Acknowledging African-American history in Natchez ongoing process

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 27, 2002

Strides have been made by government and by private individuals and groups to tell the story of the African-American experience in Natchez.

But some say much remains to develop and promote black history sites in the area.

The start of heritage tourism

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Early efforts to tell that story included the development of a photo exhibit on black Natchezians that was developed in the early 1980s by Dr. Tom and Joan Gandy, said Mary Toles.

Toles was one of the organizers of the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture’s museum on Main Street.

People such as former tourism official George Dunkley and Convention Promotion Board member and tour operator Royal Hill helped lead the push to promote black history sites, she said.

She also mentioned Thelma Williams, creator of the Mostly African Market and gallery and youth education program Project Southern Cross.

&uot;These people brought in new ideas, and the gallery fostered creative pride&uot; in the work of black artists, Toles said.

The Angelety House, the home of the Mostly African Market, was revamped with the help of city grants.

But Toles said she first got the idea for NAPAC’s museum when she saw the movie &uot;Roots.&uot; A scene where a gourd was used as a water dipper made her think of the cistern and dipper her grandfather used.

&uot;I wondered what happened to all those old things my grandmother had,&uot; Toles said. &uot;I shared that with Josie Anderson, and we said, ‘Why not do something to tell the story of the African-American experience in this area?’&uot;

Meetings with state officials and local women in 1989 led to the organization of NAPAC in 1990 and the opening of the museum in 1999.

The city acquired an old post office building to house the museum. Most recently, aldermen voted to advertise for bids for the creation of a new gallery space there.

The project will be funded with a $20,100 Mississippi Arts Commission grant and $13,400 in city public property funds.

The Historic Natchez Foundation has also pursued grant funds for exhibits there, such as a cotton exhibit displayed last year, said HNF Director Mimi Miller.

&uot;It (the museum) started originally to create a sense of pride and fortitude and to be educational for all people,&uot; Toles said. &uot;There is a rich history, and that history ought to be told.&uot;

Efforts past and present

Indeed, there have been numerous public and private efforts to tell the story of black residents of Natchez, said those who work with black history and tourism in the area. Those efforts include the following:

– An interpretive site is being developed at the Forks of the Road, which was once the second-largest slave market in the United States.

The city obtained a $200,000 state grant and matched it with $10,000 in in-kind work to develop the site. The city is now negotiating with property owners to acquire the land, which sits at St. Catherine Street and Liberty Road.

The land will be given to the state to hold until the National Park Service is cleared to make it part of the Natchez National Historical Park. It then plans to build interpretive structures, probably kiosks, at the site.

Ser Seshshab Heter-C.M. Boxley, a Natchez resident, has been pushing for recognition of the site but could not be reached for comment Friday.

– The National Park Service is also planning to develop museum space and exhibits at the William Johnson House.

It is named for a free black man who was known as &uot;the Barber of Natchez&uot; and kept an extensive diary in post-Civil War days.

The Park Service also owns the antebellum house Melrose and has devoted much effort to telling the story not only of plantation owners, but slaves as well through tours.

The Park Service also commissioned a book on the black experience in Natchez, Miller said.

– Some historically black neighborhoods have been recognized for their historical importance.

The Minorville community has its Jubilee event every year to promote community pride. In addition, the Woodlawn neighborhood has been named as a historic district.

– A handful of black Natchez residents lead their own guided tours of sites important to black history.

A seminar was held in Natchez several years ago as an orientation for black tour guides, although few still take part, said tour guide Ozelle Fisher.

In addition, brochures available through the Convention and Visitors Bureau includes descriptions and maps of local black history sites.

– A celebration of the anniversary of Juneteenth, when slaves first got word of emancipation, is held each year in Natchez.

In addition to remembering the end of slavery, the event &uot;is another way to put heads on beds,&uot; said Hill, who has organized the event along with James West.

The Juneteenth organization has also made efforts to promote sites of importance to black history, including helping erect a historic marker at the Forks of the Road.

It is also planning to erect a marker on the bluff in recognition of author Richard Wright. The Historic Natchez Foundation and students from the School of Math and Science have erected at marker at the site of Wright’s house on St. Catherine Street.

– Entertainment like the Southern Road to Freedom of black history narratives and gospel music has been developed in recent years to run during Pilgrimage, attracting both black and white visitors.

The support the city has given to the NAPAC museum, the Forks of the Road and the Angelety House, to name a few projects, shows the city’s commitment to telling the story of black history, Smith said.

For one thing, city officials alert the organizers of such projects when a grant is available to help fund those efforts, he said.

&uot;I think it’s a story that wants to be heard, not only for attracting African-American tourists but other tourists as well,&uot; Smith said.

&uot;It is a segment that wants to be heard that has a part (in our history), and people are interested in hearing about it.&uot;

Some black Natchezians with an interest in history and tourism say they believe the city, CVB and other public entities are doing a good job of promoting their story.

&uot;They’re doing a pretty good job,&uot; Toles said, describing the city’s efforts as &uot;conscientious.&uot;

&uot;I applaud the efforts that have been made so far because so many years went by without anything being done,&uot; said Darrell White, a former employee at the Visitors Center.

&uot;It’s a part of Natchez’s history that has been overlooked in the past,&uot; he said.

Some, however, say such efforts leave much to be desired.

&uot;We have many tools and resources that have not been picked up and carried,&uot; Hill said. He said many historical sites of interest to a black audience are not widely publicized.

Fisher, who guides tours of such sites and moved back to Natchez after 40 years in part to share her knowledge of Natchez’s black heritage, agreed.

&uot;It’s unfortunate that Natchez has an excellent black heritage history and we have done very little to promote it,&uot; she said.

Historic sites in the unincorporated parts of Adams County also need to be promoted, said Shirley Wheatley of the city’s Office of Tourism and a NAPAC organizer.

What can be done in future

Those interviewed this week said there are several things that can be done to develop and promote black history sites.

For one thing, they said, the Convention and Visitors Bureau needs to hire a new heritage tourism director as soon as possible. Dwight Green, who now holds the position, is resigning.

Such a person could help better organize tours and promotions to better educate the public on what’s available, Wheatley said.

&uot;We need someone in that position, someone who can coordinate

our (heritage tourism) efforts,&uot; Hill said.

White said the department must also be as well-funded as possible. &uot;Don’t just do something to say you did it &045;&045; fund it,&uot; he said.

&uot;There has to be a well-organized effort through the government or a nonprofit to pull all of this together and promote it in a very professional way,&uot; Wheatley said.

She would also like to see more historical sites recognized, from the home of Susan West to the Robinson home to Brumfield School.

Hill agreed and added that historic churches like Rose Hill Baptist, Holy Family and Zion Hill should be promoted more, as well as stories of famous figures in black history with connections to Natchez.

Those range from U.S. Sen. John Lynch to African prince Ibrahima, he said. He would also like to see more advertising of Natchez’s black history sites in general.

&uot;There’s no consolidated effort&uot; to promote such things,&uot; Hill said.

&uot;These sites have to be developed, and the local community has to be made aware that they’re there,&uot; White said.

Toles would like to see NAPAC’s museum &uot;taken to the next level.&uot; That could include devoting a room to memorabilia from the Natchez schools.

White would like to see the story of black Natchezians included every time the story of Natchez is told.

&uot;We need to interweave the African-American history into Natchez history, because they are one and the same,&uot; White said.

The greatest change must take place with individuals, Miller said.

&uot;I would like to see people become more sensitive to telling the whole story of Natchez history at all sites,&uot; Miller said.

Promoting heritage tourism will bring even more tourists into Natchez, improving the local economy, supporters said.

They also pointed out that without the black story included in tours and the like, tourists are not getting a complete picture of Natchez’s history.

Including such stories could also help break down barriers between black and white Natchezians by getting them to talk about the past, Toles said.

&uot;Some people think that if you tell the story, you’re stirring things up,&uot; Toles said. &uot;I don’t think you can make up for what’s happened in the past &045;&045; I think you have to go on. … But part of that is facing the past.&uot;

Nita McCann is a staff writer for The Democrat. She can be reached at 445-3541 or by e-mail to