Living Natchez mayors share wisdom at Co-Lin event

Published 3:50 pm Tuesday, October 4, 2022

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NATCHEZ — Seven of the eight living mayors of Natchez met Monday night at Co-Lin to reminisce, laugh and share stories of their time in office.

Tony Byrne, David Armstrong, Hank Smith, Phillip West, Jake Middleton, Darryl Grennell and current mayor Dan Gibson answered questions from moderator Sarah Carter Smith, who is alderwoman for Ward 3 in the city.

“We have eight living mayors. How lucky are we to have seven of them here tonight,” Smith said. “Amazingly, I have served until 37.5 percent of them.”

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Former Mayor Larry L. “Butch” Brown was expected to attend but was not feeling well and sent his regrets.

Smith quizzed the mayor with questions about what prompted them to run for mayor to what was their proudest accomplishment.

Longest serving mayor, Tony Byrne, who served five terms in office from 1968 to 1988, said he is most proud of working to bring African Americans into city government and working to bring harmony to the community.

He began his political career by serving as alderman for two years prior to being elected mayor.

“When I was on the board of aldermen, civil rights was the issue at the time. Wharlest Jackson had been murdered while I was on the board of aldermen,” Byrne said.

“I was elected in May, but didn’t take office until July. On June 1, there was a race riot in Natchez and we were under marshal law. I was at my house on Lake St. John and they came to pick me up and bring me back to Natchez,” Byrne said.

State troopers with machine guns were guarding the entrance into Natchez when Byrne crossed the river. John J. Nosser, who served from 1964 to 1968, was still mayor of Natchez.

He said his friend, Charles Evers, came to Natchez to join a meeting between Byrne and those who organized the riot. Byrne credited Evers with helping him negotiate an end to the riot.

“The biggest thing I was proud of was the harmony we were able to create by getting the African American community involved in city government and the harmony between the races,” he said.

David Armstrong, who served from 1988 to 1992, said his proudest accomplishments were helping to create the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration and taking Duncan Park’s golf course from 9 holes to 18 holes.

Hank Smith, who served from 2000 to 2004, said he is most proud of revitalizing the economic development effort in Natchez.

“My platform was basically jobs. When I got into office, I found out the local economic development authority was basically non-existent. We had a 15-member board and either eight or nine were either dead or moved out of town. No one had attempted to replace them. It was not a function organization,” Smith said.

Phillip West, who served as mayor from 2004-2008, said successfully guiding the city through the onslaught of refugees from Hurricane Katrina was among his administration’s proudest moments, as well as negotiating successfully to bring Magnolia Bluffs Casino to Natchez.

“After Hurricane Katrina, we were told 45,000 refugees came to Natchez and Adams County and Vidalia, Louisiana. People here allowed them to stay in their homes for weeks and months. Some are still here,” West said.

One of those refugees was Warren Reuther and his partner, who later built the Natchez Grand Hotel, he said.

“We had been trying to get someone to build a hotel in Natchez,” West said.

He came into office soon after the city lost International Paper Co. and Johns Manville.

“We had lost those good paying jobs and to have Katrina hit and see how our community pulled together. We served the people and those who either chose to stay here or leave here were in a better position than when they arrived. In their time of need, our community came together and showed love and understanding for people we didn’t even know,” West said.

West was mayor when the Magnolia Bluffs Casino contract was developed, which provides $1 million a year to the city from casino revenues and $225,000 in perpetuity for community development.

Jake Middleton, who served from 2008 to 2012, came into office at one of the lowest economic times in American history.

“The country was in the tank. Banks were filing for bankruptcy and things weren’t going well. Our job was to keep the city afloat,” Middleton said. “We lowered the debt of the city during that time, believe it or not.”

He employed strategies such as not replacing employees when they retired or otherwise left city government.

“We spread out those responsibilities among other employees,” Middleton said.

He also said finalizing the deal with Magnolia Bluffs was a boon for the city.

“We had been working on the casino for five years. Kevin Preston and his group did a great job. Some people in the city didn’t want it down there, and I understand that, but where were we going to get money to give our first responders a raise? Where were we going to get money for infrastructure improvement? It was either that or raise taxes,” Middleton said.

He also said he was proud of the completion of the convention center and the community center and the bluff stabilization project.

Grennell, who served as mayor from 2016 to 2020, didn’t hesitate when asked his proudest accomplishment.

“Proud to Take a Stand,” Grennell said, referring to the monument on the grounds of the City Auditorium. It honors the people involved in the Parchman Ordeal who were arrested and imprisoned illegally for marching for civil rights in Natchez in 1965.

“It was the first civil rights monument in Natchez,” he said.

Gibson, who began his term in 2020, said creating unity in the city, thus far, is his proudest accomplishment.

Monday’s Meet the Mayors event was part of the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, Voices and Votes: Democracy in America, in cooperation with the Mississippi Humanities Council.