Natchez Historical Society 2023 dinner draws record crowd, despite stormy weather

Published 2:00 pm Wednesday, January 25, 2023

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Special to The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Historical Society saw a record attendance at its 2023 annual dinner held Tuesday night at the Natchez Grand Hotel. More than 100 people turned out, braving storms, strong winds and hard rain.

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“What a crowd!” said NHS President Maria Bowser at the start of the event. “The response to tonight was overwhelming and we thank all you all for coming. You won’t be disappointed.”

About 80 people attended the 2022 dinner. However, this year’s dinner saw a total of 129 reservations. Some people cancelled because of the weather, according to program organizers. The event lasted from 6 to 8:30, with many staying past 9 p.m. to have their books signed by the guest speaker, Danny Heitman.

During the business part of the meeting, NHS Treasurer Charlie Hill shared the annual report. He said the society ended 2022 with $251,099 — and no debt.

As the out-going president, Bowser passed the gavel to Karen Hill, who will serve as the new president. Bowser announced a slate of new officers that included Adam Gwin as the new vice president; Alan King as the new treasurer; and Roscoe Barnes III as the new publicity chairman.

The society recognized Stanley Nelson, noted author and former newspaper editor, as the winner of the 2023 Historic Preservation Award. Bowser presented him with a plaque that bore the words: “Natchez Historical Society Proudly Presents THE PRESERVATION AWARD to Stanley Nelson For Significant Contributions to Historic Preservation, January 24, 2022.”

While introducing Nelson, Bowser noted he has “for years made significant contributions to educating us about many pieces of the history of the Miss-Lou, from duels, to battles, to tales of intrigue and to the movement of our rivers and bayous.” Most importantly, she added, Nelson has been instrumental in “unraveling many of the truths of the civil rights movement.”

Bowser said Nelson, who was the longtime editor of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La., continues to fight for racial justice.

In an emotional acceptance speech, Nelson offered gratitude for the award.

“Thank you so much for this award,” he said. “I am honored and proud to receive it. Like all of you here tonight, I love learning about our past – the bad parts and the good parts – and seeking out the stories that had been long ago forgotten and almost buried forever.”

Nelson is the author of “Devils Walking: Klan Murders Along the Mississippi River in the 1960s” (2016, LSU Press) and “Klan of Devils: The Murder of a Black Louisiana Deputy Sheriff” (2021, LSU Press). He said that when he wrote his first story on the arson murder of Frank Morris 15 years ago, he had no idea of the journey he was about to begin.

“I did not know that over the years I would write more than 200 stories on this region’s civil rights-era history and on the horrific acts of the Klan that resulted in murders, beatings, arsons, intimidation and multiple other forms of violence,” Nelson said.

Nelson expressed appreciation for the support of Concordia Sentinel and its owners who “stood behind this long-term quest for truth and for justice.”

Nelson ended his speech with a list of names that he said should never be forgotten: Clifton Walker, Woodville; Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Moore, Franklin County; Joseph Edwards, Concordia Parish; Frank Morris, Ferriday; Johnny Queen, Fayette; Earl Hodges, Franklin County’ George Metcalfe, Natchez; Ben Chester White, Adams County; Wharlest Jackson, Natchez.

Following the award presentation, the audience heard the guest lecture by Heitman, a nationally recognized writer on John James Audubon. Heitman is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House” (LSU Press, 2008).

Heitman spoke on the topic, “John James Audubon in Natchez: How a Fabled River Town Shaped His Life and Art.” Using humor, colorful anecdotes, and thought-provoking stories, Heitman described in detail how Natchez played a significant role in Audubon’s work.

Audubon is highly regarded for his artistic work on the birds of North America. Heitman noted that the artist was so committed to his work, that he sacrificed time away from his family. When Audubon sought to do a comprehensive study of birds, he eagerly sailed down the Mississippi River, which in Audubon’s time was “the great American superhighway,” Heitman said.

He explained that going down the Mississippi River was an effective way to cover a lot of ground and see the birds. While discussing Audubon’s art, Heitman said he was “so special,” in part, because his work is so pervasive. Another reason is because of the action shown in his work. For him, nature was not a just a noun, but a verb, he said.

Heitman described Audubon as the father of nature documentaries. He also noted Audubon’s work was supported by the slave economy. Heitman said it is sobering to see how Audubon constructed an artistic idea of freedom and yet he owned slaves.

Like many in his day, he apparently thought of slavery as the natural order of things, Heitman said.

Speaking after the program, Karen Hill commented on her new role as president and the record attendance.

“It is an honor to serve as the next NHS president,” she said. “We look forward to bringing more interesting and exciting programs to Natchez this coming year. I would like to thank Danny Heitman for an incredible program on John James Audubon and all those who attended in spite of the weather. We were so happy to honor Stanley Nelson for his contributions.”

Alan Wolf, an NHS director, shared those sentiments: “Danny Heitman’s revelations of Audubon and his sojourns in Natchez were eye-opening. And, in accepting the Society’s recognition, Stanley Nelson helped us remember many of those who risked or lost their lives here for civil rights. It was heartening to see so many of the community warmly sharing this special evening together.”

2023 goals of the Natchez Historical Society

As the Society faces 2023, it will pursue a number of important goals, according to Charlie Hill. He said the Society will:

• Collect historical material about Natchez and Adams County, Mississippi.

• Cooperate with officials in ensuring the preservation and accessibility of local records.

• Disseminate historical information through publications and other means.

• Preserve historic buildings, monuments, and markers.

• Conduct meetings with lectures, papers, and discussions.

• Participate in relevant field trips and tours.