THE LOWER RIVER 139 THE LOWER RIVER 139 PILGRIMAGE Tours of old homes and gardens, including many in the Lower River region, are conducted in the spring and fall by Mississippi garden clubs all over the state. The tours, dubbed “pilgrimages,” are led by locals dressed in period clothing. The costumed guides are often direct descendants from the original owners of the home who take delight in retelling the history and stories of the area. Thousands of people from around the state, nation, and world, gather twice a year to hear the stories of pre-Civil War Mississippi. Events throughout the days of the pilgrimage showcase plantation culture and the stories of the enslaved people who worked in and around Natchez. PHOTO COURTESY OF MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF ARCHIVES AND HISTORY when cotton prices are low, they simply lower their cotton acreage and plant other crops. In Claiborne County, Lonnie Fortner reduced his cotton acreage from more than 2,000 acres to 600 acres and rotated it with corn, peanuts, and soybeans. According to Fortner, “Diversification has now become important in Mississippi. It’s what has saved us in recent years, and I don’t see farmers changing too much in the future.” The Lower River Region Faces the Future Agriculture was not the only aspect of life in the Lower River counties that changed drastically in a hundred years. So, in many ways, had relations between African Americans and whites. In politics and work, African Americans rose to heights that would have once been unthinkable. In 1993, Lorenzo Creighton became the first African American person to serve as general manager of a casino, the Lady Luck in Natchez. He was successful enough in the position, a year later he was chosen to be the first general manager of the new Lady Luck Casino and Hotel in Vicksburg. In 1989, the Cornerstone Theater Company visited Port Gibson and performed a version of Romeo and Juliet in which the Capulets were white and the Montagues were African American. The setting was changed from Renaissance Verona to the modern South, and parallels were implied between the feud of the Montagues and the Capulets and the South’s history of racial strife. The Cornerstone players were welcomed by the community, some of whose members participated in the sold-out performance. In 1990 a new Natchez Pilgrimage event, Southern Road to Freedom, was launched which told the history of African American Natchez through gospel. This was performed by the church choir of Holy Family, Mississippi’s oldest African American Catholic parish. That same year, black Natchezians organized the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture to preserve their history. Shortly afterward, they founded a museum for that purpose. In 1991, Mimi Miller of the preservationist organization the Historic Natchez Foundation persuaded the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau to offer an African American history tour. In 1995, the Jacqueline House African American Museum was established to educate the public about the contributions of Vicksburg African Americans to the history of the region. By 2013, it contained more than 20,000 artifacts, including photographs, manuscripts, books, and music. In 1988, Congress established Natchez National Park. Two antebellum homes, Melrose, mansion of white planter John T. McMurran, and the William Johnson House, abode of African American businessman William Johnson, were its core. The object, according to the final general management plan, was to “preserve and interpret the sites and structures associated with all the peoples of Natchez...including African Americans, both slave and free.” In 2015, for the first time, the centerpiece of the Natchez Pilgrimage, the Historic Natchez Tableaux, was reworked under the leadership of local novelist Greg Iles to incorporate some contemporary impressions and attitudes toward slavery and the civil war. Greg Iles was born in Germany in 1960, but spent his youth in Natchez and graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1983. Iles wrote his first novel in 1993, and it became the first of his twelve New York Times bestsellers. His novels have not only been made into films, but also have been published in more than thirty-five countries and translated into more than twenty languages. He is also a member of the lit-rock group “The Rock Bottom Remainders.”