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Natchez Women Through History

With a long and complex history, Natchez and its surrounding areas certainly owe a great deal to the women who lived here. The indigenous Plaquemine culture existed as long ago as 700 CE. By 1700, the Natchez occupied the area that is now roughly the northern half of current Adams County, of which Natchez is the county seat. The French began exploring the area in the late 17th century, and French colonists began to settle the area around 1716. Women, therefore, have played a role in Natchez since long before the United States existed as a country.

Women of the Natchez Indians

The women of the Natchez Indians were the backbone of a thriving civilization built along matrilineal lines. While the Great Sun, a male role, served as the leader of a structured hierarchy, women could attain positions of leadership and authority. Women, too, served as spiritual advisors and priestesses. The Sun Dance, for instance, was a significant and solemn event led by female elders who helped guide the tribe in connection with the divine.

The responsibility of passing down the tribe’s history, oral traditions, and artisanal skills largely fell upon the women who taught culturally important information to younger generations. The women also taught values that upheld the community’s ethos.

Throughout an abundance of challenges to the Natchez people, the resilience and determination of its women serve as an inspiration. Recognizing and celebrating their contributions fosters a deeper understanding of the significance of all indigenous cultures.

Women of the Garden Club

Founded in 1927, the Natchez Garden Club has served its community for nearly 100 years. Today, its members promote the city in a number of ways, including hosting events and serving on various boards and commissions. The organization works, too, on the preservation and maintenance of historic properties.

The expanded scope beyond gardens developed early in the club’s history. In 1931, a late frost wiped out the fresh young blooms, thus preventing the spring flower show that year. Knowing that the town depended on that tour to bring visitors to the area, the club’s president suggested a tour of historic homes instead. That began the long and successful tradition of the Pilgrimage of Houses that brought in badly needed tourism dollars in the 1930s and remains one of the town’s most anticipated events.

Women of the Civil Rights Era

Women played a crucial role in the civil rights movement by leading local organizations and fundraisers in the community. They rallied organizers, served as lawyers on school segregation suits, fed and housed protestors, and even opened their family homes and businesses as a safe haven for meetings and strategy in the civil rights movement. Women of Natchez led chants, marches, boycotts, and demonstrations while maintaining their household duties of the time.

Bettye Bell, for example, had a substantial impact on the Natchez school system where, after years of teaching elsewhere, she served as principal and assistant principal while leading improvement programs for teachers and students. In recent years, she co-founded Pretty Girls with Brains, an enrichment program for girls of color and diverse backgrounds from 4th grade through high school. 

Mamie Lee Green Mazique, born in 1930, attended schools in Jefferson and Adams counties and Natchez Junior College before later receiving degrees from Jackson State, Alcorn State, and the University of California Los Angeles. In the early 1960s, she was employed by STAR (Systematic Development Adult Program) and then, in 1967, became Head Start Program Director, a position she held for 40 years until her retirement in 2006. She is known, though, as a Civil Rights activist, often organizing NAACP meetings. Mamie was named The Natchez Democrat’s 2010 Citizen of the Year. 

Anne Moody authored Coming of Age in Mississippi, a 1968 memoir about growing up in rural Mississippi and the beginnings of her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Born in Centreville, MS, she attended Natchez Junior College on a basketball scholarship and later graduated from Tougaloo College. She helped organize the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). 

Born in Ohio, Sadie V. Thompson dedicated her life to educating Black students in Natchez at a time when the public school system was racially segregated. When she moved to Natchez in 1899, she taught at Union School. She later served as the principal of Brumfield School, which was built in 1925. She remained at Brumfield for 26 years until her retirement. She is the namesake of what was then a state-of-the-art new high school in Natchez, dedicated in 1954 with Thompson delivering an address at the ceremony.

A Natchez native, Jessie Bernard Williams served as secretary of the Natchez branch of the NAACP, where she became a vocal leader in the area’s Civil Rights Movement. She is featured in the 1967 film Black Natchez, where she is shown working closely with civil rights leader Charles Evers. She became an educator and taught for 16 years at McLaurin and Sadie V. Thompson schools while serving as one of the first Black women on the National Committee of the Young Democrats of Mississippi.