Day One Hundred and Twenty One of the Scone by Scone Book Tour

Days 117, 118, 119 120 and 121, WLBT

Montgomery, AL; Jackson, Natchez and Vicksburg MS

by David Runkel

The Tour is in the Central Time Zone.  Westward Ho!  But first some tourism in the South, where we have never visited.

First stop is Montgomery, Alabama, cradle of the Confederacy, a center of the slave trade and where the state Constitution still forbids school integration.  We learn that several recent attempts to revise this constitutional provision have been voted down. 

On arrival, we pass up a stop at the First White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis 

Day One Hundred and Twenty One of the Scone by Scone Book Tour
First White House of the Confederacy

lived and ruled in the first months of the war.  For different reasons, we also pass up the Cattle Association’s Mooseum.  Instead we opt for a river boat dinner tour on the Alabama River.  Everything is fine as we board the red, white and blue decorated three level boat that looks like it once had paddles in the rear, and get an adult beverage.

The boat is docked where for many years’ cotton was loaded on ships headed for New England or Britain, and enslaved people were brought in for sale.

Music plays from the top deck and we watch the sun set over the river and the Montgomery skyline.   Our fellow passengers include an older African-American couple from Montgomery on their first ever trip on the boat; he’s a retired teacher and she works for a publishing house for Air Force materials; a middle-aged white man and his much younger and very loving companion; three young women in tight body suits; a large African-American family; two white Wisconsin sisters visiting the South.   A real array of Americans, that is.  (Racial identities are used here to show the diversity of the crowd.)

As departure time arrives and passes, we notice a conference of the ship’s officers on the loading platform.  Things do not look good and shortly after we are informed of a malfunctioning, or non-functioning pump.  The trip is aborted and The Tour seeks other venues before turning in early after a long-days drive.  We had stopped, at Billy Strockbine’s suggestion, at Hook’s, his favorite BBQ place in Troy in mid-afternoon.

The motivating factor for our Montgomery stop was Whitney Williams, the daughter of Carol and

Day One Hundred and Twenty One of the Scone by Scone Book Tour
The Legacy Museum

Pat Williams and a former longtime Hillary Clinton staffer, who we had dinner with in Missoula oh, those many months ago.  Her firm helped raise funds for the new Legacy Museum in downtown Montgomery that pays tribute to the more than 4,000 lynching victims in this country.  It opened earlier this year.  A place widely known as the Lynching Museum sounds hard to visit on a beautiful, sunny and hot Sunday morning, and it is because of the ugliness of the events.   But, it is also profound, and a beautifully (I was about to use the word executed) rendered account of a dark underbelly of our nation’s life.

Stories of those lynched are told in films, in pictures, on strips of fabric, in gallon jars of dirt collected from the sites of lynchings and at the nearby outdoor National Park in coffin-sized metal boxes, hung from an overhead ceiling.  These boxes, carrying names of those killed, are organized by counties where lynchings occurred.  Most were in the south, but there was one in Coatesville, PA.

The Indoor museum also runs films about Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery bus boycott.  There are displays and films about the sharp rise in incarcerations as a result of the war on drugs, on people wrongly convicted of crimes and violence in prisons.

The museum and the park have their intended impact.  Well done, and thank you Whitney and for all of those involved for helping make it possible. 

In the afternoon, the Tour drives westward along the route of the Selma to Montgomery 1965 march that contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  We made a brief stop on a hot sunny afternoon in Selma after crossing the Pettus bridge.  Our progress was not impeded.

Next stop is Jackson, another major civil rights battleground. Not to belittle what happened here in the past, but The Tour had three major issues:  First, our motel unbeknownst to us is next door to the Mississippi state fair in full swing. We pass a three-block row of cattle carriers letting us know that cattle, hogs, sheep and other animals are a major part of any state fair, alongside a large field of rides with blinking lights and loud music.  Second, our unsuccessful effort to find a Sunday New York Times or weekend Wall Street Journal leads us on a grand tour of downtown Jackson and many of its suburbs. Third, efforts to find a local spot for dinner are stymied by many places being closed on Sunday evenings.  Eventually, Yelp leads us to darkened blues bistro on a bumpy, not well lit back street downtown.   We enter with some trepidation, but an adult beverage and a cat fish dinner while watching the Dodgers and the Braves and listening to great recorded music leaves us more than satisfied.  Next time in Jackson, head for Johnny T’s Blues and Brew.  By the way, our room is on the opposite side of the hotel from the fair, no smells and no blinking lights to interrupt our sleep.

The Alabama and Mississippi countryside is mostly woodlands these days, with a few fields of cotton ready for picking and some pastures.  We pass through many small towns and cities where commerce is limited, while Dollar Stores frequent the outskirts.  Churches, many large churches on gigantic lots dot the towns and countryside We spot many more log trucks than in Oregon. Montgomery’s urban sprawl has taken over many thousands of acres of farmland with homes and many strip malls, while downtown Montgomery is dominated by state office buildings, hotels and a small “entertainment” district which we find means bars.   

Although smaller, Jackson is similar.  Though the state capitol here is even more spectacular than the stark white Alabama capitol. 

Natchez on the Mississippi River is our next stop.  We get there on the Natchez Trace, a two-lane Day One Hundred and Twenty One of the Scone by Scone Book Tourroad, top speed 50, that originated centuries ago as an Indian trail, then became the mail route between Nashville and Natchez.  Almost no traffic.  The Tour is delighted. We stop several times, once to see one of the many Indian mounds. It’s nothing great to see, but interesting that mound building was a part of Native American culture here and throughout the Midwest.  We divert 11 miles to Windsor, the remains of a former plantation mansion – 24 huge Greek columns in various states of disintegration.  And to Port Gibson, a town near the river with many examples of antebellum houses built by plantation owners.  On the way, we also drive through Alcorn State University, which appears to be isolated in the country.  A guard at the gate says the only places for lunch are two take out stands at the other end of campus.  Only a couple of students were out and about.

Natchez is a beautiful small city on the Mississippi with more than 35 bed and breakfast inns many of which were built by cotton plantation owners as their city homes.  A number of these mansions are open to tours.  There are also several good restaurants but most of these close at 2 and we arrive a little later. The Pig Out beckons us, as it is open with the usual smoked BBQ selection.  Our bed and breakfast inn, Clermont, is on the outskirts of town, beyond the town cemetery and a national cemetery with row after row of tombstones of Civil War causalities.  A deck overlooks the river and a large flat area of land down a steep bank known as Devil’s Hole, where 30,000 “colored” Civil War soldiers were accommodated in barracks built for 3,000.  Day One Hundred and Twenty One of the Scone by Scone Book Tour

Day One Hundred and Twenty One of the Scone by Scone Book Tour
Natchez and Vicksburg Mississippi

With more millionaires than any other American city in the middle of the 19th Century except New York, Natchez remained loyal to the Union.  After the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, tens of thousands of former enslaved people came to Natchez and camped out by the river or joined the Union Army of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

We tour Longwood, the home of one of Natchez’s millionaires, an octagonal, six-story mansion built of as many as a million bricks.  The Philadelphia, PA, architect thought an octagonal building would provide the best ventilation for the Mississippi summers.  Only one interior floor was completed before the outbreak of the Civil War upon which Mr. Sloan, the architect, and 70 Pennsylvania craftsmen threw down their tools and rushed home.  Hull family members lived on the first floor for 90 years or so.  A Texas oil man, taken with the property, bought it for $200,000 in the 1960s, not to finish the top five floors, but to preserve it unfinished.  He gave It to a local Garden Club and it is open for tours today as a result.  The central core of the building, open from the first floor to the rooftop is an amazing site on its own.  Who has such vision today?

Our next stop is Vicksburg, where Grant crushed the western Confederate Army with a 47-day siege, a seminal moment in the Civil War giving the North full control of the Mississippi.  Vicksburg sits on a bluff and was heavily fortified.  Direct assaults failed, but cutting off the city from any supplies succeeded.

The battle for Vicksburg takes up 50 pages or so in the Grant biography by Ron Chernow that I borrowed from Dawn Badrick.  Our battleground tour put it all in perspective.  It turns out that the Mississippi River no longer flows by Vicksburg, having moved three miles westward more than 150 years ago.  But thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers, the city does have a shoreline, as the Yazoo River was diverted into the old Mississippi riverbed. 

We check into the magnificent Baer House Inn, with ceilings so high that it is 22-steps to the second floor.  

Day One Hundred and Twenty One of the Scone by Scone Book Tour
Baer House Inn

We have something in common with our Mississippi innkeepers more than hospitality.  Troy in Natchez lived in the DC area for many years and worked in international development, as The Author did previously.  Patricia in Vicksburg is also an author with a new book coming out later in the month.  She and The Author share being published through Bookbaby.  Her husband Corey spent many holidays and summers in Medford, where his grandparents lived.

Staying in Mississippi another day before heading for Arkansas. Happy hush puppies to all.