Curtis Hilburn/AP

In Mississippi, glorifying the Old South no longer pays the bills

Natchez needs new strategies to survive, some residents say, not nostalgia for magnolias and moonlight

Natchez, Miss. — Three women from Michigan peruse the exhibits at the Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture on a spring afternoon.

The women are white, traveling with a national tour group for professional and academic retirees, and they’re in Natchez to learn more about its heritage and culture during its annual “Spring Pilgrimage.”

This museum, however, wasn’t on the official itinerary.

In Natchez, where the Confederate flag still flies and the Old South is revived each year with the Spring Pilgrimage.
Suzi Parker

Few tourists visit the free museum, although there is a growing movement to promote African-American history in Natchez, a town of 15,590 that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River. But it’s a struggle. Since the 1930s, Natchez has built its tourism business on the Old Confederacy through the Spring Pilgrimage.

The Pilgrimage focuses on Natchez’s palatial antebellum homes and a bygone way of life. Women, volunteering as tour guides, still wear hoop skirts, and the horrors of slavery are seldom mentioned. This genteel moonlight-and-magnolia history has become a point of contention for people here who think it’s time Natchez turned away from its Old South lore.

“Younger people don’t care so much about the past or the old stories,” said David S. Dreyer, a local historian who volunteers at the museum. “There are so many stories that haven’t been told here, but people might not get that with just the Pilgrimage. We need to find a way to tell new stories.”

Although only three people were touring the museum, Dreyer vigilantly told the story of African-Americans in Natchez through the decades, explaining that slavery and cotton allowed Natchez plantation owners to build some of the most palatial antebellum mansions in history.

Local historian David Dreyer holds up a cotton sack at the Natchez Museum of African American Culture and History.
Suzi Parker

He moved into Reconstruction, when the city had its first African-American mayor. It would be more than 100 years later, in 2004, when Natchez would elect another black mayor. Then again, Mississippi hasn’t elected an African-American to statewide office since the late 1800s.

Dreyer, who is white and an Indiana native, showed the group a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. near a wooden white cross, reminiscent of the kind that Ku Klux Klan members placed on Southern lawns in the 1950s.

“My parents were involved in the civil rights movement,” said Isabel Jackson, who lives in southwestern Michigan. “It was important for us to come here. We felt like we needed to see this part of the city’s history.”

The legacy

That history often gets overshadowed by the everlasting legacy of the Pilgrimage.

In 1931, the Natchez Garden Club hosted the state’s annual convention to highlight the town’s gardens. A late-season freeze killed the flowers, and the members scrambled for an alternative. The women decided to invite people to tour the antebellum houses. It was a success, and the city spent decades restoring the homes and branding itself with Southern belles and columned mansions.

A 1955 photo shows a woman in a hoop skirt demonstrating an old water pump.
Three Lions/Getty Images

Natchez, the oldest European settlement on the Mississippi River, is now one of the few places in the United States with more than 500 buildings that were built before 1860.

“Spring Pilgrimage gave birth to the idea that Natchez had something to offer to travelers from the region and around the world, as our history can be seen and appreciated by all,” said Emily Edwards, the general manager for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours.

Edwards said the Pilgrimage is still “the most beautiful and busiest time of year” in town.

“While not all history is pleasant, Natchez strives to be true to its history,” she said. “There is more to the Pilgrimage than just beautiful houses and antiques. Many houses pay homage to the families of the landowners and the African-American slaves that were such a huge part of their lives.”

Other than tours of historic homes, the pilgrimage season also hosts “The Tableaux,” a play created in the 1930s that depicts life in the Natchez area from 1716 to the Civil War. The Natchez Little Theater troupe performs a satirical comedy on the Pilgrimage, and “The Southern Road to Freedom” is a tribute to the African-American experience at a local church by the Holy Family Church Choir.

Longtime resident Elodie Pritchartt, whose great-aunt was a Pilgrimage founder, said the annual event had saved the town during some dark days.

“The pilgrimage, which depicts certain aspects of Natchez history, was not only built on history, but also shaped its history,” said Pritchartt, who writes about Southern life on her blog Shantybellum. “After Reconstruction and during the Depression, Natchez was dying on the vine. Aside from farming and the cypress lumber mill down on the river, there was little industry here.”

Forks of the Road

Now Natchez finds itself in a similar situation.

In the town’s hotels, its restaurants and even the historic homes, citizens, who won’t be quoted for fear of backlash, said that tourism is down from previous years. The recession hurt the city, as did the loss of a paper mill and smaller industries.

“In times past, smaller Southern towns could count on trading on their Civil War histories to lure visitors and tourism dollars,” said Susan M. Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. “But as the veneration of the war ebbs, as the demographics of the country change, that history no longer has the allure it once had.”

A 2002 photo of the sign marking the site of the Forks of the Road, the only reminder of the South's second-largest slave market which operated in Natchez.
Ben Hillyer/The Natchez Democrat/AP

Ser Seshsh Ab Heter-C.M. Boxley, a Natchez African-American activist, said tourists don’t want the “whitewashed” version of the past. He has spent the past 20 years attempting to get leaders focused on the city’s rich African-American history, but it’s been a battle.

“What I do here isn’t about tourism, although tourism could be a benefit of it,” Boxley said. “I don’t do things in the interest to increase tourism attendance. The history of our ancestors who were enslaved cannot be trivialized into an economic, homogenized, sanitized image for tourism. These stories need to be told. But here in Natchez, it looks like white people did it all by themselves, and they aren’t ready to change.”

Boxley was instrumental in drawing attention to the Forks of the Road site, the nation’s second largest slave market during the 1800s, behind New Orleans. It has received international recognition by the United Nations because of its role in the international slave trade. Currently, a marker and kiosk along with a bench and a leaning cypress tree commemorate the site.

It could be so much more, though, Boxley said.

“There’s a preliminary report about tourism that says the Forks of the Road site is a great story,” he said. “But when you go there, there’s no experience. That’s needed, but we need the community behind it.”

That report by Berkley Young, a national tourism consulting group, recommended that the city leaders tap places where key moments in African-American history occurred. It also strongly suggested that the city choose a new convention and visitors’ bureau director from outside of Natchez. The most recent director left the position last month after 25 years.

'It's complicated'

Like many Southern towns, Natchez has long-unresolved racial problems that won’t be easy to change.

“As most people in the South will tell you, when you talk about race down here, it’s complicated,” Pritchartt said. “It’s not – pardon the expression – a black-and-white issue.”

Glisson said the William Winter Institute has received calls from some Natchez community leaders to facilitate discussions. But resistance — even at the cost of social and economic decline — has lingered.

“Natchez is a community that goes to great lengths to get business based on this Confederacy history,” Glisson said. “Racial issues need to be improved. We’ve had a couple of calls to help, but there hasn’t been follow-through on their end. Our process is, we don’t parachute in and save a town.”

Boxley said it will take a “revolution” to change Natchez and that, even with minorities in city government, little changes.

“We have people going around grinning and bearing it, both blacks and whites, like Old Man River,” he said. “Don’t say nothing, don’t do nothing, but they’re seeing that what used to work is dwindling because you have a smarter tourist. Those days of rolling out the hoop skirts are dying. They are gone with the wind.”

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