Chapter 1 | 1 |
I first heard about Natchez from a chef and cookbook writer named Regina Charboneau. I met her on the opening night of the Hot Tamale literary-culinary festival, which took place in a repurposed cotton gin surrounded by bare fields in the Mississippi Delta. The hulking old tin structure was hung with chandeliers and furnished with banqueting tables. Wineglasses and silverware glinted on white tablecloths. There were artisanal charcuterie stations, hundreds of well-dressed people milling around, a small army of bartenders pouring free wine and liquor.
Regina and I were both signing copies of our latest books at the author tables. I had written a true account of moving to rural Mississippi as an Englishman chewed up by New York City. Regina had published a handsome cookbook about the local cuisines along the length of the Mississippi River. She was warmhearted, witty and cosmopolitan, with a natural air of authority. She wore vintage cat-eye glasses and her dark hair in a bob. For many years she had owned a fashionable restaurant and a blues club in San Francisco, and her friends included Lily Tomlin and the Rolling Stones.
Now she had sold everything in San Francisco and moved back to her hometown of Natchez, Mississippi, where her family has lived for seven generations. I confessed that I knew nothing about Natchez, although I recognized its name, which rhymes with matches, from an old Howlin’ Wolf song. “Natchez is wonderful,” she said. “We’re known for our history and our antebellum homes, and we’re very different from the rest of Mississippi. People often describe Natchez as a little New Orleans, but it’s really off in its own universe.”
Her husband Doug, a native Minnesotan—they met in Alaska while Regina was cooking at a bush camp—poured me a shot of the white rum he was distilling in Natchez. It tasted raw and alive and faintly of tequila. They showed me photographs of their house, an antebellum Greek Revival home named Twin Oaks with white columns and Gothic-looking trees. “You must come and stay with us,” said Regina. “I’ll cook, and there’s always a party, and you can do a book signing at King’s Tavern.” This was her latest restaurant, housed in one of the oldest standing buildings in Mississippi, circa 1789.
This was an impossible invitation to refuse, and soon afterwards I drove to Natchez for the first time. The town is tucked away in a remote corner of southwest Mississippi, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The nearest airport is ninety miles away in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and there’s no passenger train or interstate-highway connection. To get to Natchez, you’ve got to be going there, as Mississippians often say, because it’s not on the way to anywhere else.
Country roads took me through a gently undulating landscape of woods and pastures, with occasional shacks and farmhouses and small fundamentalist churches. Scrolling through the radio, there was a babble of preachers, white and African American. I passed a derelict gas station with a forlorn sign:
PUMPING TO PLEASE
Soon afterwards I entered the scruffy, unremarkable outskirts of Natchez. It was the usual Southern strip of fast-food joints and tractor-supply shops, easy loans, dollar stores, gas stations, and churches. There was a Mexican restaurant, a basic-looking supermarket, a swooping overpass leading to the Walmart.
The road to King’s Tavern took me through an African American neighborhood that looked poor and tired. I pulled over to read a historical marker and a chill went through me. I was standing on the site of the second-largest slave market in the Deep South, a place known as the Forks of the Road. I could see a small memorial on a side street, and I walked over to take a look.
There were a few illustrated panels and a set of manacles mounted in a concrete block. The panels were thoughtful, informative, and deeply unsettling, with reproduced historical drawings of slaves, slave traders, and newspaper advertisements for the human commodity: “Negroes! Negroes! Just received, an addition of TWENTY-FIVE likely young field hands—Also, a fine Carriage Driver and Dining Room servants, for sale by R.H. ELAM, Forks of the Road.”
Tens of thousands of people were sold here. They were transported by riverboats up and down the Mississippi. They were marched overland all the way from Virginia and Maryland to the booming new cotton frontier in the Lower Mississippi Valley, of which Natchez was the capital and the epicenter. The men were bound together in wrist chains and neck manacles and forced to march the thousand miles in lockstep. The women were usually roped together and the children put in wagons with the injured and heavily pregnant. These caravans of misery were known as coffles and flanked by men on horseback with whips and guns.
The slaves were told to sing as they marched, to keep up morale, but the coffle song lyrics that survive are mostly sad and mournful, because so many of the people singing had been sold away from their families.
The way is long before me, love
And all my love’s behind me;
You’ll seek me down by the old gum tree
But none of you will find me
As the coffle neared Natchez, the slave traders would stop and camp for a while. The human merchandise, which had not been unshackled for bodily functions or any other reason for months, was finally bathed, rested, fattened up, and made ready for sale. The women were typically put into calico dresses with pink ribbons at the neck. The men were dressed up in top hats, white shirts, vests, and corduroy velvet trousers. Pot liquor, the greasy residue of vegetables boiled with pork fat, was rubbed into their skin to make it shine. Thus prepared and ordered to “step lively” to encourage their own sale, they were herded into the pens at the Forks of the Road slave market.
Prospective buyers examined teeth, hefted breasts, poked and prodded, leered, mocked, and humiliated in the usual way, but there was no auction block here. Purchasing a human being at the Forks was like buying a car today. You agreed on a price with the dealer, made a down payment, and signed a contract agreeing to make further payments until you owned the property outright. Only the very rich bought slaves without financing.
Considering the volume of suffering and degradation generated here, and the global economic consequences of slavery’s expansion into the Lower Mississippi Valley, the richest cotton land on earth, it seemed like such a modest little memorial: a few signboards, a set of manacles, a small patch of mown grass with flowerbeds. Most of the site was occupied by small businesses—a tire shop, a car wash—and low-income housing where all the tenants appeared to be African American, living on the same patch of ground where their ancestors were bought and sold.
I drove on past vacant lots, boarded-up buildings, nice old houses in need of paint and repair, a handsome Gothic Revival church. Then I crossed Martin Luther King Street, which appeared to be the demarcation line between black Natchez and white Natchez, and two different income brackets. Now the old houses were well maintained and freshly painted with attractive front gardens. The downtown historic district, originally laid out by the Spanish in the 1790s, was charming and lovely and from the high bluff there was a spectacular view of the Mississippi River.
Driving around, I saw some of the antebellum mansions for which Natchez is best known. The town and the surrounding area contain the greatest concentration of antebellum homes in the American South, including some of the most opulent and extravagant. Looking at these Federal, Greek Revival, and Italianate mansions, their beauty seemed inseparable from the horrors of the regime that created them. The soaring white columns, the manacles, the dingy apartment buildings at the Forks of the Road, the tendrils of Spanish moss hanging from the gnarled old trees, the humid fragrant air itself: everything seemed charged with the lingering presence of slavery, in a way that I’d never experienced anywhere else.
I parked outside King’s Tavern, a two-story building of brick and timber, still recognizable through its restorations as an eighteenth-century tavern. Pushing open a stout wooden door, I came into a low-ceilinged room with heavy beams, exposed-brick walls, and a bar made out of whiskey-barrel staves. Regina Charboneau hugged me like an old friend.
She led me up a steep, narrow staircase to the room where I would sign and sell books. I set out my wares and greeted my customers. They were far more sophisticated than I was expecting in a small, isolated Mississippi town. I talked with an extremely well-read woman who had lived all over the world before coming back to Natchez, where she grew up. The way of life here, she had decided, suited her best.
Asked to describe it, she said, “We’re house-crazy. We adore old homes, antiques, throwing parties, making it fabulous. Gay men love it here. Natchez is very liberal and tolerant in some ways, and very conservative and racist in other ways, although I will say that our racists aren’t generally hateful or mean. Nor do they think they’re racists. There’s still a lot of denial in the white community about the fact that this whole town was built on slavery. Most black people don’t like thinking about slavery either, although they’re acutely aware of it.”
She talked about the insularity of the town, and the singularity of its culture. “We look more to New Orleans than the rest of Mississippi. The Catholic influence is strong in both the black and white communities. We’re obsessed with our history, but it’s often a self-serving mythological version of that history. Genealogy is big. And there’s a whole spectrum of behavior that we refer to politely as ‘eccentricity.’?”
I wondered aloud if Natchez might be an interesting place to write about. She made me swear to keep her out of it and warned me against bird-watching: “A lot of outsiders come down here like bird-watchers, studying the inhabitants, observing their quirks and colorful plumage. Well, guess what: the birds are looking right back at you. And sooner or later, one of them is going to talk ugly about you.”
Gay couples wandered through and were greeted warmly and casually. Regina brought me a platter of slow-cooked, peppery brisket with horseradish on wood-fired flatbread, and a glass of good Spanish wine to wash it down. My antennae were swiveling. Natchez didn’t remind me of anywhere else. I liked it here, yet I felt a creeping sense of unease. King’s Tavern is allegedly haunted by the ghosts of murdered women and children, but that wasn’t it. Slave coffles were still marching through my brain. Greasy rags were polishing dark skin. The past had split open like a badly stitched wound and was leaking into the present.
“Do you have a suit and tie?” Regina asked, as I packed up my unsold books. “There’s a party tonight at Stanton Hall. I think you’ll find it interesting.”
“You should have warned me.” I said, standing there in dark jeans and boots. “I do have a sports coat.”
“That’ll be fine,” she said. “You have a British accent.” We drove to Doug and Regina’s house as darkness fell on the town. I caught glimpses of a church spire, graceful old houses that could have been in New Orleans, a 1950s malt shop that still had its white and colored takeout windows, although they were no longer observed. Then we pulled in through trees and old brick walls and parked behind an 1852 Greek Revival home. This was Twin Oaks, and my room was in a long, low wooden building across the walled garden, now functioning as a stylish and comfortable bed-and-breakfast for tourists.
I put on my sports coat and walked up to the big house. An owl hooted, fountains trickled in the darkness. I climbed some steep stone steps and opened the door into the kitchen. There were three big refrigerators, a six-burner restaurant stove, ice-cream makers, bread machines. Regina poured some wine and led me through to the next room, which had comfortable modern sofas and a television. She pointed to a painting of a skinny white man with spiky hair and a guitar. “I like to say we’re the only antebellum home in Natchez with a self-portrait of Ronnie Wood,” she said, referring to the Rolling Stones guitarist, who had given her the painting. “He has his issues, of course, but he’s really a sweet man.”
She led me through another door, and I stepped back in time. Apart from the electric lightbulbs in the chandelier, Regina’s magnificent dining room contained very little evidence that the twentieth century had occurred. An antique table was set with gorgeous antique china and glassware. The walls were green and hung with enormous prints of the birds that John James Audubon had shot and then painted during his time in Natchez in the 1820s. An odd contraption hung from the ceiling, a carved wooden board of some kind.
“That’s a punkah,” Regina explained. “It’s a type of fan that came to Natchez from British India via the Caribbean. You see a lot of them in Natchez homes.”
“In Natchez, you only use the word home if it’s antebellum,” said Doug. “If your house was built after the Civil War, it’s trashy to call it a home.”
In British India, a junior servant called a punkah wallah pulled the rope to keep the punkah fanning the air. Here, the task was performed by house slaves, then by former slaves and their descendants, until the advent of electric fans and air-conditioning turned punkahs into antique curiosities, kept around for nostalgia’s sake, like so many things in Natchez.
“When I was growing up here, slavery was hardly ever mentioned,” said Regina. “Or people would say that the slaves were happy and well looked after, and the Civil War was about states’ rights and honor. You still hear that, of course, but we are finally making some progress. The best thing we can do about our awful history is to acknowledge it openly and honestly.”
She invited me to look around the rest of the house while she dressed for the party. I had two surprises in quick succession. Almost literally, I bumped into Janet, a middle-aged black woman who worked for Regina as a cook and housekeeper and had helped raise her children. A few moments later, I was startled by a large oil painting of a young man wearing a Confederate officer’s uniform with a saber at his waist. This was not some antique family heirloom, but recently painted. Regina seemed liberal and forward-thinking, so what was this hagiographic Confederate portrait doing on the wall of her front parlor?
“That’s Miss Regina’s son Jean-Luc,” said Janet. “He was King of Pilgrimage a few years ago.”
I asked her what that meant, and she told me to ask Miss Regina. When Regina emerged, wearing a long black dress, I questioned her about the painting. “Oh,” she said, and gave a little laugh. “His brother Martin says he might as well have a swastika on his back, but Luc wanted to be King, which totally surprised us, and the tradition has always been that the men in the court wear these uniforms. I didn’t even realize they were Confederate uniforms until quite recently, I’m embarrassed to admit. They were just the uniforms the guys always wore in the pageant.”
Now I was even more puzzled. “What’s the pageant?”
Regina said, “It’s the Tableaux that the garden clubs put on every year. The children dance the Little Maypole, Big Maypole, the Soirée, and so on, and the Royal Court comes out with the King and Queen, but the whole thing is really about the social standing of the mothers. It’s always so hard to explain.”
Leaving for the party, I felt badly underdressed and completely baffled by all the unfamiliar terminology. As we drove through the quiet dark streets, Regina said the party was for the Pilgrimage Garden Club, of which she was president. “I’m amazed that you have time for gardening,” I said, thinking about her cookbooks, her restaurant, her catering business, and the bed-and-breakfast.
“Oh.” She gave another little laugh. “The garden clubs don’t do any gardening, although we do appreciate flowers.”
Doug said, “The garden clubs are about raising money, social prestige, tourism, and the historic preservation of antebellum buildings. They’re run by women, and they have a lot of power. Natchez is probably the closest thing to a matriarchy that you’re going to find in America.”
We parked outside a mansion of staggering enormity and opulence. Stanton Hall occupies an entire city block in the middle of Natchez, and it’s one of the grandest homes in the South to survive the Civil War. Its monumental size and massive Corinthian columns are softened and feminized by lacy ironwork on the balconies, and gorgeous trees and flower gardens in its grounds. It’s one of the jewels in the crown of the Pilgrimage Garden Club, which operates it as a house museum for tourists, and a social venue for balls and parties such as this one.
We climbed up the white stone steps and entered the main hallway, which is more than seventy feet long. All the furniture, draperies, and paintings were antebellum antiques, which gave the impression that the clock had stopped on the eve of the Civil War. This impression was deepened by the fact that all the guests were white, and all the serving staff were African Americans in black-and-white uniforms.
“You can’t win with that one,” said Doug. “If you hire white people, you’re discriminating against black people by denying them employment. If you hire black people, you’re perpetuating the racial dynamics of slavery in an antebellum setting. So we do what we want, and most of the time we hire black people. They’re friends of our friends, they need the work, and they do a good job. If you’ve got a problem with that, I can’t help you.”
It occurred to me that hiring black and white staff might be an option, but I didn’t press the point. Regina and Doug went off to circulate, and I wandered through the vast mansion to the back gallery, where the bar was set up. I asked the bartender for a glass of red wine. He gave me a look that I couldn’t interpret—was it something to do with my accent, or my attire? Then he said, “How about white wine?”
Standing behind me was a large bearish man with bright blue eyes and a slightly sad, soulful look. “It’s the rugs,” he explained. “The antique rugs in the dining room are a pale creamy color. They never serve red wine at Stanton Hall so the garden club ladies don’t have to murder anyone for spilling it.”
I ordered a Scotch on the rocks. I had the persistent feeling that I’d walked into a movie set, that none of this was real. I was transfixed by the older women. They were in their eighties and nineties, glittering with diamonds, hair swept up into chignons and bouffants. They carried themselves with regal grace and dignity and in moments of repose they looked like waxworks.
I watched carefully as they seated themselves on antique chairs along one wall of the dining room. These were the grandes dames of the Pilgrimage Garden Club, true power brokers in Natchez high society, and younger women lined up to pay court to them. Since the grandes dames were seated, the younger women were forced to crouch down awkwardly, or kneel in an attitude of complete supplication, to avoid talking down to their social superiors. The older women sometimes clasped a hand to help them balance.
One poor woman, crouching in front of a high-ranking octogenarian, accidentally knocked a glass of Coca-Cola onto the pale antique rug. The old dowager stiffened. Then she cut the offender dead with a slight adjustment of her eye muscles, the beginnings of a fake smile halted too soon, and an almost imperceptible turn of her jaw to the side, as the woman wailed her apologies and tried desperately to blot up the stain with a table napkin. It seemed entirely possible that she might be removed from the party and garroted under the live oaks.
I made the acquaintance of Bettye Jenkins, who was ninety and looking fabulous in a black pantsuit with gold shoes and her white hair in a perfect chignon. I told her it was my first time in Natchez, and I had been hearing about Pilgrimage. Could she explain it?
“Why, yes, that’s when we put on our hoopskirts and receive,” she said in a refined Southern drawl.
“Yes, we receive visitors in our homes as guests.”
“You’ll have to excuse my ignorance, but what are hoopskirts?”
“Surely you’ve seen Gone with the Wind. Those are hoopskirts, like our great-grandmothers wore before the War.”
Miss Bettye, as people referred to her, showing respect for her seniority, struck me as the epitome of a grand and gracious Southern lady from a bygone era, and I was amazed to hear that she ran a tugboat company on the Mississippi River with her daughter Carla. “Miss Bettye still goes to work every day except when she’s at the beauty parlor,” said Regina when I found her on the back gallery. “There’s another woman in her nineties who runs a radio station. We’ve always had a lot of strong, capable, powerful women in this town.”
Mansplaining—the tendency of men to interrupt women, hijack the conversation, and explain how things really are—was strikingly absent from this social scene. Women dominated the conversations and interrupted the men, who responded by fading obligingly into the background. Even charismatic big-shouldered oilmen held their tongues. I asked a wealthy genteel businessman how power and social prestige works in Natchez, and he said, “Why on earth are you asking me? We just do what the matrons tell us to do, and for God’s sake don’t quote me using the word matron.”
Regina worked the party, currying favor, placating egos, soothing conflicts, dissolving tensions, gleaning information, hinting at opportunities, applying pressure, asking after loved ones and children. There were important things to do, huge sums of money to raise. For starters, Stanton Hall needed a new roof and other repairs, and that was going to cost the garden club $750,000.
Portraits of the Stanton family stared down from the walls. Frederick Stanton, who built this mansion with enslaved labor, was an Irishman from Belfast who transformed himself into a Southern planter, slave owner, and cotton merchant. Very few of the Natchez nabobs, as the antebellum millionaires were known, were products of the American South. They were outsiders, mostly from Pennsylvania, who quickly mastered the skills of acquiring land and growing cotton with slaves, a system of production that one historian describes as “capitalism with its clothes off.”
I tried to broach the subject of slavery with one of the dowagers. “There were no slaves in Natchez,” she insisted haughtily. “We had field hands on our plantations, of course, but they were out of town or across the river. Here in Natchez, we had servants and we loved them. They were part of our families.”
When I relayed this to Regina, she rolled her eyes, sighed, and said, “I’m sure that’s what she’s been told her whole life, and some people probably did love their servants and mammies, but those people were owned, they were enslaved, they could be bought and sold, and so could their children. You can’t just leave that part out!”
The most surprising thing about Natchez slaveholders is that many of them were Unionists. Even though the local economy was utterly dependent on slavery, Natchez voted not to secede from the Union, predicting accurately that it would lead to a ruinous civil war, and the town surrendered twice to the Union army without a fight. The Natchez planters entertained Union officers in their mansions, and some homes were appropriated as military headquarters. The Union army departed without destroying the town, and that is why so many antebellum homes are still standing in Natchez today.
That night, in my comfortable four-poster bed, I was unable to sleep. My mind swirled with questions. How did Pilgrimage, when the ladies dressed up in hoopskirts and invited paying tourists into their antebellum homes, connect into the Royal Court, the Confederate uniforms, the children’s maypole dances, and the social prestige of the mothers? Were any black people involved in this, except as servants?
And Regina had mentioned “the other club,” in a disparaging tone of voice, and Doug had explained that there were two garden clubs in Natchez, and they had been feuding since 1935, although he didn’t say why, or how such a thing might be possible. And flashing in and out, as my restless mind raced through the night, were phrases and images from those panels at the Forks of the Road, coffle songs and Negroes! Negroes! in top hats and calico dresses.
I kept coming back to Natchez, and staying at Twin Oaks, for two main reasons. The town is so singular, so fascinating, so richly stocked with bizarre tales, outlandish characters, contradictions and surprises. The mayor, for example, was an openly gay black man named Darryl Grennell. He was elected with 91 percent of the vote in a small, remote Mississippi town that is nearly half white and was once a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan violence. What is this place? I wanted to know. And how did it get this way?
At the same time, I came to see Natchez as a microcosm, or a barrel-strength distillation, of some much larger unresolved issues around race and slavery in America. In most of the country, especially if you’re white, it’s fairly easy to believe that slavery happened a long time ago and has nothing to do with the current racial situation in America. To sustain that belief in Natchez, however, requires strenuous denial and extra-large blinders because visual reminders of slavery are all over this racially divided town, whose marketing slogan until the 1990s was “Where the Old South Still Lives.” These reminders are not just in the antebellum homes with their adjoining slave quarters, and the old slave-market site that you drive past on the way to buy groceries. Some African Americans here can look at their skin tone and know the white person whose ancestor lightened it.
Slavery and its legacy come up in almost every aspect of civic life in Natchez. It is heatedly discussed in meetings of the tourism department and the city council. It is addressed in local theatrical performances, historical reenactments and African American choir recitals. It is tackled at family reunions where black cousins fathered by white ancestors are being invited for the first time. After 150 years of denial and Gone with the Wind fantasy in the white community, a genuine effort is now underway to recognize the role of slavery in the town’s history, as the necessary first step before any kind of racial progress can be made.
There was another question that I kept asking myself in Natchez: What was it like to be enslaved here? The local slaveholders left behind a vast trove of letters, diaries, books, and papers, nearly all of it reflecting their self-image as honorable ladies and gentlemen, trying their best to fulfill their paternalistic duties towards their frequently exasperating racial inferiors. But almost nothing exists from the tens of thousands of illiterate people whose labor they exploited and whose lives they essentially stole. A handful of ex-slaves in the area were interviewed by white people in the 1930s, but those interviews, while interesting, are brief and patchy, and many of them were doctored afterwards to present Mississippi slavery in a better light.
Ultimately, there is only one Natchez slave whose life story we know in detail, and that is because it was so extraordinary. People interviewed him and wrote the story down. In Natchez he was known as Prince, and today his portrait hangs on the wall of the mayor’s office at City Hall. When I moved into the upstairs rooms at Twin Oaks, I put a copy of the same portrait on the nightstand.
When he sat for the artist, his forehead was deeply lined and his white hair was grown out like a halo. Considering what he had gone through, his face was almost miraculously composed and self-assured, with a look of deep intelligence in the eyes. It’s a portrait of dignity against all odds, with an air of royalty still discernible.