Day 2: Natchez
We woke up early on our second day in Grand Ol’ Haunted Mississippi and gathered in the lobby of the Super 8 Motel. Some folks starting digging into the continental breakfast; I should have eaten too. Eventually we loaded into the vans and drove to Steampunk’s Coffee. Steampunk is said to have a mischievous resident, the spirit of a young boy. How he died, I’m not sure. The barista was telling a couple of my classmates that he had experienced some paranormal activity one day while closing shop. He said that a clairvoyant woman said later she could see the ghost of a young boy. We waited in the warmth of the establishment and drank our quite delicious coffees and teas. I’m sure we overwhelmed regular customers with the size of our group and our strange ways. They knew we did not belong.
As soon as everyone had paid for their drinks we went for a stroll around Natchez, a city haunted by the past, a town as slow and quiet as the Mississippi River herself. The streets were practically barren, the only sounds coming from our group as we walked along the streets. Yet, the city is beautiful, one of the very few Southern towns that still has standing buildings that survived the Civil War and its aftermath.
A Throne For King Cotton
The city of Natchez was founded in 1716 by the French on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Natchez and the surrounding territory was later controlled by the British and the Spanish as the European powers vied for colonial power in the New World. The young United States would eventually gain lasting control of Natchez.
Due to the strategic position of the city, Natchez became a center of trade, a true throne for king cotton. It was the southern point of the young United States, with French Louisiana to the west and Spanish Florida to the southeast. Even as the territory of the United States grew, Natchez remained a significant shipping hub as the southern point of the Natchez Trace that lead up to Memphis, Tennessee. Many plantation owners built their mansions in the city, showing off their wealth to their neighbors and prospective business partners. The mansions can still be seen today along what is referred to as Millionaire’s Row.
Many of the plantation owners were originally from the North and had Northern business partners. During the Civil War, Natchez remained largely undamaged by artillery bombardment due to the strong ties it had with the North.
Money, Millionaires, Mansions
“While we’re up in the Delta this week, keep what you see today in the back of your mind. You might want this as a point of comparison with what we’ll encounter up there,” I hear Dr. Brunt say, as we walk through the most magnificent neighborhoods that I had ever seen. All of those mansions were great and beautiful, but one caught my eye and made my jaw drop: The Stanton Mansion.
In Natchez, 160 years ago, a cotton merchant named Frederick Stanton began the construction of his dream house which covered an entire city block. This was not a simple house, but a mansion worth more than $83,000 before it was even furnished. The mansion had beautiful mantle pieces of marble which were imported from New York, decorative gasoliers from Philadelphia, enormous mirrors from France, along with Corinthian columns and gentle cast iron railings. Unfortunately, the home was finished only a few months before Frederick Stanton’s death in 1859, which resulted in it being occupied by Union troops during war-time and then again by the Stanton family until 1894. Now, it has been turned into National Historic Landmark to provide a glimpse into the domestic life of one wealthy Natchez family.
When I first encountered the Stanton Mansion, all I saw was the long pathway leading up to this white two-story mansion. It had so many windows that I lost count, and to contrast the white structure there were black colored window panels. In the front entrance of the mansion, there were four long pillars holding up a pediment and balcony which not only was immense, but was surrounded by white and intricately designed fences. Truly drawing on the power and esteem of the Greeks, this mansion’s façade clearly mimicked a contemporary Parthenon. Houses like this are usually surrounded by trees and bushes with flowers to give the lawn a nice presentation, but this mansion did not need that. It had only a few bushes with pink flowers.
At this moment, it came to my realization how much money the people living in the mansions in Natchez must have had. The mansion’s structure itself was worth more than $83,000 in the mid-1800’s, which would be more than two million dollars today. I held this thought on the back of my head, not realizing that if somebody was that rich then somebody else had to be extremely poor. Just as I was pondering on this thought, we were on our way out of the neighborhood, we passed by many small, humble, broken down homes, a stark contrast to Millionaires’ Row just a few streets down. These were the people who had the bad side of the deal, and that reflected in their homes and life. Later that day, we visited the Natchez cemetery where I came across a familiar name on a grand tombstone.
This was the tombstone of Frederick Stanton, the original millionaire owner of the mansion. When I saw this gravestone, I was not surprised, nor was I saddened. I was simply experiencing something that I knew to be true for a long time. No matter how much money you have, or how big your house is, you will be buried in the same soil as the rest of us. The grand splendor of money and rich material artifacts are as temporary as life itself.
Death does not like money oo! Konadu ee!
We shall all enter a hole in the earth, this death hmm!
If even there were two chances to die, I would not joke with one.
You will be put in a coffin.
The coffin will be nailed.
You will be sent to the cemetery.
While you are being carried away,
your head will be in front,
your legs at the back.
Your people will surround you.
Some will be dancing, others will be conversing about you.
You will reach the cemetery.
Put in a grave.
Covered with sand.
Hit by the shovel.
You will be left there while they return home.
Death is cruel.
from Oral Poetry from Africa (1984) compiled by Jack Mapanje and Landeg White, Longman
Wings of Death
Death comes for all of us eventually, yet we humans try to fight this. Valiantly? Foolishly? Everything ends and turns to nothingness, yet we humans try to fight even this. We build monuments and perform rituals to create a legacy. But, even wood rots, and stone crumbles. In death we set apart a plot of land, remaining landowners even in death. We mark our “land” with large elaborate monoliths, a smaller yet just as elaborate structure to be deemed as our dwelling. We inscribe words to try and describe our lives, the way we lived, our values and beliefs. But what good does this do in a lonesome graveyard? Are we trying to affect the living with these inscriptions? We walk by faith and not by sight. Thine in the Lord to rest, for so He giveth His beloved sleep. He had died as he had lived, in the fear of the Lord. She being dead yet speaketh. For his soul pleased the Lord, therefore hastened He to take him away. What good does it do anyone to know a name, a date, anything about our departed brothers and sisters? Graveyards are not for the dead, they are for the living. A graveyard is simply a homestead for people to come back to. We mask these intentions with talk of giving respect and honor. It is a lost cause to fight against Death.
Death is like the wings of a butterfly — mystical, delicate, and graceful. Death is an absolute that we have yet to understand, we are not meant to understand. We glide upon the breeze of life, enduring the non-forgiving four winds, and rejoicing in the light airy warm days until our wings are torn. The balance between life and death is delicate, a strange blurred line that we humans like to tread on by testing the fates in dare devil activities, trying to master it through hunt and war. We have developed tools to make death more effective — poisons, toxins, weapons, addictions — all to help aid in killing ourselves and others slowly.
I’m not the smartest boy by a long shot, but even in my funk I know that the easiest remedies like eating your way out of sad, or fucking your way out of sad, or lying your way out of sad, or slanging your way out of sad, or robbing your way out of sad, or gambling your way out of sad, or shooting your way out of sad, are just more acceptable way for desperate folks, and especially paroled black boys in our country, to kill ourselves and others close to us in America.
Kiese Laymon, “How to Kill Yourself Slowly and Others in America”
In the South, you want a good death, either valiantly in battle or asleep in bed at a ripe old age. But this is not the case for all in Mississippi. In the South, Death is no friend, Southerners enjoy living too much. And the Deep South, Mississippi, has seen its share of gruesome death.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas, “Rage Against the Dying of the Light.”
The Lost Cause
The South lost a generation of young men when it lost the Civil War. There were said to be whole towns that lost every man of fighting age, as well as many of those younger and older when the war grew more desperate and conscription became less discerning about the warm bodies tossed to the frontlines. After the fighting was done, the women mourned and raised monuments to commemorate the lost generation. Many of the monuments were not for generals or war heroes, the exemplary few, they were for the everyman. These acts of mourning marked the beginnings of the Lost Cause, an ideology that argued the South was simply “too noble” to win against the North. The Lost Cause proclaimed that these Southern gentlemen, who fought fairly to defend their homes and their rights, were doomed to fail against the ignoble, underhanded North. The South lost the physical war, yes, but in their grief, began to see itself as having won the moral war.
Following the Civil War came a period called Reconstruction. Under the watch of the North, the South began rebuilding. Many freed blacks were elected to office, both at a local and a national level, and education became more widespread. As interest in the South lessened, the North withdrew, and Reconstruction began to die out. The Whig and Democratic parties merged and white supremacist began garnering political power all across the former Confederacy.
The era of Redemption began in 1873. It was marked by terrible violence and the rising prominence of white supremacist groups like the White League and Klu Klux Klan. Much of the violence surrounded elections, aiming to keep black Americans from voting by any means necessary. The era of Redemption ended in 1877, taking Reconstruction down with it, and its effects would continue in further violence and the enacting of Jim Crow laws.
Then we beat them, he said,
beat them till our arms was tired
and the big old chains
messy and red.
O Jesus burning on the lily cross
Christ, it was better
than hunting bear
which don’t know why
you want him dead.
O night, rawhead and bloodybones night
You kids fetch Paw
some water now so’s he
can wash that blood
off him, she said.
O night betrayed by darkness not its own
Robert Hayden, “Night, Death, Mississippi”
In the South, the Lost Cause is far from gone. It is the reason people can claim the Confederate flags they own are about neither racism nor white supremacy, but about Southern Pride. It was the reason I was taught in Texas public schools, year after year, that the Civil War was fought over States Rights, with the nasty details about slavery being thrown in only as an afterthought to the whole matter. It is the reason that there was a recent textbook in Texas public schools which had the gall to refer to slaves as “immigrants” and “workers.” It is a major part of what still haunts this place, this region, this country.
Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land, where I was born in,
early on one frosty mornin’,
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.
I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand
to live and die in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie
Dixie (I Wish I Was In Dixie Land), The Unofficial Anthem of the Confederate States of America
The graves of the Natchez Cemetery sprawl over the hills in solitary monuments and clusters of familial burials, grouped off by wrought iron fences and stone walls. The graves for the confederate soldiers stood out not for their size nor even their number. At first glance the monument marker could be the stone for a particularly large family plot, going back several generations. The draped Confederate Flag carved on the marker and the dates “1861–1865” are what gives the monuments’ nature away, without even reading the rest of the inscription.
Most of the markers are for unknown soldiers. Looking at the rows, I could not help but be reminded of a 5th grade trip to Washington D.C. and seeing Arlington Cemetery for the first time. But these are not the neat rows and perfectly groomed lawns of Arlington. Here, the rows are not perfect, a few of the headstones are tiled to one side or the other, and the grass could do with a trim.
I cannot help but feel something like pity for the bones beneath my feet. They had fought for whatever reasons they had fought. Maybe they fought to defend their homes from the Union soldiers that would have put them to the torch. Maybe they had been conscripted and could not leave on the pain of death. Or maybe they had fought to keep slavery, to “preserve the Southern economy.” The dead do not speak and I cannot know what they died for, only that they died. So I can only feel something like pity for them.
Unknown Solider, written over and over. So many had been buried with none to claim them as their own. The Lost Cause claimed them instead.
Mississippi feels haunted because it is. This seems a redundant statement when speaking of a cemetery and a monument for the Confederate dead. It is not a haunting of ghostly figures in the distance or spectral whispers, but a feeling in the air of the past not being so distant. The headstones may not be in perfect rows, but they are clean of moss and all are whole unlike many of the other graves from the 19th century, a sign of upkeep. Someone is still caring for the soldiers of the Confederacy.
Walking along the uneven paths of the Natchez cemetery, I had a strong notion of reverence. We treaded carefully among the graves, admiring the elaborate headstones. The cold air seemed fitting for such a grim yet peaceful stroll. I became suddenly aware that most of these graves were at least a century old, that perhaps their families had long past and gone, that no one had come to say hello to these lonely souls. I picked some flowers from a nearby bush and distributed them relatively randomly, except for one small grave with no inscription. It passed through my mind that perhaps it was the grave of a small child or infant. It did not stand alone though, it was in what appeared to be a family lot; at least this poor soul was not completely lonesome. Yet the idea of a child shook me. I paid my respects and sat for a while till it was time to depart.
The dead can’t speak, you are only left with the voices in your head. No one bothers you in a cemetery, only the voices in your head.
I’m gonna let some lonesome graveyard, be your restin’ place.
Geeshie Wiley, “Skinny Leg Blues”
Lunch and Life
Stranger still, we ended our second day emerged in vivid, noisy life, stopping for lunch at a local fresh produce stand — The Tomato Place. Food, a source of vitality. The sun was shining in the riverside city of Vicksburg, unlike our morning in Natchez, and it warmed our faces. This town that had been gunned down by cannon fire and left to rubble in the wake of the Union onslaught was now our quirky lunch stop. Well, we were hungry. And the food tasted good.