NATCHEZ, Miss.—Debbie Cosey looked through tears of joy toward her backyard where 13 Mississippi State University Archaeological Field School students roamed around freshly dug holes in the ground on Thursday, June 23, 2022, in Natchez, Miss.
“We are bringing light back to this place,” Cosey, a Black woman who owns the Concord Quarters Bed and Breakfast alongside her husband, Gregory, said.
The students, who work under the supervision of Mississippi State professor of archaeology and anthropology Dr. Shawn Lambert, were excavating the grounds of the old Concord plantation—a project that began on June 1 of this year and concluded June 30. The grounds once had three primary structures positioned to form a U-shaped courtyard, but only the enslaved people’s quarters still stands.
Manuel Gayoso, Spanish governor of Natchez from 1792 to 1799, built the mansion at the front of the property and named the estate “Concord.” The mansion, which burned down in 1901, hosted many well-known guests such as Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Aaron Burr, who allegedly convinced Spanish Gov. Stephen Minor, a later owner of the property, to join a plot against the federal government during his visit.
In 1844, the Minors owned 147 people, and the quarters behind the mansion was home for many of them. When Cosey, a Black hotel developer and manager, first looked at the quarters on the grounds of the Concord plantation in 2017, she saw ruin. Trees and vines reached into the two-story, collapsing structure through the windows and doors.
Upon purchasing the property, the real-estate developer expected to use it as a home while also offering the grounds as a wedding venue and event space. Initially, she was unaware of the structure’s original purpose as quarters for enslaved people.
“I told my husband that we could bless a bride,” Debbie Cosey remembered. “But once I learned that it was a slaves’ home, I got even more excited for how we could bring this place back to life and honor those who lived here.”
When the Natchez, Miss., native first began renovating the home, she noticed that the four doors on the back of the house, two downstairs and two upstairs, were open when she returned to the property each day.
“This was lover’s lane,” Cosey said of the property’s purpose prior to her purchase. “The spirits were not at rest.”
An employee at a hotel she managed told her to play gospel music in the quarters to make the remaining spirits comfortable. Every day on her lunch break, Cosey connected a speaker to her phone and sat in the quarters while songs filled the rooms.
The Coseys lived on the property through the renovation of the quarters for the next four years before opening it to the public as a B&B. They centered Black history within the home, placing Black art and sculptures throughout the house.
‘Stick to the Script’
As a child in Natchez, Cosey watched her mother work tirelessly for Bettye Jenkins, the president of the Pilgrimage Garden Club, and promised herself that she would never be a member of a club.
The Pilgrimage Garden Club and the Natchez Garden Club host the yearly pilgrimage, which was born out of economic desperation in 1932. The Great Depression hit Natchez, and crop prices plummeted, further hurting the already declining wealth of former plantation owners. However, their homes still had the antebellum furniture and wares, and homeowners came together to advertise a week of tours and parties in their homes, focusing primarily on a glorification of the Old South.
During the pilgrimage, homeowners dress in 19th-century clothing, typically hoop skirts for white women, and Confederate or Union uniforms for white men. In the decades following the pilgrimage’s debut, Black Natchez residents dressed as butlers and servants, but they do not anymore.
As Cosey grew up, she still noticed a power difference between white and Black people during the plantation home tours during the pilgrimage.
“They didn’t want to talk about slavery,” Cosey said of the hosts and organizers. “They pushed it to the side and mostly focused on the wares in the home.”
Around 2000, while working as a tour guide for the plantation-estate-turned-hotel Monmouth Historic Inn, Cosey decided to spotlight the enslaved people’s lives by pointing out that the location of the gift shop and office space was where the enslaved people once lived.
“After the tour, my boss called me into the office,” Cosey recounted. “They said, ‘I don’t want you to talk about slavery anymore. I want you to stick to the script.’”
When Cosey returned to Natchez and purchased the former enslaved people’s quarters, she still thought she would never join a garden club. To her, they attempted to sweep the true history of how wealthy, white plantation owners mistreated Black slaves and impoverished people under the rug.
“I felt as though I was betraying my people if I joined one of those clubs,” Cosey said.
But over time Cosey found herself becoming more involved in the Natchez social scene. She began to cross paths with garden-club members at town events, particularly related to the “Natchez Tableaux.”
The tableaux is a play the Natchez Garden Club produces that focuses on portraying the history of Natchez and its people. Residents ranging from children and college students to senior citizens act out a series of vignettes based on pre-Civil War Natchez. In recent years, directors of the production have attempted to incorporate a more truthful history of the mistreatment of Black Natchez citizens, which is what brought Cosey into the production.
Eventually, Cosey received invitations from both the Natchez Garden Club and the Pilgrimage Garden Club to become a member. Suddenly, she had to decide whether she would join one of the “Blue Hair Mafias,” a term referencing the color tone of some older women’s hair that Cosey jokingly used to refer to the clubs.
“I joined it for the perks,” Cosey said of her acceptance into the Pilgrimage Garden Club. “It was all about this house.”
Membership meant more publicity for the Concord Enslaved People’s Quarters. The home would be added to a list of homes open to visitors for guided tours during the yearly pilgrimage and be recommended for stays during other town events like the Tableaux.
“But I made clear to them—to their face—I said, ‘I need you to understand this: I represent my people,’” Cosey said.
During the pilgrimage, Cosey leads the tours through the Concord Quarters using a script she devised. Traditionally, homeowners hire outside tour guides, but Cosey wanted full control of the story told to visitors within the quarters.
She opens many of her tours with a disclaimer: “I’m going to talk about slavery here. If that offends you, you can leave now, and I will not be offended.”
‘If the Walls Could Talk’
When the quarters are not on tour for the pilgrimage, the Coseys rent out three rooms on the second floor as a B&B. The rooms range from around $100 to $200 a night depending on the season and availability, with the option of booking multiple rooms at once or the entire floor.
When guests first arrive for their stay, Debbie offers them a tour of the home, where they are able to see and touch pieces of Black art and history, from a movie poster that actor Chadwick Boseman signed to a grandfather clock that a plantation owner once gave to an enslaved woman when his new wife did not approve of the piece. Large framed posters list the names and reported values of the enslaved people on the Concord plantation under Spanish Gov. Stephen Minor.
“A lot of guests want to see the home and hear about its history,” Cosey said. “Some people want to drop their bags and skip on downtown.”
Cosey is open about the history of the home and hopes that its inclusion on the list of historical places to stay in Natchez provides an educational opportunity for guests.
“We give honor to the enslaved people here,” Cosey said. “Some people want to forget that history and want to erase it.”
Initially, Cosey’s plan to reopen and commercialize the quarters garnered backlash from some within the Black community in Natchez, which Dr. Emmitt Riley, a Black Mississippi Delta native and professor of African American studies and political science at Depauw University, understands.
“Imagine if walls could talk, what would these walls have to say,” said Riley, who is also an advisory-board member of the Mississippi Free Press. “What daughters would have been assaulted, what sons would have been murdered, what abuses and atrocities these walls could tell us if they could document the things they have experienced or witnessed.”
The historian points to the terror that enslaved people on Mississippi plantations experienced as unresolved trauma for generations, and he notes the quarters can be a symbol of that.
“They were displaced people who were denied rights, were denied humanity and treated in some of the most brutal ways,” Riley said.
The Delta native believes the use of the quarters as an overnight stay is troubling and would prefer that people instead turn to the “infinite” number of scholarly and accessible historical research available on the lives of enslaved people and the atrocities they faced.
“For example, a white couple who chooses to go and stay in a slave quarters is participating in this practice from a profound degree of privilege,” Riley said. “It’s a privilege for them to go there having not experienced slavery and having their ancestors running the social order that made Jim Crow, slavery and the practices so bad.”
Still, as a silver lining to Cosey’s use of the quarters as a B&B, the professor hopes that the space can be used as an educational forum and space to facilitate conversations between white people who have never considered the trauma held in the walls of the quarters and Black people who have carried those experiences for generations.
“If it was a museum where people would come to tour and learn about the impact of enslaved people in Natchez and how it has impacted the condition of Black people in a contemporary component, that would be great,” Riley said.
Cosey never considered opening the quarters as a museum, but she noted that some guests do understand it to be one in the sense that they learn about the history of the specific quarters and the names of the enslaved people who lived there. Her goal for the dilapidated structure when she first saw it was to bring it back to life to allow people to roam through its rooms and learn more about the people who once lived in them.
“I told Greg that if we could get people in here and open a dialogue, we could begin to heal.” Cosey said. “Why would I let their house fall? I don’t forget that it is a reclaimed place for a better purpose. I think this is their dream, and I know and what I feel is that the ancestors would look on and smile.”
A New Form of Archaeology
In 2021, Dr. Shawn Lambert checked out a room from the Coseys while working in the area on a different excavation. They discussed the history of the plantation over multiple breakfasts, and before he left, they raised the idea of excavating the former plantation grounds.
Cosey was initially excited about the dig, and they planned for an excavation in summer 2022.
“I don’t think it really became real until (Lambert) came in with the radar,” Cosey said of the dig. “I got a little bit hesitant about it all.”
The real-estate developer was concerned about the traditional archaeological method, which Lambert described as a “destructive process.”
“When you think about a dig, you think of huge holes in the ground,” the archaeologist said. “And then you think of all the big fencing around it, and how it is all really hidden from the public. No one gets to see what is happening or how it happens.”
Lambert and his team of students wanted to make the Concord excavation open and accessible for visitors. Instead of hiding their worksite behind fencing, they invited the community to tour the dig every Thursday while students work. Signs posted at the front of the quarters guide visitors to a parking lot by the structure. From there, they enter through an opening in the white backyard fence, and a student from the field school greets and tours them around the excavation site.
“This is a decolonization of the archaeological process,” Lambert said. “I am a cis-white man, and although I was born in Mississippi, I will never understand this place and the stories it tells as well as the people who lived here. They are the primary writers of this narrative.”
Hundreds of people from across the country have visited the site. Some groups have toured the grounds while singing traditional gospel songs, while others have told Lambert stories passed down through generations about the old plantation. As the tour groups stop at the exposed dirt holes where the field-school students dig, children have the opportunity to hold a hand tool and explore alongside them.
Lambert hopes the openness of the excavation will encourage other landowners of historic Mississippi properties to consider excavations.
“It may be because of Mississippi’s checkered past, but archaeology (of plantations) isn’t done so much here,” Lambert said. “Our work is a way of exposing people to a history they may have never learned.”
For Cosey, having a public archaeological dig was the priority of the project in the first place. She plans to install permanent interactive panels around the site detailing how the enslaved people lived and their work. Visitors will be able to come during the day to tour the grounds.
“It’s all they would have ever wanted,” Cosey said of the Black slaves who lived in the quarters. “We are opening this place up for people to see, and that is the only way we can heal.”
The Fingerprints Left Behind
Initially, the field school focused on the site of the antebellum mansion. After the mansion burned in 1901, the marble staircase and the columns at the front of the estate still stood. Those involved stored the marble staircase at a nearby church and removed the marble columns sometime in the mid-20th century. The Coseys have placed several pieces of the staircase on a small hill in the backyard of the quarters.
Lambert used old maps of the property and photographs to approximate the location of the columns, but a visitor gave him the most significant clue when they remembered the columns were about 15 to 20 feet away from the fence at the edge of the property.
“The columns would have extended 5 to 6 feet in the ground, so there still should be pieces or a record of them underground,” Lambert said. After days of searching, however, the team found no leads and decided to shift their focus to other locations on the property. Cosey noticed a few exposed bricks in the front yard. When the students dug there, they uncovered a 17-foot wide cistern, a system of collecting rainwater first used in ancient Rome. Most cisterns are only 5 to 6 feet wide.
The bricks that form the cistern have indentions from the fingerprints of the slaves who made them. Those enslaved on the property would have daily quotas, and these marks would serve as signatures and proof of their output. Cosey had searched for a brick like these for years and cried when she first held one.
“In churches in the South, we have something called homecoming, where people who grew up in the church or attended it for years before moving on all come back to the church for a service together,” Cosey explained. “When I saw the bricks with the fingerprints, I had my own version of a homecoming. I finally felt at home with my people. This was the evidence of their lives here.”
To Lambert and the students, their inability to find traces of the columns was a sign to put the focus of the excavation on the enslaved people’s lives.
“I think it’s our job to look past the history we already know and people already talk about,” Mississippi State archaeology student Audrey Dienes said. “We find physical history where there is nothing already known.”
The team has found various artifacts across the site, including nails and glassware with colorful designs. At the location of the former kitchen house where slaves would have cooked food for both themselves and guests of the plantation, students uncovered a mourning locket. The metal necklace, which might hold a piece of hair inside, would signify a loved one’s connection to someone recently deceased. The cheapness of the metal suggests a slave may have both made and worn the locket, Lambert said.
At the same site, students found a white doorknob, the only original doorknob missing from the home. Lambert speculated that residents might have taken the knob from the house to use on an appliance in the kitchen, but the team can never know for certain.
The archaeologists have also found bullets from the Union occupation of Natchez during the Civil War. No documented fighting occurred in Natchez due to the city’s surrender, so the bullets are likely practice rounds, Lambert said.
When the team finds an object, they document its size, material, and location in writing and photography. While the dig is active, the students display found objects on a table at the center of the backyard so that visitors can see the artifacts. Now that the excavation has concluded, Lambert will examine the artifacts in his lab at Mississippi State and return them to the Coseys or place them in a museum with their permission.
As they dig, the students draw a diagram of each hole, noting the distances between large rocks, bricks or other artifacts. Students dig each plot in levels, from 15 to 25 centimeters deep.
“We want to stop at a certain point to leave the earth undisturbed, not only for the Coseys but also for future archaeologists who will have better technology to search this site again,” Lambert said.
Staring Mississippi History in The Face
Lambert and the students hope the Concord excavation will serve as a model for future excavations at similar sites across Mississippi.
“I don’t think we can adequately tell the truth of history in Mississippi without excavations like this,” Lambert said. “We are unearthing history and staring it straight in the face.”
The excavation, which the Natchez Democrat first reported in an article published in media outlets across the country, has garnered attention from landowners and archaeologists across Mississippi.
“As far as I am aware, this is the first excavation of its kind in Mississippi,” Cindy Carter-Davis, chief archaeologist at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said of the dig. She hopes that the MDAH can find and support similar excavations in the future due to the attention the Concord excavation received.
“You don’t really know what is in your backyard until you see it on television,” She continued.
The excavation has energized Debbie Cosey to continue working toward making the Concord Quarters a place where people from across the country can come to learn about the people who once lived there. After she receives the artifacts Lambert and his team found after testing is complete, she hopes to put them on display around the property.
“I tell the stories of 124 enslaved African American men, women and children at Concord,” Cosey said. “I look back at all of this and think about how they toiled, and it gives me strength.”