During the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, entrepreneurial women in the Natchez Garden Club offered the paying public an opportunity to view a selection of the area’s antebellum homes over the course of six spring days. Largely owing to effective promotion by organizer Katherine Grafton Miller, the event was a tremendous success. To this day, crowds from across the nation descend on the town “Where the Old South Still Lives.” The pilgrimage quickly expanded to several weeks and eventually added an additional period during the fall. The influx of tourist dollars proved a boon to the Natchez economy and inspired a strong local historic preservation movement. By 1940 several communities attempted to duplicate this success, and the Mississippi tourism board promoted a statewide pilgrimage season for several decades in the mid-twentieth century. However, with the notable exception of Holly Springs and Columbus, no other cities had long-term success. Natchez simply possesses a generous concentration of antebellum mansions with architectural grandeur that other locales lack.
The term pilgrimage implies a journey to a holy or special place, and advertising for the Natchez Pilgrimage relies heavily on a subtle intermingling of myth and history that invites visitors to step into a specific vision of the southern past. Although earlier territorial governance under the French, English, and Spanish receives nods, the classical antebellum period of the Old South (1830–61) is the focus. Hostesses wearing hoop skirts regale visitors to the homes with family stories and local legends that depict the pre–Civil War plantation era as a golden age of agrarian civilization. Slavery, when addressed at all, is typically characterized as a benign, paternalistic institution.
In addition to the homes, tourists often buy tickets to the Confederate Pageant, which features tableaux of festive antebellum scenes such as Easter egg hunts, fencing lessons, hunting parties, and balls, culminating in a view of soldiers in gray marching off to war. Children participate in the staged production, taking on a succession of roles as the years pass until as young adults they become members of a royal court with a king and queen. Like Mardi Gras, the Natchez Pilgrimage also marks an active social season with a round of private parties for local inhabitants. Both tourist attractions and venues for public history, pilgrimages celebrate an idealized, romantic vision of a lifestyle that only the most elite plantation owners could have experienced.
- Jack E. Davis, Race against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez since 1930 (2001)
- Michael Fazio, in Order and Image in the American Small Town, ed. Michael W. Fazio and Peggy Whitman Prenshaw (1981)
- David G. Sansing, Sim C. Calhoun, and Carolyn Vance Smith, Natchez: An Illustrated History (1992)