113: Steve Hoelscher’s Making Place, Making Race

In “Making Place, Making Race: Performances of Whiteness in the Jim Crow South,” Steve Hoelscher uses the landscapes and performances of white Southern memory in Natchez, Mississippi to show how a dominant group created a culture of segregation that far exceeded its legal boundaries, and how racialization of “everyday geographies” is constantly being both upheld and reworked.  Hoelscher argues that modern American race relations have roots in the Southern past and especially in the Jim Crow past, so understanding the processes of Natchez’ production of race in the landscape can help us understand racialization of American landscapes more generally.

Hoelscher relies on a wide variety of sources, including ethnographic research and interviews in Natchez, archival sources, including pamphlets, letters, ads, and photos, and secondary and archival sources on lynching, residential segregation, and other evidence of racialization on the landscape.  While he does investigate the broader context of Jim Crow racism, the heart of the article is the Natchez Pilgrimage, an annual event in Natchez that includes old home tours, antebellum-style parties, and a (now-renamed) Confederate Pageant featuring tableaus of life in the Old South.  Hoelscher traces the history of the Pilgrimage to its roots in the 1930s, when enterprising social climber Katherine Miller devised it as a way to generate tourist revenue for Natchez by capitalizing on the town’s Southern heritage.  But the Pilgrimage was also a spatialization and performance of white Southern memory, a way of bringing the Old South to life that replaced the racism and exploitation of slavery with a narrative of harmonious race relations and ladylike Southern belles, all presented in a romantic nostalgia for the good old days.  Until the 1960s, the Pilgrimage achieved this by reproducing the race relations of the Old South, so that black Natchez residents performed roles as butlers and mammies during house tours or singing cotton pickers during the Pageant, and they also worked behind the scenes as cooks, caterers, and cleanup crews for Pilgrimage events.  In the 1930s, this re-enactment of Old South race relations did double duty as a reminder to African Americans of their “proper, historical place as sharecroppers” and a reassurance to whites that the African American station in life was not just natural, it was romantic and desirable.  In the context of very real spatial segregation, economic exploitation, lynching, and overt racism, the Pilgrimage re-enforced the naturalness of the Jim Crow racial hierarchy by performing white nostalgia for the antebellum South.
While the Pilgrimage remained relatively unchanged from the 1930s through the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement had a huge impact on it.  In the early 60s, the first black audience members were horrified at the overt display of whiteness, but though SNCC and the NAACP were able to help Natchezians desegregate schools, stores, lunch counters, libraries, city parks, freedom activists were unable to stop the pilgrimage altogether, and black attempts to participate in the pageant in anything other than prescribed black roles met with fierce white resistance.  However, black participants withdrew from the Pageant and the Pilgrimage in the 1960s; though the event still happens every year, the absence of black participants reminds visitors that it is more about preserving white identity and pride than about fidelity to the Old South as it really was.
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