Exhibition features local sports pictures, memorabilia

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Historic Natchez Foundation was swinging for the fences with its new sports history exhibit, and organizers hope you’ll think they’ve hit a home run.

“Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America” is a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program. It was brought to Natchez by the HNF with help from the Mississippi Humanities Council.

In addition to the Smithsonian’s exhibit, director of the HNF Mimi Miller organized an add-on including memorabilia from Natchez sports teams.

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“We wanted to do an exhibit to contribute to the tricentennial,” Miller said. “This isn’t what people think of when they think of the Historic Natchez Foundation. We think Natchez’s sports history is a history that has been undervalued. It has never been collected.”

For months, Miller and HNF’s Deputy Director Trevor Brown have collected a variety of pieces for display. The items include boxing gloves, a fishing lure, cleats with the mud still on them found in the attic of the historic house Green Leaves, Cathedral High School’s first basketball trophy from the 1928-29 season, Stevan Ridley’s LSU football jersey, Chad Ridley’s Delta State football jersey and several of former Mayor Tony Byrne’s mementos from his days as a football and basketball star for Natchez High School.

“(Byrne) was considered one of the most outstanding athletes the city has ever produced,” Miller said. “His willingness to help really got us excited.”

Born and raised in Natchez, Byrne said he grew up playing sports.

Since the Big Eight conference he played in as a high school student no longer exists, Byrne still holds two records from his time at Natchez High.

In 1952, Byrne scored a record 42 points in a single basketball game. In 1953, he gained 1,802 yards and had a record 32 touchdowns during the season.

To commemorate those accomplishments, Miller requested Byrne share some of his relics from that time, including the football with which he scored his 32nd touchdown and his championship trophies from the 1953 and 1954 basketball seasons.

“I was shocked,” Byrne said of learning there was a section of the museum dedicated to him.

“I didn’t ever expect to have a special section at all,” Byrne said. “Those sports are not individual sports. Those records are set by the help of your team.”

Brown said the exhibit offers something for everyone to enjoy.

“The Smithsonian did a good job of making it fun for people of all ages, 9 to 99,” Brown said. “It’s got some great information, but it’s also interactive and engages you.”

Despite having a variety of memorabilia that different audiences can connect with due to the time period, which school its from or who participated, Miller and Brown are continuing their search for more Natchez sports history.

“I’m sure there is lots out there,” Brown said. “This is Natchez; you never know what is lurking in someone’s attic or closet.”

The greatest area of difficulty Miller and Brown have had is locating information and items related to African American sports.

They’ve found a mausoleum of sorts of old trophies with help from Greg West, but most of them are not specific as to which school they are from, be it North Natchez High School, South Natchez High School, Sadie V. Thompson or other schools.

“I think we are hoping to get some more of the early African American sports history,” Brown said. “We haven’t been able to find a lot, but we have been able to get some great things.”

The exhibit will close June 26, but Miller said the foundation would continue searching for photos and artifacts.

Anyone who would like to contribute to the exhibit can call 601-442-2500 for more information.

“There is so much we would like to know that we don’t,” Miller said.