Getting a Tour of the ‘Real’ Natchez

Most tourists come to Natchez to see the antebellum mansions, look at other historic buildings, gamble at the casino (which is, of course, under the hill), and so forth. But what about the ‘real’ Natchez where most Natchez residents actually live?

Currently, a majority of Natchez residents are African-American, and their legacy is everywhere (guess who worked as servants in those grand antebellum mansions, or for that matter, whose labor allowed those people to get so rich they could build mansions in the first place) but often is not emphasized.

One of the most deadly club fires in American history happened in Natchez – the Rhythm Club fire in 1940. Over 200 people died, mostly African-American. It has been the subject of multiple blues songs, such as “Natchez Burnin'” by Howling Wolf. I was in Natchez just days after the Oakland warehouse fire, and could not help but think about it when I saw the plaque dedicated to the Rhythm Club fire.

The most famous African-American from Natchez, of course, is Richard Wright, the novelist. In fact, he is probably the most famous native of Natchez of any race.

I stepped into the museum of African-American heritage on Main Street in Natchez. One exhibit it dedicated just to the history of the cotton industry because the cotton industry shaped the African-American experience so much. There is another exhibit about African-Americans during Reconstruction. Natchez had a vibrant African-American middle class in the late 19th century, but when the 1890 Mississippi essentially took away African-Americans’ ability to vote, most of the middle class left. Another exhibit is about African-Americans in the mid-20th century (i.e. around the time of the Civil Rights movement), and another room is about African heritage and art.

The real treat, however, was not the exhibits themselves, but listening to the people who work there. I remember that a young African-American couple came in, and one of the staff (or volunteers, I am not sure) asked them where they were from, and they said that they were from McComb, Mississippi, but they had never visited downtown Natchez before. This launched a lecture about violence in the 1960s. I learned that, in the 1960s, there were three strongholds of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Mississippi – Natchez was one of them, and McComb was another. Natchez, however, also had a very active group of Deacons, an organization in Louisiana and Mississippi which had a very simple mission: protect black people from violence by white people. Their means was also simple: guns. The person at the museum explained that, because the KKK did not know which African-Americans were members of the Deacons (and thus were armed with guns), they were too scared to commit violent acts to the same degree that they did in McComb, which did not have the Deacons. Some of the worst murders during the Civil Rights movement happened near McComb. He said that the man who led the Deacons in Natchez is still alive.

In Natchez, one of the major Civil Rights actions was a three-month boycott of all downtown white-owned businesses which refused to hire African-Americans. At the time, the mayor was an Arab-American who owned two grocery stores, and the boycott targeted his business too. After three months, the businesses were hurting so much that the mayor reached an agreement with the boycott organizers to end the boycott. The KKK was so angry that the mayor negotiated with the boycott organizers that they bombed the mayor’s house and one of his businesses.

There was also a huge protest involving hundreds of people. They were all arrested, but the jail could not hold them all, so they were kept in various locations, including the civic auditorium … which ironically was a ‘whites-only’ auditorium (I think, I might be misremembering this part). Some of the protesters were sent to, IIRC, a maximum security prison because there wasn’t space to hold them in Natchez itself. According to the man at the museum, they were silent about what happened to them at the maximum security prison … until 2014. That is when the survivors finally started talking about their experiences there, and a documentary has been made about it which will soon be distributed across the nation.

On one of the walls, there is a list of demands which the African-American residents presented to the mayor and the aldermen in the 1960s (after the boycott). They included demands such as ‘Hire African-American police officers’ and ‘Enact a housing code to address the problem of slums in African-American neighborhoods’. I asked whether the mayor and aldermen actually did what the residents demanded. The man at the museum said that they fulfilled some of the demands right away, but that some of the demands were not fulfilled until African-Americans got elected to public office. He then said that the current mayor of Natchez is African-American, and is the third African-American to ever serve as mayor of the town.

To me, learning about the history of the Civil Rights movement in the terms of one town, while standing that town and talking to someone who personally knew the major local civil rights movement leaders feel very different from learning about the civil rights movement in a classroom far from the deep south (San Francisco, of course, has its own civil rights history, but it is curiously omitted from the history classes in public schools in San Francisco).

***

I lost the UC-E6 cord for my camera in New Orleans. That meant I could not charge my camera, so when my camera battery ran low, that was it. A resident of Natchez kindly agreed to help me find a replacement cable. We toured the extremely non-touristy Natchez – first a store called ‘Dirt Cheap’ then Walgreens then Walmart. We spent hours looking for a cable, but could not find it. Actually, we did find one cable – but it was sold with a camera at Dirt Cheap, and the clerk could not sell the cable separately.

However, the upside is that I got a look at the stores where the people of Natchez do their shopping, as opposed to the boutiques in downtown which mainly cater to tourists. I also got to meet a local resident, and learn a lot about her family and history. I’m not going to share it on the internet, but I got to see a side of Natchez I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t lost the cable.

It looks like I will not be able to replace the cable until I return to San Francisco, but that’s okay. Though I enjoy taking photos, I had been taking so many photos during this trip that it had started to feel like a chore. I find that I sometimes remember places more vividly if I do not use a camera anyway – perhaps I may more attention if I know that my memories will be my only record. And when I write posts, I can curate pictures taken by other people to illustrate them.

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