Natchez marks black history well

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I have just had the experience of visiting the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture Museum.

On the day I visited, a substantial group of young people were going through the museum, with an excellent oral history supplied by the curator, Darrell White. I became as absorbed as the young people in the detail and the stories of their history and resolved to return when Mr. White was less busy as some questions were starting to form in my mind.

I was intrigued to know that level of knowledge these young people had of the full extent of their history, as my own knowledge and experience had taught me that the cultural and economic strength of a community lies in its knowledge of itself — its knowledge of its own history. So a few days later, I returned and spent two of the most informative hours I’ve ever spent with Mr. White. His knowledge and clarity of analysis of African American history here is very extensive and so clearly thought through that even a foreigner such as myself could quickly grasp the essentials and also the subtleties of the centuries since the first Africans were landed on these shores.

I was particularly interested in the mechanics of how African American experience was expunged from history books and public records — leaving generations without knowledge and access to role models, pride and, consequently, the impetus to improve conditions. This storehouse of knowledge is tremendously important in any community which is striving to move forward because it gives its citizens — all of them — a strong and honest basis to work from and I commend the City of Natchez for its foresight in having such a good facility available to its citizens and volunteers.

I was also tremendously interested in the beautiful archival photographs, firm evidence of enterprising African Americans contributing to the prosperity of Natchez before the turn of the 20th century, and it raised another question for me — whatever happened to that enterprise and determination within the African American community in Natchez?

If it was due to the rise of segregation in southern states, then in these days of economic depression that spirit of prosperity is sorely missed within this city where many stores are boarded up in Main and Franklin streets as well as others.

The relevance of the knowledge contained in the African American museum to other crucial matters that affect all families — birth and death (medical care, burials and worship), control of economic status (who gets what jobs and where), control of what happens to your family (who is doing what to whom,) the price families are willing to pay to protect the values they believe in (fighting side by side in times of war, pulling together in times of peace). These are the things that need to be addressed and cared for in a healthy prosperous community, and these are the things the museum contains in its material and oral knowledge.

So I am very impressed that Natchez has seen far enough ahead to understand the worth of such a facility — and I trust that the same foresight will be brought to bear on maintaining the museum and supporting educational material and services for the whole community in the future. Kia ora, Natchez.

A simple translation would be: “I salute you.”

Annie Collins

visitor from Wellington, New Zealand