Natchez Historical Society honors Smokye Joe Frank at 2024 Annual Dinner Meeting

Published 4:45 pm Friday, January 26, 2024

NATCHEZ — Joseph “Smokye Joe” Frank received a standing ovation Tuesday night as the recipient of the 2024 Historic Preservation Award at the 2024 Annual Dinner of the Natchez Historical Society.

A total of 109 people turned out for the event which was held at 7 p.m. on Jan. 23, at the Natchez Grand Hotel.

It was the second time in the society’s history – and second year in a row — that the dinner drew more than 100 people. Last year, just over 100 people attended during a major thunderstorm.

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“Tuesday night’s attendance was probably the largest we’ve ever had, with last year being the second largest,” said Maria Bowser, former president of the society. “It was an outstanding evening. We appreciate the weather gods holding off and the tremendous support we received from our community. Don’t ever think history is dead.”

From 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., the audience enjoyed food and fellowship as they celebrated Natchez history.

Leaders of the historical society welcomed a new board member and presented financial reports.

Presentations were given by Dr. Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council and David Nolen, professor at Mississippi State University, who was the featured speaker.

Adam Gwin, vice president of the society’s board of directors, introduced Frank before presenting him with the preservation award, which honors individuals or organizations who have made a significant contribution to historic preservation or the study of history within the Natchez area.

“All of us who know him know of his love of history and historic material culture,” Gwin said. He noted Frank, a retired archaeologist and historian, got his start in archaeology digging at The Grand Village of the Natchez Indians under Robert Neitzel and went on to work at other Natchez sites.

Gwin said Frank’s knowledge and love of Natchez’s history know few bounds. Frank accepted the plaque and thanked the society for the recognition.

The plaque is inscribed with the words:

“Natchez Historical Society Proudly Presents THE PRESERVATION AWARD to Smokye Joe Frank For Significant Contributions to Historic Preservation, January 2024.”

‘A good year’

Gwin welcomed Daye Dearing as a new board member, who will serve as the program chair, beginning in 2025. She is replacing Alan Wolf, who is completing his term.

Gwin also acknowledged the generosity of Jim Johnson and Geoff Butcher, owners of The Carriage House at Myrtle Terrace, who donate their guest house to the society for out-of-town guests.

They’ve hosted all of the speakers who have come during this and the past season, according to the society.

During the business portion of the meeting, Al King, the society’s treasurer, said 2023 was a good year for the nonprofit organization.

He said the value of its investment account grew by 15 percent.

According to King, the society’s records show a total of $9,400 in income receipts and a total of $10,500 in expenses.

A major purchase during this period was a speaker system for monthly meetings, King said. Funds also went toward the building of a new website for the society.

King reported the society’s total ending net assets at $286,166. “This is our second highest funding year,” said Bowser, noting the highest was in 2021 with total ending net assets at $289,330.

King said the society was grateful to the Mississippi Humanities Council for the $2,400 grant it awarded in support of the society’s programs.

Rockoff, who leads the humanities council, shared a few words about the council’s commitment to the humanities in Natchez and throughout Mississippi.

“This past year, the Mississippi Humanities Council gave out 47 grants, 21 of which went to organizations we haven’t granted to before,” Rockoff said. “The Natchez Historical Society is one of these. I’ve been so impressed with how active and thoughtful the society is. The roster of speakers is truly outstanding and we are proud to help support it.”

Rockoff explained that the council is an independent, nonprofit organization supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and also by grants and donations.

‘Catching the Rabbit’

Nolen, professor and associate dean for Archives and Special Collections at Mississippi State University, was the featured speaker. He spoke on the topic, “Catching the Rabbit: U.S. Grant and the Vicksburg Campaign.”

The idea for his topic originated in the July 2, 1863, issue of The Vicksburg Daily Citizen, in which a story dismissed Grant’s plan to end the siege of Vicksburg with its capture by July 4.

The newspaper suggested, “The way to cook a rabbit is ‘first to catch the rabbit.’”

After Vicksburg’s defeat, the Union troops reported, “Gen. Grant has ‘caught the rabbit.’” Nolen said that “catching the rabbit” is a fitting metaphor for the entire Vicksburg campaign.

Bobby Dennis, executive director of the NAPAC Museum, said he enjoyed the night’s program. “We didn’t know that Grant went to Raymond before going to Vicksburg,” he said. “We’re always interested in human stories and other facts related to African American history. Mr. Nolen’s presentation filled in some of the gaps on the history of the Colored Troops. It was very informative.”

Bowser praised Nolen’s talk. “He spoke for us in 2022 and he returned by popular demand,” she said. “He was twice as wonderful this time.”

“He was an energized speaker on a timeless topic,” said Betty Jo Harris, history instructor at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez. “It is why General Grant’s assault on Vicksburg is still studied today at West Point.”

Rev. Tracy Collins of Rev’s Country Tours said Nolen’s talk was extremely informative and pleasurable. “I enjoyed his presentation and I enjoyed the company of other people who like history,” he said. “I think the talk on Grant and Vicksburg was enlightening.”