On March 3, we crossed over the Mississippi River on the Natchez-Vidalia Bridge connecting Mississippi and Louisiana. It was a pretty awesome experience. First, the River is enormous, befitting its reputation as a force of nature. In one of the most memorable quotes we read at the Natchez Visitor’s Center, one 19th century visitor wrote that, “from the bluff at Natchez one can look north to the headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota and look south and see the world”. It’s reported to be 2,500 miles in length and at Natchez, about a mile wide and 60 or 70 feet deep.
The River and its connection to my understanding of history got a thorough going-over on this visit. From the Natchez Indians who lived here for thousands of years; to the arrival of the French explorer de La Salle in 1682 and his claim of the river for France; to the years of the British control of the colonies; to Spanish control, to the present day, this spot on this river is a microcosm of the formation of this country with an ebb and flow of different cultures, power, money, influence and trade.
I learned, for example, that it was the French who introduced slave labor to Natchez in the early 1730s and with it, the establishment of the Code Noir, one of the most infamous of legal systems which governed the behavior of slaves and restricted the activities of free blacks, among other things. This underpinning of agricultural and social norms from the time of French control defined much of Mississippi’s history for centuries.
The wealth that was concentrated in Natchez was based largely on trade and cotton. The very wealthiest of citizens built what were called “suburban villas”, estates of about 5 acres. Unlike wealthy landowners in other parts of the south, in Natchez people did not live on the plantations where their cash crops were grown. Rather, the proximity to town, to churches, to social contacts called them to live in town. Many of the grand houses still exist and are quite beautiful.
Underlying it all is the shadow of slavery. Both of us have been moved by how much this has affected us as we observe the incredible beauty of this place, the wealth that was created here and the shear human cost behind it all. This visit invites us to reflect on so much.
I realize that this trip into the deep south is transforming me. Driving from St. George Island, Florida through Alabama to Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and then to Alexandria, Louisiana; I write this from Brenham, Texas and along the way we saw country and met people that shattered stereotypes in some cases and revealed them in other cases.
The hills and the green and lush land is achingly beautiful everywhere we look. Magnolias are in full bloom, fields of daffodils shout out with color, redbud trees with their fuchsia blooms and wild cherry trees with their snowy blossoms announce the arrival of spring.
In Louisiana, at a convenience store next to a community church, just east of the Sabine River, I saw a trophy photo over the cash register of a bunch of hunters gathered around the hanging carcass of an alligator.
In Mississippi, at a store where we stopped to get gas, a young black mother with two little kids in tow was picking up a bucket of 8 pieces of fried chicken with biscuits and gravy for only $6.99.
In Texas, there is a town named Point Blank and at least one shooting range that trains gun owners in the use of concealed weapons.
In Louisiana, a truck stop lunch counter serves up “hot boudin”, a Cajun style pork sausage that is deep fat fried. The truck drivers were lined up at lunch time.
At the McDonald’s in Woodville, Texas, a couple of very sad looking teenage boys graciously offered to give up their table when we walked in obviously looking for a place to plug in and charge our computers. They were apparently sitting at the only table with an electric outlet. Their stinging final words? “It’s OK ma’am, we got no place to go anyway”.
In Ferriday, Louisiana we passed the restored historic Frogmore Plantation that at one time had over 1,800 acres of cotton in cultivation. Today, one can tour restored slave quarters, an authentic period cotton gin, the overseer’s house, and pick cotton in fields still in production. We made a promise to return to learn more since our ignorance of this period of American history is filled with such gapping holes.
We are heading next to a campground near Austin, Texas where we will have much more to share with you all. Thanks for coming along…