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