Visit Mississippi and you'll soon discover that what makes the African American community is the people. And what makes the people is character and courage.
Travel across the country and you'll encounter few people with a heritage as rich and strong as Mississippi's African Americans. Because you'll find more than a distinct culture – you'll discover a legacy of enduring spirit. It's something you feel in the churches and hear it in the songs they sing and stories they tell, as well as seeing it in the art. It's the saga of a people beginning in 1719, when the French brought the first African slaves to Mississippi to help build the Natchez settlement.
Tour the city and you can see the results of their labour and craftsmanship in hundreds of historic buildings. As was the case throughout the South, most African Americans in Mississippi before the Civil War were slaves. Primarily living and working on huge cotton plantations, they created their own community within the plantation community. As slaves were gradually freed during the Civil War, they continued this sense of community in what were known as contraband camps. Visit the Corinth Contraband Camp where life-sized bronze sculptures depict the everyday lives of 2,500-6,000 slaves who lived in Mississippi during the Civil War.
Of course, the lives of the state's African Americans changed forever with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, followed by the Reconstruction Era, then the 14th Amendment, which extended citizenship and the right to vote to ex-slaves. Suddenly, Mississippi's African Americans, who outnumbered the white population, had a voice.
In 1870, Mississippian Hiram Revels became the first African American to sit in either house of the U.S. Congress. The same year, John R. Lynch, a former slave, served as Speaker of the Mississippi House in 1872 and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1873.
At the same time, education proved to be a great equaliser for many ex-slaves. America's first land-grant college for African Americans, Alcorn State University, was established in 1871 on the site of the former Oakland College near Lorman. Other historically African American colleges established during this time were Rust College, Tougaloo College and what would later become Jackson State University. It was during this period, the late 1800s, that Mississippi's African Americans began evolving into a more autonomous segment of the state's population – a direct result of their strong institutions and sense of community.
Births and weddings called for joyous family celebrations. Schools and organisations created the sense of belonging, duty and purpose, while the church played perhaps the most vital role. Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian – all across the state, religious services created an uplifting experience. Of course, before Sunday mornings there were Friday and Saturday nights. Musically, that only meant one thing – the blues and the songs of legends like B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.
Despite their roots, though, many African American Mississippians chose to leave their homeland. By 1910, the Great Migration was on. Over the next 50 years, 938,000 people emigrated north in search of opportunity and better wages. Still, many remained, improving what they had.
Like Jackson's Farish Street District, now the venue of a two-day festival every Labor Day (the first Monday in September) weekend. Incorporated into the city limits in the 1870s, the Farish Street District steadily prospered until the early 1900s. Then its growth exploded. African American craftsmen constructed a thriving community of homes, churches and businesses which now comprise the Farish Street Neighbourhood Historic District.
Farish Street quickly became a bustling downtown strip, home to African American attorneys, physicians, dentists, loan companies, a bank and two hospitals. The Black and Tan Republican Party met at Hill's Hall. And Robert Johnson played the clubs on Saturday nights. In the 1930s and 40s, Farish Street was the place to be – not just in Mississippi, but in the South. It wasn't uncommon to see Duke Ellington, Jackie Robinson or Louis Armstrong on their way to the Crystal Palace Night Club.
In the 50s and 60s, civil rights meetings were held in churches, restaurants and homes. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael and Medgar Evers, whose NAACP Field Secretary office was located at 507 North Farish Street, organised the effort in this state. This history is chronicled in the nation's first permanent civil rights exhibit, housed at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, MS. There you'll remember a time when people stood gallantly for the principles and freedoms they believed in. Some would pay the ultimate price – including Medgar Wiley Evers, who was slain outside his Jackson, Mississippi, home.
Today, African American Mississippians enjoy a way of life and opportunity like never before. Still, the history of 250 years echoes through the heritage of today's community. And perhaps the best place to remember it is the Smith Robertson Museum, the state's African American cultural centre. Inside, the story of the African American Mississippian unfolds in a series of exhibits, recreated scenes, artwork and events. But it doesn't take a special occasion to make a trip to the cultural centre worth your time. Every day at the Smith Robertson Museum, like every day in Mississippi, is a special one – telling a very special story about a very special people.