Forks slave site recommended to be part of Natchez park

Published 6:02 pm Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Virginia firm has recommended the site of the Forks of the Road slave market become part of the Natchez National Historical Park should the city decide to transfer the property to the National Park Service.

The recommendation was part of preliminary findings released by Mangi Environmental Group of McLean, Va., during a Tuesday public hearing in Natchez.

The Mangi Group was hired by the federal government to determine if the site met criteria required by law for the park to expand its physical boundaries to include the site.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The group found that the Forks site, as well as other nearby properties, met those criteria. No date has been announced for completion of the study.

“An archaeological team studied the site and confirmed it as a well-established slave market site,” said Kathleen Schmidt, project manager and vice president of Mangi.

No decision has been reached on what to do with the site.

The Forks of the Road market, by one historian’s account, probably looked like “a sprawling prison camp” where slaves would be haggled over and sold to cotton plantation owners who came from across the South.

The Mississippi River made for easy transport of slaves from the declining tobacco plantations near the Chesapeake Bay.

At its peak from about 1830 to 1863, up to 500 slaves could be found at the market on any given day. It’s thought to be the second largest slave market in the South, the biggest one in New Orleans. Trade at the Forks of the Road ended only with the Civil War.

The Forks of the Road was unique because slaves weren’t auctioned, but bargained over by buyers and sellers, historians said. The site was already a traditional market that straddled the city limits when it was bought to move slaves.

Today, a shuttered bar and a parking lot sit on the site. A kiosk with historical information and a sign marking the site are the only evidence of what the land once was.

Schmidt said the Forks site, the nearby O’Ferrall property and the Elam House all should be placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

“The Forks is integral to the park,” Schmidt said. “The slaves’ experiences and their role in making Natchez the cotton kingdom of the South needs significant interpretation in the park.”

Kathleen Jenkins, superintendent of the Natchez National Historical Park, said she wanted to see the story of the Forks site told.

“I think the Forks is a very unique resource,” Jenkins said. “We’re open to all different kinds of partnerships with the city.”

Natchez Mayor Phillip West said he hopes to see a combination of the city, state, federal and private sector being involved in the funding process. West said the city did not have the funds to develop the site alone.

Jenkins said she believed Congress was open to funding some sort of memorial at the site.

“They spent $150,000 on the study,” she said. “So, I think they will do something.”