Showcase for Antebellum Homes Displays Their Finery. But What About the History?


Each spring, Columbus, Miss., has opened its Civil War-era homes to visitors. Some say the event should reflect more the oppression behind the architecture, and how the city has changed since.

WHY WE’RE HERE

We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In Mississippi, a tradition of house tours is about more than architecture. It’s a window into how a city sees its past and its ambitions for the future.


Reporting from Columbus, Miss.

Women in hoop dresses ushered visitors one April morning into the grand old house known as Riverview, showing off the hand-carved wooden chairs, oil paintings, tapestries and gilded mirrors brought from around the world to the estate in Mississippi.

The house stood as a testament to the prosperity that had flowed before the Civil War in Southern cities like Columbus, just over the border from Alabama, as fertile soil and the labor of enslaved workers built fortunes.

It was also a highlight of the longstanding tradition known as Pilgrimage. Every spring, the city’s finest antebellum homes are opened to the public for a few weeks, inviting people in to marvel at the craftsmanship and the opulence.

The event took its name from the belief among its organizers that Pilgrimage was just that — a journey to houses whose grandeur, scale and history represent something sacred for Mississippi and all of the South. Homeowners and docents often dress in period clothing to facilitate the time travel.

“We have a culture here that is something to be admired and respected,” said Dick Leike, the owner of Riverview. “This is a prime example of it.”

But these days, some in Columbus are finding it difficult to justify a trip to a gauzy version of the city’s past without accounting for the suffering, injustice and violence associated with the slave labor that built and ran these homes. That has led to competing ideas about the scope of Pilgrimage and the story it is supposed to tell.

A theatrical production staged by a local high school every year during the weekslong event now depicts the plights of enslaved African Americans and 19th-century immigrants who lived in Columbus. The local synagogue has been added to a church tour. Other events feature the region’s Choctaw and Chickasaw history.

“It seems like Pilgrimage only told one story, and that traditionally attracted a certain demographic — an older demographic, a more white demographic,” said Jace Ferraez, a 34-year-old lawyer who left Columbus after growing up there, moved back and is buying a historic home with his fiancé.

He and other like-minded residents, he said, “want to tell a fuller story.” The aim is to relay history with more breadth, but also showcase the city as it is now, encompassing its struggles, strengths and sense of possibility.

No interstate runs through Columbus, whose population of 23,000 is roughly one-third white and two-thirds Black. Poverty has been a persistent issue, as has persuading young people to choose to stay in Columbus.

Still, parts of the city are lively. Friendly City Books, an independent bookseller, opened downtown a few years ago and became a haven for its regulars. An arts center up the block displays the works of local artists like Ralph Null, a celebrated floral designer turned painter. Newcomers can easily get recruited to a perpetual circuit of cocktail gatherings.

“There’s a lot of things that can divide a community — economic status, race, the list goes on,” Mr. Ferraez said. But, he added, Pilgrimage could be more inclusive and reflect Columbus’s diversity and its aspirations. “It helps bring people together.”

The diverging ideas about Pilgrimage are just another variation of a familiar tension in the Deep South, where the past so rarely stays in the past. For some, the enduring consequences of systemic oppression are what keep them in history’s grip. For others, it is an abiding desire to hold onto what they consider a glorious legacy.

Four years ago, Mississippi abandoned the state flag that flew for 126 years with a Confederate battle emblem embedded in it, and the Confederate monument that had been perched for a century on the lawn of the Lowndes County Courthouse in Columbus was moved to a secluded cemetery in 2021.

But this month, Gov. Tate Reeves signed a proclamation designating April as Confederate Heritage Month, as he and his predecessors have done almost every year since 1993. Many residents of the state still insist that reasons other than slavery drove the Civil War.

As Mr. Leike pointed out marble flooring on the porch, ornate molding in the parlors and stained glass made by Italian artists, he said that outsiders clung to stereotypes of the South as impoverished — financially, culturally and intellectually.

That was why he opened up Riverview for Pilgrimage. The house was an irrefutable rebuttal.

“You want the people to know we’re not just down here in shanties,” said Mr. Leike, a prominent figure in the real estate industry in the region.

The fact that Columbus still has scores of antebellum homes is a direct result of history. Few Southern cities can count that many, as most of theirs were destroyed in the war. But many in Columbus had been spared because the city was a hospital town treating Confederate and Union soldiers, residents said.

Pilgrimage began in Columbus around 1940 as a way to display and safeguard these homes. Over the years, the event has drawn tourists to Columbus and ticket sales have supported nonprofits behind the programs. The city, like others with their own take on Pilgrimage, followed Natchez, a city on the Mississippi River with an even larger roster of houses.

On a recent morning, Joe Beckett, a contractor who specializes in renovating antebellum homes, walked visitors through one that he worked on called Snowdoun, built in 1854.

He pointed out that Jefferson Davis had once delivered a speech from the front balcony — just one of the many prominent figures who had passed through, he said.

His face lit up, though, as he explained the surprises and challenges that he stumbled across in his work: the intricate setup of wooden pieces engineered to undergird a curved staircase, the painstaking process of mixing 19th-century compounds by hand to match an original paint color or the lamp that he was converting back to being powered by gas.

“Pretty cool, pretty cool,” Mr. Beckett said.

He wanted to share that passion with others.

No one involved in Pilgrimage had any interest in papering over the sins of slavery, he said, or overlooking the contributions of enslaved people, either.

“We don’t get into a lot of the detail,” Mr. Beckett said, referring to mentions of slavery during Pilgrimage. “But we do recognize their input, their value and the services they provided to build these homes, to build our culture.”

Still, some of those trying to maintain the tradition are attempting a delicate balance, celebrating the houses — their splendor, their sophistication — without explicitly examining the injustices they also represent.

An impossible balance, others argue.

“The problem is that it is also a celebration and endorsement of slaveholding,” said Chuck Yarborough, a history teacher at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, a public boarding school in Columbus that draws high-achieving students from across the state.

The answer, in his mind, is not selectively ignoring parts of the past. Instead, Mr. Yarborough said, Pilgrimage is an opportunity to lay it all out, recognizing “the completeness and the complexity.”

“I think it’s important for a community to have an honest view of itself,” he said.

“Tales From the Crypt,” a performance staged in a cemetery by students at Mr. Yarborough’s school for more than 30 years, is trying to do just that.

Mr. Yarborough’s students use historical documents, like newspaper articles or immigration records, to write and perform vignettes that flesh out people from the past, and shade in the context of the world they inhabited.

As dusk faded into night during one performance, the audience was guided from one torch-lit scene to another.

One student, Antanae Shelton, portrayed a free woman of color who explained how her status was a misnomer; her freedom was saddled with so many restrictions it was not really freedom at all.

Drew Dowdy played a Greek immigrant named Victor Corfeates who opened a confectionary in Columbus and, according to Mr. Dowdy, sought and found acceptance from his neighbors. “Sweetness ignores the borders between men,” he said.

The specter of a woman who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries named Frances Saunders Billups Westmoreland embodied the city’s dilemma in determining how to regard its past, according to Brooke Anderson’s interpretation.

Ms. Westmoreland’s family had been a powerful one. She had grown up in one of those grand estates. Her grandfather had enslaved more than 200 people.

Once, those details had been markers of status and success. But pride had curdled into shame. Ms. Westmoreland, as channeled by Ms. Anderson, confessed that she had “overlooked the suffering and hardship my family contributed to.”

“I suppose I have an eternity to think about that,” the ghost said as she retreated into the darkness, her face buried in her hands.



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