Mississippi towns 'race against time' to save history from distortion and oblivion as eyewitnesses are dying
Natchez was the site of many civil rights marches during the 1960s. (Photo contributed by Devin Heath)
Stanton Hall’s soaring pillars and sumptuous rooms make the grand 19th-century mansion a star of Pilgrimage weeks — when tourists flood Natchez, Mississippi’s historic places to see men in Confederate uniforms dance with women costumed in hoop skirts reenacting Civil War era balls.

Beautiful photos of Stanton Hall have decorated hundreds of brochures and websites over the past 90 years.

Stanton also has a small role in Black history.

Exerlena Jackson was once its chef. She was the wife of local NAACP treasurer, Wharlest Jackson. He took a third job at a tire factory that paid 17 cents more hourly than other Black workers earned in 1967. White supremacists retaliated almost immediately after he took the job by killing him with a car bomb. He was just 30, the married father of five.

Their brick bungalow on a dead-end street doesn’t adorn the Natchez visitors’ website. But with the family's permission, Natchez mayor Dan Gibson hopes to add it.

RELATED: Confederate flags weren't part of 'Southern pride' until the Civil Rights movement, analysis shows

Rescuing civil rights history has a new urgency now that battles are blazing over what schools can teach about slavery, the Civil War and civil rights.

Like many other states, Mississippi passed a law this year banning the teaching of critical race theory. However, as state educators observed, the theory is not taught in any public school in Mississippi. But, like other state laws tackling the topic, the wording is so vague that teachers are unsure what they can legally say to students.

Mayor Gibson believes “it’s a race against time to save the truth” because Civil Rights Movement eyewitnesses are dying and important historic buildings are crumbling in the passing years.

Gibson was elected in July 2020, as protests of George Floyd’s 2020 murder swept the nation. New to Natchez, he “went from zero name recognition in June to being elected in July.”

During his campaign, Gibson vowed to help preserve Natchez’s rich Black history, grim events and triumphs. That mission promptly unleashed social media haters — including white Confederacy fans and Black activists who, over the years, regarded government involvement with suspicion.

Gibson, who is white, recalls the city inviting a Black local historian and activist to a ceremony in his honor. “He said that if we came close to him with a plaque, he’d break it on camera.”

Gibson says he also received an anonymous threat saying if the city removed the Confederate statue from a park, Natchez would need armed 24-hour security around every Black history site in the town.

RELATED: Scholars pile on Fox News' Jonathan Turley for making historically illiterate claims about MLK

But Gibson also sees the effort inspire exhilarating unity between races and political parties.

Tourism director Devin Heath, who is Black, was hired by Gibson a year and a half ago. Heath says that volunteers, who descended from both mansion-owning families and enslaved people, worked together on fundraising and restoring Black history sites.

“This year’s spring pilgrimage was the first one where men wore tuxedos, not Confederate uniforms, and women wore evening gowns,” Gibson proudly told Raw Story. As soon as he was elected, he said that owners of the Natchez Pilgrimage mansions “told me they supported showcasing Black history and experience and wanted to help any way they could.”

LEARNING THE TRUTH FROM MONUMENTS AND MARKERS

In the current political climate, it’s easy to imagine the day when students learn more about the Civil Rights Movement from preserved historical sites in places like Natchez than they can at school.

The Hechinger Report studied Mississippi textbooks and found that students normally start studying state history in 4th grade when they often use the popular “Mississippi Studies” textbook published in 2005. It devotes only five pages to the Civil Rights Movement. Another textbook still used in state high schools describes Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as “He gave a speech. People were excited.”

Saving Black history from distortion and oblivion is a personal cause for Devin Heath, who grew up in Washington, D.C.

“My mother worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development when she decided she needed to join Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s march on Washington,” Heath remembers. “Her boss told her he would fire if she marched. She did…he fired her.”

As the man helping to shape what visitors learn about Natchez, Heath is involved in several projects. Right now, he’s researching Deacons for Defense, a secret 1960s group of church-going, gun-bearing Black men determined to protect Black homes from Klan violence. After letting the Klan know they would fight anyone who attacked the march, they marched with the protesters.

Heath is coordinating his efforts with the Natchez Museum of African American Culture and History to promote new sites the city is developing, like a memorial that will be built as a tribute to Black soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War.

Both Heath and Gibson are inspired by previous Natchez mayor Darryl Grennell who appointed a commission of 12 activists to tackle a dark chapter of history some would like to erase: the Parchman Ordeal.

RELATED: Watch: Right-wing activist launches off-the-rails rant at school board meeting – and gets escorted out

In 1965, Black residents peacefully protested a car bombing that critically wounded the local NAACP president. Natchez police arrested 700. When the jails overflowed, 150 Black men and women were sent to the notorious Parchman prison without a trial. Crowded into cells meant for two prisoners each, the protesters were forced to drink laxatives. Wharlest and Exerlina Jackson were among those abused for several days.

American Reckoning (full documentary) | FRONTLINE www.youtube.com

In 2019, a monument called Proud to Take a Stand was dedicated to those protesters. The six-foot tall, polished granite wall is inscribed with the 150 names.

The monument reminds Heath, “there are so many Black history stories that haven’t been curated and told.”

FINDING SCHWERNER, CHANEY AND GOODMAN

When paramedic James Young was elected mayor of his Mississippi hometown of 14,000, he got letters and emails from all over America and the world. Brave Russian dissidents and young Chinese protesters wrote to him. From U.S. prisons, inmates told Young he gave them hope they could still work to make their lives and the world better.

Young initially thought one letter came from a child due to its shaky handwriting. But he told Raw Story that the writer was a grown man who confided he was rapidly losing his eyesight to a disease. The man wrote: “I am going blind, but while I can still see, I wanted to thank you for changing America.”

That was in 2009 when Young had just been elected Philadelphia, Mississippi’s first Black mayor.

That rural, pretty town is infamous as the place where three young civil rights workers were kidnapped and murdered during 1964’s Freedom Summer. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, white New Yorkers, and James Chaney, a Black Mississippian, had interviewed members of a Black church that an arsonist burned. Townspeople who met the trio told Raw Story they were sweet and soft-spoken. The three men organized a sewing class for women who needed income after losing their jobs as maids or laundresses because they supported Black voter registration.

On their final day on Earth, they politely endured a bogus arrest. The jail released them. Somewhere on a lonely road, they vanished. Their bodies were found two months later in August, buried in an earthen dam.

RELATED: Conservative Tennessee parents want teachers banned from discussing famous anti-segregation Norman Rockwell painting

When I was a reporter visiting Philadelphia in 2004, the town was excited and nervous about a memorial service that would recognize the young men as heroes. Some memorial organizers held a meeting at a restaurant where an interracial Ska band played on weekends. The city created a walking/driving tour that helped visitors envision the men’s civil rights work — and the city’s journey.

Young was a founding member of the Philadelphia Coalition, a community group that helped honor the 40th anniversary of the young men’s death. But when Raw Story called the mayor’s office to ask for a copy, his assistant was polite yet baffled, saying, “I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

Travelers will find no mention of Black history tours or sites on Philadelphia’s visitors or tourism websites. Young is now in his fourth term in office. He thought there might be copies of the Freedom Summer brochures in the building, but wasn’t sure. He said there were local historians and history buffs giving tours but the operations were small and sometimes didn’t have a Facebook page.

“Visitors definitely still have interest in our civil rights history; buses full of college students drive here quite often,” Young said. “We had two busloads of young people, one from Ohio and one from New York, come here just recently.”

But there is no mention of that history on the town’s website and no exhibits related to civil rights in the county museum in Philadelphia. Young was nine years old in 1964 and clearly remembers the anguish and fear that swept the Black community when the civil rights workers vanished.

And white residents his age confided, “they were ashamed that their kinfolk were involved with the ugliness of racism even though they had no control over that (as children). Philadelphia residents who moved away were sometimes ashamed to say they were from here.”

Young has heard from tour operators that one obstacle is logistical. Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were energetic and covered a lot of Neshoba County in their brief time there. The place where their bodies were hidden is on private property that has changed owners since their deaths. It isn’t open to the public.

The biggest obstacle could be the dark emotions that swept Philadelphia in the 1960s echo America’s combative mood today when so many Americans tell pollsters a civil war is brewing.

In summer 1964, “there was a fear that we were on the brink of something catastrophic,” Young said. After the men’s bodies were discovered, the murders became a part of history “no one talked about.”

Bitterness and pain built up as decades passed without anyone being convicted of the murders. The deaths of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, whose deaths galvanized Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And Young’s repeated re-elections would indicate the civil rights era was not in vain.

Natchez’ Wharlest Jackson was a civil rights hero whose name may get the fame it deserves thanks to a new documentary. The two-lane highway where the civil rights workers were murdered is now named Goodman Chaney Schwerner Memorial Highway. A historic marker stands on the spot where the men were dragged from their car and executed.

Mount Zion Church erected the sole memorial to them inside the city. It’s a polished granite slab with their portraits, names, dates of birth and death inscribed.

But visitors who want to learn more will have to seek out the local guides who aren’t on the city’s websites.

Erasing civil rights history is not a Deep South phenomenon. As of today, about half the states in America have enacted laws or are considering legislation restricting what schools can teach about racism and civil rights. A teacher who breaks the law can cost her school state funding. Iowa’s governor signed a that prohibits teaching “divisive concepts.” The fear of making students feel bad seems to loom among conservatives as much as among woke liberals. And a survey of textbooks by The Guardian found textbooks designed for Christian schools and homeschooling often obliterate or distort the civil rights era.

If history textbooks become too timid to mention Jackson, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, students will need history buffs, local historians, city museums and determined mayors to shed light on the past that may make conservatives feel sad, but should also make other Americans feel proud of the heroes behind the memorials.

ALSO IN THE NEWS: More anti-government extremist Boogaloo Bois are reportedly headed to Ukraine to fight