JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – Jackson is known as the capital city of Mississippi, but it’s also known as the City of Soul. Much of that is reflected in the city’s outstanding museums.

If you haven’t paid a visit to the Two Mississippi Museums, we recommend you make plans to do so. The museums, located in downtown Jackson, have been open for almost seven years. In October 2023, the museums welcomed more than 600,000 visitors.

“Both of these museums cover the large swath of Mississippi history. Our Civil Rights Museum has a real tight focus on the 45 years between 1945 and 1975, when Mississippi was ground zero for the civil rights movement. And then, amazingly, Mississippi history actually focuses on all 15,000 years of Mississippi history all the way back from the Native American experience into current day,” explained Michael Morris, director of the Two Mississippi Museums.

The museums also invite schools across the state to visit, giving students the opportunity to see the unique exhibits and experience the state’s history. They partner with historical icons and organizations, including the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Students can participate in programs, like Native American Heritage Day, and learn what life was like for the Choctaw people in the past and how it is in present day.

The museums also partner with civil rights veterans who lived through the movement in Mississippi.

Hezekiah Watkins, the state’s youngest Freedom Rider, works at the museum every day and talks with students about his experience.

“My main concern is getting the students to get an idea of what their grandparents, great grandparents had to go through to get them where they are today,” Watkins said.

Of course, there are plenty of exhibits.

“In our Civil Rights Museum, a lot of folks are drawn to we’re called the Central Gallery, and the Museum Gallery Three is called ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ And basically what it is, it’s a 37-foot sculpture that emanates light and plays music, freedom songs from the movement. And so oftentimes when I’m walking through the Civil Rights Museum, I see people just sitting in the third gallery, just taking in what they’ve seen thus far and just enjoying the freedom songs that have been played in a gallery,” said Morris.

There are eight galleries in the Civil Rights Museum, and they trace the story of the enslaved peoples being brought into America and Mississippi.

The Mississippi Museum of History goes back even further.

“The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum are two museums that talk back and forth to one another, where we start in about the 1940s, really with the heart and the catalyst of the movement, the Civil Rights Museum. We begin with First Peoples here, and the Museum of Mississippi History will begin to uncover each of the layers of Mississippi’s long history, long before its territorial statehood period, that we are able to kind of build on this expansive story, a space where we continue to talk about both the complexities and also some of the victories within the Civil War, Mississippi’s history as a state,” explained Drew Gardner, manager of Family and Community Learning.

The capital city is also known for its passion for the arts, music and dancing.

Thalia Mara Hall is the place where people come to enjoy concerts, musicals, plays and more. The theater was built in 1968 and seats more than 2,000 people, but back then it was called the Jackson Municipal Auditorium.

Since then, Thalia Mara Hall has become best known for holding the International Ballet Competition.

“If you go to Russia and you say where you’re from, they immediately know where you’re from. All the dancers around the world say they want to dance in Jackson,” said Mona Nicholas, executive director of the USA International Ballet Competition.

In 1975, the Jackson Ballet Guild invited Thalia Mara, a Chicago native and performer, to create a professional ballet company and school in Mississippi.

“And as she got settled here, her ballet studio was emptying out on Saturday and Friday and Saturday nights. And she wondered, where is everybody going? Well, they were all going to the football game. So, she knew that sports and competition was really big for all of the locals. They loved to go to the football games, whether it’d be a high school or a college. And she knew of other ballet competitions around the world in Russia and in Varna, Bulgaria. But there wasn’t one yet for the United States. So, she went to work and won the competition for the United States to be hosted in Jackson, Mississippi,” said Nicholas.

In 1979, Mara secured the International Ballet Competition for Jackson. By an act of the U.S. Congress, Jackson was named the officials USA home of the competition. It’s held every four years.

In 1994, the Jackson City Council voted to rename the auditorium Thalia Mara Hall.

“It was a really, really big coup for Jackson and for Mississippi. It means so much to our state and to Jackson, because every four years, the whole world comes to Jackson. And this has been going on since 1979. It’s like the Olympics of ballet,” said Nicholas.

Speaking of going to the theater, Thalia Mara isn’t the only place in Jackson to catch a show.

If you’re from the Jackson area, you’ve probably been to a show at New Stage Theatre. Founding in 1962, New Stage is one of the state’s oldest and finest professional theatres. The mainstage theater holds about 364 people.

“New Stage Theatre is Mississippi’s year-long operating professional theater. And what that means is we produce from scratch. We produce a number of shows each season. We are currently in our 58th season,” said Francine Reynolds, artistic director for New Stage Theatre.

The shows range from musicals to children’s theater, to comedies, to cutting-edge drama and more.

Productions include A Christmas Carol, Clue, and Little Shop of Horrors.

Actress Jo Anne Robinson has been with New Stage for 35 years and said it’s unlike any other local theatre out there.

“I found out there was one professional theater in Mississippi, and it was New Stage Theatre in Jackson. So, I came here and auditioned and was lucky enough to get cast pretty quickly. And I’ve worked here every year since then. When I was in Los Angeles for 11 years, I studied, I worked. I worked pretty steadily, particularly in theater, not so much in television and film, but in that area as well. But I have learned more and learned more in the first two or three years at New Stage Theatre when it comes to acting than I learned the entire time I was in Los Angeles,” she said.

New Stage also offers educational programs for children and adults, a summer theatre workshop and a statewide touring program.

“We have a robust educational program where we tour shows into the schools and communities. We tour two shows, and those are staffed and acted by our associate artists, company, and we also have an associate director here this season. We have a summer day camp program in the summer. We have six weeks of summer day camp with I think, over 120 students each year. It just depends on the summer, but it’s always full. I know there’s always a waiting list for our summer day camps,” said Reynolds.

Jackson is filled with hidden gems, if you know where to look.

Celebrating its 48th year, Lemuria Books is hailed as one of the best book stores in the south.

“We’re very much interested in the books. We’re coming alive and standing up in our store because we care about them and they’re not just product,” said John Evans, the owner of Lemuria Books.

From floor to ceiling, the walls are lined with shelved full of books. You can easily spend hours exploring, page after page, browsing the various rooms, nooks and crannies.

A Lemuria, you’ll find just about all literary genres under the sun.

“One of my favorite parts about the store is the depth and breadth of the store. I think when you go to a lot of independent bookstores, they’re cool, they’re fun, but they’re just limited. And I feel like Lemuria has the depth and the inventory to keep you coming back again and again,” said Lisa Newman, a book buyer and book seller.

The store sells newly released books, classics, out-of-print books, first edition collectible books and more.

Lemuria is one of the few places in the state that appreciates and understands the love of books like no other.

“I think there is something special about the book finding you at the right time that you’re supposed to read it. I think books do come to the reader, and I think the author speaks to the reader through the book. It’s what creates the unique experience that you get when you read something, and you’re looking forward to, you know, that it’s the real thing,” said Evans.

If there’s one thing to know about Jackson, you can always find a great place to eat.

Jeff Good is the co-owner of some of the most well-known restaurants in the city.

“I think what makes our restaurant stand out is, number one, the longevity of our existence. Bravo opened 30 years ago in Highland Village, and we’ve been serving continuously since Broad Street is 26 years old, and Sal Mookie’s is 17 years old,” said Good, who co-owns Sal & Mookie’s, Broad Street Bakery and Café, and Bravo!

Good said dining in any one of his restaurants is more than just breakfast, lunch or dinner.

“Because we’re a chef driven concept. We make our food, we start with raw produce and raw materials. We cook them up to a point, and then when you order your meal, we then prepare to the final point. So all of the things that go on our pizza that don’t come out of cans,” he said.

Being a Jackson native himself, Good said it’s an experience everyone in the city should have.

“You know, sometimes people ask me what I would say to somebody if they’ve never eaten in one of our restaurants. And first of all, I’d say, ‘Are you living under a rock?’ Come on, come on out. I would tell them that if you’re looking for an experience that’s beyond just feeding yourself, the gift of getting hospitality, the gift of having someone serve you and give you care and concern is precious. And that’s something that we really pride ourselves on,” he said.

Another good place to eat is Brent’s Drugs in Fondren. They have been in business longer than most any others in the state, and people still head to the restaurant for the atmosphere and delicious food.

Brent’s Drugs started out as a shopping center in 1946. It was a pharmacy up until 2009. Now, it’s a popular restaurant that still maintains that classic 1946 soda fountain look.

“This is one of the, maybe the oldest shopping center in Mississippi. And when Mr. Alvin Branch, Sr., opened the pharmacy, he had people come in, and they had, you know, normal drugstore stuff up front where you could buy stuff. You would end up putting your prescription in and then waiting at the soda fountain for that. But it became a local spot for kids. There was a school across the street, just a local hangout to get Cherry Cokes and things like that,” said Sarah Friedler, general manager of Brent’s Drugs.

Brent’s is also famous after appearing in the movie The Help, parts of which were filmed in the restaurant.

“When it was filmed in Jackson, it was filmed in Brent’s, in some of the parts. People from all of the world come to see where Skeeter sat, which is right here at the soda fountain and where they sat in booth 54. And people want to sit in that spot. So, it’s gotten a lot of publicity from that movie,” said Friedler.

Brent’s Drugs stands the test of time, attracting crowds after more than 70 years. Many original customers are now bringing their grandchildren or great-grands.

Jackson is also home to many animals and animal lovers.

The Mississippi Animal Rescue League (MARL) is more than an animal shelter for the Jackson area, it’s a necessity for the state.

“We’re the only open admission shelter in central Mississippi. So, meaning when any other shelter turns animals away called open intake, we take everything in. So, we never turn anything away. And that means we take in about 8,000 animals a year,” said Samantha Page, executive director for MARL.

Debra Boswell was the shelter director for MARL for more than 40 years. She’s seen it all. Boswell said some of the most trying times of her career happened when Hurricane Katrina impacted Mississippi in 2005.

“You were seeing the animals on their rooftops, and the animals left behind, and the animals on chains up to their neck in water. You were seeing all that. And it I think it brought a whole new awareness to our pets and our responsibilities for those animals,” Boswell stated.

MARL housed hundreds of animals from Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana, during Katrina.

Boswell has been fighting the war on pet overpopulation for her entire career. She’s always known the solution, and now, it’s here.

“Well, I can tell you that the few years before Katrina, we were averaging 15-16,000 animals a year in that small little shelter on South Drive that you remember. And then the year after Katrina, we were just inundated with people having to relocate up here, bring their pets, short term rentals and landlords not allowing animals. And that number went up to 17,000. So, it was heartbreaking stories that you get over here and about a year and a half later. Big Fix came to town, and it was a whole new ballgame. They have they have had such a huge impact, such a huge impact on reducing pet overpopulation in central Mississippi. So can you imagine where we would be from 17,000 to today if they had not if they had not come to Jackson? It was a partnership from the very beginning because that is the answer to pet overpopulation. That is the answer to stop the euthanasia of animals and healthy animals in shelters. That is the answer,” she said.

MARL currently takes in 8,000 to 9,000 animals a year. Some are strays, some are surrenders. Adoptions, volunteers and fosters are still desperately needed at MARL.

“So, it’s been a little bit slower lately, but we adopt out about 1,300 a year, give or take. You know, during COVID, it was a little bit slower, and then it kind of boosted up some. So, we’re hoping this year’s our biggest year for adoption,” stated Page.

October 2023 marked MARL’s 54th year.