Amid linen and lace, antebellum legacy thrives

A Mississippi city's famous celebration of its past grows more frank about slaveholding.

The Southern belles sip from fine antique china on a linen-covered table, lamenting that their husbands can hardly squeeze into their Confederate costumes for Pilgrimage season.

Elizabeth Boggess, her sister Anne McNeil, and Nancy Williams are typical of this small town on the shore of the Mississippi River, a place that hovers in a dreamy antebellum bubble as if the Civil War were yet to come.

In this politically correct era, when the Walt Disney Company buries its 1946 "Song of the South" because of racist overtones, the town - and this group of Natchez faithfuls - are anachronisms in antique gloves. Natchez's oldest families casually mix tales of their slave-owning pasts with talk of the weather and Ole Miss football.

The oddity of it is most apparent during Spring and Fall Pilgrimage seasons, when plantation owners in satin hoop skirts - and those belly-hugging Confederate costumes - fling open their mahogany doors to thousands of Yankee and European tourists. But the burgeoning tourist industry has created a conundrum for Natchez residents as they struggle to come to terms with a past that brings profit, but also shame.

Until 10 years ago, the word "slave" was not uttered on mansion tours. No one knew how to address the past, says Ms. Williams. Yet it was clear that Natchez drew history buffs because it is a place where the Old South lingers, where manners, magnolia, and moonlight still matter.

The majority of gawkers here are white. "We always find more white tourists who want to see the way things were done," says Laura Godfrey, director of the Natchez Chamber of Commerce. "Sure, I think one reason is because blacks have a certain pain associated with that time in history."

Yet many Natchez residents look at the past through a veil of lace and linen rather than a filter of politics. Sarah Jones, an African-American Natchez Garden Club member, insists she has no problem giving tours in houses where slaves once worked.

On a recent Saturday, Ms. Jones guided tourists through the 1798 House on Ellicott Hill, dressed in a late-1700s Empire-waist dress. "Slavery is something you can't forget," she says. "The past is a thing we can't change. We can only learn from it and make things better." And, she points out, freed African-Americans also owned slaves.

The Pilgrimage tours began in the 1930s when the Natchez economy was depressed. River traffic no longer docked here. Cotton was no longer king. And the city's grandest houses were in ruins.

The future was grim until a group of the town's wealthiest women from the oldest families opened their doors to trainloads of Northern tourists who stopped in Natchez on their way to New Orleans. That savvy entrepreneurship saved the town.

The House on Ellicott Hill, Jones told tourists, was the first restoration project of the Natchez Garden Club in 1934, after the group set out to save the city's extraordinary buildings.

These days, the Natchez Pilgrimage employs only about 100 but the fiscal impact is far greater - a spur of about $20 million to the local economy. Tourism in Natchez is boosted by bed and breakfasts and 500 restored antebellum homes.

"The thing about Natchez ... is that people still live like they did in the 1800s, among the family heirlooms and antiques," says Ms. Boggess. "No one even knew [until the Pilgrimage began] that this might be a tad strange to the outsiders."

But now, Natchez tourism officials admit, hoop-skirts and white columns often eclipse the city's rich African-American heritage. And so, in the last decade, there have been efforts to promote the African-American experience.

The William Johnson house, now being restored by the National Park Service, will soon be a major attraction. Mr. Johnson was a free African-American, a successful businessman, and a plantation owner. Many scholars describe his history as one of the most accurate and important antebellum documents.

"For both blacks and whites, it's about ... making sure [Natchez] survives," says McNeil, who recently returned from New Jersey to run her family's plantation, Elms Court. "The Pilgrimage does that. In the end, it's about the continuity of the tradition of family."

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