|The legacy of the Choctaw
When Spanish explorer Hernanado de Soto first explored the rolling woodlands east of the Mississippi River in 1540, he encountered little hostility from the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez who lived here, but he encountered even less silver or gold, so his visit was short-lived.
In 1699, French pioneer Pierre le Moyne d'Iberville laid claim to much of Mississippi for his European monarch. The French established trade routes through the region, dealing chiefly in fur and other lucrative domestic resources. Over the next 100 years, the region was alternately controlled (or at least claimed) by the French, Spanish and English. In 1798, the Mississippi Territory was created by an act of the United States Congress, incorporating the landmass that comprises modern-day Mississippi as well as most of Alabama.
Mississippi was granted statehood in 1817, and, in 1820, the Treaty of Doaks Stand effectively ceded most of what remained of Choctaw-controlled land to the federal government, and cleared the way for larger white settlements. By the 1830s, what was left of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes were forcibly relocated to the Oklahoma Territory. The Natchez had been all but exterminated nearly a century before.
New statehood and a capital dilemma
Construction began in April of 1822 following a city plan suggested by Thomas Jefferson in 1798. The new capital city featured a checkerboard pattern of straight, perpendicular streets with public squares of green space interspersed among blocks designated for building. The orderly downtown arrangement still exists but most of the green space has been lost. One spot remains as a verdant reminder of Jeffersons vision: Smith Park, directly behind the Governors Mansion at the heart of downtown. The new city was named in honor of Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, and the future seventh president of the United States. Jackson, Columbia, South Carolina and Washington, DC are the only cities in the U.S. specifically created and designed to serve as capitals.
Government grows, commerce follows
In 1840, the railroad came to Jackson and the city became a vital link in the Southern system of transportation. Although this distinction aided considerably in the commercial development of the region, it is one that most Jacksonians would have foregone once the Civil War came to town.
In January, 1842, Governor Tilghman Tucker moved his family into the newly-constructed Governors Mansion, just three blocks from the Capitol in downtown Jackson. This National Historic Landmark stands today as the second-oldest continuously-occupied governors residence in the country, and as one of the finest surviving examples of the Greek Revival style in the United States. Built by noted British architect William Nichols, who had also designed the Capitol building, the mansion was constructed at a cost of approximately $61,000, making it one of the priciest real estate investments of the era.
'The War of Northern Aggression'
Recovery was painfully slow, and it wasn't until the 1880s that Jackson slowly began to regain its footing as an important rail, warehousing, and distribution center. Also by the 1880s, however, Jim Crow laws began the institutionalized racism that would torment Mississippi and Jackson for generations to come. The citys blacks were confined to segregated neighborhoods. The largest and most vibrant of these neighborhoods was the Farish Street District. By the turn of the century, this 125-acre expanse just northwest of the New Capitol had become the unquestioned center of black society in Jackson, and served as a much-needed source of racial pride and mutual support. Black-owned businesses were formed and thrived, schools and churches were founded, and the small neighborhood grew into a city-within-the-city, a center for cultural development, social involvement, and political action. Through the 1930s and 40s, a unique cultural scene continued to flourish, and Farish Street venues such as the Crystal Palace Night Club and the Alamo Theater hosted the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Lionel Hampton. Later, the neighborhood would come to be ground zero for the Civil Rights endeavors of the 1960s.
Although today the neighborhood has become somewhat depressed, the annual Farish Street Heritage Festival is held each summer to commemorate the days of sidewalk musicians, open markets, and thriving black-owned businesses. With over 690 listings on the National Register of Historic Places, the Farish Street Historic District is home to three of only twelve antebellum structures in Jackson. Much of the architecture dating from 1860 to 1940 is still standing, featuring work by black architects, carpenters, and craftsmen.
Civil Rights and wrongs
Evers, a local businessman who had helped lead economic boycotts of white-owned businesses that perpetuated segregation, was shot outside his home on Jacksons northwest side on June 12, 1963. Byron de la Beckwith was tried twice for the murder, but both trials, before all-white juries, failed to bring in a conviction. Jailed on unrelated charges, de la Beckwith boasted of his involvement in Evers' murder, and, finally, a new trial in 1994 yielded a conviction based on these accounts, as well as new evidence. The dramatic story of this prolonged pursuit of justice is played out in the book and movie Ghosts of Mississippi. Today, a life-sized bronze statue of the fallen leader stands at a local library, and a modest museum is maintained at Evers' former home.
Out of the ashes, new life