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One of the Biggest U.S. Slave Markets Finally Reckons With Its Past

Natchez, Miss., is beginning to highlight the history of its enslaved people—including at a Black-owned bed and breakfast in former slave quarters.

Historic homes in Natchez have long struggled to talk about slavery, said Cosey. Years ago, she said, she was working for a historic inn in town, and she was asked not to broach the subject. “They said to me, ‘You stick to the script, Debbie,’” she said. (The inn did not respond to requests for comment.)

But at Concord, “I wrote my own script,” she said. “Perhaps I will talk about slavery, and if that offends you, I won’t be offended if you leave.”

She added, “Why not talk about it? Why not give honor to those people that your ancestors enslaved? Is it that hurtful to you? Are you that embarrassed? And if you are, if you talk about it, I feel it’s good healing for your soul.”

Joseph McGill, a history consultant at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens in Charleston, S.C., stayed at Concord in 2018 as part of his Slave Dwelling Project, through which he educates the public on slavery by giving talks and spending the night in former slave dwellings. He travels widely for the project, and Natchez was high on his list of places to visit. For many years, when visiting antebellum sites in Natchez, “you heard about the architecturally significant big houses, the nice beautiful grand staircase, the place settings, vaulted ceilings, drapes, and things of this nature,” said McGill. “But very seldom would they talk about whose labor was stolen to make all that happen.”

McGill said of the local tourism industry, “They take pride in benefiting from the ‘Gone With the Wind,’ hoop skirt, mint julep-type story. They’ve been making money handsomely off of that story.” Tourism is the largest industry in Natchez, which is 62 percent Black as of the 2020 census; Mississippi River cruises are a major draw.

Some of the historical sites in Natchez are now discussing slavery more openly. In 2021, the Historic Natchez Foundation started installing permanent slavery exhibits in historic homes that offer daily tours. Three exhibits are complete, and two are still in progress. The artifacts on display include maps, a historic image of a house, and a page from a slave schedule that lists ages, sexes and sometimes names of enslaved people. At a home called Longwood, there’s a rare portrait that was painted of a man while he was enslaved.

These exhibits first appeared on the homes’ porches during the early part of the covid-19 pandemic as an outdoor attraction for visitors. But even before covid and the 2020 racial justice protests, historical site operators in Natchez were asking for help educating visitors on slavery, said Carter Burns, executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation. “The public expects to hear those stories,” he said.