In 1965, the pro-Black Deacons for Defense group and the local Ku Klux Klan met on the second floor of the Adams County Courthouse in the middle of an area of Mississippi so thick with white terrorists that it was often called Klan Nation. National Guard Adjutant General Walter Giles Johnson called the meeting to order after the governor sent 650 National Guardsmen to Natchez to watch the streets and guard them following the attempted assassination of activist George Metcalf.
“There was fear that a big riot was going to break out because Blacks were fed up,” Roscoe Barnes III told the Mississippi Free Press. “They started to arm themselves. The Deacons for Defense formed, and the governor of Mississippi feared that just as there had been a riot in Watts, something was going to break out in Natchez.”
During the meeting between the Klan and the Deacons, the adjutant general told both groups that the city would be peaceful, that no riots would take place.
“He told them to look outside the window into the parking lot, and he showed them an anti-aircraft infantry gun that was posted outside the courthouses,” Barnes explained. “And he said Natchez would be peaceful. Now, I talked to old-timers, different people here, and none of them knew that story.”
While doing research on the Adams County Courthouse, Barnes found out about the meeting in Concordia Sentinel (Ferriday, La.) editor Stanley Nelson’s research materials. Barnes, who is not a Natchez native, has learned much about the city’s pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement as a member of the Natchez Civil Rights Trail Committee.
The group of 12 volunteers has worked to have the city recognized and added to the Mississippi Freedom Trail and the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. The Mississippi Humanities Council and Visit Mississippi approved the committee’s application for a freedom trail marker, but during the process, the committee realized it needed to create something that could supplement the marker.
“We thought, what could we do to tell the full story?” Barnes told the Mississippi Free Press. “This is part of the story here where this marker is going to be located, but there was so much that happened throughout the city. What can we do to let the local residents and visitors know about all of this civil-rights history that occurred?”
Through the discussion, the committee decided to create a map of civil-rights sites in Natchez, something that people could view on a mobile device or a handheld brochure and use to tour sites that played important roles in the local civil-rights movement, Barnes III said.
“We want to make it more than just a map, just an image with various sites pointed out,” he said. “To educate the public and tell more of the story, we thought the map should include not just the listing of sites, but an annotated list of the sites. In other words, if we list Donnan’s Barbershop, … we want to tell the reader a little bit about Donnan’s Barbershop.”
The Natchez Civil Rights Committee is neither a formal organization nor a nonprofit—just a group of residents volunteering to tell the story of the Natchez civil-rights movement. To receive grant funding, they needed to partner with a recognized entity, which led them to connect with Bobby Dennis, the director of the Natchez Museum of African American Culture and Heritage, who agreed to work with the committee so that they could apply for the grant.
The museum, created in 1990, presents and preserves the cultural and historical contributions of African Americans in the growth of Natchez and the nation. The museum has exhibits on Richard Wright, who stayed with his grandmother in Natchez during his early childhood years; an exhibit on cotton; and exhibits covering topics that date all the way back to slavery. Natchez was a key location of plantations employing enslaved labor to create great wealth for white owners.
“Bobby was only so happy to work with us,” Barnes said. “With his support, we were able to apply for the grant through the museum because we could not just do it on our own.”
The Mississippi Humanities Council awarded the museum a $1,450 grant that will go toward printing 5,000 copies of an 11-by-17-inch, full-color map that will include images of various people and places in Natchez. The cost of the maps total $1,300, and Catherine Murray from Murray Printing, a local printing company, will design the maps.
Barnes anticipates that the maps will be ready before the Mississippi Freedom Trail marker ceremony, which is planned to take place before the year’s end. As a member of the Visit Natchez team, he sees people walk in every day and pick up brochures or literature to learn more about the city.
“People want to put something in their hands, and a lot of times when you see people, a lot of visitors from out of town, walking around in Natchez, they have something in their hands,” Barnes said. “We believe it’s important when you’re not only telling the story, but you have to promote it. You have to let people know about it and you want to educate people.”