‘Small enough to work against its own good’: In Natchez, old fears fuel doubt about the future

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Layne Browning in Natchez.

NATCHEZ — Layne Browning, a white man in his early sixties, can’t understand why Natchez, of all places, needs $34 million to build a new public high school. Enrollment is down and, he points out, that’s not even the district’s biggest problem.

“They won’t study. They just don’t care… ” Browning said, referring to the students at Natchez High.

Last year the community voted down a measure that would have increased taxes as a way to fund $34 million in bonds and lease agreements for the new a high school and repairs to older buildings. After a chancery court judge declared the bonds legal this summer, a Natchez resident appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

“And it looks like they’re going to get our damn money anyway,” Browning said.

Browning, a gravel voiced retiree with a stomach that pushes at the sides of his red T-shirt, is drinking beers with a couple of other local men around noon. The watering hole, which overlooks the river, sits in one of the oldest buildings in a town already known for its very old buildings.

“Yeah, just build ’em a new school, it’ll make everything better,” said Brian Simpson, sarcastically, with a chuckle. Simpson, a former farmer turned crop insurance adjuster who wears a cap over his red hair, is drinking a Michelob Ultra three bar stools down.

Brian Simpson and Aylett Dicks in Natchez.

Aylett Dicks puts down his Budweiser and grimaces. Dicks, a lifelong Natchezian, has a thick, black beard more befitting a lumberjack than part-time archaeologist, which is his odd-job of the moment.

“The school buildings are not the problem. It’s the teacher’s pay. It’s the size of classes,” Dicks said.

In the months leading up to Election Day, Mississippi Today reporters crisscrossed the state talking to people about the issues that matter to them. But on a late September Tuesday, while midterm elections dominate the national conversation, the conversation here rarely leaves the local sphere. Crime, schools, and a hotly contested local judge race are the political issues on the minds of the Natchezians at this bar.

Despite its location on the Mississippi River, the town otherwise feels landlocked. The nearest interstate is more than an hour away — one reason, residents say, the town has struggled to attract industry in the last several decades.

A scene from Silver Street in downtown Natchez.

“The industry faded out. It died out, and they didn’t do nothing,” Browning said, leaning forward on his stool.

“No, they did, they did, but it failed miserably. Any time they tried to get any type of industry up here…,” Dicks trails off. “There are so many broken promises, you’d really be amazed. …”

Simpson, voice rising, cuts him off and begins a diatribe about local economic developers.

“Any time you pick up the paper, it’s ‘Oh, so and so is looking at this property.'”

Dicks is nodding. “’We’re about to have 90 jobs and this-and-that,'” he said, paraphrasing an article.

“It’s the boy who cried wolf. You’re immune to that now,” Simpson said.

“I mean, the biggest jobs we’ve had in the last decade is what? Building a big fucking hotel? And a casino. Which was great, you know, it added a few jobs, but it didn’t do anything real,” Dicks said.

Everyone is talking at the same time, their words overlapping. The lack of industry is an ongoing problem in Natchez. As of August, the unemployment rate in Adams County, where Natchez is the county seat, was 6.5 percent, more than 40 percent higher than the state rate of 4.6 percent.

And while Adams is far from the only county with economic struggles—next door, Jefferson County’s unemployment rate of 14.3 percent is the state’s highest—Natchez’s historic grandeur perhaps brings its current situation into greater relief.

“More millionaires per capita before the Civil War than anywhere in the United States,” Browning said, nodding, referring to the wealth the town built on trafficking human chattel.

Asked if that holds true today, Simpson and Dicks guffawed.

“I’d say no,” Simpson said.

Brian Simpson and Charles Tucker in Natchez 

An undercurrent for these economic anxieties are racial ones.

Adams County is 54 percent African American, but the Natchez-Adams public school district is more than 90 percent African American. Most of the white kids in the county, the men said, go to either the parochial school or one of the two private academies. Although these schools, like many academies in Mississippi, were started in integration’s wake, Dicks estimates they too have sizable African American enrollment.

“Lawyers, doctors, good black people,” Browning said.

Dicks looks at Dionna Denny, the bartender on duty that afternoon, but neither says anything.

Natchez has fraught history with race, even compared to the rest of Mississippi. The town was the hub of the state’s slave trade and the biggest benefactor of this industry, though ties to northern commerce were so vital to the local economy that Natchez actually opposed secession before the Civil War, if not the institution of slavery itself.

Later, in the mid 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan had an outsize presence in the town. In 1966, Klansmen murdered an African American man named Ben Chester White hoping to lure the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Natchez so they could assassinate the civil rights leader.

But residents say much of that is history.

“Everyone’s got friends on all sides,” Dicks said.

Conversations with current Natchez residents paint strikingly similar pictures of the  grandest town in the state becoming another small Mississippi town, complete with crime, poverty and a D-rated school district.

In Natchez, the poverty rate is rocketing, up 28 percent in less than two decades, from 25 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2017, according to U.S. Census data. In Mississippi, traditionally the country’s poorest state, the poverty rate hovered around 20 percent in 2017, an increase of just five percent from 2000. Eighty-five percent of those living in poverty in Natchez are black.

And as it gets worse, many people have decided not to stick around. Since 1990 the town’s population has dropped from 20,000 to under 15,000.

The young people are leaving, they say, because the lack of industry equals a lack of career options.

“Unless you’re in a business such as farming or bartending or the crap that I do, you can survive here, you just can’t really thrive here as far as that’s concerned,” said Dicks, who has worked as a plumber and a caulker.

“A lot of people have old money and old family businesses. Some of my (extended) family do. We don’t. We got screwed on that deal,” Dicks said.

“And with the river being here, that used to be the biggest interstate commerce. But then as (Interstate) 20 came in up north and (Interstate) 55 came in to the east…” Simpson trails off.

The specter of what was hangs heavy in Natchez, home to the second-biggest slave market in the South until Union troops closed it in 1863. Given how much the town’s history is tied to the Confederacy’s, it may seem strange that Natchez has just one Confederate memorial. But the entire town, with its narrow streets and antebellum homes, is a living monument to that period in history.

“You can’t take the Confederacy out of Natchez. You can’t,” Dicks said.

And maybe this is why the folks at the bar, all of whom are white, are comfortable with keeping things such as monuments and the state flag, which have divided the rest of the state and many other parts of the country.

Dionna Denny, a bartender in downtown Natchez.

“It holds as much power as you give it,” Denny said. “A symbol or monument or whatever. No matter what your view is, how much power you give it, that’s what it has. And if you view it as being negative that’s what it will be.”

“We’ve got other problems that’s a little bit bigger, you know, like paying the mortgage,” Dicks said with a grin.

Just before 2 p.m., the heavy wooden doors at the front of the saloon bang open, and Charles Tucker, a thin, older African American man, walks in and takes a seat down the bar. Simpson and Dicks greet him, calling him Mr. Charles.

Later, Simpson will describe Tucker as “not real conservative,” something the older man agrees to with a grin. But when asked his own views on the state flag, Tucker looks at the other men, then waves a hand.

“I don’t want to get into all that,” Tucker said.

The next few minutes are a musical chairs of bar stools. After Tucker enters, Browning studies him for a moment, then slips out through the same heavy wooden doors onto the saloon’s front porch. Dicks finishes his beer.

Eye contact with the bartender. An index finger goes up. Another Budweiser on the bar. Another opinion on what’s ailing this town.

“Most people who have any sense around here will keep driving (if they need a hospital),” Dicks said. “If you have cancer, you have anything of that nature you take serious, you want to go somewhere else.”

“You have to get out of town. That’s just the circumstances,” Simpson said.

“It’s not that anybody’s not trying to find solutions to these problems, but you know, without industry it’s a struggle. When you don’t have a growing population with a tax base it’s hard. Infrastructure’s hard to run on 15,000 people,” Dicks said.

“It’s just small enough to work against its own good. But you know, it’s like I said. I don’t want (Natchez) getting any bigger either.”

Before Dicks can elaborate, the doors bang open again. Robert Fornea, a barrel-chested Louisiana native takes Browning’s old seat at the bar. Fornea, whom Dicks calls a redass — “that’s a cross between a coonass and a redneck” — owns a sawmill in neighboring Jefferson County, which he said makes him that county’s biggest employer. Jefferson has the state’s highest unemployment rate, but Fornea said, it’s next-to-impossible to find people to hire.

“They come through the door every day. Every day I’ll get at least one, sometimes five, applications a day because there’s nothing to do,” Fornea said. “Now not all of them actually want a job. Some of them have to fill out some of the job applications every week to keep their check.”

“One of the things that I think’s a huge problem, it’s very, very black. You know? Almost the whole workforce is black. The poorest county in Mississippi, one of the poorest counties in the nation. And I have these young, black, capable males that come in and apply for jobs all the time,” Fornea said. “They have a high school degree and they can’t write well enough to fill out a job application.”

Robert Fornea, who owns a sawmill that he says makes him the biggest employer in nearby Jefferson County.

“Oh, please, tell ’em about the stickers,” Dicks said.

Fornea grins. “I had this one guy come in, apply for a job, he was in house slippers, fuzzy pants and he had little cartoon stickers all over his face, like 20 little stickers … I almost hired him so we could laugh at him.”

Fornea chuckles, then gives a sideways glance. “Not.” He laughs again.

Fornea says he’s always been conservative, but the experience of running this sawmill has cemented his political beliefs.

“I want people to put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and I don’t want all my tax dollars to go to people who are too damn lazy to work,” Fornea said.

“What was it I saw the other day?” Simpson said. “Income taxes are your fine for being a productive member of society, and welfare is what you get for being an unproductive member.”

Both men laugh. Denny puts a new Michelob Ultra in front of Simpson.

“Now I am not against helping people who need help. I’m not against that,” Fornea said.

“But you gotta help yourself also,” Simpson said.

“When I drive through the town that I live in at four o’clock on a Friday, and the young males who are standing on the street who are way more able to work than I am, standing there with a 40 ounce beer in their hand, like it’s a parade fixing to happen, there’s something wrong with that. And I’m not saying it’s all their fault. It’s something that’s been ingrained. We started this welfare system, and now it’s what? Four generations long. And that’s all they know,” Fornea said and then pauses. “It’s not their fault.”

Robert Fornea talks to Dionna Denny, the bartender that afternoon, and fellow patron Brian Simpson

To that end, Fornea said, the tax cuts passed by Republicans in Congress last year have been great for his business, allowing him to become profitable for the first time since he opened it over half a decade ago.

Overall, he said, he admires President Trump. And if he has questions about the president’s tariffs, which have driven up his own steel prices by 10 percent and driven down the price his brother is getting on soybeans, that’s the cost of doing business, he says.

“The new president is trying to do good. He’s being fought at every step, but he’s winning, and things are coming back around.”

Dicks, who’d stepped outside, sits back on his stool and motions for another beer.

“I’ll make a political statement,” Fornea said. “It’s the Democrats who’ve wanted to keep people down and dumb, so that they vote for them, so that they depend on them, instead of wanting to do something for themselves … So you see Jesse Jackson has power because he keeps all the dumb people riled up.”

Dicks looks down and presses his forefingers and thumbs against his beer bottle.

“It’s a compacted, basically, shitstorm,” Dicks said. “There’s a lot of things that have gone on over a time. I don’t believe it’s a black or white thing.”

“It’s not a black or white thing,” Fornea said. “It’s a motivation thing.”

Dicks motions to Tucker, the black man who’s been watching, silent, from his perch several stools down.

“Take Mr. Charles over here. He’s retired from AT&T. He has traveled the world.”

Dicks tells Tucker to join them and gives him his stool at the corner of the bar. Asked if he believes Natchez offers equal opportunity for its residents, Tucker, who had a stroke a couple of years ago and doesn’t have full use of the right side of his body, shakes his head.

“There ain’t no jobs. You can’t work if there ain’t no jobs … You have to leave town to do anything. You have to leave town (for) New Orleans or Jackson to get a job. I worked in South Bend, Ind. That’s where I had to go.”

Layne Browning sits with fellow patrons Beth Hite and Mike Byrd in downtown Natchez.

Simpson is nodding as Tucker speaks.

“That’s right. You can go work. You might not be doing what you want to do. But there is a place you can go to work. Hell, if you want to work right now, go up to North Carolina, they’ll put you to work doing something,” he said, referring the need for cleanup workers in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. But our people are not motivated to go to work. They’re like, ‘There’s no work here.'”

Asked what it says about a place if you have to leave it to do well, Simpson answers quickly.

“Well, it says terrible things about the place where you’re at. But it also says terrible things about the people who won’t get up and go do something if they need to.”

Outside on the front porch, Browning is sitting alone in a big wooden rocker with his beer. He apologizes to a reporter for getting up and leaving in the middle of the conversation, which he attributed to Tucker’s entrance into the establishment.

“And,” he said, lowering his voice. “I’m real racist.”