Group seeks to preserve Forks of the Road site

Published 12:11 am Sunday, September 15, 2013

NATCHEZ Once the site of the second-largest slave market in the United States, the Forks of the Road is now partially home to 24 townhouses.

Built in 2012 by Chartre Consulting of Oxford, the Old Bridge Place townhouses were meant to be the first phase of a multi-phase project to build affordable, non-government housing in the area.

But the location of the townhouses — the site of the antebellum R.H. Elam slave market, known as the Forks of the Road — has always been a sore point for some, and now they’re asking the Natchez Planning Commission and the Natchez Board of Aldermen to stop a second phase of the project. The second phase includes 12 single-family units with a single, semi-circular driveway that exits onto D’Evereux Drive.

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Friends of the Forks of the Road Coordinator Ser Seshsh ab Heter-C.M. Boxley said he would request that the planning commission not rezone the property for single-family dwellings, and that he has asked the Mississippi Department of Transportation to deny the project access to MDOT’s right-of-way on D’Evereux Drive.

“At this stage, it is really a desperate effort to save a little piece of the site,” Boxley said. “Any more development is further desecrating the 8 acres of the R.H. Elam slave market. My protest there is an effort to see if the city will come to some kind of positive position about preserving the rest of the land out there, about not having it destroyed.”

The development would likewise disturb the historic roadbed of the Old Washington Road, which was the original terminus of the historic Natchez Trace, Boxley said.

The National Park Service has completed a multi-year study to determine that the Forks of the Road site should ultimately be a part of the Natchez National Historical Park, Superintendent Kathleen Jenkins said, but the NPS is waiting for Congress to create the legislation that will declare the Forks a part of the park.

“I am in complete agreement that my preference would be that there not be development there,” Jenkins said. “I would have much preferred to have seen a significant archeological project that could yield information about the site, but I don’t know of any authority that could compel that to happen at this point. For phase I (Chartre) allowed the NPS to pay to bring archeologists in, but literally they were running ahead of bulldozers — it was far from methodical and scholarly.”

Gathering information about the Forks site has been difficult, Jenkins said, because until the last decade many people were not aware of it, and the area that Chartre used for phase I had been so disturbed during the 20th century that very few artifacts from the 19th century could be found.

Archeological work on the site of the second phase — it if happens — will be hindered by the fact that the area is covered with trees and a heavy stand of kudzu, she said.

“You can’t really get to it until you get heavy equipment in there,” she said.

Jenkins noted that Chartre had worked with city officials to try to find other areas to develop at the desired scale, but had been unable to do so. Even if Chartre had been able to find those areas, the company would have had to sustain the operating loss of not using the Forks site.

“I understand why they are doing what they are doing at this point, but I have a lot of disappointments and regrets about it,” Jenkins said.

The second phase of the project will take up approximately half of the remaining Forks site, Jenkins said, but she is hopeful the NPS will be able to work with Chartre to develop a Forks of the Road site, maybe near the bridge from which the Old Bridge Place townhouses take their name.

“In a perfect world, we could have a 16-acre site for a site of conscience that would educate people from around the world about slavery, but if we can protect small parts of it, that is a starting point,” she said.

Boxley said the preservation of the Forks site could also be used to direct a growing industry of historic tourism that focuses on slavery. One group has plans to eventually build a boat to sail up the Mississippi River from New Orleans on a slaver tour, he said.

“If they are able to do that, what will (the tour) be able to embrace when it gets to Natchez?” Boxley said. “There’s a futuristic view here that is not in view of the government leadership in Natchez.”

Chartre Consulting spokesman David Kelly did not return phone messages left for him last week.