Sunday, December 11, 2011
Letter from Mississippi
When she mentioned Mississippi, I had to ask which one. Because there are two. There is the one that everyone knows about, in the United States, and there is another, a kind of parallel universe, in the West African nation of Liberia, settled by freed American slaves in the early 19th century.
Evangeline Pelham Wayne is originally from Liberia, where her family owned a plantation-style house on Mississippi Street in Greenville, the capital of the region known as Mississippi in Africa. On a recent autumn day she visited the other Mississippi, in the United States, for an odd reunion of people who had never met, and who were, in a sense, returning to a place most of them had never been.
“When I was growing up in Liberia,” Wayne recalled, “my father always made me spell Mississippi aloud. M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i. If I missed one ‘S’, he’d make me do it again. ‘Try again,’ he’d say. ‘Think about it.’ ‘Think about what?’ I’d say. ‘Why do I have to spell this word?’ His answer: 'One day you'll find out.'”
The recitation of Mississippi’s repetitive crooked letters, humpback letters and “I”s is a childhood ritual in the U.S., but Wayne was baffled by her father’s preoccupation with the word. Years later, as a student at the University of Liberia, she was assigned to write a report about her family history, and by then her father had died, so she convinced her grandmother, Louise Ross Rogers, who was almost 90, to tell her the story. So began a personal journey that eventually led Wayne to the U.S. and, on a recent windy November day, to an abandoned plantation house known as Prospect Hill, in Jefferson County, Mississippi, where she hoped to find clues about her family and her own identity, which is complicated by many factors, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Wayne is a descendant of Africans who were enslaved and taken to the U.S., then allowed to immigrate “back” to Africa in the 1840s, to the freed slave colony in Mississippi in Africa. In 1992, Wayne immigrated “back” to the U.S to escape Liberia’s civil wars, which had begun two years before and would last until 2003, and which were, in many ways, rooted in a long-running conflict between the Americo-Liberians, as the freed slaves and their descendents were known, and indigenous groups, who vastly outnumbered them. Some of the indigenous tribes had been involved in the slave trade when the settlers arrived, and some Americos later enslaved them. Liberia’s history is among the more complicated in Africa, and though Wayne’s family had been there for more than a century and a half, she often felt like an outsider. She spoke no indigenous languages, and neither did any of her family. Now, in the U.S., she said, she is likewise considered a foreigner.
“To be honest, I’m unsure of who, and what, I am, and where I fit in,” she said. "In Liberia or America, I'm considered a foreigner -- someone who does not truly belong."
The event that brought Wayne and her family to Prospect Hill was hosted by the New Mexico-based Archaeological Conservancy, which bought the remote, endangered house in the summer of 2011 in hopes of saving it, along with whatever evidence of its complex history remains buried underground. Jessica Crawford, the conservancy’s regional director, had facilitated the purchase, and afterward was inundated with requests to see the remote, somewhat mysterious property, both from people who had a family connection to it and by others who were simply curious. She decided to hold a private event on the morning of Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011, for those connected to the house, and a public tour in the afternoon, for a suggested donation of $25 per person to a fund to be used for stabilizing the structure. The conservancy’s goal is to stabilize the structure, then resell it to someone who will fully restore and preserve it, while retaining an archaeological easement so that the buried artifacts – around the big house, in the vicinity of the vanished slave quarters and other plantation structures, and in the former fields -- might one day be unearthed and studied.
Gathered on the lawn that morning, before the looming tableau of the dramatically deteriorating house, was an array of people of mixed races, ages and backgrounds who might otherwise have seemed to possess little in common.
Being at the center of attention made Wayne a little nervous, partly because the gathering was so freighted, and partly because her own part of the story was riddled with asterisks and asides.
Arriving at Prospect Hill brought on a rush of unfamiliar emotions, she said. “Driving in, the closer we got, the odder I felt,” she said. She was exhausted and dazed after driving 18 hours, all night, from suburban Washington, D.C., where she now lives. Her large, expressive eyes were bloodshot, which made her self-conscious because she knew others were observing her closely.
Everyone was looking closely at everyone, but perhaps more so at her and her family, because of who they were, or were believed to be. Wayne’s family represented a sort of triumphal return of the freed Prospect Hill slaves, who had walked away on a cold, rainy winter day in 1845.
Wayne began exploring her family’s possible connection to the place after coming across my nonfiction book, Mississippi in Africa, while researching her family’s history online. She had been researching her family since the early 1990s, but had so far reached nothing but dead ends. It seemed logical that the story would lead from Mississippi in Africa back to its namesake in the U.S., so when she heard about my book she contacted me to ask about Prospect Hill and Capt. Ross.
The subject of the two Mississippis had come up frequently when I visited Liberia in 2001. Roaming the streets of war-torn Monrovia, the nation’s capital, in search of anyone named Ross, I was frequently recognized as an American and asked what state I was from. When I answered “Mississippi,” a common response was, “Me, also!” at which point I would ask, “Mississippi, in Liberia, or Mississippi, in the States?” The answer was almost invariably: “Both.”
Liberians who hailed from the Mississippi region of Liberia were very much aware of the existence of Mississippi in the U.S., and were bewildered that the reverse was not true. Few Americans know anything about Liberia, including where it is. It is often confused with Libya, more than 2,000 miles away. During the civil wars, when Liberians on both sides called for the U.S. to intervene, a smugly ignorant Lou Dobbs warned on his news show that doing so might lead to “another Somalia,” though the two countries are as culturally and geographically distinct as Ireland and Uzbekistan.
Liberia was the first republic in Africa, founded in 1820 (though it did not gain its independence until two decades later) by the American Colonization Society, which was comprised of two groups with seemingly opposed yet overlapping aims: Abolitionists who saw “repatriation,” in the parlance of the times, as a way to make emancipation more politically palatable in the U.S., and slaveholders who were fearful of eventually being outnumbered by free black citizens (some members also saw repatriation as a way to Christianize the indigenous tribes). Liberia is located on the west coast of Africa, where prevailing winds were favorable for ships involved in the North America slave trade. As a result, many of the slaves in the U.S. came from West Africa, which played a role in the decision to repatriate the freed slaves there. Most of the freed slaves had never been to Africa, though, and in some cases were third- or fourth-generation Americans.
The colonial effort, which remains the only one that the U.S. has been directly responsible for, was private, but had the support of the federal government, which occasionally sent warships to quell disputes between the settlers and the indigenous tribes. The settlers, thrust into the wilds of Africa, typically named their communities after familiar places, much like colonial Americans gave their communities names such as New York, New Jersey and New London. In addition to Mississippi in Africa, there are today communities in Liberia known as Louisiana, Georgia and Virginia, and a county named Maryland, all harking to the original emigrants’ home states. The settlers viewed the indigenous groups with a mix of fear, disdain, pity and hostility, much the way British colonials viewed native Americans. Not surprisingly, similar hostilities quickly ensued.
The largest contingent of Liberian emigrants – about 300 – came from Prospect Hill and related family plantations, following a tumultuous decade-long court battle over Isaac Ross’s will, during which a slave uprising led to the burning of the original mansion, the death of a young girl, and the subsequent lynching of a group of slaves believed to have been the perpetrators. Most of the alleged perpetrators were hanged – ostensibly, from a white oak tree on the lawn, part of which momentously fell onto the existing house years ago, and whose dead trunk now lies in the yard, like a menacing stage prop.
Everyone at the reunion was playing a stand-in role in a drama of profound historical consequence, which conferred new meaning upon their otherwise ordinary lives. James Belton was no longer simply a retired schoolteacher from McComb, Mississippi. He was Mariah Belton’s great grandson, returned to the scene of a major historical crime, which he viewed with a measure of pride and sadness, in that his family had sought to shake free the shackles of slavery, yet had been responsible for the death of the young girl. At one point Belton ventured alone to the Prospect Hill family cemetery, which is dominated by a marble obelisk erected in tribute to Ross by the Mississippi Colonization Society (a state chapter of the American group), and knelt at the grave of the young girl, whose name was Martha.
Later, as Belton spoke to the group about his research and how he had located the descendants of Mariah Belton’s long-lost sons, he was upstaged by a peacock that emerged from the bushes, strutted blithely behind him, then flew, in an awkward, noisy burst of wings, onto what remained of Prospect Hill’s front gallery and disappeared into the darkened parlor. Watching this, in confused silence, were four middle-aged sisters whose grandmother had been the last family member to live in the house, and whose more distant ancestors had fought against the immigration of the Prospect Hill slaves. Behind them was elderly Betty McGehee, descended from the side of the family that had supported the immigration, and so was divided from the sisters’ side. Then there were the descendants of the slaves who did not immigrate, as well as those who did, and finally, a woman and her children who, though they are African American, trace their lineage to Isaac Ross, the man who had set all their stories in motion.
When Crawford first came upon Prospect Hill, on a hot September day in 2010, the structure was overgrown and had been in serious disrepair for decades. Its eccentric last owner had done little maintenance and made almost no repairs, including to the leaky roof, choosing instead to paint interior rooms while exterior woodwork rotted and collapsed onto the ground. Crawford was aware of the plantation’s dramatic history, but that first visit was less like a typical old-house tour than a probe of once beautiful, now sadly deranged mind. The place had been ransacked numerous times and was in such bad shape that she had a hard time even appreciating its grand architecture. Large chunks of plaster had fallen from its 14-foot ceilings; paint was flaking from the elaborate Greek Revival trim; panes were broken in the towering windows, which were partially shrouded by ripped curtains and sagging, gap-toothed shutters. As she picked her way through the dank, shadowy rooms, Crawford observed signs of decay at every turn: Threadbare, moldering rugs, rat-gnawed tables, overturned and emasculated chairs, piles of rain-soaked, mildewed clothes. An empty bourbon bottle protruded from a mass of sodden debris atop a warped grand piano. An array of cooking pots, placed on the floor to catch water from leaks in the roof, had been overflowing for years. Books and papers were scattered everywhere, as if in the aftermath of looting. “It was as if a bomb had gone off inside,” she said.
Considering Prospect Hill’s torturous history, its transformation to a house of minor horrors struck Crawford as sadly appropriate. But for someone devoted to uncovering and preserving clues about the past, the structure’s disfigurement and the seeming inevitability of its loss were unacceptable. She had come to document what remained of the place, yet had not taken a single photo or note as she prepared to leave. “The scenes were just too ugly,” she recalled. “It made me sick.” Then, as she stepped gingerly toward the front door, wanting only to get out, she saw a patch of brilliant color from the corner of her eye. “I looked to the left, and there was this peacock standing in front of the bookcase in the front room,” she said. For the first time, she pulled out her camera and snapped a photo. In it, the peacock stands before a sunlit window, surrounded by fallen books and strewn bags of trash, its head cocked curiously toward her.
The bird had been left behind by the last occupant of the house, and because it was unaccustomed to visitors, quickly vanished from view, though not from Crawford’s memory. On the way home she thought of something her family’s housekeeper had told her when she was a child: As long as there is life in a house, its story isn’t over. As was painfully obvious, there were plenty of living things inside Prospect Hill -- rats, itinerant snakes, a beehive, at least two bats and an entire self-sustaining universe of insects and spiders. But the peacock hinted at a more engaging tale. Crawford chose its image as her take-away.
In her effort to save the house, Crawford has inserted herself into a story full of interesting characters, historical and otherwise. After convincing the owner to sell the house, and her boss at the conservancy to buy it – both impressive feats, under the circumstances, Crawford enlisted the help of friends, strangers, descendants, even jail inmates, to return it to a point where it might at least evoke its outsized history. Slowly the house began to reemerge, as Crawford and company prepared it to reprise its role for the reunion. Among those who stumbled upon the house during the period was Tate Taylor, director of the movie The Help, who saw the near-ruins of Prospect Hill from a helicopter. Taylor had recently bought an antebellum house in nearby Church Hill and saw Prospect Hill while flying there from Jackson. He happened to be traveling with a friend, Charles Greenlee, who was descended from Isaac Ross, and the two subsequently returned with a retinue of Hollywood types. Greenlee recalled the strange effect of coming upon the weathered, overgrown house, framed by moss-draped trees, as Isaac, the peacock, greeted them from inside it with a disturbing cry that sent one of the actresses running back toward the car.
Greenlee also attended the reunion event, at which Crawford and representatives of the state’s historic preservation community spoke of the need to preserve the property. Before the conservancy bought the house, the Mississippi Heritage Trust had included Prospect Hill on its 2011 list of most endangered historic structures in the state, and the trust’s director, David Presiozi, spoke during the reunion, as did Jennifer Baughn, chief architectural historian at the state Department of Archives and History. But the formal presentations at the event were mere monologues. The real action took place in conversations between the guests.
Before the event, some of those who planned to attend had expressed concern that there might be tension, and many of the conversations were, in fact, riddled with tiny red flags. One woman asked, more than once, how frequently rape occurred on slave plantations. But for most of those in attendance, the default setting was to be polite. One of the sisters whose grandmother had lived in the house, and whose ancestors had fought against the immigration effort, had earlier wondered aloud how the Liberians would view them. Old times, clearly, are not forgotten, in Dixie or in Liberia, and she was concerned that her family might be perceived as somehow hostile, or be viewed with hostility. Likewise Betty McGehee, who, though she as descended from Isaac Ross and the side of the family that supported freeing the slaves, wondered if her land holdings and heirloom antiques represented “a kind of greed, really -- for me to have these things, and hold onto them?” The question wasn’t an idle exercise; as Wayne observed, McGehee seemed genuinely concerned about how differently her own life had played out than those of others whose paths ran parallel for a while at Prospect Hill. Laura “Butch” Ross, meanwhile, observed that despite the obvious, the story of Prospect Hill was anything but black and white; she was living proof of that, as a black Ross descended from white Rosses.
The stories the people at the reunion shared while roaming the dark rooms of the house, or the cemetery, or while sitting beneath the aged cedar trees, were personal, but had an epic cast, spanning two centuries and two continents. Everyone existed somewhere along the vast network of interconnected circuits, and now the circuits were all lit up for the first time; everyone seemed to want things to go smoothly.
Most, like Crawford, were surprised that the event received little media attention. National Public Radio had initially planned to cover it but later cancelled, saying the story seemed too complicated to explain in radio. Meanwhile, an NPR correspondent was elsewhere in the county, covering a more conventionally black-and-white story, about an unsolved civil rights era murder. All of which meant that the reunion unfolded more or less in private.
Toward the end of the day, as the crowds dispersed, Crawford, Wayne and I departed for dinner on the riverfront in Natchez, a few hours before Wayne and her family would set off on a midnight, marathon return drive to Maryland. As we sat at our table, debriefing each other about the day, Wayne’s thoughts drifted back to the other world -- Liberia. Each time the waiter approached to take our orders, it seemed she was in the middle of describing something tumultuous, and he politely continued on. During the Liberian civil war, her sister was raped and murdered. Wayne herself was accosted by both government forces and rebels, who attempted to kill her husband and two sons, as she wandered the dark streets of Monrovia, in labor, trying to get to the hospital. Her story is full of dramatic asides, both historical and recent, and everyone who had met her that day seemed intent on helping her nail down the necessary details, and to find a kind of closure at Prospect Hill. But like the bigger saga, the day was complicated, and not entirely satisfying. Connections were made, or reestablished, but many, many questions remained. At the center of the cultural mashup was Crawford, who, in a comparatively short time, became a key moderator of the story, as well as the protector of the house, and in her own right, a character in its saga.
Crawford’s goal, initially, was straightforward: To save the archaeological evidence. It soon expanded to encompass the existing house, without which the story would be disembodied. She noted that given the attention that’s recently been focused on Liberia as a result of the awarding of the Nobel Prize to its president as well as a Liberian peace activist and a political activist in Yemen, “It seems like the perfect time to explore the connections that were made there.”
“What struck me,” she added, “is that the place means so much to so many people, for so many – and often very different – reasons.”
Photos by author or courtesy Jessica Crawford