In July 2015, the Small Town Center at Mississippi State University was awarded a $25,000 Our Town grant by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to create a trail and make plans for an interpretive center in Marks that tells the story of the 1968 Mule Train. The project’s goal was to partner with the Marks community to raise awareness of the historic Mule Train that began in Marks as part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and build interest in the Mississippi Delta community of 1,735 residents.
The “Marking the Mule” project consisted of a 12-month integrated planning process that engaged local Marks residents, along with historians, architects, planners, and state tourism and historic preservation officials to create a vision for a cultural trail and interpretive center focused on the events surrounding the Mule Train. The planning process included historical research and documentation, community engagement and participation, a multi-day design charrette, design development and community feedback, and execution of a welcome sign and plans for an interpretive center and cultural trail.
The yearlong public outreach campaign brought people to the table who often lack formal influence with these types of projects and gave Marks residents the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the development of a tangible project in their community. Innovative efforts were made to expand citizen engagement beyond the typical public hearing to include documentation of oral histories, outreach at a local blues festival, a hands-on design charrette, and multiple feedback loops, which culminated in the design of an interpretive center and trail and the construction of a trailhead marker that doubled as a welcome sign.
The Small Town Center’s “Marking the Mule” project demonstrates what can be accomplished when a thoughtful and comprehensive planning approach is used to engage a community to solve small town problems. By using a holistic planning approach that included creative forms of public outreach, the town of Marks has not only expanded the value of planning in the Marks community, but it has also constructed a unique and well-designed welcome sign that serves as the trailhead for the interpretive trail that celebrates one of the most important cultural events in Marks’ history.