Experts say Natchez filled with heritage tourism opportunities

Published 12:06 am Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Natchez Democrat

The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — Natchez’s African-American history is rich — from site of the nation’s second largest slave market to the pulpit from which America’s first black senator preached, and those sites are just on St. Catherine Street.

But much of that history remains largely untold, even inaccessible.

The stories of African Americans in Natchez are woven throughout the city in a complex, diverse and intricate web.

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Such stories, local and national tourism experts agree, are ones tourists would be interested in hearing if they were offered in a more easily accessible fashion.

“The challenge you have in Natchez is that there is so much rich history and assets that it’s easy for someone to say, ‘Well where do we begin?’” tourism research consultant Berkeley Young said. “How it is now, Natchez can be a scavenger hunt of picking from all these different tours or driving around town until you see something.

“There’s not this concept of someone who is there to take you by the hand and tell you the stories.”

Young and his colleagues spent eight months studying the Natchez tourism market to help give recommendations for a new strategic plan intended to help bring more tourism dollars to the city.

Among the largest untapped tourism locations in Natchez are the numerous sites where pivotal moments in African-American history have taken place, Cheryl Hargrove, a heritage and cultural tourism consultant for the project, said.

Promoting those sites to a national and international audience, Hargrove said, could easily make Natchez a cultural heritage tourism destination.

Cultural heritage tourism, Hargrove said, is traveling to experience the places and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present, which includes historic, cultural and natural attractions.

“Part of heritage destinations is bringing dynamic, relevant stories to customers and allow them to look at various time periods all in one place,” Hargrove said. “And to me, that’s an area I feel like Natchez has a great opportunity to do.”

The first step to making Natchez a heritage tourism destination, Hargrove said, is to create a community consensus of what places and locations should be opened to the public and then figure out how to tell the stories of those places creatively.

Hargrove mentioned Washington, D.C., as a location that blends its Civil Rights history with that of American jazz musician and native Duke Ellington to create a unique storytelling experience.

“The whole purpose of tourism is to get people to spend more and stay longer, but you also want them to come back because there were too many more stories for them to hear or experience,” Hargrove said. “I think Natchez rivals places like Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., and other destinations with the amount of history and stories. It’s just a matter of looking at what the people of Natchez are passionate about telling.”

A visitor interested in hearing the stories of Natchez’s African-American history would likely first be directed to the Natchez Association of Afro-American Culture Museum, which serves as a hub for the city’s heritage tourism efforts.

NAPAC Director Darrell White sees the museum playing an important role in a community that sometimes fails to showcase portions of its past.

“The black community and its presence has been in this community since the beginning, but somehow we continue being relegated to the background or our contributions are not even mentioned,” White said. “As our present tourism offerings have begun to shown a decline in visitation and revenue, the time has come to place some emphasis in some of the undeveloped areas of our history to capitalize in this area.”

Some of those areas range from developing major locations, such as the Forks of the Road slave market site, to simply telling more of Natchez’s untold stories, such as that of John R. Lynch, a house servant at Dunleith who became one of the strongest African-American political voices in post-Civil War America.

The Forks of the Road site is the only place in Natchez that has received international recognition by the United Nations because of its role in the international slave trade.

Friends of the Forks of the Road Coordinator Ser Seshsh ab Heter-C.M. Boxley said the site is often considered part of Natchez’s “dark past” but shouldn’t be.

“I don’t consider telling the story of a group of people overcoming racism, segregation and slavery as negative,” Boxley said. “It’s more negative if you’re not telling those stories.

“I don’t know if it’s fear, guilt, pain or any of those things, but there needs to be some letting go by the people of Natchez, and the way to do that is embrace the history and tell the complete story.”

The Y-shaped intersection where nearly 2,000 slaves a year were brought to be sold leaves much to the imagination for visitors. A few plaques describing the slave market’s operations stand at the site.

“The site is comparable to other great historical sites, but the way it looks now — it’s just a highway interchange,” Young said. “Most people can describe how a plantation would look just from seeing it in the movies, but my imagination can’t fill in the blanks of what a slave trading post would look like, because it’s so foreign to me.”

But the current state of the site is nothing compared to what Boxley and others hope it could be pending legislative approval to become a part of the Natchez National Historical Park.

Congress must create legislation that would allow the transfer of property from the City of Natchez and a consulting company that purchased a portion of the property to the National Park Service.

NNHP Superintendent Kathleen Jenkins said developing such a major part of the South’s history is an incredible opportunity for the park service.

“I think no better opportunity exists than preservation of the Forks of the Road as a site of conscience, because the existing resources of Natchez so clearly demonstrate the building of a grand culture that was entirely dependent on the tragic and horrendous institution of slavery,” Jenkins said. “The history of Natchez is actually extremely integrated in racial terms. One of our challenges is to reveal the African-American stories that are woven throughout our current tourism offerings but have not yet been written or told.”

Boxley and Jenkins said, ideally, the Forks site would be a place where locals and visitors alike could gather and hear a variety of stories about the city’s African-American history.

“Future developments at the Forks of the Road should be of a size and quality that reflect the importance of the site,” Jenkins said. “They should combine the delivery of information about slavery with opportunities for reflection to give visitors a chance to wrestle with broader themes of violence, racism and lingering injustice.”

Apart from the Forks of the Road site, Jenkins said the community must come together and offer a wide variety of storytelling mediums if it wants to become a heritage tourism destination.

“I think we have a good start on promoting this history, because it is clearly a desire in the part of the visitors, and a goal of our local tourist agencies,” Jenkins said. “What we have to work on is strengthening and professionalizing our local grass roots organizations who are developing the African-American tourism products — and providing incentives for entrepreneurs to provide new tourism products that meet the demands for experiences in music and other arts.”

White was once among those entrepreneurs when passengers of the Delta Queen steamboat became tired of arriving at cities along the Mississippi River and only being given a portion of their history.

“When those people asked what Natchez had to offer and were told about it having the largest concentration of antebellum-period houses in the Deep South, they said, “Stop. We can see a house anywhere we dock along the river. What else do you have?’” White recalls the passengers saying. “At that point they were told about our extensive African-American history, to which they said, ‘Tell us more.’”

From those conversations, White said he created a nearly three-hour bus tour that began at Natchez Under-the-Hill and would take passengers throughout the city.

The tour would stop at well-known locations, such as Forks of the Road, but also at the William Johnson House, the site of the Rhythm Night Club Fire, a number of churches and other locations.

The tour stopped when the Delta Queen was no longer allowed to voyage down the Mississippi River because of legislation attempting to keep vessels made from flammable materials docked.

But White said he believes a similar tour could easily be created and offered through the museum or other city partners that could bring heritage tourism visitors to the area.

Savannah, Ga., offers similar type tours — both through the city’s marketing organization as well as through private individuals.

Vaughnette Goode-Walker is the owner and operator of Footprints of Savannah Walking Tour Company, which she created in 2009 to educate visitors and local residents alike about the rich and diverse history of the city.

Those on the tour are taken throughout the city and educated on the city’s American history.

“What I tell my groups is that I’m here to talk about American history and what happened to the Africans when they got here,” Goode-Walker said. “Nobody wants to be beat over their head with the history they had nothing to do with, so you try to keep it objective and tell the history as it is.”

A former high school history teacher and current member of several tourism advisory committees for the city, Goode-Walker said she knows the feeling Natchez has of having so much history and not knowing where to start.

“A lot of the things on the tour have been torn down or don’t have a marker, so I have to bring it alive for them,” Goode-Walker said. “But telling the whole story of America’s history is something people want to hear right now.”

Hargrove, who helped Young with Natchez’s tourism study, has worked with more than 100 countries, states, provinces, cities and regions to focus on culture and heritage assets as a vehicle for positive economic, social and environmental impact.

A black history tour in Natchez, Hargrove said, that weaves new and interesting stories of the city’s past could be the key to becoming a cultural heritage destination.

“Natchez is very fortunate because it has such wonderful, wonderful assets, and I work with a lot of communities that don’t have near as much,” Hargrove said. “There are all these places that if you stop and say, ‘Wow, if only the city could talk,’ but that’s what you have to make it do.”