Until very recently, few if any white people in Natchez, Miss., thought there was anything untoward about the Historic Natchez Tableaux, an annual spring tradition celebrating the town’s pre-Civil War history. With kids as young as 3 dressing up like their ancestors and performing skits and dances, the production often featured “happy slaves” singing Negro spirituals and pretending to pick cotton.
“Young men waved the rebel flag and then the King, Queen, and Royal Court of the garden club were presented, wearing Confederate generals’ uniforms and shimmering tiaras and gowns,” writes Richard Grant in his new book, “The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi” (Simon & Schuster), out Sept. 1.
The show’s climax was a rousing chorus of “Dixie,” with everybody singing along to the old anthem of the Confederacy.
“They believed in it utterly, like most white Southerners,” Grant writes. “They simply wanted to show the visitors how wonderful and charming antebellum Natchez had been.”
As one long-time resident told Grant, “There were no slaves in Natchez … We had servants and we loved them. They were part of our families.”
Located in a remote corner of southwest Mississippi, Natchez has a population of 15,000, who are 44 percent white and 55 percent black — and the town is full of contradictions.
Residents voted overwhelmingly (1,072 to 233) not to secede from the Union during the Civil War — it’s why so many of their antebellum homes are still standing today and weren’t burned by Union General William Sherman — but they also hosted one of the largest Ku Klux Klan rallies in American history in 1965, with more than 3,700 people present. Their current mayor is an openly gay black man named Darryl Grennell, who ran on the promise of job creation and expanding tourism and was elected with 91 percent of the vote in 2016. But there’s still debate about whether their most popular tourist attraction should portray the Confederacy in a positive light.
In 1931, the town hosted its first-ever “Pilgrimage” — a tradition that was born mostly by accident. After a scheduled flower convention seemed doomed when a late frost killed the town’s blooms, the garden club’s president saved the day by suggesting they allow visitors to tour some of the antebellum homes instead.
The next year, the “pilgrimage of houses” in Natchez, featuring tours of 26 antebellum homes and the first production of the Tableaux, became an official event. During the Great Depression, it brought in $50,000 in tourist dollars that the town badly needed.
It attracted the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and American Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“A new industry was born,” Grant writes. “The redoubtable ladies of the garden club had saved the town.”
For most of the twentieth century, the two festivities — the Pilgrimage lasts for a month between mid-March and mid-April, with five performances of the Tableaux over two weekends — were marketed “as a romantic vision of the Old South, with slavery so sanitized that it almost disappeared, and the rest of African-American history ignored completely.”
During the ’60s, African-American cast members declined to play “happy field hands and mammies,” so they were replaced with white performers in blackface. In 2002, the Natchez Confederate Pageant, “bending a little to the changing winds of public opinion,” Grant writes, was renamed the Historic Natchez Tableaux, but the content remained largely the same.
It wasn’t until 2015 that any serious attempt was made to rethink how the town’s history of slavery was commemorated. Greg Iles, the bestselling thriller author and the town’s most famous resident, rewrote the Tableaux with scenes featuring slaves in chains on the auction block. It was not greeted with enthusiasm.
Now we’re all supposed to feel bad about slavery. How is that entertaining?
– overheard at revamped Historic Natchez Tableaux
“In the 1940s and 1950s, we were getting tens of thousands of visitors,” says Regina Charboneau, who took over in 2016 as president of the Pilgrimage Garden Club, one of two local garden clubs that sponsor the event. “Now we’re down on those numbers by about 70 percent.”
The election of a gay black mayor in 2016 seemed to be a harbinger of change, but as Grennell admitted during a campaign speech, “in Natchez there are three ways of doing things — the right way, the wrong way, and the Natchez way.”
In 2017, Charboneau tried to do right by the town’s history by updating the Tableaux with a line of black performers portraying slaves, a live African-American choir singing the spiritual “Deep River,” and a voice-over about the town’s former slave market. “We’re finally addressing slavery in an honest way,” Charboneau explained to the author. “We’re trying to get away from glorifying the Confederacy and the Civil War.”
She was helped by activists like Ser Boxley, an African American and Natchez native in his seventies who often wore the Civil War uniform of a US Colored Troops infantryman. A longtime historical reenactor and black living history performer, he’s convinced that the end of slavery had more to do with the 178,000 African-American troops who fought for the Union than Abraham Lincoln.
“The Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t worth the paper it was written on,” he told the author. “It was the US Colored Troops who turned the tide of the war and allowed African-descent people to emancipate themselves.”
Boxley had been instrumental in getting Natchez’s Forks of the Road, the site that had once been the second-largest slave market in the Deep South, declared a city landmark in 2014. An area of land now occupied by a car wash, muffler shop and customs-siding place was “almost completely forgotten in the local community” until Boxley pushed for and got the erection of a monument, adorned with shattered shackles.
But while Boxley agreed to do the voiceover about slavery, he refused to set foot in the auditorium, either as a performer or spectator.
Charboneau did convince a few black performers to take part, including a young dreadlocked activist named Jeremy Houston who portrayed Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima, the Fulani prince who came to Natchez as a slave. The updated Tableaux, which premiered in mid-March of 2017, wasn’t marketed as a radically different production, but rumors about it circulated. On opening night, Grant says he witnessed “a lot of empty seats, very few tourists, and not a single African American.”
“Most black folks don’t want to think about slavery because it’s painful,” Boxley told the author. “They feel ashamed.”
Whites didn’t feel much differently.
“I am so sick of hearing about slavery,” Grant overheard one out-of-state couple complaining. “It’s supposed to be about pretty dresses, gorgeous stage sets, dance numbers like a Hollywood musical. They’ve turned into a politically correct history lecture and blah-blah-blah, now we’re all supposed to feel bad about slavery. How is that entertaining? Why would anyone buy a ticket for that?”
Charboneau admitted she had challenged the townspeople beyond their limits. “This is touching all our most sensitive nerves about race, slavery, history, and the South, and some people are losing their minds,” she told Grant. “It’s making them furious. It’s making them crazy. They want it just like it used to be.”
Charboneau retired from the Pilgrimage Garden Club in 2018 and the more conservative Natchez Garden Club took over the Tableaux. “Dixie” is no longer played during their production, and the Confederate flag now bows down to the US flag at the end. But apart from these two details, “it would be the old Tableaux all over again,” Grant writes.
Whether the Pilgrimage and Tableaux recovered from the “slumping attendance and falling revenue” of recent years seems to be a town secret, but Natchez Pilgrimage Tours Director Eugenie Cates told local reporters that the 2020 production was on track for “over the top” projected ticket sales before it was canceled because of COVID-19.
More lasting changes in Natchez were made by people like Debbie Cosey, an African-American woman who had restored and remodeled the Concord Quarters, a one-time slave dwelling constructed in the 1820s, into a bed and breakfast. Charboneau included Concord Quarters on the Pilgrimage house tour in 2017, making it the first black-owned home in Pilgrimage history. Concord has become so popular as a vacation destination that they now offer $4,000 wedding packages.
“A lot of black people were mad at me,” Cosey told the author.
The slave quarters represented what they wanted to forget.
“They said, ‘You should just let it die.’ It was hurtful.”
She showed Grant an ancient-looking shoe they’d found half-buried in the dirt floor at Concord Quarters, which she’s certain was worn by an enslaved child. She also found an inventory for all the “property” contained in that building, which included “120 Negroes” worth $43,325.
Rather than ignore the building’s ugly past, Cosey has embraced it. The home is now decorated with antique furniture and Afrocentric art, which is on display for visitors.
“I got out my Bible and I introduced myself,” Cosey says of how she approached the ghosts, both literal and figurative, of these damaged ruins. “I said, ‘I want to save your house. My name is Debbie. I’m so sorry for what happened to you.’ ”
The town is changing in other small ways. The garden clubs are now actively promoting the Forks of the Road and the African American history museum in their Pilgrimage brochures. Jeremy Houston is now hosting his own personalized walking tours — what he calls the “Natchez reality tour … and not the ‘Gone with the Wind’ fantasy.”
It might not seem like progress, but as Grant told The Post, “Natchez has been working on these issues long before the Black Lives Matter and monument activism campaigns began. There’s a saying about racism in Mississippi: ‘We’ve come a long way, but there’s a long way still to go.’ Natchez is like a poster child for that statement.”