- Associated Press - Monday, February 17, 2014

NATCHEZ, Miss. (AP) - Natchez’s African-American history is rich - from site of the nation’s second largest slave market to the pulpit from which America’s first black senator preached, and those sites are just on St. Catherine Street.

Much of that history remains largely untold, even inaccessible.

The stories of African Americans in Natchez are woven throughout the city in a complex, diverse and intricate web. Tourism experts agree the stories are ones tourists would be interested in hearing.

“The challenge you have in Natchez is that there is so much rich history and assets that it’s easy for someone to say, ‘Well where do we begin?’” tourism research consultant Berkeley Young said. “How it is now, Natchez can be a scavenger hunt of picking from all these different tours or driving around town until you see something.”

Young and his colleagues spent eight months studying the Natchez tourism market to help give recommendations for a new strategic plan intended to help bring more tourism dollars to the city.

Among the largest untapped tourism locations in Natchez are the numerous sites where pivotal moments in African-American history have taken place, said Cheryl Hargrove, a heritage and cultural tourism consultant for the project.

Promoting those sites to a national and international audience, Hargrove said, could easily make Natchez a cultural heritage tourism destination.

“Part of heritage destinations is bringing dynamic, relevant stories to customers and allow them to look at various time periods all in one place,” Hargrove said. “And to me, that’s an area I feel like Natchez has a great opportunity to do.”

The first step to making Natchez a heritage tourism destination, Hargrove said, is to create a community consensus of what places and locations should be opened to the public and then figure out how to tell the stories of those places creatively.

“The whole purpose of tourism is to get people to spend more and stay longer, but you also want them to come back because there were too many more stories for them to hear or experience,” Hargrove said.

A visitor interested in hearing the stories of Natchez’s African-American history would likely first be directed to the Natchez Association of Afro-American Culture Museum, which serves as a hub for the city’s heritage tourism efforts.

NAPAC Director Darrell White sees the museum playing an important role in a community that sometimes fails to showcase portions of its past.

“The black community and its presence has been in this community since the beginning, but somehow we continue being relegated to the background or our contributions are not even mentioned,” White said. “As our present tourism offerings have begun to show a decline in visitation and revenue, the time has come to place some emphasis in some of the undeveloped areas of our history to capitalize in this area.”

Some of those areas range from developing major locations, such as the Forks of the Road slave market site, to simply telling more of Natchez’s untold stories, such as that of John R. Lynch, a house servant at Dunleith who became one of the strongest African-American political voices in post-Civil War America.

The Forks of the Road site is the only place in Natchez that has received international recognition by the United Nations because of its role in the international slave trade.

Friends of the Forks of the Road Coordinator Ser Seshsh ab Heter-C.M. Boxley said the site is often considered part of Natchez’s “dark past” but shouldn’t be.

“I don’t consider telling the story of a group of people overcoming racism, segregation and slavery as negative,” Boxley said. “It’s more negative if you’re not telling those stories.

“I don’t know if it’s fear, guilt, pain or any of those things, but there needs to be some letting go by the people of Natchez, and the way to do that is embrace the history and tell the complete story.”

The Y-shaped intersection where nearly 2,000 slaves a year were brought to be sold leaves much to the imagination for visitors. A few plaques describing the slave market’s operations stand at the site.

“The site is comparable to other great historical sites, but the way it looks now - it’s just a highway interchange,” Young said. “Most people can describe how a plantation would look just from seeing it in the movies, but my imagination can’t fill in the blanks of what a slave trading post would look like, because it’s so foreign to me.”

The consultants said the community must offer a wide variety of storytelling mediums if it wants to become a heritage tourism destination.

White was once among those entrepreneurs when passengers of the Delta Queen steamboat became tired of arriving at cities along the Mississippi River and only being given a portion of their history.

“When those people asked what Natchez had to offer and were told about it having the largest concentration of antebellum-period houses in the Deep South, they said, Stop. We can see a house anywhere we dock along the river. What else do you have?’

“At that point they were told about our extensive African-American history, to which they said, ‘Tell us more,’” White said.

From those conversations, White created a nearly three-hour bus tour that began at Natchez Under-the-Hill and would take passengers throughout the city.

The tour would stop at well-known locations such as the William Johnson House, the site of the Rhythm Night Club Fire, a number of churches and other locations.

The tour stopped when the Delta Queen was no longer sailed down the Mississippi River.

White said he believes a similar tour could easily be created and offered through the museum or other city partners.


Information from: The Natchez Democrat, https://www.natchezdemocrat.com/

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