Forks site gets final NPS approval

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 24, 2010

NATCHEZ — Natchez may still be years away from an appropriate commemoration at the Forks of the Road, but the project is one signature closer.

The National Park Service has signed off on a plan to add the city-owned Forks site to the Natchez National Historical Park.

The only hurdle remaining is approval from the U.S. Congress, which local park service Superintendent Kathleen Jenkins said she believes will come without trouble sometime in the next legislative session.

Email newsletter signup

“It’s a huge step,” Jenkins said. “What this site does is bring the balance to the other (Natchez NPS) sites. Without the Forks of the Road, Melrose and the William Johnson House would not exist.”

The two other National Park sites in town tell the story partially created by men, women and their descendants who were sold at the Forks of the Road — the site of the second largest slave trading market in the South in the early 1800s.

The National Park Service began a boundary study to determine the feasibility of including the Forks site into the Natchez park system in 2006. Money for the study — $150,000 — was appropriated by Congress under the prompting of Sen. Thad Cochran.

The City of Natchez has been talking for years about developing the site, which it acquired in 2003 with Mississippi Department of Archives and History funds.

The city later partnered with Grover Mouton, director of the Regional Urban Design Center in the School of Architecture at Tulane University, to develop plans for the site.

Groups of citizens met, decided they wanted to see a small, narrow building at the site to house artifacts along with a monument outside.

But what exactly will happen at the site has not yet been determined, Jenkins said.

The NPS has notes from the community meetings, and will work to incorporate the ideas of the community, she said.

But the site is small, and very much urban, Jenkins said.

“When you go to that site and stand there, you see high power lines and cell towers,” she said. “We want to give the visitor an experience that allows them to filter all that out so they can try to get their brain wrapped around what happened at the site.”

And hopefully, NPS can acquire more land in the area, Jenkins said.

Friends of the Forks of the Road Coordinator Ser Sesh Ab Heter-C.M. Boxley said he would very much like to see a phase 2 development of the land surrounding the current Forks site.

And as long as NPS does it right, he’s happy to see them involved. But he’s worried the right experts won’t be involved in site development.

“NPS doesn’t have expertise to deal with slavery,” Boxley said. “The subject here is slavery, not tourism. Natchez’s pattern is very heavy on issues being developed around tourism.”

Boxley wants to see the Natchez site tell the story of the entire region, including other slave trading sites.

“The Forks of the Road is a story that addresses the whole community,” he said. “I’m in favor of a process that brings expertise and a variety of input of whites and blacks to help hone in on what the story is at the Forks of the Road.”

Jenkins said she hopes NPS can work in close partnership with the Friends of the Forks of the Road when developing the site.

“They have done yeoman’s work on bringing attention to this site,” she said. “We are very interested that we are now looking at a nationally important place.”

After final congressional approval, Jenkins said NPS would work with the city on timing of the land transfer. The city has a portion of Mississippi Development Authority funding set aside to spend on the site. The city can’t spend the grant dollars on land they no longer own, so Jenkins said NPS would be working with the city to take full advantage of the funds.