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Natchez aldermen vote to donate Forks of the Road to National Park Service

NATCHEZ — After seven years of waiting on Congressional approval, the Natchez Board of Aldermen unanimously voted Tuesday to donate city-owned land at the Forks of the Road former slave market site to the National Park Service.

Natchez National Historical Park Superintendent Kathleen Bond appeared before the board at its Tuesday meeting to discuss a possible donation following the approval of a federal omnibus spending bill last week. The bill included language to allow the National Park Service to initiate the process of acquiring land owned at the Forks of the Road, once the second-largest slave market in the country prior to the American Civil War.

The park service completed a boundary adjustment study that looked at adding the Forks of the Road site to the park in 2010.

Bond said preliminary plans involve acquiring land at the Forks and working with Friends of the Forks of the Road Coordinator Ser Seshsh ab Heter-CM Boxley and community members to interpret and develop the site.

The board of aldermen has voted in the past to donate the land once Congress approved the acquisition, and Tuesday’s unanimous vote affirmed that commitment.

Mayor Darryl Grennell said Wednesday he is happy to see the efforts to make the Forks of the Road part of the Natchez National Historical Park moving forward.

“It’s been going on for many years, and it’s about time we see some great things happen in terms of the Forks of the Road,” Grennell said. “The National Park Service is part of our family here in Natchez, and we’re excited about having them take that project over.”

The National Park Service’s Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta will handle land acquisition for the project, Bond said Wednesday.

A timeline for the project is unknown, at this point, Bond said.

For the city parcels that will be donated, the city attorney first will send documents showing proof of ownership to the lands office in Atlanta, Bond said, then move forward with title searches and other necessary work.

“I would hope this part could be finished by October,” Bond said.

The park service will then try to ascertain willing sellers within the designated area and prioritize the additional acquisitions.

Bond said staff members of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., have ensured that some land acquisition funds have been set aside for Forks of the Road. Bond has said Cochran’s support has played a vital role in expanding the park to include the Forks site.

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.

“I am very excited to have the opportunity to play a part in bringing this important site onto the national stage as part of the National Park Service,” Bond said. “You cannot understand Melrose or any other Natchez mansion without acknowledging the dark, violent and repressive side of that antebellum culture that is represented by the slave marts that existed at Forks of the Road — how the economic prosperity of our city and our nation was built on the unimaginable horrors of human trafficking.

“We have an obligation to learn and tell the truth about our common past, no matter how disturbing. A search for that hard truth may not be what brings every tourist to Natchez, but continuing to ignore or cover it up destroys our credibility in the eyes of the world and leaves toxic remnants in our community today.

Bond said it would be exciting to work in partnership and consultation with Boxley and the Friends of the Forks of the Road Society to move forward with development at the site that is respectful of all their hard work at the grassroots level.

“I commend the actions of the Natchez Board of Aldermen in support of National Park Service ownership at Forks of the Road, and I applaud the new entrepreneurial efforts of Jeremy Houston (of Miss-Lou Heritage Group & Tours) and others in developing tourism products that help provide visitors a broader experience of our history,” Bond said.

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