Rinaldi Report: Politicians Ignore Reality

Natchez-Adams County has lost 1,100 jobs in the past year

by Peter Rinaldi

Both Adams County Supervisors Angela Hutchins and Ricky Gray have said their top priority is to secure raises for county employees. Warren Gaines hasn't said anything publicly about raises, neither have Wes Middleton and Kevin Wilson.

 With the county expected to receive more than $5 million in COVID funding from the feds, supervisors would like to use some of that money for raises for their county employees. Whether they can or not will depend on the guidelines for the grant money.

Please note that Adams County had 10,400 people working pre-pandemic shutdown, the unjustified economic shutdown that punched the local economy with an almost suicidal blow. Businesses closed, some forever. Others had big layoffs. Re-hiring stalled.

The Adams County economy has not recovered. As of now, just 9,350 jobs remain, meaning we lost more than 1,100 jobs post-shutdown.

So are supervisors thinking of a tax rebate, a lowering of taxes, or perhaps less discretionary spending? Of course not. They're thinking about giving their county employees a big fat raise. These are the same employees, many of whom were off work with pay for several months during the initial stages of the pandemic.

I have routinely taken exception to the spending habits of the Adams County Board of Supervisors and continue to express my reservations about their intellectual, managerial and fiscal capabilities. When you put inept people in charge, you get bad government.

Supervisors should realize that Natchez-Adams County has been on an economic downslide for more than a generation. The population decline from 38,000 persons to 30,000 persons from 1983-present is also testimony to that. This government-created recession has cost us more than 1,100 jobs in the last year. Some of the supervisors' policies and practices, including taxation and spending have accelerated the decline. Long term mismanagement has put us where we are today. Supervisors have barely raised a peep (with the exception of Kevin Wilson) about the budgeting and borrowing practices of the school board, which has likewise pushed the community into decline.

Shouldn't supervisors be thinking about how they can reverse the impacts caused by their foolish shutdown and continuing recession? Or are they content with the loss of 1,100 jobs in just one year?

Supervisors will claim from their deepest emotional hearts that they really care about the black families that make up a majority of our community. But they don't really care about our low wage community, the families and seniors struggling to pay bills. Otherwise, they would initiate policy and economic reforms that would help the working poor and lower middle class, black and white, instead of looking first to pay their buddies in government more money.

When supervisors and their fellows enjoy another day off with pay on Confederate Memorial Day, Monday, April 26, I hope they will rethink the direction they're taking us. Bad economic policies have consequences. And the negative consequences are plain to see.

Rinaldi Report: Adams County Tax Increases

Local property taxes are high when compared to household incomes

by Peter Rinaldi

 There are several ways to increase property taxes. First, the Legislature and the State Tax Commission can readjust the percentages allowed as discounts off the market value of properties, or change how residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural and open land are treated. As you know, if your property has a market value of $100,000, it is usually assessed at much less. Farmland and other agricultural land is assessed at a much lower rate than commercial or residential property, a mandate from state government.

However, on a local level the school board has been increasing property taxes regularly by requesting an additional dollar amount most years from the supervisors. It is likely to do so again to fund the new building and repair program. Supervisors must by law give the schools the money (there are certain caps and restrictions to the requests). The supervisors then turn the dollar request into millage and add that amount to everyone's property tax bill. Of course, supervisors could cut their own budget and absorb small increases from the schools, but I only remember two times that was done, during the tenure of Watts-Felter-Lazarus on the board. Actually, during one of their sessions that trio voted to lower millage and did so. I remember The Democrat assaulting them editorially for doing it, too. No good deed goes on punished.

While supervisors have been generally reticent to add millage and increase property taxes through millage, they did so a few years ago to fund our hapless county fire protection. Supervisors added that special assessment for rural, out of city residents and businesses. In city folks did not have to pay more.

But the real way supervisors get more money for their budget to spend is letting the assessor revalue or reassess properties, bringing them more in line with actual market values. That's the assessor's job by state law. For example, there are many larger, fancy homes and businesses that are under-assessed. It is more likely that the homeowner that owns an antebellum or Victorian home is under-assessed than a house in Cloverdale or Morgantown. I looked at this situation carefully in early 2017 and found dozens of properties that were under-assessed. I chose not to write about this, because so many of my clients had homes or businesses that were under-assessed. Some of this was accidental, some not. It's always been that way. Mississippi's arcane system of assessment leads to some people getting a bad deal on taxes, and others getting a great deal.

With higher assessments, the county gets more money in tax revenues. Supervisors could respond by lowering the millage, a net zero effect, no increase in overall taxation. But I do not know of an instance of this in the past 10 years. Usually, supervisors just take the extra money and spend it.

The problem is, of course, that AdamsCounty taxpayers as a whole are overtaxed when COMPARED TO THEIR INCOMES. If you look at what household income is in AdamsCounty and compare it to other counties in the state and also look at incomes, you'll find we are highly taxed, in part, because the school board demands and taxes more money than similarly sized and valued counties across the state.

Supervisors can continually get more money, as residential and business property taxes will continue to go up, all while county leaders pledge to not increase taxes. It's a game.

I can't think of anything worse in a recession (Adams County is clearly in economic decline) than to continue to raise taxes. The wealthy can afford higher taxes (because they have the money), but the poor and middle class cannot. And when you add limited job prospects and lower household incomes to the mix, higher taxes will drive people away, limit expansion of existing business and the recruitment of new business.

There are many reasons why Adams County has lost population since its economic peak in 1984, when the Census figures showed we had 39,004 people living here. Today, it's 30,693, an incredible drop. Surely, the biggest factor in that decline was the closure of factories, including massive layoffs at IP and Titan Tire. However, tax policy has also added to the decline.

Local government has gotten much bigger as a function of the entire economy. Poor and middle class people struggle to make ends meet. Supervisors and the school board guarantee more people will move away to seek a better life, as taxes are increased annually.

Higher rates of taxation in a down economy contribute to the destruction of a community. Local government, instead of helping the local economy, actually helps ruin the economy.

Rinaldi Report: Vo-Tech Nightmare?

Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson wants to remodel the tire plant for a vo-tech center

by Peter Rinaldi

Mayor Dan Gibson has suggested reopening the Fidelity-TitanTire plant in Natchez, remodeling it for a vo-tech center. This would obviously cost tens of millions of dollars, both to rehab an awful plant site and build something brand new. The city does not have the resources to fund such a project without outside help from the state or federal government.

And you should ask why the mayor wants to rehab such a terrible property, when building something brand new from the ground up would be much less expensive.

Also, why does the mayor want the city of Natchez, which has such difficulty funding police, fire, public works, transportation, tourism, convention center and other basic functions, take on another multi-million dollar a year expense?

As you probably know both Co-Lin Natchez and Central La. Tech Ferriday offer extensive vo-tech programs already. Here is a list of the programs for Co-Lin Natchez alone.

 

Plus both schools offer short term workforce and job training programs, seminars and customized training to meet employer needs. Additionally, the Natchez public schools operate the Fallin Career and Technology Center, which offers training in Digital Media Technology, Nursing, Carpentry, Automotive, Early Childhood Education and Film.

I am not sure the rehab of the tire plant is a good idea. You should also ask why the mayor wants his new city programs to compete with Co-Lin or the Shelby Jackson campuses. Those schools are already offering extensive vo-tech education, it would make sense just to add a program or two based on need, if the mayor had some vo-tech area he thought should be taught that is not taught now.

Vo-tech by itself does not add jobs. But it is very important. It can help fill jobs that already exist. But it cannot create jobs on its own. It can help fill an existing employer's hiring needs.

The city of Natchez has predefined responsibilities by charter, ordinance and custom. The city has done a terrible job in recent years taking care of its core responsibilities and does not have enough money to support its already existing commitments without a tax increase, something mayor and aldermen have been reticent to do. The city has trouble making payroll at times. More overhead is not needed, surely.

While we should appreciate the mayor trying to think of new ways to improve Natchez, the best new way would to improve the massive, bloated government we already have, instead of adding even more expense to the bottom line.

The mayor needs to rethink this idea of a new vo-tech center. The campaign is over. Reality sets in. Manage and improve the city government we have now and that will be real progress.

Rinaldi Report: Needing Good Leaders

This year's Vidalia, Ferriday and Natchez elections highlight the need for good leadership

by Peter Rinaldi

South African writer Becky Leighton has analyzed some of the talents and styles required to be good leader, whether you're running a business, church or civic group, or local government. A prerequisite to developing a good leadership style is to actually have a person at the top who has unusual or special talents compared to the community he or she serves. If he lacks those skills, success is not easily achieved. We've all experienced situations where a person chosen, elected or appointed to a leadership position has few or practically no management skills. Disasters soon follow.

There are certain important skills a good leader must have. He should be a person of integrity, have clear goals, provide a good example in his business, community and personal life, be of good moral character, have a unique vision and be able to communicate clearly. That's a tall order but a leader must have many of those traits to inspire the group or community he serves. To actually get work done and achieve reforms or improvements, the good leader should set the tone of expecting the best in terms of individuals' behavior, support and encourage the participants, focus on team interests and needs and do so in an environment that is stimulating intellectually and provides the psychological fulfilment that team members and the community expect. Not only do the results have to be good, but the community has to feel the results are positive and that individuals benefited from the processing of achieving the tasks at hand.

Leighton's analysis suggests a key to success in improving a community is the proper development of multiple leadership styles that involve team members and the general community. Failure to develop good leadership can doom the community in it efforts to reform, expand, deal with problems or explore new possibilities.

When you think about the mayors we've had in Natchez, Vidalia and Ferriday over the years, had those leaders actually employed a combination of the following leadership styles, they would have been much more successful. It seems that we've been more the victim of a management approach that guides action and decision-making simply by the crisis of the moment, the day or week's agenda, or the latest serious of phone calls reaching the mayor's desk. Reactive/non-reactive government, with the mayor taking charge of the entire problem or response, or worse, the failure to respond at all, have been common. In those cases, sad results are no surprise.

A good leader may use as many as four different management styles in the process of improving and managing his entity, according to Leighton. The four styles of leadership including: directing, coaching, supporting and delegating. The styles of leadership determine the level of decision-making authority the leader will give to individuals within his or her team. Each team member will be given different levels of authority and work bases on the nature of the task at hand and the individual's role, experience, skills and maturity.

Directing: True leadership skills are not required when one tells another what to do, how to do, and when it needs to be done. This makes this style more a management tool than a leadership tool. The directing style is useful when one is working with outside freelancers or contractors. When work is outsourced, you have a clear idea of what needs to be done, what outcomes would be, and the leader uses a "telling" manner of communication. Direction should be clear and precise. The directing style isn't the type to use when managing a skilled team, as it hinders growth and prevents the development of a team culture.

Coaching: Leaders are supposed to be visionaries. They build a vision and direct their team to accomplish the vision. However, to successfully direct their team and accomplish the objective, they should sell their ideas and vision to all those involved in bringing it to fruition. This is not only done to effectively communicate the objectives, but also to excite, motivate and get team members believing in the endeavor. The selling style is also useful when introducing a new or refined vision. Although the vision was not formed by the team members, their buy-in is needed to ensure they're motivated to perform and achieve the goal. This style is best used when the team is made up of individual contributors that are engaged full-time in the project or projects at hand.

Supporting: Collaboration is about working together, sharing ideas, suggestions and solutions within the group. But the leader still has the final say. This can be an inspiring leadership approach, as each team member is considered and feels he or she is contribution in the decision-making process. This style requires a low level of direction from the leader. It allows the individuals to prove themselves and actually lead the process. Because there's a lot of support, the individuals are not required to be directly accountable for the outcome, should the effort fail. The collaborative style is useful when a task needs to be carried out, but the initial involvement of the leader is not required until a final decision has to be made. For example, team members can work together to hire a new employees, including interviewing and screening. But the leader hast he final say based on the teams input, ideas and suggestions.

Delegating: Delegating is yet another leadership style, best used when leading a team of senior leaders, managers or skilled employees or team members. Because there is little direction or support, the leader gives full authority to the individual or team to make the final decision. The delegating style is useful when you trust the decision-making abilities of the individual or group. The style is often used by CEOs who fully trust the capabilities of the their managers, due to their experience and emotional maturity. The delegating leadership style is rarely used in teams composed of junior or mid-level staff, unless the decision is very low-risk.

While the approaches Leighton suggests require a degree of intellect and vision not often seen in our local politics, their proper development would bring rewards. You can see that the application of these techniques would be very helpful for Natchez, Vidalia and Ferriday, as communities that suffer from poverty, lack of revenues and income, tight budgets, social disintegration, high crime and poor public education. The problems are great. The solutions can be apparent but difficult to implement. Unfortunately, the skills and management styles of leaders, some recent, some in years past, have left their communities without results, meaning a change in leadership was warranted.

Voters will make the ultimate decision as to who will lead their municipalities in just a few days. People get the government they vote for and deserve. Incumbent Mayors Sherrie McMahon Jacobs and Buz Craft have already demonstrated moral fitness and a business aptitude for their jobs, very important qualities. They have successfully adapted some of the above mentioned leadership styles in the management of town hall, their employees and the community at large. Both deserve second terms for the policies and practices they have developed.

Craft's biggest successes have come in the management of town finances and personnel, which frankly, were in an awful mess prior to his arrival. He was able to secure new jobs for the community (Syrah and Vidalia Denim) and picked up a nice sum of cash for the town as well as part of Denim's purchase of the FOL plant. Vidalia voters also chose several new aldermen last time and those picks have proved fortunate. The yin and yang of contrary forces during some recent mayor-aldermen debates led to complimentary results. Vidalia does not want a mayor who is all-powerful, like before. The aldermen force the mayor to justify his administrative actions and policies, a good new trend. Craft and his team have exhibited sound judgment.

McMahon Jacobs in Ferriday has had a tougher go. She has good employees under her wing. But she has to work weekly with a town council that is mostly inept, incapable as a group of supervising their $2.6 million annual budget. If she wins, she may face a disappointing council again. She should at least get the Job Award. Like Job in the Bible, she has incredible faith, in this case, faith in her community, and she is used to overcoming obstacles. Ferriday citizens are blessed to have her.

The riddle of the Natchez mayor's race has been present since the beginning. Does Phillip West really want to be mayor or not? He is running. He is not running. He may be running. All three possibilities seemed to be present in the previous weeks. He clearly does not want to actually do the job that much or he would have said so. But the continuing speculation allowed him to run a campaign without doing anything. West successfully kept himself in the local gossip by refusing to announce a decision as to whether he was running or not. West woke up from his political slumber in the last few weeks to orchestrate an anti-Gibson campaign that included intimidation of black voters who had pledged themselves to Gibson during the primary.

It would be a mistake to elect a second mayor in a row who does not really want to serve. The last mayor had trouble coming to work before lunch. Natchez government is big enough that the mayor's job remains a full-time post. Since Phillip West is not really enamoured with the idea of returning to city hall, the pick here is even easier. Since Dan Gibson wants the job and has campaigned for the job, he should get the job, as the last standing real candidate. West's motivation for running, simply to make sure the city had a black candidate in the race, is a sign he really doesn't want the job and really a poor reason to select someone. West has not articulated what he'd like to accomplish as mayor this time, other than to hold the seat and to attack Gibson personally on the radio. That seems not good enough.

Understanding that Gibson does not have a local political track record to review, he still has run a very inclusive and active campaign, He is smart, energetic and seeks input from the community. His six-point program has some attractive elements. His warm and friendly manner is appealing. Considering his previous experience as CrystalSprings mayor for two terms and his inclusive campaign style, Gibson is the better choice for mayor in 2020.

Voters will pick who they want to lead Natchez, Vidalia and Ferriday, with or without my guidance. Let's hope that the mayoral winners will use management styles that will enhance their chances for improvements in government and their community. With our normal economic and societal problems, added to the economic downturn caused by the virus, we need mayors who realize that good management styles and humility are required in almost equal amounts.

Citizens will welcome the mayors chosen happily. But voters also retain their option to criticize a mayor in the future, if he or she fails to support policies and practices of good government. Like taking a dog for a walk, the town is better served when a mayor is kept on a short leash.

Source material: www.masterstart.com that includes a series of management and leadership articles authored by Becky Leighton.

Rinaldi Report: Copeland v. Craft

Vidalia goes to the polls April 4. Who should be chosen as mayor?

by Peter Rinaldi

For decades, I admired Hyram Copeland's leadership skills. He was able to take a small town and through his vision, and with the cooperation of the aldermen, push Vidalia forward. The town improved services, held the line on taxes and created a favorable business environment. All good.

But somewhere along the way, Copeland lost track of his vision for a better community, and he started putting himself first. For example, he cooked up a scheme to buy land on Carter Street where Walmart would locate. Only a few city officials knew of the pending location, but Mayor Copeland, City Engineer Bryant Hammett and a few others did. So the politicians used their inside information to buy property on the side for themselves. They traded on their public offices for private gain.

I started reading the annual audits for the city, which I hadn't done in years, and found many illegalities, going over budget, spending too much, taking on debt, failing to pay bills, failing to do proper bookkeeping and accounting. Worse, to make ends meet, the mayor authorized the use of customers' utility deposits. That's not the city's money but belongs to those customers. It was purposeful misappropriation of funds. City finances were a mess. As I poked into the city operations more and more, I found it ran more like a fiefdom than a representative government. The mayor told the aldermen what to do. In many cases, the aldermen ratified Copeland's actions after deals had been made and money spent. Employees were sometimes intimidated or coerced into taking improper actions. There was little consultation, airing of differences or examination of policy.

Some of the mayor's expense and travel sheets read more like demands than requests for reimbursement. No documentation, no receipts, 'just issue me a check for x.' Then, there was the request by the aldermen to cover the mayor's legal fees of $100,000 following an FBI investigation. Aldermen authorized paying the mayor's attorney. But the mayor had the check written to himself not his attorney. Then he paid himself an extra $83,000 in bonus pay, as he was leaving office. What was going on?

When I saw Vidalia entering difficult waters financially, I repeatedly asked Copeland to start doing monthly budgeting of revenues and expenditures. He promised he would but never did. The wild spending continued. The excesses of his administration were duly noted on the pages of our newspapers. In the end, Copeland killed off his off his own re-election by pushing another insider deal, The Square, which citizens didn't want and the state said was illegal.

When Buz Craft was elected mayor and walked into city hall, he and administrator, Bill Murray, found a giant mess: millions of dollars in hidden debts, past due bills, illegalities, overspending, misuse of personnel, people with no-show jobs, incorrect billings for utilities, substandard accounting, theft, etc. It took more than two years to clean it all up. The result was belt-tightening, layoffs, borrowing for the short term to stave off insolvency. At least half of the Craft administration's time early on was spent on fixing the messes of the previous mayor and his lackadaisical aldermen. To be fair, those aldermen didn't know how bad things had gotten. Yet, they were also responsible for the sad state of affairs.

Today, Vidalia actually has a budget that's accurate. It pays its bills on time. The mayor and aldermen debate issues, policies and spending. Bookkeeping and accounting are legal. Audits are good. New deals with Vidalia Denim and Syrah have brought and will bring cash to the town and needed jobs.

No, not everything is perfect. But overall, the direction is very positive. As finances have stabilized, the city has been able to improve its services to the community, without spending too much. Vidalia is making progress and living within its means. Government functions more openly. The public knows more.

I don't know what affected Hyram Copeland to change him so much. Or maybe it was my view of him that changed after false assurances, as I dug into the finances of the city. Perhaps I was naive. Maybe we all were.

While people tend to vote on personality, I try to look at the policies of a politician and a for a mayor, his people skills and financial management strengths. In the end, Copeland failed and his multiple failures left many questions open as to his honesty and his abilities. So far, Craft has done a very good to excellent job as mayor and team leader and has "righted the ship." Many of the new board of aldermen deserve credit, too, as it has been truly a group effort, though sometimes a fighting and fussing group effort.

It makes sense for Vidalia to re-elect Buz Craft as mayor on April 4, and let Hyram Copeland continue to enjoy his retirement. Craft is the better choice, politically and economically. Craft's policies and practices are what Vidalia needs.

Rinaldi Report: Natchez Black History, 1862-1865

The Civil War helped free blacks in the Natchez area

by Peter Rinaldi

When Natchez surrendered to Union forces in May 1962, blacks and whites were justifiably worried. Hopes were that the worst of the war and its devastation might escape Natchez. What no one knew at the time of the arrival of the federal army and its government, conditions would rapidly and dramatically change for black slaves.

Slaves from plantations near town came into Natchez, both to look at what was happening and to gauge the atmosphere for living in town, escaping from their out-in-the country white masters to the protection of U.S. soldiers. Like other parts of the South, authorities weren't sure how to handle the arrival of semi-free blacks who had been confined to their plantations and now were more mobile.

While Natchez itself was pacified against the Confederates, Confederate forces were still in the Jackson-Vicksburg region, Brookhaven area and eastern Louisiana. The chance of warfare was still great. And many plantation owners had to make a choice, either sign a loyalty oath to the federal government to stay in business or stick with the Confederate states. Whichever choice they made, it was the wrong choice, as Confederate and Union raiders would seize blacks from plantations "loyal to the other side."

The Emancipation Proclamation in Jan. 1863 set in stone what blacks would do. Since the Proclamation outlawed slavery in rebel territories, blacks could adopt a pro-Union attitude and get their freedom by coming to town and by working for the federal army. Many were employed as wagon drivers, construction laborers, boat hands and some served as soldiers. As many as 3,000 blacks were employed by the national government in building expanded fortifications in the Natchez area in 1863. This labor force came directly from the plantations, much of it without the slave owners' approval.

While blacks came into town, they weren't greeted with open arms by the locals or the Union soldiers. Relationships weren't kind. Most Union soldiers enlisted, either as volunteers or draftees, to preserve the nation, not free blacks. While the male laborers and their families were put in camps, the men had considerable freedom to move about, especially during the day. Thefts of food were common as the federal government had underestimated the number of people it would have to feed. Jewelry and household items, like kitchen utensils, disappeared at a fast pace, according to newspaper reports. Gambling, drinking, fighting and crime increased, with the larger number of people in town.

Vicksburg fell in July 1863 to Union troops and that city became the largest rallying point for black refugees in Mississippi. But nearby Natchez was a near second. Visiting white ministers to Natchez reported many blacks coming to the town from Louisiana plantations, as most of the area west of Natchez was still in Confederate hands. Escape to Natchez meant immediate freedom.

A New Hampshire minister and army colonel, John Eaton Jr. was appointed by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to help the blacks across the state and the region, including parts of Tennessee and Arkansas. Eaton said, "The Negroes...flocked in vast numbers to the camps of the Yankees...a slave population, springing from bondage, forsaking its local traditions...of old plantation life, coming garbed in rags, with feet shod or bleeding, individually, families and larger groups, an army of slaves and fugitives, larger than the army itself. Many were perpetually on the defensive and many ready to attack." The federal army and Natchez's white population were ill at ease. Eaton adds that the black men, women and children suffered from disease, or were injured in their escapes and often nearly naked. While some of these unfortunate behaved well, others did not. Union commanders, their small forces of soldiers and the local benevolent societies were overwhelmed with the influx of people. It was called "the oncoming of cities," by some Union officers. Eaton established a Department of Freedmen, as a military sub-department of the U.S. Army, to help order the chaos.

Eaton's administrators, following Grant's orders, set up a number of permanent and temporary camps for blacks, including in Southwest Mississippi, where the Union army needed workers. Eaton also requisitioned army tents, clothing and rations for the workers. A system evolved where workers were employed in the cotton fields to plant and harvest the crops of plantation owners that had signed a loyalty oath to the federals or on plantations that had been seized by the Union military and national government from "traitors," and leased out to speculators. These "pro-Union" plantations were subject to Confederate raiding parties, both military and civilian, who would kill the black farm hands, or seize them and carry the victims off to plantations deep in Confederate country, where they would be forced to be slaves again.

Under Grant's direct order, Eaton established what Grant called "a Negro paradise," near Davis Bend, along the river, north of Natchez and south of Vicksburg. White speculators, lessees and independent black farmers were able to take over six plantations on the peninsula, including on land that had belonged to Jefferson Davis and his brother, Joseph. Grant gave troops and a gunboat to protect the project, which kept the Confederate raiders away. The project was an economic success.

While the national government's policy of leasing plantations to speculators had the advantage of providing blacks with income, some of the plantations were leased to blacks themselves. The new black lessees reported large profits and paid the national government their rentals, but the speculators did less well. Often the speculators inadequately supervised plowing and overplanting. But the price of cotton was so high, that most operators, black or white, made a profit. However, many black employees were cheated of their due wages or assessed high fees for the clothing, food and medical care provided by the speculators. Besides planting and harvesting cotton, blacks also harvested timber and operated sawmills for the federal army's benefit. The Union troops needed wood for wagons, bridges and railroads.

As the national government did a better job of apportioning its black paid labor force and supplies around the district, conditions for blacks improved slightly. By the fall of 1863, only 2,100 persons remained in the camps in Natchez, whereas more than 4,000 had been there earlier. However, the cabins in the Natchez camps remained poorly constructed, badly lighted and ventilated, overcrowded and 'infested with disease,' according to locals.

The government and army established "infirmary farms," with a few of these in Southwest Mississippi. Wives of black soldiers and their children, the aged and the ill were assigned to these special farms and performed lighter labor, if their condition allowed such work. All were paid for their labor.

Starting in 1863 and continuing to 1864, the U.S. Treasury Department took over the administration of the plantations and the leasing system. While the military officers and the War Department had been extremely fair in paying black workers decent wages, the Treasury Department tended to work more closely with the white speculators and turned a blind eye to the wage cheating and abuse of black workers. Corruption increased. Black workers and their families did more poorly than they did earlier in the war.

Confederates soldiers and guerillas staged a resurgence in 1864 in the Natchez area and western Mississippi as a whole. Raids were more commonplace. Blacks were seized from the pro-Union plantations, with many killed. Houses were burned. And the lessees themselves were hung or shot. Practically all the plantations in the Natchez to Vicksburg area were given up in 1864. And the remaining crops were devastated by an infestation of the army worm, which in some sections, limited production to 25 percent of the usual.

This conflict moved even more blacks into the city limits of Natchez. The refugees worked as cooks, seamstresses, maids, stable boys, blacksmiths, and in some stores and factories in the area. Many went into the camps. Some found housing with their new employers, packed into shacks or living in ramshackle dependencies, in barns or the backs of businesses. They mixed with the free black citizens of Natchez, who had numbered 200-250 persons before the war.

Superintendent Eaton and his employees tried to attend to the medical and moral needs of their charges as well. Smallpox prevailed throughout the area. The high mortality rate of adults left many orphans. A Freedman's Fund, which collected a portion of the paid wages of black workers on federal projects, was used to finance small hospitals, orphanages and schools, as well as providing for clothing and household goods at the camps. Local benevolent societies were also tasked to help with similar ventures. Black churches were established.

Administrators reported many black marriages during this period. Before the war, plantation owners and state government hadn't recognized black marriages as legal. But the newly conquering federal government did. Thousands of blacks married legally for the first time in the Natchez district. Schools developed rapidly, under the auspices of the Freedmen's Department and the American Missionary Association, with more than 30 schools, 60 teachers and 4,400 students by 1865 in the Natchez to Vicksburg area. These black schools were self-funded, with pupils paying .50 to $1.25 per month for their education.

Throughout this period, there were large numbers of blacks who stayed on the old plantations with their masters. These were the farms in the interior, away from Natchez or any other town and far from Union soldiers. As the spring of 1865 arrived, many of these blacks were compelled by local ad hoc militias with Confederate sympathies to stay on the plantations as slaves. The Natchez Courier ran a notice in July 1865, nearly three months after the end of the war, informing plantation owners that it was illegal to tell their blacks that emancipation did not apply to all blacks. Plantation owners still keeping slaves could be jailed, fined and their land seized.

Newspapers around the state, including Natchez's newspapers, ran editorials saying since freedom had arrived, 'Negroes were not suited to the new free labor system. They would not work without compulsion. The Negro race would soon be extinct.' A cholera epidemic, killing hundreds in Natchez in 1866, buttressed this view. This opinion, almost religious in nature, was widely held among whites, in part because there were so many deaths of black civilians during the war and shortly thereafter. Whites saw blacks as a totally dependent race, doomed to failure in the United States. Ideas were floated about moving blacks to Cuba or Mexico, where they could 'survive and prosper.' Nothing came of this post-war fantasy.

When the Freedman's Bureau was established in 1865, people thought the economic situation might improve. The U.S. Army's efforts had made a positive difference. But the new agency proved incredibly ineffective in future years, especially in Mississippi as a whole and in Natchez in particular.

The war period changed the society and the economy for blacks in the Natchez area. After generations under the pre-war plantation system, thousands of blacks fled from the country to the town itself. Many earned wages for the first time in their lives, thanks to employment with the federal government or the Union Army. Blacks suffered tremendously, more than whites during the war, due to relocation, poor housing, disease, inadequate food, lack of medical care, cheating speculators and raiding Confederate and Union forces. It wasn't an easy time. Nor would the future be easy. But the period of 1862-1865 was the time during which most blacks in the Natchez area would taste their first bit of freedom, perilous as it was.

Black History Month article source material: J.W. Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi; Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi, 1865-1890; John Eaton, Grant, Lincoln and the Freedmen; and others.