On Thursday, violins, singing and even a pair of impersonators dressed as former presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant heralded the grand opening of the Grant Presidential Library and Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana in Mississippi State University's Mitchell Memorial Library.
Thursday's event marked the end of years of work and the addition of a $10 million, 21,000 square-foot facility to the library that makes MSU one of only six universities in the nation to host a presidential library.
The Grant Library features statues and artifacts, as well as interactive displays, to teach visitors about the life and accomplishments of the nation's 18th president. The Grant Presidential Collection, which is the largest single collection of Grant papers and items in the world, contains 15,000 linear feet of correspondence, research notes, artifacts, photographs, scrapbooks and memorabilia, along with 4,000 published monographs.
The Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana, which the university received from former Rhode Island Chief Justice Frank Williams and his wife, presents, on a rotating basis, more than 100 artifacts for visitors. The artifacts are part of a gift of more than 30,000 that the Williams' donated to the university earlier this year.
MSU President Mark Keenum, who said he was "downright giddy" about the library's opening, recalled an interview with a Chicago Tribune reporter who asked how he felt about the library of Grant, who commanded Union forces against the Confederacy during the American Civil War, coming to a state in the Deep South.
He said the addition fit MSU in particular, for a few reasons.
"I said, 'Stop and think about it,'" he recalled. "I said there was not another state in the nation that had more to do with propelling Grant's career than the state of Mississippi. It was Grant's success here in Mississippi that earned him the special gratitude and confidence of President Lincoln, and propelled him into a much larger, grander role in leading the army during the war.
"Afterwards, with his celebrity, it propelled him into being the president of the United States," Keenum added. "So I said it's most appropriate, and fitting, for his library to be located in the great state of Mississippi."
Keenum noted MSU's ties to Grant go even deeper than the state's connection to the former president during the Civil War. Grant captured Stephen D. Lee, the university's first president, during the war, and later released him.
Frank Williams, speaking to The Dispatch, said he wanted the collection to go to a Southern state, especially now as the nation grapples with the Civil War's legacy. Frank Williams is the president of the Ulysses S. Grant Association.
"We wanted it to aid in reconciliation between the divisive groups that now possess our country," he said. "Whether it's North or South, where we lack civility -- we're a house divided. We're hoping that these collections, our collection, will help serve to heal the divide."
The Williams collection, which is the largest privately-held collection of Lincoln memorabilia in the United States, is valued at nearly $3 million. Frank Williams said he has amassed the collection for more than 60 years -- since he was 11 years old, with later help from his wife. He said it was hard to give the artifacts up at first, but he felt they were going to the right place.
"Initially, it was bittersweet because we were giving up treasures -- they're like children," he said. "But you get beyond that. You know it's in the right place, at the right time and it will be well taken care of, so we're good. And I'm going to continue to collect, and the school will wind up with it anyway in the end, when I'm gone. So life goes on."
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said the expansion's opening represents a "new day of opportunity" for Mississippi.
"Thousands upon thousands will come to see this exhibit to marvel that it is here in Mississippi," he said. "They will come to know us better, for this is a great day for Mississippi's future. We cannot build our future on anyone's past, but we cannot forget what has happened. We will go on."
Many other state and national leaders, including U.S Rep. Gregg Harper, U.S. Archivist David Ferriero, Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees President C.D. Smith Jr., MSU Dean of Libraries Frances Coleman and others, praised the new additions to the library.
Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of the Library of Congress, pledged the "full resources and services" of the Library of Congress to supplement and partner with MSU as it works to expand the resources at the facilities.
MSU President Emeritus of History and Grant Association managing editor and executive director, John Marszalek, who was critical to helping establish the library at MSU, praised the work of everyone involved in the projects.
"We have been fortunate to have people working with us to make sure this project is done right," he said. "The result is before you now for everyone in the nation to see. Our greatest days are ahead of us."