Literary celebration a success for 20 years

Published 12:35 am Sunday, February 15, 2009

NATCHEZ — Carolyn Vance Smith is like a proud mother when she talks about the successes of the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration.

That’s because, in a way, the NLCC is her child. And this year, her child is celebrating its 20th birthday.

In 1989, Smith was charged with developing a fundraiser for a new building on the Natchez Campus of Copiah-Lincoln Community College.

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“We had had tremendous growth, and at that time we were in desperate need of a new facility, but it was difficult to get money appropriated,” said Smith, co-chairman and founder of the NLCC.

So Smith’s duty as director of public relations was to come up with a fundraiser idea that would catch the attention, and wallets, of the business community.

“In 1989, I was at an educators conference at University of Texas at Austin and my thought was, ‘why can’t we put together a conference like this and let Co-Lin sponsor it,’” Smith said.

And the idea became reality in June of 1990 when the first conference — then called Natchez Literary Conference — was hosted at the Eola Hotel in conjunction with the dedication of Melrose as the centerpiece of the Natchez National Historical Park.

“It took the whole school, all the teachers, staff and students, to pull it off,” Smith said. “We did it during the summer so it was between semesters and we didn’t have to pull people out of class to help.”

After the first NLCC was complete, Smith was pleased with its success, but thought the book was closed.

“I only ever thought this would be a one year thing,” she said.

But there were many more chapters to come for the NLCC. The NLCC is an educational conference that annually includes lecture, exhibits, films, plays and tours that enhance the theme of the event.

Over the years the NLCC has been awarded several cultural and humanities awards for including Governor’s Award for Tourism Achievement, a Cultural Olympiad award for outstanding programming from the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, the Most Outstanding Festival or Event in Mississippi from the Mississippi Tourism Commission, the Public Humanities Achievement Award from the Mississippi Humanities Council and the Mississippi Historical Society’s Award of Merit.

Through the 20-year history, the themes have covered general aspects of Southern history that have included important literary figures and historical events pertinent to Natchez and Mississippi.

“The themes are truly chosen to be of timeless interest,” Smith said. “Every year we have been very fortunate to have national, international and local speakers that are just tremendous.”

One of the most noted speakers in the history of the NLCC was Maya Angelou, and accomplished poet, novelist and journalist, who was the keynote speaker in the 1995 NLCC.

Smith said bringing Angelou to the NLCC was costly, but she knew Angelou would draw a large enough crowd to cover the expense.

“When I went to the dean and told him that we wanted to bring Maya Angelou and how much it would cost, he practically fainted,” Smith said. “But I told him not to worry, and that we would sell enough tickets to pay for it.”

Smith said she needed to sell all 1,200 seats at the City Auditorium for $15 each.

“That night we had to turn away hundreds of people at the door,” Smith said.

And just like Smith and the rest of the event organizers believed, Angelou was very well received at the conference by people of all ages.

“There was a row of high school students from Natchez High sitting in the row behind me, and they were reciting (poetry) with her,” Smith said. “These young women were into poetry.”

This year’s NLCC, Thursday through Sunday, promises to be just as exciting and educational as ever with its “Southern Women Writer’s: Saluting the Eudora Welty Centennial” theme.

Smith said choosing a theme is a careful process that looks at important historical events in the area as well as important literary and cultural influence. Picking Eudora Welty as the centerpiece of the NLCC fit those criteria in many ways, Smith said.

Welty, born in Jackson, made Mississippi her home for many years until her death in 2001. She was also known for using the South, particularly Mississippi in many of her works.

She was also a speaker at the very first NLCC in 1990. The theme that year was centered on the Natchez Trace Parkway and Welty’s short story “A Worn Path” is set on the old Natchez Trace, Smith said.

“I had known Ms. Welty so I called her and said we are doing this literary festival about the Natchez Trace, and asked her ‘Would you please come and read “A Worn Path?” Smith said. “Her instant response was ‘The Natchez Trace Parkway is as pretty as the Blue Ridge Parkway and not nearly as well known and we need to do something about that.’

“When she read, there was not a single sound in that room.”

Smith said it is moment like that and the many others that have followed that validate the many hours of work she and the other organizers put into the NLCC each year.

“It has been the fastest 20 years of my life, and I remember it so vividly,” she said. “It has been a great passion and joy of mine to work with the conference.

“I’m always in awe of how much there is to know and to teach.”