Driving Hwy 61 north out of New Orleans, I kept seeing these blue signs on the side of the highway pointing to either a plantation or an antebellum home. After many miles I wondered what we were missing. We passed by a Louisiana visitor center and I asked Dale to make a u-turn so I could find out about these blue signs.
Yes, indeed, there were plantations and houses all along Hwy 61 to tour. I told the host that we were traveling north and asked if there would be any more along the way. She recommended we go to the Mississippi visitor center just down the road and ask for their recommendation. And, so we did. That visitor center suggested we drive into Natchez to their visitor center to ask them about the area. And, so we did. I am glad we stopped.
I never realized Natchez (never heard of this city before) was rich in history, from the early 1700’s all through the 1960’s and beyond. In the visitor center I learned that Natchez was settled by the French in 1716 and they were the first to bring slaves here for auction. With bursting growth and prosperity, Britain and Spain followed later in the 1700’s and cotton, the agricultural commodity, and trade, because of the Mississippi River, made it the commercial and cultural capital of the south.
Plantations were plenty and wealth was flaunted. Plantations owners planted not just a few hundred acres of cotton but thousands and thousands of acres of cotton. In Natchez alone there were 15 millionaires and they tried to outspend one another by their opulent antebellum homes. Now this reminds me a lot of Gone With the Wind, unrestrained self-indulgence and snobbery at it’s finest (or worst).
The buildings in the downtown district were equally as lavish in architecture. I try to imagine what it must have been like to take a carriage into town for business and pleasure; the men in their finest and the women swooshing down the boardwalk, carrying their parasol, and looking down their noses at the other pretentious women.
The history of Natchez swings dramatically from the center of commerce and abundant wealth to poverty and rebuild after the Civil War. We learned that the plantations owners of Natchez were sympathizers with the Union. Many of the citizens of Natchez came from the north and they did business with the north in many different aspects. Natchez was not a strategic place on the Mississippi River so as the Union navy came down the river, Natchez willingly gave themselves up and lived as peacefully as possible with the take over. I asked our docent if many of the plantations were burned to the ground as in Charleston, NC. He said because of the compromised peace, the Union did not burn the antebellum homes and that is why there are so many to tour today.
However, a year before the Union moved in, as the news of the war came to Natchez, the plantation owners set to flame all of their baled cotton. The first year of the war, the plantation owners were unable to sell their cotton and there was no income for the owners that year. When the Union was approaching, they collectively decided to burn their bales of cotton so the Union couldn’t sell it to fund the war. Interestingly enough, after the war, with no income for four years, many of the plantations were bankrupt and the life they knew was no longer; many of them became the working class.
There was a rebuild of Natchez but with the emancipation of the slaves, a growing tension developed not only through all the south but Natchez as well. The African American families started a life and community in Natchez. They opened businesses, built homes, went to school, became musicians and authors; however, there was their side of town and there was the other side of town. As the decades passed, the Civil Rights era began and Natchez wasn’t exempt from the strife and rioting.
As I walked the streets of Natchez I tried to imagine the early 1960’s. I stood in the middle of the street where the protest march was held; I stood at the corner of Main and Pine where the march began. I can’t even begin to imagine what animosity and for some, hate, was felt on both sides during that time. I was too young to remember much of that era and I am reminded of it through books and the media.
I will never know what that contention was like and I hope to never know but I am not naive nor blind and I know it continues on as events have recently played out. I wish I could write we all live in peace but I believe there is an underlying tension among the races, actually many races, and I am afraid that one day the powder keg will explode. I admit, many of the places I have lived are predominately white so my familiarity with this tension is removed and I am only made aware of the continuing saga through the media which, in and of itself, may be the one to light the match to this powder keg called “equal rights”.
So on that note, I am going to close. Tomorrow I will write a bit about an amazing antebellum home we toured, the Longwood. This, too, was an unplanned stop and we are ever glad we stopped to take the time to tour the house and learn more about our United States history.
What kind of business was this? Who worked there?