An incurable optimist: Why David Sansing told the stories of Mississippi’s past

Posted on Jul 11 2019 - 5:59am by Daniel Payne

David G. Sansing saw the bigger picture. His list of accolades is long, but the moment those close to him particularly remember his pride swelling was when his eldest son, who also taught history, was taking the legacy of being a community historian on for himself.

His namesake’s career as a high school history teacher mirrored his own: bringing history to life by telling compelling stories about the path that led to the present. Sansing Jr.’s name was coming up more in some circles than his father’s.

“That made my father smile,” said his other son, Perry, who is the special assistant to the chancellor for governmental affairs at Ole Miss.

David Sansing was focused on future generations, especially his own children. That’s why he looked to the past.

“We do have an inheritance,” he said at a presentation on campus in 2013. “But I think the great issue is not our inherritance but the inheritance we leave for our children — their inheritance. And that’s what we should concentrate on, I think. We have come so far from there to here, and yet we have a ways to go from here to there. But, knowing Mississippi as I know it, and knowing the people that I know, we’ll get there.”

Perry Sansing said that among his father’s accomplishments — including authoring definitive Mississippi histories and teaching them to students who would continue talking about his classes for decades — his love for the people and state that inspired his work can be too often overlooked.

David Sansing himself believed that historical information itself could overshadow the good it may do in a community.

“We may know more about some Civil War skirmishes and the economic consequences of a capricious cotton market than we actually need to know,” Sansing wrote in his book, “Making Haste Slowly : The Troubled History of Higher Education in Mississippi.” “But southern historians have left the relationship between the schoolhouse and the society that supports it, or does not support it, largely unexplored.”

Sansing came from a large family that loved traveling and spending time together. He went on to have three children of his own.

“We knew we were loved every single day,” said Perry Sansing, who earned a history degree from Ole Miss. He remembered his father’s love for history “just always being there” and “flowing out of him.” He recalled arguing with his brother and father about history and politics “just to argue.” Elizabeth Sansing, his mother, would sometimes ask if the three of them remembered what they were arguing about.

“He encouraged us to think for ourselves and make our own decisions,” Perry Sansing said.

The Sansing family eventually grew, giving David Sansing five grandchildren.

“He said he always wanted to see all of his grandchildren graduate from Ole Miss. He got to see that happen,” Perry Sansing said of his father, whom he had as a history professor four times during his time at Ole Miss.

Sansing taught his sons his favorite class, Mississippi History. On the class’s first meeting of the semester, he would call roll and ask each student where they were from. For the entire period, Sansing would talk to the students about the importance of their individual hometowns in Mississippi and United States history, as well as the important figures that had also come from those places.

“He taught everyday,” Perry Sansing said. “He enjoyed getting up and going to the office every single day. He enjoyed talking about the history of the state. He enjoyed sharing that with people.”

He would usually lecture without many notes. The front row of his classes would often be the first filled, closer to his passionate, Delta-inflected tellings of history. Many students recall not only his engaging lectures but also how they would make them broaden their ways of thinking.

“I remember his class fondly and I learned a new perspective on history,” former student Karen Greene Hollowell said. “As a lifelong Mississippian growing up in Southwest Mississippi, I had a lot of presuppositions and things that I thought I knew and he helped to change that.”

Sansing would talk to many of his students individually, asking them about their hopes for their careers and lives.

“He taught me a lot more than just history,” Jeff Robertson, a former student who took five of Sansing’s classes, wrote on Twitter. Some students even said that they gained a father in Sansing.

His work was not only in teaching history, but in making sense of the past as it related to history in the making.

He served on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context, in which the university worked to acknowledge racist namesakes and historical events through creating contextualization plaques around campus. 

“David, when he served on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee, was into his 80s,” Anne Twitty, associate professor of history and chair of the undergraduate committee, said. “Sometimes we think that older folks, retired folks, are going to shy away from opportunities to move us forward, and nothing could be further from the truth when it came to David.”

Twitty sent Sansing a copy of a letter supporting the Associated Student Body’s resolution to recommend the relocation of the Confederate monument from the Circle to the Confederate Cemetery on campus. Sansing called her, saying that he supported the letter so much that he wanted to sign it twice.

“I’m sure he knew that he wasn’t going to get to see the fulfillment of every hope and possibility, so I think David, for me, was a real sort of inspiration,” Twitty said.

Sansing’s determination to use his knowledge of history to move Mississippi forward was inspired by the history he taught and the Mississippians who came before him.

It was a Mississippian from his hometown of Greenville who inspired him to teach. His 11th grade history teacher, Nell Thomas, along with his other high school teachers, taught him the power of language, and convinced him that teaching was among the most noble callings, he said in an interview with in 2018.

After high school, Sansing joined the army and fought in the Korean War. When he returned to Mississippi, he married Elizabeth “Lib” Hawkins of Columbus after they met in a Baptist church in Bruce. She was a recent graduate of The W, known then as Mississippi State College for Women and now as Mississippi University for Women. Lib and David began a family with the arrival of David Jr. in 1956 and twins Beth and Perry in 1958.   

He earned a Bachelor of Arts in history from Mississippi College and began a degree at a Baptist Seminary in New Orleans. He decided against being a minister, and went on to earn his Master of Arts in history from Mississippi College.

Sansing did not realize that he needed to apply for teaching jobs in his last months at Mississippi College, and ended up selling shoes in Jackson after he graduated.

“I did not know what I was going to do,” he said in the 2018 interview. “I got a job selling shoes at a shoe store in Jackson. I was living in Clinton at the time, and I call that year my ‘annus miserabilis.’”

During this miserable year, Sansing’s love for Ole Miss would come back to life during the 1959 football season. His love for Oxford and Ole Miss began when, as a student manager for his high school football team, he saw the Oxford Square and “had the strangest feeling” that he might teach there one day.

Years after visiting Oxford for the first time, he listened to every Ole Miss football game, growing an emotional attachment to the team that would help him through a difficult year.

In 1960, he was hired at Perkinston Junior College (now Gulf Coast Community College), where he continued working until he earned his Ph.D. in history at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1969.

During the Christmas holidays that year, David Sansing was visiting his wife’s family in Vardaman. He decided to drive to Ole Miss campus.

“On the way I came to a fork in the road, one road led to Oxford,” he said in the 2018 interview. “I just had this overwhelming feeling, seeing that sign to Oxford, and I said to myself, I’m gonna be there the rest of my life. So I drove on to Oxford.”

When he arrived, he went to the history department in Bishop Hall.

“I’m David Sansing. I just got my Ph.D. in history at the University of Southern Mississippi. Someday I’m going to teach here in the history department,” Sansing recalled saying to a man sitting at the desk in the history department.

“Really? I’m Joe Kiger, chairman of the history department,” the man at the desk responded.  “Come into my office and let’s talk.”

In 1970, Sansing began teaching history at Ole Miss.

“He loved Ole Miss. This is where he wanted to teach,” Perry Sansing said.

His father would later recall that coming to Ole Miss “felt like coming home.”

After teaching for over two decades and being named the university’s teacher of the year, Sansing retired in 1994. He was hardly over his love for the university, though. He continued to speak on campus and wrote the definitive history of the university in his book, “The University of Mississippi : A Sesquicentennial History.”

“Across the contours of time,” he began his history of the university, “the University of Mississippi has become a special place, to some it is like a sacred space.”

He continued being, as he had been since moving to Oxford, an integral part of the Ole Miss community.

He would often have the history department over to his home. Most notably, history professors and graduate students would take part in whole pig roasts, which would take 24 hours, and Christmas celebrations, in which Sansing would ask every person what their favorite Christmas memory was.

“They all worked hard, but they enjoyed each other’s company,” Perry Sansing said.

Many writers and professors also regularly shared Sansing’s company in the south endzone, where the bleachers were usually not filled. People in the group — many of whom did not care much about football — would call themselves the South Endzone Rowdies. Sansing, appointed president of the group, declared himself emperor of the south endzone.

Often in the south endzone with Sansing was Willie Morris, the legendary writer and editor from Mississippi. When Morris came back, Sansing said in the 2018 interview, he had a difficult time adjusting emotionally, psychologically and financially. Morris would often call, asking to spend time with Sansing. One would often go to the other’s house, where they would sit, mostly in silence.

Sansing also enjoyed a friendship with James Meredith, the first black student to attend Ole Miss. Meredith spoke in Sansing’s class, and they could be found tailgating together in the Circle on game days from time to time.

Perry Sansing said he had some understanding of his father’s importance to the state but didn’t fully realize it until he traveled around the state more, listening to students talk about how his teaching changed them.

Former students lived in towns all over Mississippi, and Sansing constantly received calls to speak at civic clubs. Eventually, his doctor and wife told him to slow down, but he hated saying no.

Sansing’s 2013 textbook, “A Place Called Mississippi,” remains in use in public and private high schools throughout the state. His last book, “The Other Mississippi: A State in Conflict with Itself,” included articles, essays, speeches and lectures given throughout his career.

FILE – In this Sept. 16, 2008, file photo, David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the University of Mississippi, sits in Square Books, a bookstore in downtown Oxford, Miss. Sansing, a professor emeritus, fell last Friday at his home in Oxford and died Saturday, July 6, 2019, at a hospital in Memphis, Tenn., the University of Mississippi said in a news releases. He was 86. (AP Photo/Ryan Moore, File)

“He loved Mississippi,” Perry Sansing said of his father, pausing. “He loved the state of Mississippi.”

Sansing — an “incurable optimist,” as he described himself — considered a vision of his beloved state that would outlive him.

“I know our past, and I think I know our future,” he said a few years before his death. “There ain’t no other place in the world like it.”