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Amid linen and lace, antebellum legacy thrives

A Mississippi city's famous celebration of its past grows more frank about slaveholding.

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The Southern belles sip from fine antique china on a linen-covered table, lamenting that their husbands can hardly squeeze into their Confederate costumes for Pilgrimage season.

Elizabeth Boggess, her sister Anne McNeil, and Nancy Williams are typical of this small town on the shore of the Mississippi River, a place that hovers in a dreamy antebellum bubble as if the Civil War were yet to come.

In this politically correct era, when the Walt Disney Company buries its 1946 "Song of the South" because of racist overtones, the town - and this group of Natchez faithfuls - are anachronisms in antique gloves. Natchez's oldest families casually mix tales of their slave-owning pasts with talk of the weather and Ole Miss football.

The oddity of it is most apparent during Spring and Fall Pilgrimage seasons, when plantation owners in satin hoop skirts - and those belly-hugging Confederate costumes - fling open their mahogany doors to thousands of Yankee and European tourists. But the burgeoning tourist industry has created a conundrum for Natchez residents as they struggle to come to terms with a past that brings profit, but also shame.

Until 10 years ago, the word "slave" was not uttered on mansion tours. No one knew how to address the past, says Ms. Williams. Yet it was clear that Natchez drew history buffs because it is a place where the Old South lingers, where manners, magnolia, and moonlight still matter.

The majority of gawkers here are white. "We always find more white tourists who want to see the way things were done," says Laura Godfrey, director of the Natchez Chamber of Commerce. "Sure, I think one reason is because blacks have a certain pain associated with that time in history."

Yet many Natchez residents look at the past through a veil of lace and linen rather than a filter of politics. Sarah Jones, an African-American Natchez Garden Club member, insists she has no problem giving tours in houses where slaves once worked.

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