Beware, this post will get serious.
If you’ve never heard of Natchez, you’ve got some catching up to do. Quick history lesson: This Mississippi River city was the origination of the Natchez Trace (a Native American nomadic trail) and its prime location attracted America’s most wealthy. In the mid 1800s, over half of the country’s millionaires had set up shop in this town on the river. Staunchly situated in the Antebellum South, the plantations of then remain today and roughly six hundred homes are on the National Register of Historic Places. Regardless of your thoughts on slavery, plantations, cotton, or wealth, this is a city with heavy history. It should take up significant space on your itinerary.
Mom had booked two nights in a plantation-mansion-turned-bread-and-breakfast owned for generations by the family of Ms. Jeanette. She was a little old lady that still drove and used a massive desktop computer from the 90s. Possibly, the first ever computer. She set us up in our room on the second floor that had a beautiful view of the expansive front lawn as well as the backyard, complete with a brown gardener. She asked us what we wanted for the next morning’s breakfast because Tilly would be in the kitchen. Hmmmm.
The mansion was a treasure trove of antiques from the 1800s, with each room holding relics of a lost time in our country. Or, maybe not so lost these days. Mz. Jeanette apologized for not being able to escort us around her family home due to the gout, but she definitely let us know that her two daughters were both town debutantes and the immense oil paintings validated her geriatric words. Mom and I risked a side-eye at each other and proceeded to have dinner in town. Aside from almost reversing the car directly into the
Mississippi River from a parking lot, we had a night of interesting conversations with the townies. Chock full of controversial topics like teen motherhood, racism, and slavery. I like to go all in.
We awoke the next morning to cinnamon wafting through the shuttered windows, so we got ourselves together to get this breakfast. We sat down to an impressively set table and were served, by the brown maid, some sort of peculiar souffle that we tried very hard not to scoff at. The next time Tilly walked in, I asked if she ate this stuff for breakfast herself. She laughed heartily and in a deep accent, hell no, I like eggs. We like eggs too! Shoooo.
Tilly got us going with some average American morning fare and we were almost ready to go when Mz. Jeanette scuffled back in announcing she was feeling better and could now give us that tour. Nothing like having plans I guess. For the next two hours, she slowly talked us through the mansion. We didn’t have phones on us and by this point, easily four hours had passed since we woke up. By the time Mz. J relieved us and we settled back into our rooms to decompress, we each had about ten missed calls from non other than, D A D. Uh oh.
Fast forward an hour and Dad was mighty upset at us not checking in once we got up. As a retired Police Captain that was not accompanying his two gals on our trek through the deep south, he was highly upset at our inability to let him know we were safe. He’d even called the local police department to see if they would pinpoint our whereabouts and the department told him to call Mz. Jeanette! She would know all those types of things…interesting.
After some coffee, we realized that from his perspective, worry was warranted. Having never been to the deep south, we didn’t know what people would think of a white woman with a brown girl riding into their towns, steeped so heavily in racial volatility. We were in an entirely new land that may not have thought much of these two Yankees bringing their ways down along the Mississippi. This episode got us to thinking…
Mason Jars & Conversation
We decided to drive across the tracks and see how the other people in this town lived, that weren’t associated with the wealth from the plantations. Namely, where Tilly and the Gardener might live. What we saw was both astounding, yet not at all. It’s not all that outrageous to think that over the generations, those that have lineages from slave families have not, over time, been able to truly pull themselves out of that historical grasp. The absolute third world homes that we saw, the vacancy in the streets, and the clear line between Wealthy Tourist Natchez and Minority Natchez was hard to swallow.
Sure, we’d traveled to third world countries before and seen people living in shacks and huts with overt corruption in their governments. But this…this was something starkly different. This was an overtly divided America who’s main pillars were still race. We were confused with our emotions — this is usually a great time to eat, so we headed to a back alley type place with locals and mason jars filled to the brim with sweet tea.
After several minutes of silence, I asked if the server would mind sitting down with us for a few words. Of course he was a bit thrown, but joined us soon after. I introduced us both and got right to it, “would you say it’s racist here?” He guffawed and said absolutely not, the Chef is white and the cooks are black, but the servers are a combo. So how is that racist?
We thanked him for his time, but we weren’t happy. Everywhere we turned, black people were solely in servile positions. Whether in private homes or in the tourism industry, the scenes were very reminiscent of pre-Civil Rights. Not to mention, Mom and I were starting to feel really awkward, wondering how we were being perceived by these people, as an interracial duo. Naturally, I asked a different server to sit with us and chat.
This was better. He sat with us for at least a half hour explaining all the ways that racism is still a major part of society in this city and how it’s so embedded, that it’s no longer noticed (he moved to Natchez from Cali for a woman). We can’t hold the previous servers’ account as inaccurate because, he simply had no comparison (born and bred in Natchez). How can one expect someone to know they live in a staunchly racially divided place if they’ve never experienced anything other than? Truth.
A Final Note on Natchez
You’re not going to Natchez to feel racism, that wasn’t the point of these stories. The point that I hope you have gleaned is that, there is more to this vast country than meets the eye. Even for those of us that grew up in it, laughed and cried in it, we still are unaware of all the nuances that history has carved in its wake. I think it’s more imperative to take a trip to each region of the United States throughout ones life in order to get that raw education. This won’t be AP History II, but something colossally more tangible. The racial divides in this country are no longer taboo, absolutely still controversial, but if I may be so bold … I would say that it’s almost our duty to try to understand as many social facets of this country before we (continue) to choose between sides that elicit copious violence, hatred, and fear. History, one of the least liked subjects in schools, is arguably the most vital. History does repeat itself and if you want change, how else can you possibly do so without knowledge? I hope Natchez, one day, makes it on your list.