Forks of the Road site rezonedPublished 12:01am Wednesday, October 23, 2013
NATCHEZ — A compromise to preserve part of the historic Forks of the Road slave market site while allowing a new housing development seems to have been met Tuesday in the Natchez City Council Chambers.
The Natchez Board of Aldermen unanimously approved a request from Chartre Consulting to rezone property at the Forks site to allow the housing construction, which is part of a low-income, scattered-site housing project focused on the Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Catherine streets area.
Once Chartre finalizes its plans, the company agreed to donate the remaining portion of the Forks property to the city to hold in trust for the National Park Service.
Once the site of the second-largest slave market in the country before the Civil War, the site is set to be included in the Natchez National Historical Park as soon as Congress creates legislation to allow the transfer of the property.
NNHP Superintendent Kathleen Jenkins has said the Forks of the Road site is the only place in Natchez that has received international recognition by the United Nations because of its role in the international slave trade.
The proposed housing was initially going to front D’Evereux Drive near where the road becomes St. Catherine Street, City Planner Frankie Legaux said Tuesday before the meeting.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation, however, would not approve access to the houses from U.S. 61 Business Legaux said.
Preliminary plans now show the houses will be located farther up the site in a cul-de-sac accessed by a road to be built.
Moving the housing farther up the site allows for a portion of the Forks to remain undeveloped.
That portion, which Chartre’s David Kelly agreed to donate to the city Tuesday, includes a bayou believed to have been where slaves were held prior to sale..
The site was rezoned from R-4 residential, which allows for apartment complexes, townhouses and other dense housing, to R-3 for single-family residences.
Mayor Butch Brown pointed out that had aldermen not rezoned the property to R-3, the developer still could have constructed an apartment complex on the site. Doing so, Brown said, would jeopardize the potential land donation to the city for NPS.
New York Times best-selling author and Natchez native Greg Iles voiced his support of the preservation of Forks of the Road at the board’s finance meeting before the regular meeting.
Iles said he does not believe many people in Natchez grasp the importance of the Forks of the Road.
Iles said he believes that for too long, Natchez tourism has been based upon recreating the grandeur of the Old South image made popular by “Gone with the Wind.”
The generations of tourists that want to see that re-creation have passed, Iles said.
“I really believe the time has come to pull Natchez tourism into the 21st century,” he said.
To do that, Iles said, requires acknowledgement of not just Natchez’s white history or black history, but all of the city’s history.
Iles said seeing the importance of Forks of the Road requires a change in perspective.
“Let’s say this wasn’t a slave market,” he said. “Let’s say 10,000 Confederate soldiers starved to death in a Union camp there. I firmly believe then you would have 10,000 Natchezians out there picketing saying, ‘Don’t put one brick out here.’
“That’s how unbalanced the picture is that we have shown the world for all these years.”
Iles said it is his hope some portion of the land would be donated as a potential site for a future national monument to the Forks of the Road.
“And not just a bayou at the back of the property,” he said. “Something that someone can use.”
Iles said he was pleased to hear that the arrangement for the donation to the NPS had been made.
Iles also said he had told nationally acclaimed author James McBride of the struggles to preserve the Forks, and McBride pledged to “rally the troops” for support of the Forks.
Iles also said he had heard of a petition circulating in Chicago for the preservation of the Forks.
“I think we’re going to see a groundswell of grassroots support,” he said.
Iles noted the upcoming filming of the James Brown biopic could bring the city unprecedented attention.
“Do we really want the story to be that we’re going to pave over the second largest slave market in the country?” he said.
Iles said he believes a Forks monument at the site could be Natchez’s “transition piece from Old South ‘Gone with the Wind’ tourism into modern tourism.’”
“By acknowledging the past, we will bring Natchez into the future … I think you will be stunned at the commercial returns you will see,” he said.
Friends of the Forks of the Road Coordinator Ser Seshsh ab Heter-C.M. Boxley asked the board members to weigh the request at hand with their moral obligation to preserve the Forks site.
Boxley initially asked the board to delay its decision until the Natchez Preservation Commission could come up with a plan to preserve the Forks. Boxley later shook Kelly’s hand and called the company’s donation “very generous for a slave market.”
Boxley accompanied city staff and Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, Ward 2 Alderman Ricky Gray, Ward 3 Alderwoman Sarah Smith and Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery to the site of the proposed housing Tuesday afternoon before the meeting.
Ward 4 Alderman Tony Fields, in whose ward the Forks site sits, has previously spoken out against developing housing on the Forks site.
Fields made the motion to approve the rezoning and said after the vote that he was thankful a compromise was met.
“Through a lot of hard work, creativity and definitely some generosity, we’ll be able to preserve (a portion of) the Forks of the Road and have it be a part of Natchez history,” he said.