Melrose focuses on contributions of slaves

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 27, 2002

NATCHEZ &045;&045; To Kathleen Jenkins, curator of the antebellum house Melrose, telling only the slave owners’ history &uot;is like looking only with one eye.&uot;

With that in mind, the National Park Service, which owns Melrose, seeks to include the stories of slaves in every tour and in every room, Jenkins said.

&uot;That way, you have a better perspective,&uot; Jenkins said. &uot;We’re trying to acknowledge the individual slaves who were here as individuals.&uot;

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That isn’t always easy. Jenkins, historian Tom Rosenbloom and others with the Park Service have conducted research since the agency acquired Melrose in 1990.

Yet many of those sources, mostly letters from the McMurren family of Melrose and government records, are fragmented.

Still, gems of information can be mined from such sources, Jenkins said.

For example, she has learned how slaves dressed when serving a formal dinner. She has found records of weddings between Melrose slaves and those at other antebellum houses.

And the Park Service was able to largely recreate the furnishings of Melrose’s slave quarters. Visitors to those cabins can hear an eight-minute audiotape detailing the slaves’ experience.

Telling the stories of the 20-plus slaves that lived at Melrose &uot;helps us focus more on the humanity,&uot; Jenkins said.

But the Park Service isn’t stopping there. Although a &uot;ground breaking&uot; date has not yet been set, the agency still plans to restore the William Johnson House.

The structure 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.

&uot;We’re still in negotiations with the construction company,&uot; Jenkins said.

The Park Service acquired the house in 1992 from the Natchez Garden Club, which acquired the property as part of its preservation efforts, Jenkins said.

When it is restored, the house will contain exhibits related to William Johnson and the Natchez of his time. The second floor, where Johnson lived, will be an interpretation of his family life.

The Park Service already has about 12 items ready to display. In addition, 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 property, which is located at St. Catherine Street and Liberty Road, will be given to the state 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.

&uot;It’s an exciting time to be a part of public history,&uot; Jenkins said.