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Posted March 26, 2013

 Travelers, to feature in PDF format

Pilgrimages Are for African Americans, Too!

By Arelya J. Mitchell, Publisher    

The Mid-South Tribune and the Black Information Highway

It’s safe to say that pilgrimages in the Deep South remain a turn-off to most African Americans.  These annual treks back into a history of ante-bellum homes, slavery, and mistreatment do not whet the appetite of a people whose ancestors were those slaves who provided the labor that made cotton King.

            But maybe it is time to challenge this turn-off  and turn it upside down to see why a trek back into this smudge in American history just might not be a bad idea, even in the Magnolia State of Mississippi. If anybody is up to the challenge it’s Nancy Carpenter, a Caucasian and Executive Director of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), located in Columbus—one of Mississippi’s larger cities and one in which the U.S.A. has an air force base.

            African Americans are citizens of a state which in a pre-Civil War era was one of the richest in the nation. Slaves contributed to that status which even made New York City back up and almost back down before throwing its weight to the Union Army when Fort Sumter was fired on. Why? Because Wall Street knew cotton was King and that Mississippi was one of the most powerful states in the nation. That’s just how influential cotton was in the nation; that’s just how influential America’s cotton was internationally, strapping England and France between a rock and a hard place. Bottom line: It was truly King, and Mississippi was its queen. I am a strong believer that African Americans should embrace the lessons of the Old South as well as the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement no matter how much it hurts. And history can hurt.

In an interview with The Mid-South Tribune and the Black Information Highway, Nancy Carpenter is very much aware of the sensitivity when pitching to African Americans to participate in the 73-year-old Columbus Pilgrimage, one of the oldest and most popular in the state and South.   

The annual Columbus Spring Pilgrimage begins Easter Sunday, March 31 and ends April 13. For more information, call toll free 1-800-920-3533 (locally 662-329-1191) or visit www.columbus-ms.org  or email pilgrimage@columbus-ms.org .  

Sitting in a brand new CVB headquarters in a brand new conference room in a comfortable chocolate leather chair, Carpenter leans over making straight eye contact and makes it clear that nobody outside of God Himself can change history and because history can’t be changed, African Americans should go on these tours and see the good in the bad or rather the reality in the bad.           

As a student of the Civil War and  its  politics , I have long had an interest in these pilgrimages and have felt  Black Americans can make these journeys part of an extended Black History Month commemoration for the mere fact, to reiterate, the Old South is Black History, too. Amid these ante-bellum mansions, hoop skirts, mint juleps, privilege ensconced in slavery are equally the fabrics of both “Gone with the Wind” and “Roots”.

Years ago I had the eerie experience of shooting a Civil War pistol (my first and last time shooting a gun) while covering a Civil War reenactment.  The irony is that when I fired this Confederate pistol, I inadvertently reminded myself that as the South began to lose the war, there were moves to offer freedom to slaves who fought on the side of the South. Today, there is a little known group which has documented Black Confederate soldiers who fought to free themselves on the ‘losing side’. All of this dovetails into how the lives of Blacks and whites are forever intertwined in these pilgrimages and inside the symbolism of these pilgrimages. 

“Exactly why should African Americans even bother to go on the Columbus pilgrimage?” I asked outright.

Carpenter didn’t flinch: “Well, I think it is a wonderful opportunity not only for African Americans to participate but to find out what part  African Americans played in what they’ll be seeing and in what  they’ll  be participating in as a tourist. Number one, they should want to know ‘who built these homes?’ You know you’re talking about slaves as artistic and gifted craftsmen. Look at primarily the bricks. These homes were made by African Americans who at the time were slaves.  Look at the beautiful hand-tooled furnishings, moldings in these houses, and so much more. So from an architectural standpoint alone, I would say slaves played a tremendous part in building these homes.”

            Carpenter also points out that in many instances slaves ran the household and these working plantations.  That shows their managerial skills in spite of their being slaves, she counters, citing historical accounts of a slave known as Mammy Cherry about whom tourists will learn more when they visit Temple Heights which was built around 1837. It is one of the few ante-bellum homes which still has its outside kitchen in existence. (For those who want to know why  this tidbit of information is important: Kitchens were built separately from the main house so in case a fire broke out the whole house wouldn’t be burned to the ground. Sort of a pre-insurance premium.)

            Putting her actions where her mouth is, Carpenter first put her hand down to help pull together with editor and publisher Neil White the coffeetable book,   “Mississippians”.*

Before sitting down to interview Nancy Carpenter, whom some have labeled strong-willed and determined, I paged through this  hefty  book of profiles and large  photographs (which at the risk of maiming the book, you can cut out photographs of your favorite and hang in an 8 by 10 frame). I must admit I was surprised to see among a celestial array of celebs and VIPs such as Oprah Winfrey, B.B. King, Fred Smith (FedEx founder),  Kathryn Stockett (author of “The Help” from which the movie is based), ABC’s Robin Roberts, and Pulitzer Prize recipient Eudora Welty (who attended Mississippi University for Women, one of my alma maters), Tennessee Williams,  father and son football stars Archie and Eli Manning, Carpenter and White included the likes of James Meredith (who integrated the University of Mississippi), slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers and his widow Myrlie Evers-Williams,  and Minnie Cox who became the first African American female post master but had to leave that position in 1903 because of racism —these  not so proud moments in Mississippi history (or the nation for that matter).

            If Carpenter had been all about public relations these controversial profiles would have been left out. To her credit, she chose to include them because as she said they were a part of Mississippi’s history and “deserved to be there.” The book, a limited edition,* is available in the Tennessee Williams Museum which houses the city’s Welcome Center, which is located across from the CVB headquarters.     

***

  When you arrive in town or are already in town, you must go to the CVB headquarters, located at 117 Third Street South, for tickets and self-guided tour CDs. For a full schedule and more information, call toll free 1-800- 920-3533 (locally 662-329-1191) or visit website www.columbus-ms.org . A double decker bus will transport tourists or they can drive their own vehicles to events. Free parking is available at the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center. Carriage rides also will be available throughout March 31-April 13.

As a side note: ‘Ages’ ago Columbus had a viable transit bus system but got rid of it when it was no longer profitable. In all fairness, transit  bus systems in the 21st Century are the necessary bane of most big cities let alone mid-sized ones, but it is an issue Carpenter and others are working to fix well before that 75th Pilgrimage Anniversary which Carpenter has already begun getting ideas on. By the way, the city is slated to bring back its transit bus system later in 2013 with one of the big factors being the bulging popularity of the pilgrimage which brings millions into the city and Lowndes County.

Over 19 countries have been represented among tourists—among them Great Britain, France, Netherlands, Poland, and Australia.

            Another reason a transit system is now a MUST Carpenter points out is that Columbus is SEC-centric. Literally. The city brings together three historic universities in the SEC (Southeastern Conference) within a two-hour driving distance—that is, super fans of Mississippi University, the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), and the University of Alabama can take advantage of Columbus’ hotels, motels, and historic bed and breakfast accommodations. Many of these bed & breakfasts are  in historic mansions such as Amzi Love/Lincoln Home (circa 1833), Avakian-Shadowlawn Inn (circa 1848) or Cartney-Hunt House (circa 1828)—just to name a few.

Of course, the SEC remains one of the most successful conferences in the NCAA.

This year Carpenter points out that a new feature on the Pilgrimage is the opening of the Josh Meador Trail on Monday, April 1 at 10:00 a.m. The ‘trail’ begins at CVB headquarters.

Josh Meador was a pioneer Walt Disney animator. His Academy-Award winning work is showcased in such films as “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, “Fantasia”, “Cinderella”, and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”.  Walt Disney was so impressed with Meador’s talent that he hung one of Meador’s drawings in his vacation home.

Replicas of one of Meador’s art pieces will be given to tourists participating in this event. Carpenter says as an added bonus tourists will be treated to gourmet coffee and pastries. From CVB headquarters, tourists will head to the Columbus-Lowndes County Library where they will view more Josh Meador’s art pieces. From there, they can board the double-decker bus to where Meador spent his youth.  

Meador was born in 1911 and died in 1965.

This 73rd pilgrimage party kick-off begins April 1 at 5 p.m. with the legendary Crawfish Boil in which over 800 lbs. of crawfish will be served up with soulful potatoes and corn. Donation is $10 per plate.  The popular Eden Brent and her band will perform.

            Carpenter rolls off three more reasons why the Columbus Pilgrimage is quickly becoming one of the most popular in the South. First, she states, the Columbus- Lowndes County area has over 600 properties on the National Register of Historic Places, making it one of the largest  in the South on that prestigious list.

Second, 35 of these properties are located on the Mississippi University for Women campus.  MUW, known affectionately as “the W” was the oldest public college for women in the country, having been founded in 1884. It was also known as the ‘Radcliff of the South,’ as the late Robert F. Kennedy once referred to it. “The W” is said to be ‘that girl’s college’ referred to in William Faulkner’s classic “The Long Hot Summer”.

Third, the Tenn-Tom Waterway is a phenomenon in itself as it stretches over 234 miles to connect Middle America to the Gulf of Mexico.

 One other area of diverse participation is presented annually by the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science students who will act as tour guides of Friendship Cemetery. In addition, these gifted students will perform reenactments of the historic deceased in “Tales from the Crypt”, their award-winning project. No ‘Tale’ has ever been repeated and these reenactments have become a highlight of the Pilgrimage.

            Carpenter  adds another two-cents worth when she tells the story of  how one South Carolinian who  came down for last year’s Pilgrimage and is coming back this year on a chartered plane with friends and members of his city council to show them the ins and outs on why the Columbus Pilgrimage is becoming so popular.  

 *Travelers, park here to see list of profiles and photographs in "Mississippians"