Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Natchez Literary and Film Festival

View of Downtown

Last week- Wednesday through Friday that is- I had the pleasure of attending the Natchez Literary and Film festival, thanks to the generous sponsorship of my school. The festival- a history convention really- dealt with free blacks in the antebellum South, or "free people of colour" as they were refered to during the period. There were, in fact, some quarter of a million free blacks in the South before the War, and slightly fewer than that in the North. Probably the best known representative of this interesting but little-studied group was a Natchez man, William Johnson. He was born a slave, but was given malumission along with his mother (his father also being his master). He eventually moved to Natchez in the 1830's where he took over his brother-in-law's barbershop (actually, barbershops in the nineteenth century where rather more elaborate; he also had baths, a parlour, and sold sundry items related to grooming, as well as other odds and ends). As black barbers were accepted widely by whites, he did quite well. At the end of his life he was worth some thirty-thousand dollars and owned fifteen slaves. (Slave-owning was not unheard of among free blacks in the South, odd- and sadly ironic- as it may seem.) He was shot by a neighbor, upset over a land dispute. The man who murdered him could not be convicted, as the only witnesses were black, and Mississippi state law disbarred blacks from testifying against whites.
But the reason we remember Johnson is his large and detailed diary he kept for many years, amounting to two-thousand pages in all. It was discovered in 1935, and later edited and published, providing a very rare glimpse into a free black man's life in the years leading up to the Civil War. It was a rather precarious one: he, and other men like him, were never fully accepted into Southern white society. They could not own weapons, vote, and were often regarded with suspicion. Johnson was well-liked and counted several white men as friends and hunting buddies (note that gun-ownership laws- and others- were not always enforced!). Of course, not all free blacks were as well off as Johnson. During a period in Natchez he styled "The Inquisition" a number of free blacks were arrested and deported or enslaved, as the town was gripped by fears of slave revolt and a general paranioa of free blacks.

But, it must be said, life was often worse for free blacks in Northern cities. No Southern city- Washington D.C. excepted- ever had a full-fledged race riot. In Northern cities they were all-too common. Blacks were not ghettoized in the South, as was the case in the North. Job opportunity was much higher in the South than the North. Of course, the reasons for this were not necessarily an elevated Southern sense of black dignity, but probably more economical reasons. Many slaves worked- away from their masters- in Southern cities, and thus any attempts at riots were swiftly broken up. Slaves were valuable property. Also, I daresay that because of this system, Southern whites were more accustomed to working with- and living with- blacks, which eased tensions and some elements of prejudice. Southerns- and Northerners alike- however still could not, by and large, bring themselves to see blacks as fully persons, as fully human or endowed with the same rights of man as they believed themselves to posses. But lest we throw stones at our ancestors and shatter our glass house, I seem to recall certain practises and ideas in our modern enlightened society that are exactly the same. . .

St. Mary's Cathedral

Anyway- my digression in history complete- our trip (myself and one of my professors) was very nice. Besides listening to papers being presented, we visited a number of historical sites. Natchez is full of old houses and churches and such, enough to occupy one for a very long time. We stayed in the very nice Eola Hotel (the picture above is from out of my room's window), which was only a couple blocks from St. Mary's Cathedral, built in 1843. I went to Mass there Thursday and Friday morning, and witnessed my first lay-eucharist minister communion. But I'll save my thoughts on that for another time. At any rate the church is beautiful and the people were friendly. The steeple is a wonderful landmark, and helped me orient myself while wandering around downtown.

Pearl Street Pasta and Blues and Biscuits are both quite good eateries, in my humble estimation. The mansion of Longwood is remarkable; any visit to Natchez should include it. And the little house of Mt. Locust on the Natchez Trace Parkway should not be missed either, so as to see how most of my kinfolk lived "back then." If you're lucky, you'll meet the Park Ranger who was born and bred in that very house (built in 1790). He's a retired fellow, but works, so to speak, as a guide for the Mt. Locust site (it's a perfect retirement-spot he told me). He'll show you the window pane- hand cast- that was written on while it was cooling. Oh, and if- back in Natchez- you look for Natchez-Under-the-Hill, you'll be disappointed. The former hive of villanry is all but gone, save four or five buildings perched above the River and a rinky riverboat casino. The River washed the rest away.

Longwood Mansion


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