Written by Sophie McNeil Wolf | Photographed by Joe Ellis
Problem-solving and uncovering stories has always been a part of Lida Gibson’s story. Growing up, Gibson told everyone in Baton Rouge she wanted to be Nancy Drew as an adult.
“Now I get to be Nancy Drew,” she says with a grin.
Gibson made her way from Louisiana to attend Millsaps College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in classics in 1985.
After graduate school at Tulane University and a year of adjunct teaching at Millsaps ended, Gibson was hired to work on a movie, “Miss Firecracker,” based on the play by Mississippian Beth Henley. Filming took place mostly in Yazoo City, with some filming also in Jackson. Apropos – this lit a fire for Gibson, especially with a love of production.
“I really had to weave my own way. Producing is all about dealing with details. I probably thought I knew way more than I did. I learned a lot, but we got it done – logistics, ordering film, getting film processed.”
As the movie business goes, Gibson moved around as productions large and small came up around the state. “This is the problem with movies. When I say, ‘I worked on movies,’ people expect there to be Academy Awards,” she says with a laugh, shaking her head.
Then, the godfather called. The late Jim Dollarhide, a legend of film in Mississippi, and his production company, Imageworks, that is. Worlds collided as Gibson worked on videos that touched on economic development, promoting Mississippi and cataloging the state’s history.
“We worked on a lot of economic development videos back then. I worked on a big project called ‘Harmonies,’ which was (Dollarhide’s) 16mm film about Mississippi. I produced that and traveled all over the state for almost two years. It took 24 hours a day. I really got to know the state.”
At Imageworks, she learned skills she would soon become known for – editing. Dollarhide had the first non-linear editing system in the state. Jumping on board and learning from scratch, she says, became her education. “I still consider that to be one of my strengths now, writing and editing.”
Her favorite part of the editing process? Being able to pick out the important parts of the story and putting them together in perfect harmony.
“When I first got started editing, it was keyboard work. When I knew it was working, it felt like playing the piano,” she says. “I also love that the details matter. You would not think one frame would be the difference, but sometimes it comes down to one-sixtieth of a second… that is part of the reason why you feel like you are never really finished. Every time you watch something you think it could be better. I often don’t like to watch what I have done with a group because only I am going to see the things that are still wrong with it.”
After working with Dollarhide, Gibson struck out on her own, taking on film projects throughout the state. Much of her work has a bent toward Mississippi and our history, including work for Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s Mississippi Roads, Crossroads Film Festival, the Two Mississippi Museums and Ellen Ann Fentress’ documentary on journalist Bill Minor, “Eyes on Mississippi.”
Today her work has taken even more meaning close to home.
The Fondrenite was tapped by Dr. Ralph Didlake in October 2018 as the full-time assessment and research coordinator for the Asylum Hill Project at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
While the project has many parts, a central focus is solving the mysteries surrounding the patients of the former Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum. Like Nancy Drew, Gibson gets to ask, “Why were they there as patients? And, for many, what happened when they died?”
Project plans include placing patient remains in UMMC’s farmers market facility, building a memorial to the patients and establishing a field school with long-term scientific and educational projects. Archaeologists believe that the remains of as many as 7,000 asylum residents are still buried on the campus in Fondren.
Gibson considers herself the support for the nuts and bolts of the project, from a website to collect stories from descendants’ families to researching stories to inform future storytelling projects.
“We need to get a full picture of the surrounding community. Any stories or memories people have of this place, we want those,” she says. “It will be interesting from the community perspective to see this evolve. This will be a one-of-a-kind project for the entire country.”
Most importantly, Gibson says it is important for the project to give a voice to people who were marginalized.
“These may have been marked graves at the time, but clearly they aren’t anymore. Who are these people? From the records that I have been able to look at, these patients came from all over the state and were rich and poor, black and white. They had all kinds of different jobs from organ grinder to shoemakers to lawyers to farmers. The most interesting part of the job is that we get to put newspaper articles and input from descendants together. It’s amazing the stories you can uncover about people’s lives.”
Have a family member with memories of the asylum or have a family member who was a patient there? Submit their stories here.