Soul Of America




Major Beaches with Soul

Mississippi Gulf Coast


Historical Context

First settled by the French almost 300 years ago, Biloxi has been under the control of the English, Spanish, and Confederate s over the years. It is one of the oldest cities in the U.S., and it is the oldest French settlement in the Mississippi Valley. Its history also encompasses Native Americans who are thought to have occupied the area years before the arrival of the Europeans.

Once Mississippi became a state in 1817 Biloxi began to develop, soon becoming a favorite summer resort for many southerners who built vacation homes here or patronized the city's many hotels. Bay St. Louis developed an emphasis on Catholic religion and art. Biloxi was the seafood capital of the Coast. Gulfport was the business center--you could find Black doctors, builders, merchants and labor workers here.

Most early Biloxians of African descent were slaves. Whether slave or free, several made significant contributions to the cultural landscape here. For example, at Beauvoir you can view the work of Robert Dill, a free Black credited with construction of several structures in the area. The Pleasant Reed House, built and owned by a freeman Pleasant Reed, stands as a testament to the success of Biloxi's most prominent African American family during the Jim Crow period, which was influential in the lumber, fishing and tourism industries. Currently wrapped in plastic to preserve it, the home will be moved to the new Biloxi Museum under construction a few blocks away, and will adjoin the African American Gallery expected to open in 2004.

Fort Massachusetts,12 miles offshore on Ship Island, is one of the last masonry forts built by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and one of America's most important outposts during the Civil War. After taking the fort from the Confederates, in 1862 the Union organized the First Regiment of Native Guards, which consisted of free men of color and ex-slaves. These soldiers secured the island, and in one battle they forced Confederate troops out of Pascagoula as well.

After the Civil War, African Americans here became shrimpers, house servants and homebuilders. Though many tend to think of the Deep South for its Baptist congregations, the Catholic faith is well represented in the region. It began with St. Augustine Catholic Church and Seminary is the first Roman Catholic seminary in the U.S. established specifically to train Blacks for the priesthood, and the oldest existing Catholic seminary in Mississippi.

Over the years several nationally-known brothers and sisters have come from the Mississippi Gulf Coast: Tavis Smiley (Magnolia Grove), sports announcer Robin Roberts (Pass Christian), major league bassball player Matthew Lawson (Saucier), pro football player Terrell Buckley (Pascagoula), pro basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Soria City) and Colonel Larry Roberts, father of Robin Roberts and former Tuskegee Airman.

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