“Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun.”
– Christina Rossetti
October 4, 2015 – Day 36 – Natchez, Mississippi
We awoke this Lord’s Day morning and headed to the 4th Street Church of Christ, a black church in downtown Natchez, the oldest settlement on the Mississippi River. I’m not crazy about the term “black church”. To my knowledge, Christ never used an adjective like that to describe the church, his body. In fact, he called for unity and oneness, a cause not necessarily furthered by labels such as “black church”, “white church”, “Republican church”, etc. At the same time, I realize there is a proud history of black churches in America. The label is descriptive and perhaps helpful to some, just like the label letting us know the church meets on 4th Street.
During the decades of slavery in America, African slaves formed and relied heavily on their churches. They were places where oppressed people could find refuge, feel God’s presence, and have a voice. In fact, slave owners often viewed black churches and other slave associations as a threat, and kept a close eye on their activities. Blacks were unwelcomed in most white churches. Even after slavery ended and their attendance was allowed, they were often relegated to the rear of the church and considered spectators rather than full members of the congregation. So the black church remained a place of refuge and often served as the center of black social and cultural life. During the Civil Rights era, black churches often served as power bases and centers for mobilization. As a result, they were sometimes bombed or burned by those wishing to discourage or halt their call for freedom and activism. Today, black churches remain, but they vary based on denomination, area of the country, and other factors. It’s really inaccurate and unfair to stereotype black churches as being all the same. What’s important about a black church, or any other church, is that they have Christ at their core and that they love and serve their fellow man.
As we entered the building at the 4th Street Church of Christ, person after person came up, welcomed us, and made us feel at home. I’d say 30 or so of the approximately 200 people there made it a point to stop by and shake our hands. They asked what brought us to town, and seemed very interested and intrigued by our full-time RV lifestyle and journey down the Great River Road. The worship service was, in a word, awesome! The singing was phenomenal, the sermon was hard hitting, and we left feeling inspired and a little closer to God. It didn’t matter to us, or them, or God, that we happened to be the only two white people in attendance that morning. It was just good to be with the body of Christ in Natchez. I didn’t ask whether they considered themselves a “black church” or just a church, but we felt very welcome there. In fact, if we lived in Natchez, I suspect they would become a “black plus two white gypsies who live in a van down by the river” church. And I suspect that designation would be okay to a loving God who has enough room in the tent for all types and colors of people.
After services, we headed to the Pig Out Inn Barbeque in order to pig out on some barbeque. The place was a dive, but the pulled pork sandwiches were excellent. We then walked down along the river and along Main Street to work off some of those calories. Next, we drove by Stanton Hall and other historic southern plantations in Natchez. Lil Jan loves the Civil War era, and especially stories centered on southern plantations. So we decided to pay the fee and do a tour of historic Longwood.
Longwood is a historic antebellum mansion and the largest octagonal house in the United States. It was used in the HBO series True Blood for the external shots of the mansion owned by the Vampire King of Mississippi and Louisiana in fictional Jackson, Mississippi. It was also featured in the Guide to Historic Homes in America by Bob Vila for the A&E Network. It is known not for being a finished masterpiece, but rather an unfinished one. The story begins in 1859 with Dr. Haller Nutt, a very wealthy Mississippi cotton planter. Prior to the Civil War, over half of the millionaires in the entire United States lived in Natchez, and many of them built elegant mansions. Nutt married Julia Augusta Williams, who was eighteen at the time, and the two of them had eleven children. With a fortune estimated at $3 million, he owned several plantations on 43,000 acres of land and had 800 slaves. With money to spare, he hired Samuel Sloan, a Philadelphia architect, to design a mansion home in Natchez. He then brought in a team of northern construction workers to begin work on the home. Mr. Sloan and his crew finished a portion of the ground floor of the home and then halted work and returned home in 1861 at the start of the American Civil War. Slave labor was used to complete the basement level, making it available for occupancy in 1862.
In 1864 Dr. Nutt died of pneumonia and work never resumed on the home. His family’s real estate and cotton production were decimated by the war. Thus, with little money, his wife Julia was left to raise several Nutts in the finished nine-room basement in the otherwise empty shell of a 32-room mansion. She was able to ornately finish the basement with furniture she already owned or received from family and friends. Longwood would eventually be abandoned and suffered from decades of neglect. Later the Pilgrimage Garden Club purchased and renovated the mansion, and today it is open for tours and available to rent for special occasions. One of the conditions of its sale was that the upper floors never be finished, perhaps as a visual reminder of the fascinating history of the place. Also known as Nutt’s Folly, the mansion is a National Historic Landmark and on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. We were so impressed with the mansion and tour that we decided to do a couple more during our remaining Great River Road journey.
Before exiting the Longwood plantation, we walked down a path through the woods to the Nutt family cemetery. Several Nutts are buried there. I blame the squirrels.
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