Friday, 25 October 2013

Deep South Pt 5: From Slave Auctions to Black Slaveowners - Natchez, Mississippi

"Sunday 18th August – I arrived at Vicksburg National Park, Mississippi on a beautiful, quiet Sunday morning. I pretty much had the place to myself, save a few dog walkers and keen joggers. After a short video on the siege of Vicksburg in the Visitors Centre, I grabbed a map and drove the 16-mile auto tour around site. Both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln saw Vicksburg as the place that would decide the fate of the war, and it was a huge victory for the North after Grant’s constant assault. Initially, Grant had failed to take the city by force, so he decided to lay the town to siege. Eventually, the Confederates surrendered, and this marked a turning point in the course of the war. The auto tour covered the Union and Confederate lines, the trenches, and memorials to the regiments that fought there. It was very eerie standing that on the hilltop; it was so peaceful and quiet, the exact opposite to what it would have been like in 1864. The sound of guns, men bellowing orders, the groans and screams of the wounded. You can almost feel what happened here. As could be expected, there was a lot of information on military tactics and maneuvers, and I prefer to read about the stories of individual soldiers rather than the direction in which they were marching. For example: there was a small house on the auto tour that was commandeered by Union troops as a field hospital for smallpox victims. An incredible photograph showed makeshift tents and doctors tending patients, frozen in time. I was standing on the exact spot, and I instantly wanted to know about the soldiers who were in that hospital, the doctors tending to the wounded, and the homeowner who however unwillingly, allowed their house to be taken over by the Union forces. Sadly, this was not the case.

From Vicksburg, I travelled down to Natchez in Mississippi. On the way, I headed to Rosswood Plantation, a large home off the beaten track. I drove up the gravel pathway to the house and wondered whether it was open – there were no cars and it looked rather run down. I knocked on the door and a sweet old lady named Jean answered, inviting me warmly into her house. Her house! Jean and her husband Walter had lived in this house for 38 years, and conduct tours on the off chance someone visits. The house was beautiful in itself but the real joy was talking to this lovely couple. Walter talked to me for over an hour about the history of the house, and showed me some fascinating artefacts such as part of a Union cannonball that was fired into the kitchen. The Wade family owned the plantation, and Walter explained how in the 1850s, their slaves were freed and were given the choice of travelling to Liberia at the family’s expense. 154 slaves decided to make the trip, but 105 chose to remain behind. This is an incredible story, since it was illegal to free slaves in Mississippi at that time. Walter also showed me an invoice from 1866 that shipped cotton from the plantation, to New Orleans and finally to Liverpool, England. Britain depended on the cotton trade throughout the nineteenth century, and just before the Civil War, 90% of the cotton imported through Liverpool came from the American South. Despite her claims of moral superiority over American slaveholders, the cotton from their plantations directly financed the British Industrial Revolution.

Monday 19th August – MASSIVE history day! I’m staying in a beautiful bed and breakfast right in the very heart of Natchez. It’s a small town, with lots of antique shops, cafés and a gorgeous view over the Mississippi river. Since this is the middle of August, it is HOT, though. This morning I visited Melrose Plantation, under the National Park Service. The ranger tour was great, and talked fairly about the owners and the slaves. This plantation home was owned by the McMurrin family, but it was not a working plantation: slaves tended fruit and vegetables to feed the family. This was different to the other commercial plantations the family owned along the Mississippi river. The slave cabins had been restored, and there was a lot of information on the life of a slave, as well as a strong focus on the African American community in Natchez. The exhibition in the cabin was good at providing context, and it briefly touched on refugee camps during the Civil War. In the winter of 1863-4, over four thousand African Americans died of yellow fever, a horrific disease spread by cramped and unhygienic conditions.

Over the next few hours, I visited two more plantation homes. In the mid c19th, Natchez had the largest concentration of millionaires per square mile, and looking around at some of these plantations, it’s not hard to see why. Longwood (left) was an unusually shaped house – in fact it’s the largest octagonal home in America – and the tour was unfortunately nothing special. There were no personal stories or anecdotes rather it was a tour about the paintings and the furniture. Similarly, Rosedale Plantation is owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution and as can be expected, the tour guide did not mention slavery once, and said little else about it after I prompted her.  Both of these homes refused to confront the legacy of slavery; neither could have operated or even existed without slaves, and to ignore their history is insulting and frustrating. We will never have a ‘complete’ picture of the past, but it is wrong to solely focus on the ‘family in the big house.’ The tour at Rosedale in particular was romanticized so much it can only be described as a retelling of ‘Gone With the Wind’, that era of nostalgia for the Southern way of life that depicted the beautiful Southern belle surrounded by happy slaves. Urgh.

Sticking with the theme of slavery, I drove to the Forks of the Road National site. There isn’t much there apart from a few interpretative boards, but it is an important place to visit. In the c19th, this was the second largest slave market in the United States. It was incredibly moving to stand at a site in which thousands of slaves were sold along the Mississippi river. Between 1800 and 1860, over 750,000 slaves were traded from the Upper South to Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The Forks consisted of several markets, including an auction block and an inspection room where slaves were made to stand and traders bartered over their strength and worth. Because of this arrangement, a slave could be purchased on the same day if necessary, or bought later on in the week. The fear of being ‘sold downriver’ led to hundreds of enslaved Africans planning an escape route North, or sometimes practicing self-mutilation or suicide. During the Civil War in 1863, the 58th Regiment of the U.S. Black Infantry occupied the Forks site. It is likely that many of the soldiers had been sold as slaves at that same spot, many years before.

The last historic house I visited that day was the William Johnson house. Johnson was a prominent businessman in Natchez, and as a result owned several slaves. You might think this is not unusual, but Johnson had been born into slavery. What made a black man, a former slave, own another black man? Born in 1809 to a slave woman and a white slave owner, Johnson was freed at the age of 11; the only reason why we know so much about him was that he kept an extensive diary throughout his life. After working as an apprentice in a barber shop, Johnson saved his wages and purchased his own barber shop in 1830. Over the next two decades, Johnson bought another two barbershops and a bath house in Natchez. At the time, it was not illegal by state law to prevent a free black man owning slaves, even if that person had been a slave himself. Johnson’s diary doesn’t tell us why he owned slaves, and the National Park Service presented interesting questions as to the social and political implications of this situation. As an African American man, there was only so far he could progress in society, but slave ownership was a sign of economic and social status. Hence, he was a respected man in the community. It is believed Johnson was a fair master, but if a slave displeased him, he punished them severely. For example, Johnson severely whipped his slave Stephen for frequent bouts of drunkenness. In 1851, a land prospector named Baylor Winn murdered Johnson, and despite the fact Johnson's teenaged son witnessed the attack, Winn was acquitted because a black man, slave or free, could not testify in court against a white man. Attempts were made to prove Winn was a mulatto, but little became of it. This was one of the best historic sites I visited, for it presented an unusual and unique case in a respectful and interesting light.

Tuesday 20th august – Before I left sunny Natchez I visited Stanton Hall, perhaps the most beautiful house I visited on my trip. In 1857, this ‘town house’ was purchased and refurbished by Edward Stanton, who owned 7 plantation homes on the Mississippi. This set Stanton back $83,000, an extraordinary sum; in today’s money this cost around $10 million! Stanton died 9 months after the house was completed, but his wife lived there for a further 30 years. Echoing the standard Natchez theme on slavery, not much was said about the ‘servants’ but perhaps that was unsurprising since there were pictures of people dressed as Southern belles and Confederate officers covering the walls.

For a completely different experience, I visited the African American Museum in the centre of Natchez. I talked to the director, a lovely engaging man named Darryl, for nearly two hours and learned some fascinating things about the racial status quo in Mississippi. We had a great discussion about the legacy of slavery in the South, focusing on the tendency for plantation homes to ignore slavery or refer to the enslaved as ‘servants.' He believed this ignorance was the hardest thing to fight against, mainly because it is so widespread. I told him about my experience with the tour guide in Selma, and he wasn’t surprised – this idea of African Americans as happy servants feeds into the nostalgia for the antebellum South, a romantic portrayal that is so far from the truth."

No comments:

Post a Comment