5 Places to Learn About Black History Along the Natchez Trace
By Kristin Luna + Scott van Velsor
While the land populating the Natchez Trace dates thousands of years before the Civil War, there are plenty of sites along the parkway that tell the story of Black history in the American South from slavery to the civil rights movement through the present. Don’t drive the Natchez Trace without making these stops.
Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened in 2017 as a way to pay homage to and tell the stories of the Black populations who were enslaved, discriminated against, bullied and murdered. Part of the Two Mississippi Museums, the civil rights museum paints a sobering picture of Black strife in the Southern states through pictorial exhibits, facts, broadcast clips and sound effects from actual lynchings. While not for the faint of heart, the facts contained within this museum are an extremely important part of the nation’s past, so if you do just one thing in Jackson, tour the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
This Mississippi town of 15,000 residents was the site of one of the bloodiest acts of racial violence in the state’s history. In 1875 at the beginning of Reconstruction, Senator Charles Caldwell held a rally of more than 1,500 people, the majority of whom were freed men and their families, in anticipation of that fall’s election. The white mobs showed up, killing more than 50 people—the majority of whom were Black men—in the days that followed. This massacre helped spark the Mississippi Plan. Four months later, Sen. Caldwell was also assassinated. The city is recognizing this history by building an interpretative center at the site of the Clinton Riot.
Clinton has a self-guided walking tour available on a separate website that you can use via your phone while you explore the area.
The Forks of the Road Slave Market, just outside of the city of Natchez, was by some measures one of the most prolific marketplaces for the internal slave trade in the United States. Thousands of enslaved Blacks were traded here from the north, along the Natchez Trace and, ultimately, to Southern plantations as the demand for labor increased and the prohibitions on the international trade of slaves came into effect in the early 1800s. It’s estimated that 1,000 human beings were bought and sold each year in this very spot.
Currently, the Forks of the Road is only marked by a sign and a concrete slab filled with manacles and chains, though the Natchez National Historical Park plans to expand the Forks of the Road into a full-on interpretative center in the future. While you’re in Natchez, be sure and also check out the African American Museum of History and Culture to continue expanding your knowledge of Black history in the South.
Tupelo’s history is rooted in music, and without the jazz and blues that emanated from Shake Rag’s restaurants, cafes and performance venue’s in the Roaring Twenties, North Mississippi’s music scene might look very different today. Tupelo’s historically Black community, Shake Rag was located alongside the railroad and most famously gave rise to a Tupelo-born musician by the name of Elvis Presley, who grew up next door and was heavily influenced by the neighborhood’s powerful sound.
In the 1960s, Shake Rag was demolished to make way for an urban renewal project, its residents relocated. Today, the shiny, new Tupelo Visitors Center sits on what was once the hallowed Shake Rag ground, paying tribute to the historical figures who shaped this neighborhood’s identity through interactive exhibits that are free and open to the public.
Newly opened in downtown Nashville this winter, the 56,000-square-foot National Museum of African American Music shares the central role Black artists have played in shaping more than 50 genres of music, including spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, R&B and hip hop.