Remember the Freedom Summer ’63

Published 12:02 am Thursday, July 4, 2013

Freedom Summer ’63 — in this case I am not referring to the tumultuous 1963 Civil Rights protest period throughout our nation, but of the summer of 1863 here in Natchez.

People of African origin had been introduced to this area by the French in 1719 to be held in bondage as slaves.

Their collective efforts contributed greatly to the development of the culture and economy that made Natchez the “Jewel on the Mississippi.” The fine houses that have been the staple of our local tourism industry for so many years would not exist had it not been for the wealth created by the labor of the enslaved.

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The cotton grown in the lower Mississippi River region had surpassed tobacco as the nation’s No. 1 cash crop and moneymaker, fueling the nation’s economy and increasing the need for enslaved labor in the region.

The largest concentration of enslaved people throughout the entire Deep South would be found in this area. A very vicious cycle would soon develop … In order to make more money one would need to plant more cotton, to plant more cotton you need to buy more slaves, to buy more slaves you’d need to make more money.

Local planters such as Levin Marshall, Francis Surget and Steven Duncan (Duncan Park) would become among the wealthiest individuals in this nation by individually enslaving thousands in the years prior to the Civil War.

President Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation to go into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.

But the document would have minimal impact in areas of the South that were not under the control of Union forces during the war.

On July 13, 1863, after the fall of Vicksburg, Union General Ulysses S. Grant and a force of more than 5,000 federal troops (including 3,000 U.S. colored troops) would begin their occupation of the City of Natchez.

Word would spread throughout the entire region that freedom from enslavement could be found in Natchez under the protection of the Union Army and Navy.

“The colored population is the great available and yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union,” the president wrote. “The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once. And who doubts that we can present that sight, if we but take hold in earnest.”

Many of the self-emancipated and free people of color would join the Union forces in order to secure the freedom of all. More than 41,000 would come from Mississippi and Louisiana to stand up and fight for freedom.

Independence Day celebrations on the Fourth of July would have very little meaning to the enslaved during that period of American history.

Only the brutal conflict that is remembered during this sesquicentennial and the reconstruction era amendments to the U.S. Constitution would guarantee a degree of freedom and a reason to celebrate in later years prior to Jim Crow legislation.

The tides of change would come on July 13 during the Freedom Summer of 1863, here in the Miss-Lou.

Darrell S. White is the director of the Office of Cultural Heritage Tourism for the City of Natchez.