reb” from the sidelines at football games, and immortalizing Mr. Meredith’s contributions to the university by placing a statue in his honor that flanks the school’s edifice, the Lyceum. Ole Miss is rapidly transforming into the vanguard for schools stuck balancing contextualization and heritage, and the nation is beginning to follow suit.
Speaking of football, Ole Miss is universally known for having the best tailgating experience in the country. Defined by our signature phrase, “We may not win the game, but we’ve never lost a party,” hopeful Rebel fans file into the Grove every Saturday to prepare to watch our men battle on the gridiron. The Grove has been described as the “Holy Grail of tailgating sites,” and for good measure. The 10-acre plot bordered by oaks and grand red-brick academic buildings transforms itself into a sea of red and blue tents, sharply dressed youth, and seemingly infinite amounts of beer and barbecue. October Saturdays in Oxford are a religious experience; football is our gospel, and the Grove is our temple.
Finishing our tour of Oxford, we conclude at Rowan Oak – the home of author William Faulkner. Faulkner, Oxford’s native son, called Rowan Oak home for 40 years. Faulkner is a Nobel Prize Laureate and wrote extensively about Yoknapatawpha County- modeled after Lafayette Country (within which Oxford is the county seat). Additionally, Faulkner is also revered as one of the most poignant authors on the topic of race, despite coming to prominence during the Jim Crow South.
Rowan Oak is an antebellum Greek revival, positioned between sleepy cedars and a labyrinthine of sundry landscaping. It’s the most frequented destination for travelers, including burgeoning writers and novelists. Oxford’s other infamous author, John Grisham, has funneled large sums of money into the upkeep of Rowan Oak. To some, it’s a home, but to Oxfordians and scholars of literature alike, its the literary epicenter of the South.
Oxford is incomparable. Nowhere in America exists a place where such deep tradition, commerce, and culture assemble. If you are ever within a short drive, Oxford is as can’t miss as could be. Come visit the Velvet Ditch, you’ll never want to leave!