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In Parts of the South, Glorifying Slavery No Longer Pays the Bills

Southern towns have long-unresolved racial problems that aren't easy to change.
 
 
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 Three women from Michigan peruse the exhibits at the Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture on a spring afternoon.

The women are white, traveling with a national tour group for professional and academic retirees, and they’re in Natchez to learn more about its heritage and culture during its annual “Spring Pilgrimage.”

This museum, however, wasn’t on the official itinerary.

Natchez, African-American, Pilgrimage
In Natchez, where the Confederate flag still flies and the Old South is revived each year with the Spring Pilgrimage.
 Suzi Parker

Few tourists visit the free museum, although there is a growing movement to promote African-American history in Natchez, a town of 15,590 that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River. But it’s a struggle. Since the 1930s, Natchez has built its tourism business on the Old Confederacy through the Spring Pilgrimage.

The Pilgrimage focuses on Natchez’s palatial antebellum homes and a bygone way of life. Women, volunteering as tour guides, still wear hoop skirts, and the horrors of slavery are seldom mentioned. This genteel moonlight-and-magnolia history has become a point of contention for people here who think it’s time Natchez turned away from its Old South lore.

“Younger people don’t care so much about the past or the old stories,” said David S. Dreyer, a local historian who volunteers at the museum. “There are so many stories that haven’t been told here, but people might not get that with just the Pilgrimage. We need to find a way to tell new stories.”

Although only three people were touring the museum, Dreyer vigilantly told the story of African-Americans in Natchez through the decades, explaining that slavery and cotton allowed Natchez plantation owners to build some of the most palatial antebellum mansions in history.

antebellum, Old South, Natchez, Mississippi
Local historian David Dreyer holds up a cotton sack at the Natchez Museum of African American Culture and History.
Suzi Parker

He moved into Reconstruction, when the city had its first African-American mayor. It would be more than 100 years later, in 2004, when Natchez would elect another black mayor. Then again, Mississippi hasn’t elected an African-American to statewide office since the late 1800s.

Dreyer, who is white and an Indiana native, showed the group a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. near a wooden white cross, reminiscent of the kind that Ku Klux Klan members placed on Southern lawns in the 1950s.

“My parents were involved in the civil rights movement,” said Isabel Jackson, who lives in southwestern Michigan. “It was important for us to come here. We felt like we needed to see this part of the city’s history.”

The legacy

That history often gets overshadowed by the everlasting legacy of the Pilgrimage.

In 1931, the Natchez Garden Club hosted the state’s annual convention to highlight the town’s gardens. A late-season freeze killed the flowers, and the members scrambled for an alternative. The women decided to invite people to tour the antebellum houses. It was a success, and the city spent decades restoring the homes and branding itself with Southern belles and columned mansions.

Natchez, the PIlgrimage, antebellum
A 1955 photo shows a woman in a hoop skirt demonstrating an old water pump.
 Three Lions/Getty Images

Natchez, the oldest European settlement on the Mississippi River, is now one of the few places in the United States with more than 500 buildings that were built before 1860.

“Spring Pilgrimage gave birth to the idea that Natchez had something to offer to travelers from the region and around the world, as our history can be seen and appreciated by all,” said Emily Edwards, the general manager for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours.

 
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