Matthew Powell – Alumnus Spotlight
History Teacher, BASIS Charter School
Hometown: Olive Branch, MS
Northwest Mississippi Community College transfer student
BA in History, minor in Southern Studies (2020)
Matthew Powell has worked as a Park Ranger with the National Park Service in Montana and Tennessee. He was also the Executive Director of the La Pointe – Krebs House and Museum in Pascagoula, MS. He is currently an AP (Advanced Placement) history teacher at BASIS charter school in Goodyear, AZ.
What was a significant accomplishment from your time at UM?
I won the Odom Prize from the Department of History for my capstone paper, “How the Mighty Fell: The Decline of Generational Wealth among the Planter Elite Families of Desoto County, Mississippi, 1836-1870.” In a broad sense, it examines the decline of intergenerational wealth among the planter elite in DeSoto County (my home county) as a result of Confederate defeat and emancipation. When I began my research, I was shocked at the immense number of wealthy slaveholders in a county founded a little over two decades prior to the Civil War. This fact led me to narrowing the parameters of my paper. I decided to limit family selection to those who had sent at least one son to the University of Mississippi that would serve in the Confederate military once the war broke out in 1861. This limited my research to four families — the Raines, Johnsons, Olivers, and Holmes. Prior to the war, these four families had a total wealth of almost $740,000. In 1870 that combined financial number had dwindled to just over $38,000, a decrease of ninety-five percent. I used these four families to showcase how economically devastating the decision to secede was for some of the South’s wealthiest residents.
This paper has served me well over the past three years. In addition to the Odom prize, I was selected to present my work at The Mississippi Historical Society’s annual meeting and at Johns Hopkins University. “How the Mighty Fell” is set for publication.
I want to emphasize that none of my accomplishments could be possible without the amazing faculty within the Department of History at UM. Each faculty member made me feel important while at the University and I still keep in contact with a few of them to this day, especially my mentor, Dr. Anne Twitty. The College of Liberal Arts, the Department of History and the University of Mississippi holds a special place in my heart that cannot and will not diminish.
Tell us about your history internship.
I was very lucky to be selected for an internship with Shiloh National Military Park in 2018. This was something I sought out on my own as a way to bolster my resume for graduate school and post academic career. I served as a park ranger within the interpretive division at the park. My daily activities included the creation and delivery of tour programs for visitors, including walking tours of “the Hornets Nest” or the “Peach Orchard,” two important locations of the battle that took place in a small town in Tennessee in April 1862. By far my favorite program was our living history demonstration. I dressed out as a common Union infantry soldier and discussed each piece of equipment on my person. The program ended with a live firing demonstration of an 1854 Enfield Rifled Musket.
What is the La Pointe-Krebs House and what what did you enjoy the most in your position as Director?
The La Pointe – Krebs House is a jewel to the state but the sad truth is that many do not know of its existence. Constructed in 1757, it is the oldest standing scientifically dated structure in the whole state. I entered the position with the goal of changing the fact that most individuals who come to Mississippi seeking historic sites end up in Vicksburg, Natchez, etc. I worked tirelessly marketing the museum to a global audience of all generations. Within my first year, I was able to increase visitation over 100% from the previous. While this is great for the board of directors and the bottom line, for me this meant I was able to do what I truly love – share history with people who want to learn. Creating exhibits, tour programs, artifact maintenance, interviews, and archival work were all part of my daily activities while at the museum.
AP history teachers can have a really significant impact on the students. How do you approach the learning process?
I enter every year with having my students raise their hand if they do not like studying history. I always poll them after and the general consensus is they hate learning dates. I make sure to emphasize that history is much more than learning dates; it is the study of people. No matter the time period we are studying, I always find one normal person’s story within the grand topic and how it either benefitted or hindered their life, a mode of study known as “micro-history.” Once students stop viewing history as random dates or events along a linear timeline, then they begin to understand that the people of the past are no different than you or I, and that their stories and lives had meaning. At that point they begin to realize not only the significance of history but how studying history and unlocking its secrets can be as entertaining as a movie, novel, or video game. By the end of the year, they may not be history obsessed, but they no longer hate the field.
To me, this is the way history should be taught. While outstanding test scores are great, I teach history because not only is it my love and passion in life, but I wish to showcase how understanding the past creates a well-rounded and civic-minded individual.
What is the value of studying history in today’s world?
My liberal arts education at the University of Mississippi opened many doors for me in my career. Additionally, my time at UM taught me to be an objective thinker, always searching for the truth behind every story. This fact shaped me into a well-rounded and informed adult.