Ritz might help tell Natchez&8217;s full history

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2006

Could a dingy, faded building on Commerce Street hold the key to taking Natchez to the next step toward unification and progress?

Consider the Ritz Theater. The building has been abandoned for nearly three decades. The facade is faded; the once bright neon sign now dim. But peel back the layers of dirt and rust and our community might find an interesting start to something great.

Recently the Historic Natchez Foundation &8212; one of the most important saviors of Natchez&8217;s downtown &8212; plans to restore the front of the Art Deco-style movie house.

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The Ritz is an important historical building in Natchez and it needs to be saved. While it may not be a Stanton Hall or Rosalie, the Ritz is home to thousands of 20th century memories.

Back in its heyday, every Saturday morning the Ritz was the first place where the area&8217;s youth came together &8212; if through separate doors to separate seating areas.

It was through these dimly lit, silver screen memories that blacks and whites in our area first began sharing a common experience.

On Sundays, the groups went their separate ways to worship, followed by a week of school also in a separate, segregated world. But on Saturdays, the movies were accessible to anyone.

An interesting, but slightly controversial detail was buried in the HNF&8217;s plans to restore the building&8217;s front.

A paragraph mentioned that restoring the literal sign of segregation &8212; one that designated the door through which &8220;colored&8221; people were to enter &8212; was a possibility. If the sign were to be restored, a marker explaining segregation would accompany it.

The point in the sign and explanatory display seems to be focused on publicly displaying part of our area&8217;s history, even if the ugly, unpleasant side.

An anonymous group of citizens expressed displeasure over the sign. Never wishing to offend anyone, the HNF immediately dropped the issue.

HNF probably didn&8217;t want to cause a stir, they simply want to restore the building. And they probably thought they were doing a good thing by pointing out the possibility of acknowledging our ugly past. Make no doubt about it, the sign is offensive. Period.

My generation, however, has no true, tangible understanding of what life was like in the 1950s and 1960s.

We know of segregation only through history books. Younger generations will continue to become more and more distanced from the reality our forefathers and foremothers faced.

At some point, Natchez needs to confront its racially divided past. Some folks, perhaps those who were allegedly adamantly opposed to the small sign at the Ritz, still argue that Natchez is filled with racism. And perhaps, like many parts of America, it is.

But the more progressive people in Natchez &8212;regardless of skin color &8212; are quickly realizing that seeking commonalities, not differences, will get the community further ahead.

Natchez is a town whose history is filled with an intermingling of skin color, yet walking the streets; few signs of Natchez&8217;s amazing black history can be seen.

Ironically, the same federal government that eventually forced the hand of segregationists is the predominant group pushing the importance of interpreting black history.

Aside from the tiny jewel known as the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture the &8220;public&8221; face of Natchez&8217;s history is mostly white.

The National Park Service is carrying lots of the water in the move to include more black heritage.

The William Johnson House and the representations of slave quarters at Melrose are two tangible examples of the federal government doing so. Now, the NPS is involved in developing the site of the Forks of the Road, former site of an enormous slave market.

Our community shouldn&8217;t forget what the world was like back when things were ugly and difference races were forced into separate doors.

Maybe a small sign along with a historically accurate explanation of how things were would help younger generations understand.

As the philosopher George Santayana once said, &8220;Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.&8221;

Kevin Cooper

is associate publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or