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The story of slavery and African-Americans in Natchez is one of the most complex threads of the city's history — a story that swung between extremes for centuries and one that will never be exhausted, no matter how many articles, books and films explore it.
The first African slaves arrived at the French settlement of Fort Rosalie in 1719, and that legacy lives on today in nearly every brick and beam of the elaborate mansions of Natchez, materials placed by the hands of Africans both enslaved and free.
Slavery was the backbone of the cotton wealth of Natchez, yet those same area plantations would later become a means of livelihood for African-Americans during the Reconstruction, as former slaves negotiated tenant contracts.
In the 1800s, the Forks of the Road slave market in Natchez was one of the largest in the Deep South, but in the decades before the Civil War, Natchez was also home to the largest community of free people of color in Mississippi. In the latter half of the century, some black men in Natchez attained considerable power.
In 1871, for example, Natchez was the only municipality in Mississippi to elect an African-American, Robert Wood, as mayor. Nonetheless, that power quickly disappeared. Less than 20 years later, Mississippi adopted a constitution that effectively ended black political power through literacy tests and poll taxes.
In spite of "Jim Crow Laws," discrimination and segregation, some members of the black community thrived as doctors, merchants, educators and businessmen.
In that era, Black-owned businesses and Black churches in and around Natchez, including Beulah Baptist, Rose Hill Baptist, Holy Family Catholic and St. John United Methodist, served as gathering places where the African-American community formulated strategies for change.
Only after decades of violence did African-Americans in Natchez achieve full voting rights along with desegregated schools and public spaces, and within a single generation, African-Americans were being elected as state legislators, judges and city officials, including, once more, mayor.
These stories and many more are told in the exhibits at the Natchez Association of Afro-American Culture Museum, where an entire room now serves as the permanent home for an important collection of African art owned by John and Pam Finley of Albuquerque, New Mexico — a collection evacuated from the Ohr-O'keefe Museum, Biloxi, Mississippi during the approach of Hurricane Katrina, which would ultimately decimate the museum where the art had been housed.