When I was quite young, my parents took my brother and me to the Natchez Pilgrimage, a semi-annual tour of antebellum mansions organized by the Natchez Garden Clubs back in 1932 as a way to bring tourists to Depression-wracked Natchez, Miss. Club members dressed in crinolines and hoop skirts guided us through the white-columned mansions. A pageant was a major part of the Pilgrimage, with children dancing around a maypole, a king and queen, and tableaux depicting Natchez history. One of the tableaux, titled “Cotton Pickers,” depicted a “land of laughter, love, and song” where “fields … whiten (with ripe cotton bolls) and darkies … sing.”
A few weeks ago I was back in Natchez as part of a tour group cruising down the Mississippi. This time there were few “Gone with the Wind” moments. We toured a plantation, but we spent more time in the slave quarters than in the mansion, and even more time in the exhibit showing the hot, heavy and dangerous work of getting cotton picked and prepared for market before the ginning and baling were mechanized. On the way back to our boat, we stopped at Forks of the Road, site of the second-largest slave market in the U.S. back in the day.