The Word Is ‘Slaves’: A Trip Into Black History

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In the middle of town the two-and-a-half-story brick home of William Johnson now stands boarded up and under restoration; still it exudes middle-class respectability. Johnson was eleven years old when he was freed by his white father; he went on to become a successful barber, businessman, property owner, and slaveholder. When he was killed in a property dispute in 1851, his murderer went free because the witnesses to the crime were black and prohibited by law from testifying against whites.

With his home now part of the National Park system, Johnson is gaining in historical celebrity. By contrast, only an isolated marker in the city’s Bluff Park, high over the Mississippi River, acknowledges that Richard Wright, the “noted African-American author of Native Son and Black Boy,” was born “near Natchez” (exactly where is unknown) in 1908. A second marker nearby commemorates the 209 lives lost in a fire at the Rhythm Club, a black nightclub, on April 23, 1946. The marker was given by the Natchez Social Club of Chicago, a product of the tendency of Southern blacks to stick together after migrating to cities in the North.

Near the actual site of the Rhythm Club, on what is now Martin Luther King, Jr., Street, an 1858 Greek Revival temple was purchased from the Presbyterians in 1866, during the pastorate of Hiram Revels, and renamed the Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Revels later was appointed to fill the unexpired U.S. Senate term of Jefferson Davis. A block away is the 1894 Holy Family Catholic Church, the oldest black Catholic church in the state. It and its school for black children were founded in 1890, four years before the present building was dedicated.

Today priests from the Society of St. Joseph still operate the elementary school. “Being black and Catholic in the South makes you a double minority,” explained Father Wagner, an aging white priest who has spent his entire priesthood working in black communities. When he arrived in Natchez, he said, the whites he met immediately assumed he had had no choice in his assignment to a black church. “When they learn that this is where our hearts are,” he explained, “they tend to draw away.”

 

Father Wagner asked me about the article I was writing. When I told him I was researching black heritage, he brightened. “That’s the beautiful thing about this church,” he said. “It’s not just was. It is. It’s a heritage that is alive.”

History that is. Could there be a better way of describing this country’s black heritage? Even the history of slavery, overlooked for so many years, is living proof, John Horhn says, “that blacks, in spirit, rose above their bondage. There is a story to be told there.”

The history of the civil rights movement is particularly alive with purpose. The places where that struggle took place are reminders of the progress of the past and the goals of justice and equality still far in the distance.

In Montgomery, Alabama, the Civil Rights Memorial and the Southern Poverty Law Center, located one below the other on a small hillside plot, are especially good examples of history on the move—from past to present to future. The memorial, a granite circle in an open plaza, chronicles the past: the victories and, in the names of the forty who died, the losses of the civil rights movement. A curtain of water flows over its surface.

At the law center, the principles of the movement live on. There the staff conducts business as usual, taking on injustice in the courts and keeping an eye on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups dedicated to hate and white supremacy. The doors of the modern glass building must always be kept locked and guarded.

A granite wall separates the center and the memorial. It is engraved with a biblical passage favored by Dr. King: “...until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is the future King dreamed of.

If that isn’t history that lives, what is?