When driving through Natchez, Mississippi, a town popular with tourists, it is easy to overlook an awkwardly shaped patch of land, only modestly marked by a few signs, free-standing exhibits and shackles cemented in the ground.
But from 1833 to 1863, the land, Forks of the Road, was among the largest slave markets in America. And now, local historians, residents and officials are celebrating its recognition as a new national historical park site.
Once long forgotten by many outside the region, Forks of the Road was where tens of thousands of enslaved men, women and children were taken to work in homes and plantations. The domestic slave trade was such a central feature of the nation’s economy, and it made millionaires out of many Natchez residents.
“History is not always pleasant, but it’s important that history be told, all of it,” and particularly in this moment in America, said Dan Gibson, the mayor of Natchez. He was elected in July 2020, as thousands of people were marching in streets across the nation to protest systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“It’s a sad story,” he said of the history of Forks of the Road. “And I think for many years, there are some who would have been satisfied to see that story forgotten. But how can you forget it?”
Many of the descendants of those once enslaved in Natchez — a majority-African American city of about 14,600 residents — still live in the area, Mr. Gibson said, and deserve to have their contributions to the history of Natchez finally recognized.
A federal law passed in 2017 authorized the Natchez National Historical Park, an 18.5-acre site, to preserve and interpret the Forks of the Road plot, and there are plans to build an educational visitor center and a memorial or monument.
Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, noted the irony of the historical street names that bound the location of the Forks of the Road — at the corner of Liberty and Washington. “I wonder if it dawned on the people participating there, what was done,” he said.
Kathleen Bond, the superintendent for the Natchez National Historical Park, said, “I’m a great believer in paradox, that you can hold things that seem contradictory, but you don’t have the truth unless you’ve got the whole, all the sides of it,” Ms. Bond said. “I mean, you can’t be here in Natchez without seeing the beautiful architecture and the beautiful furnishings that remain, after more than 150 years. But that was a beauty that was built on an atrocity of violence and suffering and torture.”
Natchez has long been a tourist attraction, with its views of the Mississippi River and opulent mansions, but visitors crave the full story of the town. And the community “wants to tell that story,” said Devin Heath, the executive director of Visit Natchez.
Felicia Bridgewater-Irving, a city alderwoman who lives close to the site and whose district includes Forks of the Road, said she often sees visitors there. “If you ever visit there,” she said, “you’re emotionally filled with what has taken place.”
The original article appeared in The New York Times.