On 28 June 2002, I successfully defended my dissertation at Mississippi State University. I never imagined pursuing a graduate degree, much less a Ph.D. Having my committee members shake my hand and call me Dr. Cheathem was quite a surreal experience. I’ve said it before, but I can’t thank John Marszalek, Connie Lester, Libby Nybakken, Bill Parrish, Chris Duncan, and Dick Latner (my outside reader from Tulane University) enough for their help on my comps and dissertation.
Once I decided to pursue a Ph.D., Mississippi State was not my first choice. My mind was set on going to the University of Tennessee, but to give myself options, I applied all over the United States, to places I had no chance of attending (e.g., Stanford, Columbia, and North Carolina) and places I thought I might have a chance to get in (Kentucky and Alabama).
Three institutions accepted me before I made my decision: Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State. (After I had decided on Mississippi State, a fourth program accepted me. I think it was Kentucky, but I can’t swear to it.) Mississippi State emerged late in the game, mostly due to Marszalek’s Petticoat Affair book. Paul Bergeron and Lorman Ratner were at UT, so I felt certain that I could find an advisor with whom I fit, but Marszalek’s focus on the Eaton affair was hard to ignore. Funding was also a concern: Tennessee and Mississippi State offered nothing, while Ole Miss offered partial support.
Believe it or not, visiting Starkville made the decision for me. I made a trip there to decide if I wanted to give it a shot, determined to go on to Oxford and commit to Ole Miss if Starkville was not to my liking. If you’ve ever been to Starkville, you know it isn’t necessarily an impressive town, especially driving in on Highway 82 late one April 1998 evening. Thankfully, I turned left and came upon the main drag. I spent the night and visited campus the next day. After seeing campus and meeting the graduate director, Ren Crowell (who looked remarkably like John Brown to me), I knew Mississippi State was the place for me.
When most people hear that Mississippi State was my Ph.D.-granting institution, they look a bit puzzled. It’s a land-grant institution specializing in agricultural and engineering programs, so their confusion is understandable. But, thanks to the above faculty and others not mentioned, the history program during my time there produced a number of successful history Ph.D.s. The following list includes graduates from the late 1990s and early 2000s who have published books:
Curtis Austin (race in 20th century)
Steve Belko (Jacksonian era)
Buck Foster (Civil War)
Dave Gleeson (Irish in the South)
Jim Humphreys (New South intellectual history)
Brian McKnight (Civil War in Appalachia)
Ed Robinson (African American religion)
Tim Smith (Civil War battles and battlefields)
Tommy Upchurch (race and Jim Crow politics)
Ken Vickers (New South literature)
This list doesn’t include a number of other alumni who may not have published books but have been active in teaching, public history, and government service.
The Mississippi State history department has undergone significant changes since 2002, with the only holdover from that era being Richard Damms. The current department chair, Alan Marcus, has assembled a solid and exemplary faculty, including recent award winners Anne Marshall and Jim Giesen, and a number of other productive scholars. Last month, the department awarded its 200th Ph.D. I’m proud to be one of the 200 and foresee good years ahead for the current and future cohorts of graduate students.