Tuesday, 10 April 2012, 9:00PM – 10:00PM
In this brand new series for ITV1, Trevor McDonald ventures 2500 miles up the mighty Mississippi river to examine how this magnificent waterway has played a central role in the most dramatic events in American history.
Trevor begins his journey in the stunning Gulf of Mexico before travelling by helicopter, boat and plane through 31 states to reach the source of the river in Northern Minnesota.
Along the way he looks back through history and gives his views on the most painful chapters of life in the Deep South and sees the devastating affects of disasters both natural and man-made.
Plus, he talks to people he meets along the way, including actor Morgan Freeman, who talks about life growing up in a segregated community, and one of Elvis Presley’s former girlfriends.
The first part of the series sees Trevor take to the air to look down upon the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico, before heading to New Orleans, where he attends a colourful jazz funeral, meets a debutante and witnesses the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina still evident years after the tragedy.
His journey takes him to a plantation, one of a few still working, and he is shocked to see inside a slave cabin. Trevor also takes a ride on an airboat through a primeval swamp and comes face to face with one of his worse nightmares.
As he starts his exploration of the Mississippi, Trevor is mesmerised by the breath-taking view as his seaplane swoops over the vast wetland created by the river as it meets the sea.
His first stop is the vibrant city of New Orleans where he heads for the Garden District to see its impressive collection of mansions, some of which have been in the same family for generations. He meets the Favrow family who have lived in the area for 200 years. He talks to their daughter about the debutante ball season, a traditional period which sees daughters of wealthy New Orleans’ families attend a year long calendar of parties and balls in lavish gowns.
In contrast to the Garden District, Trevor also visits the Third Ward of the city where most of the inhabitants are descendants of slaves. He attends a jazz funeral, a music and dance parade to see off one of the much-loved members of the community.
Next Trevor takes to the river itself and ventures aboard a tug boat to learn about the challenges and dangers of navigating the Mississippi.
And he heads to downtown New Orleans where jazz began and visits the Howling Wolf Club to listen to the music and join in the dancing. One band member reveals to Trevor how joining a jazz band has saved his life. He explains that so many of his contemporaries have suffered from depression because of the high crime rates in the area and some have even turned to drugs.
As they chat, Trevor decides to try out a tuba, but even though he successfully holds it around his neck, he fails to get a sound out of it.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans causing the banks of the Mississippi to burst and eighty per cent of the city to be submerged under water.
Hundreds of people died in the floods and the devastating effects of the storm can still be seen today. Trevor visits the Ninth Ward, which was the worst hit area, with Darin Collins, who grew up there. The area, which was once full of houses and families living in busy streets, is now mostly deserted. All that remains in many streets are the slabs of concrete where homes once stood. Chillingly, on any houses that do remain, are painted numbers indicating the dates when they were inspected and how many bodies were found inside at the time of the disaster.
Trevor is moved by the scene and says: “Because this part of the city is overwhelmingly poor and black, the debate about its reconstruction has inevitably raised questions about race and inequality. Before the hurricane, the population of New Orleans was three quarters black, now, the figure is just over half. Many survivors of Katrina simply cannot afford to rebuild their lives in a devastated ward.
“To me, the official response to what happened here is a blot on the reputation of an otherwise prosperous city.”
After his trip to New Orleans, Trevor moves north to the plantation area of Edgard, Louisiana. He drives by many plantation mansions before visiting the Evergreen Plantation which is still a working farm. He meets manager Josephine Romo who shows him around and he admires the stunning views from the house and the beautiful vintage furniture inside.
However, out of sight from the main house lay over 20 wooden cabins where the slaves working on the plantation were housed and Trevor is taken aback as he goes inside them. Josephine explains how long it would have taken the slaves to build these homes and she and Trevor discuss how the women would give birth to babies in the sure knowledge that their children would inevitably grow up to be slaves.
Josephine shows Trevor a document from an evaluation of the estates in 1835, when slaves were detailed as ‘Negro of confidence’ and ‘Negress field hand and children worth $1000′.
After his visit, Trevor says: “Even now, looking at these old houses, you can almost taste the wealth they shared. But, of course, they’re central to one of the darkest periods in American history. Less visible is the uglier side of plantation magnificence, reminders of the lives of thousands who toiled from dawn to dusk as slaves.
“On a fine day like this, with the birds singing in the trees, Evergreen may look idyllic, but these cabins hold memories of years of unremitting toil, casual brutality and unconscionable hardship.”
Moving on, Trevor takes a ride on an airboat across the biggest swamp in the county and marvels at how the owner, Tucker Freedman, finds his way around. The inhospitable swamp, which once served as a refuge for runaway slaves, is now home to a variety of wildlife and Trevor is stunned when Tucker attracts a local alligator to the boat by calling his name and making a special sound with his mouth. Trevor looks on as his most feared animal swims for the boat to be fed marshmallows and be petted by Tucker.
Finally, Trevor visits a gospel church and speaks to the pastor who explains to him that, even today, many of the songs sung in the church are inspired by freedom and liberation.