DG MARTIN COLUMN: Natchez’s preservation heroes came from North Carolina

Published 4:00 pm Tuesday, November 8, 2022

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If you lived in Natchez, Mississippi, a city that reportedly in 1850 had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country — all that wealth built on cotton and slavery resulting in the largest concentration of antebellum mansions in the South, where would you go to find an expert to help preserve those historic buildings?

D.G. Martin

Folks might tell you they would go to North Carolina where a couple of their preservation heroes grew up.

Last year the Historic Natchez Foundation announced the creation of a center dedicated to the vision established by former directors Ron and Mimi Miller.

Ron, who died Sept. 2 and his wife Mimi grew up in the Charlotte area. Ron graduated from Myers Park High School in Charlotte and went to UNC-Chapel Hill, where his cousin Jeff Beaver was a star quarterback on the football team.

The foundation’s announcement stated, “Ron Miller served as director of the foundation for approximately 30 years, starting in 1979. Mimi Miller took over as executive director in 2008 when her husband went to the Gulf Coast to work for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Mimi Miller retired in 2018 after [Carter] Burns was hired as director.

“Friday’s unveiling of the Miller Center for Historic Preservation culminated an evening that celebrated the work of the Millers, who came to Natchez in the 1970s and devoted their lives to the area. The celebration was part of HNF’s annual meeting at his headquarters on Commerce Street.”

Executive Director Carter Burns said, “From creating the foundation to saving buildings around town, professionally and personally, to events like the balloon festival [balloonfestival@natchez.org], formerly known as the balloon race, their fingerprints are all over Natchez and it is the better for it,”

Burns said the new center will be the research arm of the Historic Natchez Foundation. The center will conduct scholarly research, create publications, host scholars, and organize lectures, conferences and special events.

“It will continue the work of the Millers to discover, document and preserve all aspects of Natchez history,” Burns said.

After Ron’s death was announced, Dan M. Gibson, mayor of Natchez gave the following tribute:

“Rarely does one have the opportunity to meet a gentleman like Ron Miller. As a person, his kindness and concern for others was evident the moment you met him.

As a leader, Ron singlehandedly brought about a new appreciation for historic preservation in Natchez. It can be said that his vision saved it. As the first executive director at the Natchez Historic Foundation, he charted a course that we all now follow. His wife Mimi succeeded him in that office, and together they’ve accomplished so much.

“I don’t think Natchez would be the Natchez we know and love if it were not for Ron. When we look around, so many buildings that could have gone the other way are today standing beautiful, having stood the test of time all because of his vision and leadership. I thank God for blessing Natchez with a man like Ron Miller.

“He truly made a difference in our beautiful city. May we live up to the legacy he now leaves behind. Because Natchez Deserves More.”

Mississippi owes North Carolina for the Millers. But remember that we owe Mississippi for authors and teachers such as Bill Ferris and Hodding Carter who brought their Mississippi experiences and wisdom to our state.

Also, celebrating Ron and Mimi Miller’s work in Natchez should make us proud and inspire us to support our state’s preservation efforts, including especially Preservation NC and its president, Myrick Howard.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”