Oxford, Mississippi and Aubigny Sur Nere, France
Sister Cities: Oxford and Aubigny - A Resume'
Written by the late Dr. William Emile Strickland
The Twinning of the Cities of Oxford and Aubigny was a result of the creation of the University of Mississippi Summer Study Program in Aubigny (Cher), which began in the summer of 1953 with the active participation in its founding of M. Jacques Mallet, President of the Aubigny Chamber of Commerce and Deputy Mayor of Aubigny, and Mme Madeleine Mallet on the one hand, and their cousins, Professor William Emile Strickland, Director of the Summer Program in Aubigny, and Mrs. Ginette Millard Strickland, Co-Director and Chaperone for summer program students, mainly young ladies, taking courses in Second and Third Year French at the University of Mississippi and at other colleges and universities in Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Illinois, etc.
Aubigny-sur-Nere, a city of some 7,000 inhabitants, is the commercial and industrial center for the northern portion of the Cher Department. It is located some 120 miles directly south of Paris and is situated near the center of France. It is 18 miles south of Gien, a large city located on the Loire River, in the celebrated Val de Loire region. Aubigny is of distinct historical importance dating from Roman Times when it was Albiniacum. In the 15th Century it became a fief of the Stuart dynasty of Scotland as a result of Scottish aid to Charles VII in the Hundred Years War against England. In passing, Charles VII was known as "the little king of Bourges," capitol of the royal Berry Province.
Signs of Scottish pre-eminence in and around Aubigny still abound. The Chateau de la Verrerie is but one of several sites granted to the Stuarts during the above war, and in Aubigny the imposing Castle, now the City Hall, passed in the 17th Century from the Stuarts to the Duchess of Portsmouth, emissary of Louis XIV to Charles II of England. Near the City Hall are formal gardens supposedly planted under the direction of Le Notre, architect for the gardens of Versailles. In July 1989 Mayor LESLIE and other dignitaries participated in the planting of a Tree of Liberty in these gardens, a spectacle witnessed by hundreds and reported on television.
The University of Mississippi Summer Study Program in Aubigny was held from the summer of 1953 through the summer of 1969. During that time over 250 college-age students participated in a six-week study program in Aubigny with native French professors giving instruction in college-credit courses in French Civilization and Culture and French Pronunciation and Conversation.
The late Mayor Charles Lefebvre, and subsequent mayors through 1989-Mayors Vannier, Karmann, Roblin, Pelata, and Fromion--provided active support for the summer study program and subsequent activities, and they enlisted the patronage for the program of persons of note in Central France, such as a series of Prefects of the Cher Department, as well as Count Antoine Vogué, presently Head of the Departmental Council of the Cher and for long, and still, Mayor of the nearby small town of Oizon and its historic, Stuart-related, Chateau de la Verrerie. The summer program was also actively supported by the late Senator of the Cher Department, M. Eugene Jamain, and Mme Jamain, as well as by the late M. Pierre Rateau, hero of the De Gaulle resistance in and out of France, a Compagnon de la Liberation, and after Pierre's untimely death, M. and Mme Jean Rateau, Pierre's brother and sister-in-law. The latter have remained active and influential participants in events of note in the Oxford-Aubigny relationship to this date.
The present Mayor of Aubigny Yves Fromion and Madame Fromion both possess a distinguished political and social pedigree. Mayor Fromion, in addition to a superlative military career, was for a time Executive Assistant to Jacques Chirac, Mayor of Paris. Madame Fromion (family name Vergennes) is a direct descendant of the great Vergennes who aided the Marquis de Lafayette (note that our county is named after him). Her illustrious ancestor, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Louis XVI, succeeded in finding, with the aid of the Spanish Court, a formula to provide for ships, men and arms to bring essential help to our Revolutionary forces as we fought for independence from England. This nobleman also influenced the French Court to introduce Benjamin Franklin to the most important persons counseling the king.
A large scrapbook of 'newspaper and magazine articles recounting activities of these seventeen summer programs includes numerous articles and pictures appearing in several regional newspapers as well as occasional articles in Parisian newspapers--L'Aurore and Le Figaro. Activities during the course of the summer programs also were filmed on occasion by regional television. Many of the participants in the summer study programs continued their study of French through the A.B. degree, some through the M.A. degree, and several through the Ph.D. degree. Many of these former students are presently sending their children to the University of Mississippi to take courses in French through its Department of Modern Languages. It is also as a result of the founding and continuation of the University of Mississippi summer programs in Aubigny that Mayor Richard W. Elliot exchanged a series of letters with the then Mayor of Aubigny, M. Charles Lefebvre, and with M. Jacques Mallet, resulting in the official twinning in 1956 of Oxford and Aubigny.
This historic twinning of Oxford-Aubigny constituted the first such event in the State of Mississippi and it has remained thus into 1989-90. In 1956 it was also but one of three such twinnings in the entire United States! We should recall also that President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950's urged exactly this form of activity encompassing a people-to-people bond of friendship and understanding in regard to cultural, political, and social similarities among peoples, as well as whatever differences there might exist between them.
Shortly thereafter, M. Mallet had signs placed on eight roads leading into Aubigny to call motorists' and tourists' attention to the twinning of the two cities. Since 1956 and, in particular, through 1989, numerous cultural exchanges between students in the seventeen summer programs and residents of Aubigny have occurred. Several former students returned a number of times to spend part of a summer on their own in Aubigny and its environs. A number of professors from the University of North Carolina, Mr. Strickland's alma mater for the M.A. and the Ph.D. degrees, also visited Aubigny and were received in homes there, as well as by the City of Aubigny itself. The famed archaeologist, the late David Moore Robinson, and Mrs. Robinson spent a week in Aubigny in 1955. As newspaper articles in New Orleans and in other newspapers have indicated, the late William Faulkner and Mrs. Faulkner had planned on spending a small portion of the summer of 1963 in Aubigny with the Stricklands and other relatives of theirs in the town.
Since William Faulkner's death in 1962, the twinning suffered a relatively slow period of activity. In 1972 the present Mayor of Oxford, the Honorable John O. Leslie, began sending Faulkner memorabilia to past and present Mayors of Aubigny and to M. Jacques Mallet, and appropriate newspaper and other publicity was given to these indications of a continuing interest in an on-going relationship between the two cities. It is during the tenure of our present mayor, Mr. Leslie, 1972- , that a very important revival of the twinning of the cities, along with a number of further cultural exchanges, took place. Also, Mayor Leslie ordered the creation of the imposing plaque placed in front of our Oxford City Hall, publicizing the twinning of the two cities since 1956.
On July 4, 1978, at the celebration of Independence Day here, before the Oxford City Hall, and witnessed by a very large attendance, Col. Fortinier, Assistant Military Attaché of the French Embassy in Washington, was the guest of honor and the more than friendly relationship existing between our two cities and countries was emphasized in a major speech by Col. Fortinier.
In recent years, through the initiative of a number of teachers in Oxford's public schools, a correspondence between Oxford Junior and Senior High School students and those of like age in Aubigny was started, and we are in the process of reviving this program.
On April 10, 1981, the City of Oxford sponsored an official reception marking the 25th anniversary of the Oxford-Aubigny Twinning, in conjunction with the exhibition of the well-known, international presentation, Aubigny Architectures. The then Governor of Mississippi, the Honorable William Winter, showed a very active interest in the twinning of our two cities because he believed strongly in the educational, cultural, and touristic values associated with such exchanges between two countries of an age-old friendly commerce. It was hoped that Mayor Leslie would find it possible to visit Aubigny during the summer of 1981 or later. In July 1989 Mayor and Mrs. Leslie, accompanied by Professor and Mrs. Strickland, did represent Oxford at a series of magnificent 3-4 day events in Aubigny in honor of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
Of major international, and national, importance is the film on Oxford and rural portions of Mississippi made in October 1982 and shown in 1983 on international television. Robert Parrish, film producer and author (his book "J'ai grandi à Hollywood," winner of a French Book Award), came to Oxford in search of a locale for a documentary recounting his very early experiences of growing up in Georgia. Parrish saw the plaque outside of the Oxford City Hall showing the twinning of Oxford-Aubigny, and with the knowledge that Oxford was William Faulkner country, he decided that our City and environs would be an ideal place to create what turned out to be four 50-minute films. Parrish contacted Bertrand Tavernier, one of the premier producer-directors of films and documentaries in Europe. Ultimately in 1982-1983, with Tavernier's French film crew, the film was realized and after editing in France it was shown on Eurovision and also throughout the United States. To emphasize once more, it was the original Sister Cities connection which provided the seed element for this endeavor. In passing, it should be noted that Robert Parrish supervised the creation of a 90-minute segment of the original filming which stresses Oxford and its environs and William Faulkner of Oxford, and this film has also been shown internationally.
It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of the political, cultural, and educational benefits which have been derived from, first of all, the creation of the University of Mississippi summer program in a small yet perfectly authentic Central France environment and, thereafter, the official, twinning gesture of friendship between the two cities, resulting in 34 years of cultural, educational, and touristic exchanges taking place between this region of Mississippi, so steeped in the Faulknerian legend, and the Sologne-Berry region of Aubigny, which in so many ways is illustrative also of this same grass-roots, provincial environment, while evoking as well the 15th Century Stuarts of Scotland historical impact. Aubigny, "La Cite des Stuarts," is indeed well-twinned with Oxford, the City of the Faulknerian Saga.