Painting by M.B. Mayfield
1950 in segregated Mississippi an art professor installs a black artist as his janitor so that he can teach him.
Over 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.
Stories like 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.
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 personal risk is much higher than the maverick art professor cares to calculate. Such is Purser’s empathy for the black man’s plight in the South that he risks everything, thus becoming responsible for Ole Miss’ best-kept secret.
“Purser and Mayfield” consists of interviews with Mayfield’s niece who was there in the later stage of his life, locals, who interacted with and were inspired by the story of the professor and painter.
Pontotoc County Historian Martha Jo Coleman guides us around Mayfield’s hometown Ecru.
Betty, Charles, and their son Randy who was fourteen at the time reminiscing about the time they made frames for Mayfield’s art.
Purser’s daughters-in-law, tasked with finding a home for Purser’s archives, consider Ole Miss as a resting place for his work.
Author of “The Education of Mr. Mayfield” David Magee details for us the mood of the day in Oxford based on accounts from his father who knew Purser. Magee creates nuance and depth when he pays homage to agents of change—Albin Krebs, the fearless editor of the student newspaper, The Mississippian. And 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature winner William Faulkner for his anonymous donations for Mayfield’s art supplies and travel.
In the end, Purser and 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.
Alternate title: Purser and Mayfield – Door Ajar