- Associated Press - Friday, January 9, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Two Mississippi history museums being built in downtown Jackson are moving closer to their private fundraising goal.

Including a new donation announced Friday, the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum have raised $11.3 million. The goal is $16 million of private money to go with an estimated $87 million in state funding.

The museums will share one structure near the state Capitol. Construction started in December 2013, and the museums are scheduled to open during the state’s bicentennial in 2017.

The latest contribution, $2.5 million, is the largest private donation to date. It comes from Ray Neilsen, who’s a former chairman of the board and worked in several jobs for Ameristar Casinos Inc., a company founded by his father; and from the California-based charity started by Ray Neilsen’s father, the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation.

Ray Neilsen said he wants people to learn about Mississippi’s history, particularly in civil rights. He said he believes in racial reconciliation and shares his father’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“It is my hope that visitors to the two Mississippi museums will not only learn about Mississippi’s difficult yet inspiring history but will also appreciate the potential of our state,” said Neilsen, who lived in two dozen cities around the U.S. before moving years ago to Edwards, a small town between Vicksburg and Jackson.

The announcement of the $2.5 million donation was made during a news conference in the Department of Archives and History headquarters, next to large windows overlooking the museums’ construction site. Speeches were punctuated by sounds of pounding and beeps from heavy equipment.

The Legislature has already committed $54 million to the two museums. Hank Holmes, the Department of Archives and History director who’s retiring later this month, said the department is requesting another $33 million for the museums this year. Part of the request could be for cash and part could be for long-term borrowing through bonds, but details have not been set, he said. The legislative session started Monday, and most budget decisions are expected to be made in late March.

Former Gov. William Winter, who is a past president of the state Archives and History board, said a skeptical lawmaker recently told him the state needs to spend more money on education, not on museums.

“These are educational institutions,” Winter said. “Young people - and old people, too - will go through these museums for years and years and years and learn those important things about where we’ve come from and how we relate to each other, and more importantly, how we live together.”

Myrlie Evers-Williams, who was chairwoman of the NAACP national board from 1995 to 1998, thanked Neilsen for the donation to the museums. She said she was reminded of the belief that her late husband, Medgar Evers, had in his home state. Evers, a Mississippi NAACP leader, was assassinated outside their family’s Jackson home in June 1963.

“We are not what we have been in the past, but we are a state moving forward to a bright future, including all of its citizens,” said Evers-Williams, who moved back to Mississippi in 2012 after having lived for four decades in California and Oregon.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus


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