At the site of a former slave market, a new project honors the past and inspires hope for the future
The Button Soap project honors the legacy of enslaved men, women, and children in Natchez, Mississippi
When I visited Natchez, Mississippi, as an artist working with IDEAS xLab, I saw the opulence and grandeur of the plantation homes now made into tourist attractions. Endless fields of cotton went on as far as my eyes could see, almost so beautiful that it could be easy to forget that years ago, enslaved men, women, and children lost their humanity in the fields that now beckoned me.
I remember the first moment I stepped into the cotton fields, felt the cotton in between my fingertips as the sun beat down against my skin. “You can pick some to keep,” the curator of the plantation told me. I glanced up at her and looked away, trying to collect my thoughts as I pulled it from its plant like cotton candy. I had never felt cotton that hadn’t been processed before and here I was standing in over 800 acres. I stared at the home from the field, realizing after visiting several houses they all started to look alike. Grand homes with the original fine china, antique furniture—even bedding—was there for everyone to view. A devastating moment in history that split our country into two was right here frozen in time in Natchez, Mississippi.
Jeremy Houston, owner of Miss Lou Heritage Group & Tours, showed me Forks of the Road, which was once the second largest slave market in the South. I expected a larger memorial to commemorate the horrific events that took place there, but what I found was a few chains and handcuffs cemented in the ground to note what happened in this space. Once again, I felt a sense of erasure. However, while most of the artifacts were long gone, during archaeological excavation, a few items remained that allowed people to know, “We were here.”
Buttons. Buttons from the pants, vests, shirts, and dresses of the enslaved men, women and children that would soon be sold into a life few could ever imagine. Even something some would consider insignificant meant the world to me. It was not just a button, it was a reminder that my ancestors were here, they existed, and they wouldn’t be forgotten.
It was not just a button, it was a reminder that my ancestors were here, they existed, and they wouldn’t be forgotten.
As a team being invited to participate in this work from outside Natchez, we listened to stories told by Houston and were introduced to multiple generations of history and heritage cooking by Jarita Frazier-King, recollections shared by Dr. Brenda Moore and Ms. Clarise from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and delved into artifacts at the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture.
Together we wondered, “How do we lift up the African American history of Natchez, inspire hope around heritage, and consider how to expand opportunities for economic development?” These questions framed up the projects that were completed with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
After our team introduced Brazilian artist Cadu to community members in Natchez via Skype, he started to work collaboratively with them on the Equity Platform—made-up of 750 pounds of magnolia scented handmade soap. During one of our early visit to Natchez, we stumbled upon Scent of Natchez, owned by soap maker Ann Grennell, who partnered with Cadu, along with The National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc., Southwest Mississippi Chapter, to create the platform.
To build the platform, beautifully marbled slabs of the handmade soap were stacked to form a platform based on the heights of the members of the Coalition of 100 Black Women—Girls’n Pearls, who range from 4’11” to 5’7″. The girls become equal in height when they step onto the Equity Platform symbolizing liberation and equality. The girls partnered with me to create a performance that wove together history and hope into a song and dance routine that could be used to activate the platform—further reiterating their past and potential for a bright future.
After the Equity Platform was displayed and activated, it was cut into almost 2,000 bars of soap that would eventually become “Button Soap.” To create a tangible item of remembrance, Johnnie and Loraine Griffin, along with their grandson, handcrafted wooden buttons to symbolize the buttons that were found at the Forks of the Road and placed a button into each bar of soap. After people use the soap, they discover the button and can have it as a tangible memory of the lives of Black men, women, and children whose lives were forever changed at the crossroads of liberation and slavery. You can sew the button into a shirt or attach it to your backpack to further engage others around the story of slavery in Natchez, and liberation.
As Houston stated, “Each bar of soap represents our past and the future. The button symbolizes our people and the struggles that we have overcome. The soap is a way to symbolically wash away the dirt from the past. The button is a keepsake and a piece of history that should be remembered.”
The Button Soap Project contributes to the bigger goal of Miss Lou Heritage Group & Tours, which Houston states is to build upon what many Black historians such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois states is of the utmost importance for the Black community: economic advancement. “Our ultimate goal is to no longer struggle. Our ultimate goal is to empower, educate and enlighten. We can do that by starting to work to advance the economic advantages of the African-American community in Natchez and build economic stability for the future.”
Five hundred bars of Button Soap have been sold and serve as a way to generate revenue and support for Miss Lou Heritage Groups & Tours and The National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc., Southwest Mississippi Chapter. If you’re planning on taking a trip to Natchez, you can purchase Button Soap in the shop at Miss Lou Heritage Group & Tours, and it is also available for purchase at IDEASxLab.com.