Pictures of southern charm

Thursday, March 24, 2005

March 24, 2005

Dear Leslie,

We were deep in Mississippi, looking for antebellum history and warm weather. Natchez has more than 600 properties that qualify as antebellum -- "antebellums" as our colorful retiree tour guide called them, creating a new noun.

Driving past an old inn, he told us its legend, that the man's wife discovered him and his girlfriend upstairs in bed one day and decided to wall her into a closet. "They say her ghost wanders there still," he said. "They tell it for the truth."

Natchez is in the midst of an annual event called Spring Pilgrimage. This is a town of about 15,000 people, some of whom own antebellum mansions they open to the public for Spring Pilgrimage. One of the three we toured was musty and seemed more museum than house. One of the owners sat on the porch, welcoming guests. Dressed in period costume, his wife and other guides waited inside to explain the decor.

The other two mansions were more livable, as long as you don't mind images of your ancestors staring at you from every wall.

No black people were on the tours, except those working for the mansion owners or selling pralines outside. Would you tour mansions built on the backs of your enslaved ancestors?

Our guide pointed out a couple of times that some free blacks owned slaves. We know, just like we know the Civil War wasn't fought over the principle of slavery but the principle of states' rights.

To tell the truth, we were not taken with Natchez at first. Offsetting the antebellums downtown is a Miracle Mile out on the bypass. The town appears to have little industry aside from tourism and is a maze of one-way streets. Aside from the mansions and Fat Mama's Tamales, home of the Knock-You-Naked Margarita, we found little to charm us in Natchez.

But then we stopped by the First Presbyterian Church, mainly because DC's father told us we should see the photo exhibit there, and we didn't want to disappoint him. The permanent exhibit was organized by Dr. Thomas Gandy, a Natchez physician who bought 75,000 negatives taken by commercial photographers working in the city from the mid-1800s to 1951. Most are the work of two photographers, Henry C. Norman and his son, Earl.

Fifteen thousand of the negatives had to be thrown away because they were badly degraded. Gandy spent the next five years cleaning and cataloging the remainder.

Five hundred photographs are in the church gallery. One room is dedicated to children, one to brides, one to working men, one to riverboats, one to buildings and on and on. The images wordlessly tell the story of the town, before the Civil War home to half the millionaires in the United States, most of them plantation owners and traders. There are riverboats stacked high with cotton bales, tradesmen standing outside their stores, debutantes dressed for Mardi Gras balls. These are not candid pictures. The subjects look right into the camera, which in the early days required a two-minute exposure. They were good sports. Natchez had failed, but they charmed us.

Every town needs a standing exhibit like this one. Every town should be reminded of its own charms.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is the managing editor for the Southeast Missourian.

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