Donnan’s Barbershop building approved for Mississippi Freedom Trail Marker

Published 4:07 pm Thursday, December 14, 2023

The building once used as a meeting place for the Natchez Deacons for Defense and Justice will be the site of a second Mississippi Freedom Trail Marker in Natchez, announced John Spann, program and outreach officer for the Mississippi Humanities Council. He shared the news Wednesday, Dec. 13, following a meeting of the Freedom Trail Scholarly Review Committee.

Spann said the committee felt the application for the marker, which was prepared by the Natchez Civil Rights Trail Committee, was “compelling” and the site was “definitely deserving of being on the Freedom Trail.”

The building is located at 319 N. Dr. M. L. King St. (formerly Pine Street). It is a two-story wood-frame structure that housed the Donnan’s Barbershop on the first floor in the 1960s.

Email newsletter signup

The barbershop is where the Deacons organized in September 1965 under the leadership of President James “Big Jack” Jackson, who worked as a barber.

“We are excited to bring the story of the Deacons for Defense to the Mississippi Freedom Trail,” said Spann. “Stories like theirs give a different perspective of the movement that is seldom discussed. It’s important to the Freedom Trail Committee to add markers that uplift unknown people, events, and nuance essential to the Mississippi freedom movement. Telling this story of organized armed defense of civil rights activity and leaders of this state, fits our mission.”

Willie Carter, who worked as a shoe-shiner in the barbershop in the early 1960s, and later as a barber, is the current owner of the building.

When he worked at the site, the building was owned by Leon Donnan, he said.

According to Ser Seshsh Ab Heter-Clifford M. Boxley, a former Deacon, Donnan “was extremely influential on the civil rights strategy.”

Carter said he was happy to learn that Donnan’s Barbershop is being recognized for its role in the civil rights movement in Natchez.

“I am grateful,” he said. “It gives me great pride to know that this barbershop was allowed to be part of the Natchez movement that enabled Black people to have freedom and be recognized in the society.

“I appreciate the contributions of the people in our community whose work and sacrifices got us to where we are today. I’m also thankful that Leon Donnan allowed the Deacons to use his barbershop for their meetings. I’m grateful to have been a part of this important movement.”

Mayor Dan Gibson suggested the recognition is one of many ways in which the city of Natchez is working to tell its complete history.

“Since the beginning of our administration, we have been working to tell a more inclusive history of Natchez,” he said. “Up until then, our city was not even listed as on our state’s Freedom Trail or on America’s Civil Rights Trail. This now will be the second marker placed in Natchez in less than one year, placing us solidly on both trails. I am so grateful. And I applaud the work of those who have been working to make this happen. Telling our whole story is key to bringing our city together as One Natchez.”

Natchez’s first Freedom Trail marker was unveiled in April this year at the Dr. John Banks House at 9 St. Catherine St.

In 1965, the house served as the headquarters for the Natchez Branch of the NAACP. It was also the home of NAACP George Metcalfe who used it as a boarding house for civil rights workers.

NAPAC Museum Director Bobby Dennis said the announcement of Donnan’s Barbershop being recognized is good news for Natchez.

He suggested there is much to be told about this barbershop and the people who came through it.

“It was a gathering place of civil rights workers and educators, as well,” he said, noting many prominent people in the African American community frequented the door of the barbershop. “The barbershop was the hottest spot for most of the people who had any role in the civil rights movement,” he said.

The Deacons for Defense was a civil rights paramilitary organization of African Americans who provided armed protection for civil rights workers and the Black community.

It was founded in 1964 in Jonesboro, La., in response to the terror and violent acts of the Ku Klux Klans against civil rights activists.

The Natchez Deacons organized soon after the attempted assassination of NAACP George Metcalfe, whose car was bombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan on Aug. 27, 1965, in the parking lot of Armstrong Tire and Rubber Company. Metcalfe survived the bombing with major injuries.

In a February 2022 interview, Boxley said Donnan’s Barbershop played an important role in the civil rights movement.

He said it was a command post and observation point used by the Deacons to keep an eye on the Klan, among other things.

Boxley said the Deacons aided the Natchez movement in becoming one of the most successful movements in the South.

Because of this success, Natchez became a model for other communities in Mississippi.

According to historians, the  impact of the Natchez Deacons was felt throughout the state as they established chapters in other areas, including Wilkinson and Jefferson counties.

Historian Akinyele Omowale Umoja noted: “The Natchez Deacons became an essential ingredient in the Natchez and the Mississippi movements…..Without a doubt, the Deacons made the Natchez and Mississippi movements more effective.”

The Mississippi Freedom Trail was created to commemorate the people and places in the state that played a pivotal role in the American Civil Rights Movement.

As of Dec. 14, a total of 35 new markers have been approved.

The Freedom Trail markers are managed by the Mississippi Humanities Council, with partnership and funding provided by Visit Mississippi.