Clarksdale to Lafayette

Mural of blues artists, Jackson, MS

I left Clarksdale lacking the enthusiasm I’d felt traveling through the Southwest and the Ozarks. Driving south toward Jackson, the expanse of farmland was like my mood — flat. I’m getting less exercise and eating for entertainment. My mind keeps returning to issues of race and justice. I’m not sure whether all of this is a little bit of road trip burn-out or just feeling lonely, but it’s happened before and I know it will pass. So I focus on ignoring it. There were still places I wanted to see, free from the fog of my transient feelings.

Downtown Yazoo City

Yazoo City, Mississippi was my first stop. I love its name. Yazoo is a native tribe in Mississippi. I went to Yazoo City to see its colorful downtown because sometimes one special thing is a clue that there are other special things. In the case of Yazoo City, maybe not. Yazoo City’s official website reports on the city’s history through 1927, when Yazoo City escaped damage from a tragic flood in the region. The website doesn’t mention the city’s history on subjects of slavery or Jim Crow, although it does refer to a “despised carpet bagger sheriff.” This seems typical in parts of the south — official silence about actual history. But I did my homework and learned that post-1927, Yazoo City is best known for its racist policies, which became very apparent to outsiders after the Supreme Court issued Brown v Board of Education. https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-10-19/race-relations-yazoo-city-mississippi-brief-history Like many other places in the South, Yazoo City refused to integrate its schools until the federal government stepped in 16 years after the Court’s decision. The city apparently remains divided in spite of its playful renovations downtown. One thing I’ve learned in the South is that you can’t really be playful when you are hiding from the truth. I suspect I will get in trouble for saying that…Will someone from Yazoo City please get in touch?

Jackson, Mississippi, the state’s capitol, was my next stop. The city is majority black, and economically in trouble but feels a little more hopeful. It’s full of trees and interesting architecture. It has some really interesting murals, and some excellent museums. I went to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (there were only three of us, masked, inside a very large space). The museum is modern and makes good use of various media to tell the history of racial issues in the state. It doesn’t pull any punches. Except one. If we didn’t know better, we might leave the museum believing civil rights problems were resolved 50 years ago. The museum acknowledges the omission, which is all the more frustrating when I think about the children who visit. Jackson also has a very serious and arguably racist water problem. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/12/us/jackson-mississippi-water-winter-storm.html

The mural at the City’s civil rights museum honors its best-know natives, Medgar Evers, Eudora Welty, ballerina Thalia Mara, and rapper David Banner.
Mural in one of Jackson’s historic neighborhoods.
Jackson MS mural

Overall, I think Jackson is worth a deeper dive when museum hopping and music venues are safer.

Vicksburg, Mississippi is a National Park honoring the Civil War, 40 miles west of Jackson. I stopped there because it seemed like I should. The battle at Vicksburg ended the Civil War, after Union troops took over the South’s access to the Mississippi River, which was a lifeline for supplies and armaments. Like all of the National Parks I’ve visited, this one is incredibly user-friendly. You can drive or walk through its gorgeous rolling hills full of memorials with lots of places to stop and learn and reflect. I was lucky enough to have my personal tour guide and BFF, Vic, on a video call. Vic has studied the Civil War for many years and made my visit come alive.

Vicksburg has memorials to all of the states who suffered losses in the Civil War, including the Southern States.
The location on the Mississippi River where the Union troops took control, a big factor in ending the Civil War.

Port Gibson, Mississippi, further south, was a delightful surprise. I stopped there by accident after I saw one of those brown government signs pointing the way to one of Mississippi’s famous mounds, built by Indian tribes thousands of years ago. I took the turn off and drove on a narrow road through gorgeous green hills and over creeks until I felt like I was going to end up in a scene from “Deliverance.” And then I saw this!

This is not a doctored photo and I took it about 10 miles from Port Gibson

Pronto, I turned my car around, took a wrong turn, and wound up in Port Gibson’s beautiful little town square. The square has a large mural and a plaque that explains how, in 1967, black residents organized a boycott of white businesses because of the treatment of blacks in the community. The boycott, assisted by the NAACP and Medgar Evers, followed years of violence, voter suppression, and economic disenfranchisement. The white businesses sued the NAACP and the boycotters for damages, and the Mississippi courts sided with the white businesses. Eventually, the US Supreme Court found that boycotts are part of protected speech and overturned the Mississippi courts’ orders requiring boycotters to pay more than $1 million in damages. I love how this little town became a civil rights hero!

Mural in Port Gibson’s town square honoring the residents who boycotted white businesses.

And then, walking around, I met Melvin, who helps run a nonprofit called Cultural Crossroads in Port Gibson and also has his own nonprofit to mentor at-risk youth. Melvin knows everything about Port Gibson, including stories of the Port Gibson women who made quilts that are in the Smithsonian, and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, a black blues performing group headquartered in Port Gibson (one was Ma Rainey!).

The leaded glass transoms above Melvin are from the trains that went through Port Gibson and carried the members of the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.
Part of a mural in Port Gibson that celebrates the quilts made by local residents.
Instead of a cross at the top of its spire, this Port Gibson Church has a hand with a finger pointing toward heaven.

Natchez Trace was another happy surprise. Natchez Trace is an historic 444-mile road between Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi with no businesses, no traffic signals, no commercial vehicles, no houses — nothing but forest and rivers and swamps and places for you to hike, bike, and picnic. OMG! Who knew? I joined “The Trace” at Port Gibson and enjoyed my 50-mile stress-free drive along what must be one of the most beautiful roads in the world, once again brought to you by the National Park Service. https://www.legendsofamerica.com/ms-natcheztrace/ I may drive the whole thing on my way back to California.

Natchez, Mississippi, was once a resort for Mississippi’s wealthy and a port for moving cotton down the river. I stopped in Natchez because it’s relaxing and beautiful and has good restaurants, things that haven’t escaped the notice of many other tourists. I stayed at an old-fashioned grand dame hotel overlooking the Mississippi, ate a falafel at a Greek restaurant, and walked the path on the bluffs overlooking the river. I avoided the town’s many famous “ante-bellum” houses because they would remind me too much of ante-bellum slavery. No revelations but sooooo enjoyable.

View from my hotel roomMississippi River, Natchez
Natchez Grand Hotel
One of America’s most important authors, Richard Wright, grew up in Natchez.

And today, I arrived in Lafayette, 68 days, 6,984 miles and dozens of amazing experiences since leaving Berkeley.

Mural in dumpster yard, Jackson, MS

25 comments

  1. Since 1968 I have been a card carrying member of the Holmes County (Mississippi) Freedom party, and proud of it.

  2. Love this post and am keeping it for my possible future Amtrak/ebike tour from DC to New Orleans next fall. Might have to bike the whole Natchez Trace Parkway and head to the hotel you stayed in!

  3. Love this! I also love to amble when I walk through a new town, being open to meeting new people and seeing things that I might have missed otherwise. Thanks for the rich history and the Natchez Trace Parkway sounds wonderful!

  4. This blog has so much in it you could have fashioned at least three decent sized postings from it. I kind of wish you did! That said, your pics and narrative are top notch as usual… and I suspect I enjoyed your trip to the Vicksburg battlefields even more than you. Thanks for taking me along!

    One history comment- the fall of Vicksburg to Grant’s Union forces didn’t “end” the Civil War. But along with Gettysburg (fought the same week), it marked the end of the South’s chances to triumph militarily. It took almost two years more of bloody struggle before Lee and the South ultimately surrendered their armies.

    Whether or not the Civil War has actually ended- and who really won- is still open for debate. The South may have lost on the battlefield, but the “Lost Cause Movement” still seems to have triumphed as the dominant post war narrative and ugly reality in America.

    The fact that we live in a racist society- north and south, east and west- is not open for debate. While things slowly (“with all deliberate speed”?) have improved, we have a long long long way to go to eradicate racism. That’s worth fighting for as long as it takes.

  5. Your trip and blog continue to be fascinating, Kim. I’ve barely left my county in over a year, and you are going the places I would go if it were my road trip. I love your greater historical analysis and the smaller details you notice, the people you meet and the observations of nature.

    1. Thank you Wendy! I think of you every time I am in an area where there is a bird sanctuary or just a lot of birds in the wilderness. The Natchez Trace and Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge near Vicksburg are supposed to be prime birding spots.

  6. Check Windsor ruins. In the middle of nowhere Mississippi. I thought my gps was wrong 10 years ago. And on a side note, maybe concentrate on the friendliness of the south? Ps the unfinished octogon home is pretty cool in Natchez. Did you Natchez was once the 2nd richest town in America? From Northerners building second homes there.

  7. The travelogue is so well done. The photos really pull me into the narrative. Stay safe. If you’re final destination is Miami please stop by. We’re fifty miles north.

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