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Published: August 27th 2013
Wednesday, July 31, 2013 dawned another beautiful sunny day with highs forecast to be in the low 90s. I got an early start with hopes of completing my Pilgrim set-up before the heat of the day had arrived. The trip from Baton Rouge LA to Natchez MS via US 61 is only about 90 miles and is designated in my atlas as a scenic route for the entire distance. Scenic is a subjective term, but I will concede the drive along the mostly 4-lane divided highway was relaxing and enjoyable with minimal reminders of human intrusion.
I arrived at the Plantation RV Park before I reached Natchez. The RV park is in the front end of what appears to be a mobile home community or permanently placed RVs. Although the park is located right on US 61, it is quiet. The sites are spacious with level cement pads and are pleasantly shaded. After settling into my new digs, I drove into Natchez to acquaint myself with the lay of the land and to check out the visitor center. The visitor center is modern, spacious and has a plethora of historical information. Had someone supplied some artifacts, it could be called
“The World That Slavery Made”
Natchez Visitor Center - Natchez MS
a museum. It’s a very worthwhile stop. Before I departed, I bought a “three pack” of tickets to visit three of the stately mansions routinely open to the public. Additional mansions are open during Natchez Spring & Fall Pilgrimage days.
Established by French colonists in 1714, Natchez is one of the oldest and most important European settlements in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Natchez became a strategic center of trade and commerce and, with its location on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, carried immense military import for the first two centuries of its existence. It is the southern terminus of the historic Natchez Trace Parkway which, in the day, provided many pilots a route back to their homes in the Ohio River Valley. Typically, the pilots would sell their flatboats or keelboats for the wood value before walking or riding an equine back home. In the weeks to come, the Trace will provide me with a route to Nashville.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the city became home to extremely wealthy Southern planters, who owned vast tracts of land, primarily in the lowlands of Louisiana across the Mississippi River. In 1860 there were 340 planters
of cotton and sugar cane in the Natchez region who each owned 250 or more slaves. Natchez became the principal port for the export of these crops. The planters' fortunes allowed them to build huge mansions in Natchez and live away from the plantation. During the Civil War, Natchez remained largely undamaged. Many of those mansions survived and now form a major part of the city's identity and mystique.
When I left the RV park on Thursday, August 1, 2013, I planned to visit two attractions on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River. The first (only because it opened an hour earlier) was the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday LA. I had heard somewhere that rocker/pianist Jerry Lee Lewis and country singer/pianist Mickey Gilley were cousins, but I did not know they were also cousins to evangelist/gospel singer/pianist Jimmy Swaggart AND did not know all three were born in the small town of Ferriday LA. Ferriday LA – population 2,857 in 1940 and 3,723 in 2000. Come-on Larry, they’re cousins and probably have two dozen other cousins that were also born in Ferriday!
Oh, how true, my friend Common Sense; but did you know that Howard K.
Smith, news broadcaster and journalist; Anne Boyer Warner, who moved to Los Angeles and married Hollywood mogul Jack Warner of Warner Brothers; and Leon "Peewee" Whittaker, who played clarinet, trombone, guitar, string bass and mandolin professionally with a number of groups in a wide variety of genres, were all born in Ferriday. Okay, technically Whittaker was born 35 miles north of Ferriday in Newellton LA. There must be something in that delta water!
Let’s get back to the Delta Music Museum. Exhibits honor sixteen rock and roll and blues musicians from the Mississippi River delta country - Former Louisiana Governor James Houston “Jimmie” Davis (1899–2000), Conway Twitty (1933–1993), Aaron Neville (born 1941), Allen "Puddler" Harris (born 1936), Percy Sledge (born 1940), Johnny Horton (1929–1960), Irma Thomas (born 1941), Pete Fountain (born 1930), Clarence "Frogman" Henry (born 1937), Fats Domino (born 1928), John Fred Gourrier (1941–2005) and Dale Houston (1940–2007) and his singing partner Grace Broussard (born 1939) as well as Lewis, Gilley and Swaggart. The small museum is interesting, but I have already told you the punch line so it can no longer be considered a “must see!”
The Frogmore Cotton Plantation and Gins in Frogmore LA, on
A Nicely Preserved Slave Village
Frogmore Cotton Plantation & Gins - Frogmore LA
the other hand, is quite a unique attraction. I arrived moments after a tour had begun and was invited to join them. As I arrived, the tour guide was explaining the blossoming stages of the cotton plant. The group had already visited the slave "village;" but, since I have seen several similar exhibits, that was the best portion of the tour for me to have missed.
The tour guide explained that prior to the 1830s slaves worked with hand tools in the gang system where the “gang” of slaves worked in unison, led by one or two workers who set the pace, from sunup to sundown all performing the same task. After the invention of mule-powered tools and, later, steam-powered tools, the gang system yielded to the task system. Each individual was designated a "whole hand" or a "half hand" based on age and sex and was given a designated task (number of acres) to complete.
Our next stop was the original cotton gin where the tour guide performed the infamous "point and explain" that is hard to relate in verbage. Finally, the group was treated to a video in a small AIR CONDITIONED theater. The Frogmore Cotton
Plantation and Gins is a unique attraction that probably is duplicated in only a handful of other locations in the US. Highly recommended.
I started Friday, August 2, with a stop at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians. This small archaeological site with an accompanying small museum gives insight into the indigenous peoples of the area from an archaeological perspective, but, for the average tourist, the essence of the Natchez people is well-defined in the visitor center. Longwood
was to have been one of the grandest houses in the Natchez MS area when it was built by Haller Nutt for himself, his wife and their eight children. This 6-story (counting the basement) 19th
Century Oriental Style villa is the largest octagonal house in the Unites States and, had it been completed, would have had 32 rooms, 26 fireplaces, 115 doors, 96 columns, and a total of 30,000 square feet of living space.
Architect Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia was hired to design the house in 1859 and brought many of the craftsmen, whose work he knew, with him to Natchez. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, only the nine rooms in the basement had been
completed. The Philadelphia artisans dropped their tools and returned north to join the Union forces. Nutt and his family moved into the basement thinking, as did many Americans, that the war would be over in a few months and that work on the house could then resume.
Although he was a Union sympathizer, Nutt lost his fortune as a result of the war and died in 1864 of pneumonia. Nutt’s descendants went on to occupy the basement of the unfinished house for the next 100 years. Photography of the completed rooms in the basement is not allowed. Since that is the least interesting portion of this landmark, ho-hum, sigh, let me photograph the good stuff! Derisively referred to in Natchez as "Nutt's Folly," Longwood has been designated a Registered National Historic Landmark, a Mississippi Landmark, and an historic site on the Civil War Discovery Trail. Longwood definitely makes my “must see” list.
After leaving Longwood, I stopped for lunch and then visited Stanton Hall and Rosalie Mansion – neither of which allows indoor photography. The mansions are nice but neither offers a unique quality nor an astonishing attribute that causes them to be memorable. I suppose for those
who have never seen a mansion of this ilk, the attractions might be worth the time and expense but, if there is an opportunity to wait for the mansions in Newport RI, do so.
While I was at the Delta Music Museum on Thursday, I was told about an event in Ferriday on Saturday, August 3. Three distinct sessions were to comprise the event: a panel discussion entitled, “Preserving Our Musical Heritage,” a documentary movie produced by Louisiana Public Television and an abbreviated set of musical performances by three local groups. Since the event didn’t start until 3 PM, I began the day with a trip to the laundromat! Being the quintessential introvert that most of you know me to be, I learned of a great rib joint in Ferriday - Big John’s Bar-B-Que. I stopped for a late lunch before the 3 PM event. Great ribs! It’s worth the drive from Natchez.
The panel discussion was an interesting interchange among four singers/songwriters/producers/educators and focused on the retention of Louisiana’s musical heritage in light of the population decline in rural parishes and the pressures exerted by exogenous musical influences. The video Sunshine by the Stars: Celebrating Louisiana Music
features most of Louisiana’s biggest music
stars performing versions of Louisiana’s state song, “You Are My Sunshine,” written by former Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell.
The movie is narrated by New Orleans native Harry Connick, Jr. and showcases over a dozen different renditions of “Sunshine” in the genre of the artist – from jazz to rockabilly to Cajun to blues to country to soul to gospel to Zydeco. Indeed, I am told, the original forty-something minute presentation I saw has been noticed by national PBS and is being supplemented with additional artists to make a sixty minute version for airing nationally. Watch your local stations for a viewing time in your area! LOL
I have found that Sunday mornings afford me a great opportunity to take photos of murals, to drive through historic neighborhoods, to enjoy fountains or to visit other sites where the masses typically interfere with my agenda - photography. That was true of the Natchez Walking Trails. I started at Bluff Park which (tah-dah) sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, arguably Natchez' greatest natural attraction. There are half dozen or so walking trails of varying lengths, "hilliness" and foci. The Natchez Trails run throughout the downtown area
Beautiful But Already Getting Warm
Natchez Walking Trails - Natchez MS
and/or along the bluff and are composed of city streets and walkways sporting interpretive panels.
I found the trails not only a great way to get some exercise, but a great way to learn some more about the history of Natchez. The trail I chose was by design because it took me past a component of the Natchez National Historical Park - the William Johnson House. William Johnson was an anomaly in the 19th
century. He was a free man of color and, eventually owning four barber shops, a prosperous entrepreneur. Even though Natchez existed in a sea of slavery (seventy percent of Adams County's 19,000 inhabitants were enslaved and the percentage was even higher across the river in the Louisiana delta), the city proper was different - 3,000 whites, 1.600 black slaves and 200 free blacks.
As an astute businessman, Johnson began to keep ledgers of his business transactions. The columns of numbers were soon embellished with descriptions and sketches of many aspects of his life. Johnson had started a diary which would become a prominent feature in his life. His diary reveals that, although Johnson was subjected to the racial discrimination and limitations of the day,
he participated in a wide range of activities - he fished and hunted, played the violin and enjoyed betting on horse races. Johnson and his wife, also a freed black, took the children for rides in the country, at times stopping for a picnic lunch. At home, their eleven children were exposed to reading, music and as many "cultured" experiences as possible. Despite the imposed limitations, Johnson created a well-rounded life for himself and his family.
As business at Johnson's first barber shop grew, Johnson added barbers and taught the trade to free black boys. As Johnson added barber shops and his property holdings grew, slaves entered the picture - slaves whom he either owned outright or whom he leased from other slave owners. Some slaves Johnson owned were domestics. At the time of his death, Johnson’s owned sixteen slaves. He wrote openly in his diary about his slaves and the trials and tribulations of being a slave owner.
In 1851, a boundary dispute with his neighbor found the two men in court. Although the judge ruled in Johnson’s favor, the angry neighbor, also a free black, ambushed Johnson and killed him. His diary encapsulates sixteen years of
his life. Between 1835 and 1851, Johnson filled fourteen leather bound volumes. William Johnson’s legacy, which was later published as William Johnson's Natchez: The Ante-Bellum Diary of a Free Negro
, reveals what sets him apart from other free blacks of the day and is an important resource in the study of American History. The Johnson house in downtown Natchez continued to be owned by the family until they sold it to the Ellicott Hill Preservation Society in 1976. Ultimately it was donated to the National Park Service. I found the Johnson story and the diary excerpts quite interesting but, without the story, the house is unremarkable.
In the decades prior to the American Civil War, market places where enslaved Africans were bought and sold could be found in every sizable town in Mississippi. The port city of Natchez was unquestionably the state’s most active slave trading city. The growth of the slave trade in 19th
century Mississippi was directly linked to the growth of the textile industry in the U.S. and England. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the advent of the steamboat in 1811, and the introduction of the Mexican variety of cotton into the United
What Happened Here Was Appalling
Forks of the Road Slave Market Site - Natchez MS
States in the 1820s contributed to the expansion of the plantation society in Mississippi.
Although a federal law passed in 1807 prohibited the further importation of Africans, a potential slave labor force was already available in the “upper south.” Many slaves were living on tobacco plantations where soil quality was ebbing and agricultural productivity was declining while the slave population was increasing. Between 1800 and 1860 more than 750,000 enslaved blacks were forcibly transported from the “upper south” to the “deep south.” Fearing the break-up of families and harsher living and working conditions, some resorted to self-mutilation to make themselves less marketable. Slave sales at Natchez were held in a number of locations, but one market place soon eclipsed the others in the number of sales. This slave market was known as “Forks of the Road.”
The importance of Forks of the Road as a slave market increased dramatically when Isaac Franklin of Tennessee rented property there in 1833. Franklin and his business partner, John Armfield of Virginia, were soon to become the most active slave traders in the United States. They were among the first professional slave traders to take advantage of the relatively low prices for
slaves in the Virginia–Maryland area.
The ban on interstate slave trade into Louisiana between 1831 and 1834 caused an increase in trading activity in Natchez. Upon the heels of a cholera outbreak and with the urging of physicians, Natchez officials passed an ordinance in 1833 banishing slave traders from the city. Forks of the Road transformed from an auction site to a showroom for the human commodities. In 1837, Mississippi began enforcing its ban on the importation of out-of-state slaves and slowed the sales for a time; however, the ban was repealed in 1846 refueling the trade. The last slave sales at the historic site were held in early 1863 - just months before the Union occupation of Natchez. The placards are interesting, and the site is sobering; but 10-15 minutes at Forks of the Road does not merit a major travel detour for most.
Monday, August 5, 2013 was a good Captain Domestic day, but Tuesday found me driving south to the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum in Angola LA. Based on the attractions I have visited while “residing” in Natchez, one might have been unaware that I had ever left Louisiana! LOL
Prior to 1835, the
Extensive Displays Of Inmate Weapons
Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum - Angola LA
year the first Louisiana State Penitentiary was built in Baton Rouge, inmates were housed in a jail in New Orleans. In 1844, the penitentiary (including the inmates) was leased to a private company but in 1869 that lease was awarded to Samuel James. The James Family would be in charge of the Louisiana Corrections system for the next 31 years. In 1880, Major James purchased an 8,000-acre plantation in West Feliciana Parish named Angola (named after the former slaves’ homeland) and moved some inmates from Baton Rouge to the plantation.
Primarily, inmates worked on levee construction on the Mississippi River near either Angola or the penitentiary in Baton Rouge. In 1894, the elder James died and his son took over the lease. The 1890's brought forth an age of reform, and the public was shocked by newspaper stories charging inmate brutality at the hand of the James’. On January 1, 1901, the State of Louisiana resumed control of all inmates after 55 years of the lease system.
Floods in 1903, 1912 and 1922 ruined the crops and had adjoining plantation owners ready to sell. In a series of eight purchases in a year and a half, Henry Fuqua,
the General Manager of the penitentiary, purchased an additional 10,000 acres of land at approximately $13.00 per acre. This brought Angola to its present size of 18,000 acres. The Great Depression placed Angola at the bottom of the fiscal priority list, and it fell into a state of general disrepair. Conditions became so bad that, in 1951, 31 inmates cut their Achilles' tendon as protest to the hard work and brutality. In 1952, Robert Kennon based part of his campaign for governor on the need to clean up Angola. After the election, Governor Kennon made good on his campaign promise. The Main Prison Complex was completed in 1955, convict stripes were eliminated, and renovations were completed on various camps.
In 1961, the Corrections' budget was drastically reduced again and another period of decline began. During the late 1960's, Angola became known as "The Bloodiest Prison in the South" due to the number of inmate assaults. After his election in 1972, Governor Edwin Edwards appointed Elayn Hunt as Director of Corrections. She had long been known as an advocate for prison reform, and, under her direction, massive reform began. In 1975, Judge E. Gordon West ruled that Angola prison conditions
A Sunrise Shadow
Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum - Angola LA
“shocked the conscience,” and entered an injunction designed to improve the penitentiary and decentralize the Louisiana prison system. Mrs. Hunt died in February 1976, but her work continued through her assistant C. Paul Phelps, who was named Secretary of the Department of Corrections in 1976.
The museum, established in 1998, is dedicated to preserving Angola's history, and it does an excellent job. Historical documents, such as the Angola Plantation Bill of Sale dated January 1, 1901, are on display as well as maps illustrating the land acquisitions of the early 1920s. Legal weapons used by guards, contraband weapons confiscated from/used by inmates and escape paraphernalia are on display as one would expect.
Most of us are familiar with Bonny and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Barker Gang, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly and Baby Face Nelson. They were all notorious, but pale when compared to Charlie Frazier. Frazier committed about two-thirds as many robberies, escapes, kidnappings, shootings and murders as the aforementioned COMBINED - robberies (52 for Frazier and 94 for the rest), escapes (11 vs.9), kidnappings (6 vs.8), shootings (11 vs. 9) and murders (17 vs. 31) for a total of
Rodeo Posters From Years Gone Bye
Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum - Angola LA
Frazier 104 vs. all the rest 153. On September 10, 1933, Frazier and eleven other inmates killed two guards and escaped from Angola before engaging in a three-state bank robbing spree. Frazier was recaptured on October 12, 1933 in Texas and died at Charity Hospital in New Orleans on July 29, 1959.
The exhibit titled "Dignity in Life and Death at Angola" showcases the coffins crafted by other inmates, the garb used to clothe the deceased and the inmate-built hearse used to transport the coffin to the cemetery. A survey of the death penalty in Louisiana is given. Interestingly, between 1828 and 1957, executions were conducted in the parrish (county) where the crime occurred. Prior to August 6, 1941 the method of execution was hanging. From that date until June 9, 1957, when the State was charged with the responsibility of administering the death penalty, the electric chair was transported to the parish where the crime had occurred and the execution was to take place. The electric chair at Angola was last used on July 22, 1991.
Any dedicated rodeo fan has heard of the Angola Prison Rodeo, and I expected there to be a display of those
We Can’t Afford To Build ‘Em Like This Anymore
West Feliciana Parish Courthouse - Saint Francisville LA
events; however, I was surprised to find a exhibition of paintings that had been created by the inmates. The paintings are straight-forward and easily understood – art I could relate to – unlike much of what I find in more sophisticated art galleries where mind-altering chemicals much stronger than coffee are required to “get it.” Overall, the museum is unique and very interesting. It is a short drive off the beaten path, but worth the effort in my opinion.
I took a scenic drive through downtown Saint Francisville LA before I crossed the river to drive north on LA 15 to Ferriday. There I had an early dinner at (drum roll, please) Big John’s Bar-B-Que. I just had to have another slab of those ribs! Natchez is a great little city. I found it clean, easy to navigate, always felt safe and found a lot of things to keep me busy for a week – even though many of those things were across the state line. For those interested in mansions and architecture, I barely scratched the surface. For those interested in history, you are in for a real treat. Enjoy!
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