Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ladies Night at the Old Court House

My father’s father, who’s been dead since 1967, made a surprise appearance at my Sultana talk on Saturday night, having found me through two young women, also deceased, whose elderly niece came to hear.

Also present was the late Blanche Terry, who was far and away my best source when I was a newspaper reporter in Vicksburg in the early eighties, and who is commemorated in a plaque near the stair of the Old Court House Museum, where I gave my talk, and where she worked for 30 years.

Mrs. Terry knew everything about the ins and outs of life in Vicksburg, her working knowledge encompassing both contemporary and historical life, which in these parts tend to be inseparable. She knew the story of the Sultana as well as who, at that moment, was having an affair with whom. Which is to say that if I was covering a murder trial she could predict the day’s courtroom action before it happened, down to the most minute details, along with the final outcome. She knew all the characters and had discerned the patterns.

On the surface, Mrs. Terry looked like a stereotypical blue-haired lady, with her prim dress and perfectly molded hair, and might easily have been mistaken for the kind of southerner who walked out of “Gone With the Wind” the first time Gen. Sherman’s name was uttered on the screen. She was, however, a maverick among southern belles. She once told me that when she worked at a plant south of town in the sixties she got crossways with the KKK for sitting at a table in the cafeteria with a black woman who had recently been hired. The woman, the first black employee of the plant, had been universally ostracized, except by Mrs. Terry. The result was that one day when Mrs. Terry and a friend who also worked in the plant, who drove a convertible Barracuda, were headed back into town after work, a group of redneck women ran them off the road.

I had hoped that Mrs. Terry would be there for my talk, and didn’t realize she had died until I came upon her plaque at the top of the stair. My first thought was that I wished she had taken the time to write a book of her own. Trust me, you would want to read it.

By way of a disclaimer, I will point out that on the drive over to Vicksburg I had stopped by my friend Chad’s place, and he had asked what I planned to talk about. The obvious answer was my book about the Sultana, I said, though I wasn’t otherwise sure what the focus would be, beyond the role Vicksburg played in the saga. Chad allowed as how I sometimes wander pretty far afield during my Sultana talks, which is true. I’ve grown tired of telling the story straight through, after a year of doing so over and over again, and would rather gage the audience’s interest and pursue that, wherever it may lead. Likewise this note concerns my Sultana talk during the Vicksburg Pilgrimage, but what it’s really about is ladies night at the Old Court House Museum, and along the way, my grandfather, one of the primary subjects of my first book, Ten Point, which was set in the bayous of the low-lying Delta about 30 miles north of town.

I had some Sultana-centric observations to make, naturally, and I looked forward to speaking at the Old Court House, which in addition to being historic is an architecturally perfect building commanding a rise in the center of town, overlooking the old channel of the Mississippi River. The museum itself is a refreshing departure from the modern paradigm of carefully lit and curated artifacts; it’s basically just packed with stuff, a lot of which you can touch even though you probably shouldn’t. The Old Court House is very much old-school as museums go, and mixes adoration for Confederate President Jefferson Davis with occasional fondness for noteworthy African American culture. It offers a decidedly local take on history, pure and simple, and it made sense that Mrs. Terry had worked there, and it made sense that an elderly woman, whom I had previously not met, would arrive there with a tantalizing tidbit about my grandfather from her personal archive. It’s that kind of portal.

A sign in the courtroom noted that Davis had spoken there during a post-war lawsuit in which he sought to regain his nearby Brierfield Plantation, which had been seized by the federal government for use by the Freedman’s Bureau (“Take that, former leader of the failed rebellion.”). Anecdotes about Davis are the “Washington Slept Here” of Vicksburg. Pilgrimages, in the South, are essentially a way to draw tourists to towns where the trappings of antebellum life still resonate, for better or worse, and so it was that there was a lady in a pale blue hoopskirt in the audience on this particular night, though there were also numerous Yankee tourists who smiled and nodded as I related the travails of the Union soldiers who boarded the Sultana.

As readers of the book are aware, Vicksburg was the point of departure for the Sultana disaster. At the city’s old waterfront docks the doomed boat was overloaded with an estimated 2,400 recently freed prisoners of war, and it was there that greed and corruption on the part of U.S. military officials and private contractors conspired to doom 1,700 people to horrible deaths. One of the villains of the story, Capt. Frederick Speed, returned to Vicksburg after the war and became a prominent judge. Speed Street is named for him. Mrs. Terry told me that.

The freed prisoners were held for about a month in a camp east of town, and finally, in late April 1865, had made their way down the bluff to the waterfront, where the Sultana was moored. For most of them, it was to be the last leg of a journey that led to their doom. In my talk I noted that most of the landmarks of their world had disappeared, with the most prominent exception being the building we were in. I also took the opportunity to point out that one surviving landmark, Ceres Plantation, is scheduled to be razed by the county because the supervisors didn’t want to maintain the house, which was built in 1830 and fully restored in the late seventies. How a community that supposedly reveres history could deign to demolish a house that’s under consideration as a Mississippi Landmark is beyond me, but suffice it to say that Vicksburg is an intriguing, historic place, and overall, a mess.

When I lived in Vicksburg I found that owing primarily to its river-town ethnic diversity there was no real consensus, which was both fascinating and part of the city’s central problem. In addition to the familiar black-white conflicts, there were competing cliques: The Lebanese, the Italians, the Irish, the Chinese, the Jews. (Mrs. Terry was Irish.) No one could agree on anything. A lot of beautiful buildings were torn down as a result, and a great many others burned while I was there.

Only one person in the audience seemed concerned about the fate of Ceres, which most communities would see as a potential tourist goldmine. That person was an attractive older lady seated near the front, who shook her head and said, “Well, it’s my understanding that it’s not a fait accompli, just yet.” Such old ladies were once a formidable force in the South, particularly when it came to historic preservation, but that force has diminished considerably in the last few decades, owing to attrition, and their numbers are not being replaced. I was glad that this particular woman, whose name I later learned is Martha Leese, was still at work. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Leese is in the Daughters of the American Revolution. Though no one said so, I imagine she is also a Daughter of the Confederacy.

After the part of my talk about the Sultana someone asked about Mississippi in Africa, my second book, and the dialogue shifted to nearby Jefferson County, Miss., where part of the story took place. At this point Mrs. Leese again spoke up. Mrs. Leese, who is originally from Jefferson County, is a very beautiful, very poised woman, and her first question, as is usually the case down South, was, “Where are you from?” When I told her I was born in Jackson she asked, “Do you have family in Jefferson County?”

At this point I assumed we were simply having a little exchange. I wasn’t aware that she was going somewhere very specific with this. I said no, but that I had a friend whose family was from there, that I had moved a house from there, which was how I came to hear of the story of Mississippi in Africa, etc.

She looked somehow expectant, or was it knowing? I had the feeling she knew something. Then she said, “Are you related to a Paul Huffman?” I said my grandfather was named Paul Huffman. She then pulled a small photograph out of her purse and handed it to me (she was seated near the front).

I looked at it. There, alongside someone I didn’t recognize, stood my grandfather as a young man, younger than I’d ever seen him. A handsome guy, around 21, judging from the date of the photo, which was taken at the now-vanished train depot in Lorman, Miss., in Jefferson County.

“That’s him,” I said.

She asked if I was aware that he had lived in Jefferson County (I wasn’t). I knew he was from Memphis and lived in the Delta, but nothing about Jefferson County. Yet there he was, at the depot, smiling and holding a valise. At this point it became apparent that Mrs. Leese had essentially commandeered the courtroom, and we had more to discuss than would be of interest to the general audience, even by my liberal standards of digression, so we agreed to continue later in private, and returned to the audience Q&A.

After the talk ended Mrs. Leese took me by the arm and we slowly descended the stairs. She began explaining how her two aunts had met my grandfather, which piqued my curiosity. Unfortunately she was interrupted by someone who wanted me to sign his book. Mrs. Leese smiled and let go of my arm. “We’ll talk after,” she said.

“After” turned out to be a long time coming. I suppose I ask for it, by digressing so much myself, but I’ve observed that at my talks there’s always someone who wants to talk about their family’s genealogy, and it’s invariably a long spiel, during which I dare not offer any comment for fear of extending it. I simply nod, and as soon as there’s a break, say, “Shall I inscribe or just sign the book?” So the book signing at the Old Court House went long.

Among those who bought books were the lady in the hoopskirt and her husband, who was dressed in tails and a derby, who also lingered for a chat. As I signed their book it occurred to me that hoopskirts, which once seemed archaic throwbacks, were starting to look pretty radical. A hoopskirt would be a real attention-getter on the streets of New York, now that purple hair and nose rings are passé.

At one point I managed to sign two books for Mrs. Leese, but when the event finally ended she was nowhere to be found. I went outside, saw the amber evening sun lighting the vista of the Mississippi River and the Louisiana swamps, but no sign of her. I supposed she had given up and gone home, so I left my card with the museum director and asked him to give her my number. I’m curious about the two young ladies who knew my grandfather during a period of his life neither I nor anyone I’ve ever known had heard about. Plus, I wanted to know more about Mrs. Leese herself.

Afterward I had dinner at an antebellum house known as Anchuca (“Jefferson Davis Spoke Here”) with Sue and Bill Seratt, the latter of whom had facilitated my pilgrimage talk. Sue is in the DAR with Mrs. Leese, she said, and the conversation eventually wended its way to hoopskirts, at which point she informed me that it is possible to buy one on eBay for next-to-nothing. Apparently, after all these years, it’s a buyer’s market. Not that I’m interested in buying a hoopskirt, but Sue is, and I was curious to know about the surviving supply line. You can get one for as cheap as $17 plus shipping, Sue said. She thinks they’re made in Tennessee. Also there’s an Asian woman in California who will make them to order.

At this point, Sue dispelled another stereotype of southern femininity for me. The prevailing image of the hoopskirt is that it is all about propriety and, you know, putting women on a pedestal, but Sue said the real point was to dress large without the added encumbrance – and heat – of multiple petticoats. “It would have been too hot with all those layers,” she said.

So… it was possible that…

“…you could wear nothing under them at all,” Sue said.

At that point, the careworn imagery of the old South looked a little different. Which is, I guess, one of the joys of talking with people who know about things you’re unfamiliar with, something Blanche Terry, for one, totally understood. That, in fact, is one of the real rewards of talking publicly about the Sultana. Everyone has their own perspective, and everyone carries their own tidbits of knowledge, and it’s nice to have a big, old topic to roam around together.