Article originally published in New Albany Gazette by Lyn West OCT 24, 2018
A mystery is back in the spotlight, and answers are being sought about the theft of a piece of artwork from the artist’s front porch years ago in Ecru, Mississippi.
If you are of a certain age, you might remember driving by the home of the late M. B. Mayfield on old Highway 15 north of Ecru. One never knew what type of artwork would be “on exhibit” on the folk artist’s porch. A favorite of many was the bust of “The Brown Bomber” Joe Louis. It was such a favorite that it was stolen years ago, and now that a documentary is being filmed about the folk artist, there is new energy in the search for the stolen artwork.
New Zealand film maker John Reyer Afamasaga, now living in Oxford, MS, is currently in the final stages of a documentary in which Mayfield’s life is being documented by the people who knew him. The image shown with this article is from the book “The Education of Mr. Mayfield” written by David MaGee.
The interesting and ironic story in The Education of Mr. Mayfield begins when University of Mississippi Art Department instructor Prof. Stuart Purser happened to be driving by Mayfield’s modest Ecru home and saw the art work on the front porch. He stopped and visited with the artist, and from that visit, M. B. Mayfield became the first unofficial African American student at the University of Mississippi. This was more than a decade before the first black student—James Meredith—was escorted by U.S Marshalls to class at the University of Mississippi in 1962 amidst rioting that led to two deaths. M.B. Mayfield listens to lectures of Prof. Stuart Purser through a cracked door of a janitor’s closet because he was hired as a janitor so he could be a student in the art department.
Mayfield’s art career was up and down throughout his life, but his work is now sought after by many folk art collectors.
The story of Purser and Mayfield is how folklores are born. Purser, looking for inspiration on the backroads of Mississippi, discovers Mayfield’s artwork displayed on the roadside in his yard, Afamasaga said..
When Purser accepts a position as the first Chairman of the Art Department at University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in 1949, he isn’t aware that he is embarking on a journey of activism and social change in the South. If it were not in the pursuit of knowledge and a kick in the shins of segregation, hiding a twenty-six-year-old man in a janitor’s closet would be inhumane, the filmmaker said. Purser broke the rules of the segregated school in a way when he “hired” the black artist, thus becoming responsible for Ole Miss’s best-kept secret.
But back to the mystery – where is the stolen bust of The Brown Bomber – Joe Louis? Hopefully this article might spark a memory in someone who might have seen it elsewhere – or perhaps from the person or persons who stole it. It can be returned with no questions asked. Jill Smith at the Union County Heritage Museum, who was a friend of Mayfield as well as housing some of his artwork in the museum’s collection, has agreed to accept the artwork should someone feel compelled to help rectify a wrong and return the piece where it can be placed with the rightful owners.
In the end, the story of Stewart Purser and M. B. Mayfield is a timely reminder that everyone has the power to affect change in whatever climate or condition. “Sometimes all we need is a crack in the door like a glimmer of hope,” Afamasaga said.
The film underway is expected to be previewed at the Oxford Film Festival coming up in February 2019. If anyone has information on the stolen artwork, contact the Union County Heritage Museum at 114 Cleveland Street, New Albany, 662-538-0014.