All Natchez men get your shovels ready

Published 12:06am Friday, July 6, 2012

Those who think the good days of Natchez are in the past and not in the future should take a look at the city’s charter — especially those of you who hate it when the tax collector comes knocking each year.

It could be mayor Butch Brown or one of our city’s aldermen knocking on your door, telling you to grab a shovel and get to work in the streets.

Unlike today when our taxes pay for city crews to keep our roads clean and passable, it wasn’t that way 166 years ago.

Adopted by the state legislature in 1846, the city’s charter makes it clear that at least half of the city’s population would not just pay taxes, but also would work to keep Natchez functioning.

According to the document, all men between 18 and 55 were “to perform annually six day’s labor of ten hours each, on the streets, alleys, or avenues” in the city limits.

That’s 60 hours of work to help keep the streets free of trash, free of potholes and in passable condition. The specific section doesn’t mention anything about keeping the trees trimmed and the grass along the sides of the street neat and mowed.

It didn’t say that the 6 days had to be consecutive or that they had to be performed in the 100 degree summer heat. In fact Section 28 is void of many specifics.

It leaves enforcement of the statute to the mayor and board of aldermen. According to the section they are responsible for passing all ordinances necessary to “compel” each male resident to work.

For the well-to-do there was a way out of this civic duty. In lieu of hard labor anyone could reach deep into their pockets and fork over three one dollar coins.

According to some newspapers in the late 1840s, industry wages at the time brought in about $2 per week for the average worker in some mills. For many, three dollars equaled a week and a half’s salary.

It is not clear how long or even if the statute was enforced by the mayor and city council. The section remained in the charter until it was replaced by other legislation enacted by state lawmakers in 1972.

During the most recent municipal elections, candidates made campaign promises to clean up the city — to make it look like it did when Natchez took pride in how it presented itself to residents and visitors.

Angry residents complained about the condition of city streets and of medians filled with weeds and tall grass.

At the same time, city lawmakers expressed frustration with the Mississippi Department of Transportation when they cut in half the number of times they cut the grass along state highways in the city. The mayor and board of aldermen openly questioned how in a weak economy they could afford to pick up where MDOT left off.

Imagine what it would be like if the city still knocked on resident’s doors with shovels in hand.

If each male resident had to either pay up or take to the streets each year, perhaps people would think twice about flinging trash out car windows or flicking cigarette butts while waiting at stoplights.

Some business owners might take responsibility for keeping the trees and landscape in front of their stores trimmed and manicured.

Given a more direct sweat equity investment in keeping Natchez streets clean, perhaps civic pride and responsibility might increase.

Maybe returning some things from the past could help Natchez in the future.

 

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or by e-mail at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com