A Tale Of Two Stairways

Past, Present, Faulkner

May 24, 2019 in El Turista,SOUTHERN JOURNAL,Southwest,U. S. Politics | Comments (0)



“My fellow citizens,” Abraham Lincoln said, addressing Congress in December 1863. “We cannot escape history.” The sentiment and, “The past never dies. It is not even past,”  a line from William Faulkner that has been elevated by quote pickers to the status of an aphorism about the South, hummed like a soundtrack in my mind as we (my daughter and I) discovered the state of Mississippi. Don’t forget slavery, the bluesy background kept repeating. Don’t forget the violence of the 1960’s. 

She was not even born then, but I did not have to tell her about Mississippi Burning: the KKK at night, the exonerated murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner. The endless anniversaries attract the media. They become news, affordable to produce from the archives. Not even the past.

We went to Natchez because I wanted to drive some of the Natchez Trace Parkway that goes 444 miles to Nashville and look for signs of the original wagon road. I like historic trails. Old spirits follow them, and you can find things. In arid northern New Mexico I have seen 150-year-old wagon tracks from the Old Santa Fe Trail and found a rusty spur.

Now, Natchez is a leafy little town on a bluff of the Mississippi river. Population 15,000, down from 22,000 in 1980 when there was a tire factory and a pulp mill. There are no big employers now, just tourist attractions and real estate bargains and a posh casino on a permanent steamboat. 

The racial divide in Natchez is African American 60 per cent, Anglo American 36 percent — the reverse of the statewide percentages. Natchez has had black mayors since 2004. Billboards were advertising a stern black candidate running for sheriff against the incumbent, also African American. The city still promotes 19 accessible antebellum mansions. Yes, they were built before the civil war by wealthy slave owners. Their architecture is mostly brick walls elaborate white porticos and classical white columns supporting long second-story galleries. The style is called Greek revival (I recalled the Athenians had slaves.)

Circling In Natchez

Inside one mansion, called Auburn, is a self-supporting double-helix stairway that makes two full turns. It stands by itself like a stretched coil spring. The hand rail is a continuous bend of dark wood. I was surprised because I thought the only such woodwork masterpiece is the “Miraculous Staircase” in Santa Fe’s Loretto Chapel. I took a picture and posted it for the enlightenment of friends in New Mexico, where I worked for a long time. 

So why is not the Natchez staircase famous too? Well, tourism depends upon stories, or histories. Tourists (like we journalists) go out and bring back stories — with pictures. The Loretto Chapel story is mysterious and sweet. The Auburn mansion story is not.

Loretto was consecrated in 1878, but there was an unsolved architectural problem, and the architect had died. The choir loft was left hanging 20 feet above the floor with no access. Choirs don’t usually climb ladders. There was no space in the narrow chapel for ordinary stairs. The nuns prayed and prayed. Along came a mysterious stranger. He built the double helix staircase using simple hand tools and wood-peg joinery. And then he vanished, leaving no name.

Auburn was built 70 years earlier by a politician who became state attorney general, but it soon passed to a doctor named Stephen Duncan who arrived from Pennsylvania in 1809 and got into investment and banking. By 1850 he owned numerous plantations and a thousand slaves. He was not alone among slaveholders on the Natchez bluff. A common estimate is there were more millionaires there before the civil war than in New York City.


Most of their plantations were across the river, in the Louisiana flats. Our host at a luxurious bed and breakfast mansion on the Natchez Trace Parkway made an interesting point at the formal breakfast table one morning. He said the popular image from the movies of plantation homes with a tree-lined lanes is misleading. The plantation residences were “farmhouses.” The owner-planters lived with their families in town — in showplaces with halls like ballroom floors where they entertained and the men did business and politics.

In other words, the wealthy planters kept their distance from their slaves and overseers. It occurred to me that this distancing is a factor in the extraordinary shame of American slavery.

I mean, slaves going back to even the Old Testament may have been treated differently. A scholar of colonial slavery in Louisiana, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, writes that the French, who colonized New Orleans in 1718,

Our bed and breakfast

did not consider Africans as “uncivilized.” She says, “French New Orleans was a brutal, violent place. But it cannot be understood by projecting contemporary attitudes toward race backward in time. There is no evidence of racial exclusiveness and contempt that characterizes more recent times.”  

There it is: contempt. It explains the violent resistance to integration a century after the civil war and the legacy of white supremacy now. In the civil rights era the KKK was revived in Natchez. Two car bombings — one that critically injured the head of the local NAACP, one that killed a black worker the day after he was promoted to a traditionally white management position — spurred African Americans to take up arms. The governor called out the national guard. 

And so goes one simple explanation (there are others) why beautiful historic Natchez on the Mississippi is not flourishing. The shame of slavery with its legacy is not even the past.

This was one of the refutations of current dismissive attitudes from a white graduate student who guided our tour group at Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the only antebellum plantation focused on the slaves. It is a private property bought and restored by a Louisiana lawyer-developer using $8 million of his own money and open to the public since 2014. The guide said those who want to ignore slavery because all that stuff was long ago and far away are blind the the legacy of the “slave society” that involved everybody including righteous preachers, northern politicians and eastern bankers.

She said the argument that some slaves were well treated is unsupported. She said the revolt by enslaved Africans against the French colonists that resulted in the establishment of Haiti as free nation in 1791 is downplayed because the Haitian revolution so disturbed the American planters that they turned to discipline by terror.  She said the story that house servants enjoyed their superior positions fails to acknowledge that they were isolated from their African community and that a slave in the house was in constant contact with the masters and therefor subject to harassment and their intermittent moods. 

The centerpiece of Whitney is a lane of granite placards with quotes and engraved scenes and the hundreds of names of slaves who had lived there. Single common names. Slaves had no family names. They not only had been ripped from their African families, wholesale, but their American families were ripped apart, retail. On the granite are quotes evoked in the 1930’s by the Federal Writers Project from old people born into slavery: 

“Every body worked, young and ole; if you could only carry two or three sugar cane, yo’ worked. No school, no church. An’ Saturday night dey always have a dance, but yo’ worked. Yo’ has to put yo’ candle out early and shut yo’self up, den get up while it’s still dark an’ start to work.”

“Dey didn’t larn us nothin’ an didn’t ‘low us to larn nothin.’ Iffen dey ketch us larnin’ to read an’ write, dey cut us han’ off.”

“Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on that can tell you what slavery is — ’tis he who has endured.”

The restoration includes a clapboard church, among the windowless and doorless mass slave cabins, built in 1870 in the Protestant movement to Christianize freed African Americans, who by then were free laborers living on sustenance wages with nowhere else to go. The plantation church is populated by life size models of curious sad wary children. 

There are no quotes from the elite in the mansions, but I am sure they would have talked something like the wife of a Boston banker visiting American-supported Cuban plantations quoted in the history of Cuban slavery, No God But Gain:

“The conversation in most companies consists of the price of slaves. ‘Such a day, a fine cargo of negroes arrived from the coast of Guinea.  Have been to see them, they are fine looking felons. What will they sell for?’” 

 After hurricane Katrina, I read, there was opposition to repairing damaged antebellum mansions, and some commenters on travel web sites criticize the exclusive mansion tours. Still, at the Auburn mansion, amiable women of the Natchez Garden Club greet you and proudly show you around, speaking of interior decoration, historic furnishings and fashionable quadrilles. They point out that the adjacent 280-acre Duncan park was donated to the city by the Duncan heirs. And they display a letter written in 1876 about the estate’s horses in a fine script by the black butler to the absent owner.

The salutation is “Dear Master Steve,” and the ending is, “I feel grateful for the confidence reposed in my integrity and I shall endeavor to deserve it.” Signed, “I am your obedient / and a name.

At Rosalie mansion, named for the historic Fort Rosalie nearby, members of the DAR show priceless furnishings and describe the architect’s design for cooling by natural air circulation. They tell a nicer than usual story about this mansion’s builder, Peter Little, who arrived from Pennsylvania (another midwesterner) at age 18 in 1798, seeking work as a laborer. He bought land and a couple of slaves, immediately selling one at a loss and freeing the other. Eventually he bought a derelict river boat and began his fortune by adapting its steam engine to run a circular saw, producing lumber from the ancient cypress trees in the Louisiana bayous. (Dark side: those redwood-like trees were home to birds that ate billions of mosquitos that were vectors for yellow fever.) 

Rosalie fence is all cypress

He became friends in his daily crossings of the river with the ferryman, who, along with his wife, was infected in the yellow fever epidemic of 1805. Before they died they pleaded with Little to take care of their 13-year-old daughter, Eliza. He did — marrying her three years later, sending her to school in Baltimore, outfitting her with the best clothes from New Orleans when she returned as a refined adult, and introducing her to society. He built the Rosalie mansion for her in 1820-23. Little did not become a slave-owning planter until his lumber business made him rich. He and Eliza lived at Rosalie childless but happily until their deaths shortly before the Civil War, the story goes. 

Peter Little is like Thomas Sutpen in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Except Sutpen is evil and there is no happily-everafter ending. I decided to understand both as fictions telling their own truths.

In an irony of the civil war,  for a while in 1863 an upstairs Rosalie bedroom with a window looking down on a reach of the river was occupied by Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. The mayor of Natchez had surrendered rather than suffer the fate of Vicksburg, ruined by the cannons of Grant’s new iron-clad river boats and besieged for nearly two months. 

Still, most wealthy Natchez survivors of the war lost their plantations and some, their mansions. Dr. Duncan, top nabob with the most slaves to his name but never a supporter of the Confederacy, kept Auburn but moved to New York City, where he continued banking and investing. For a while he worked on an unsuccessful project to send freedmen to Canada. The enlisted and often drafted Confederate soldiers, most not even slave owners, suffered the most. Although they were released with their possessions, even their horses, under Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender agreement with Grant at Appomattox, they went home to the poverty of the Reconstruction era as the nation industrialized but the South was left behind. There’s one of them, a common soldier, atop an 1890 memorial to the local Confederate dead in Veteran’s Park near the cathedral in downtown Natchez. His rifle and his face hang down sadly. I wondered who among those who now revile Confederate monuments would want to remove him?

Before leaving town, we went to a Natchez park to see the “mounds,” built by the Natchez natives, who were dominant in the lower Mississippi valley from about 700 to 1500. In the museum we saw their pottery with incised complex designs. A video said they farmed, planting corn, beans and squash and their kinship organization was matrilineal — the same as the historic pueblos and their Anasazi ancestors in the dry Southwest. I wondered if there was prehistoric contact between these civilizations.

My daughter Maia at the mounds

The two original populations of Natchez and Santa Fe entered history with something else in common: both were colonized by European Catholics, the Natchez by the French, the Pueblo people by the Spanish. And both rebelled violently after initial accommodation of the invaders. Under the American successors, even now include conservatives in both Natchez and Santa Fe will talk with regret about an “invasion” by the Yankee United States. In Santa Fe it was Stephen Kearney in 1846. In Natchez it was Grant in 1863. African Americans are not part of this complaint, of course. But I wondered if they someday may unite politically, not with the conservative New Mexico hispanics, but with American Latinos, or Chicanos, in general.

One night we found the only super market in Natchez at closing time. Out on the huge strip-mall parking lot several hundred young people were partying. Mariachi music blared from the brightely lighted Mexican restaurant that was the focal point of the crowd. The supermarket manager stood just inside his doors watching the crowd. He warned us he would close in ten minutes. I asked him what was going on out there. 

“Cinco de Mayo,” he said. 

What? A celebration of Mexican independence in a town that is about 1 per cent Latino?

Oh, I saw:  these partiers were not speaking Spanish. Nor were they traditional white Southern parking lot partiers.

When we got back with some groceries, there was another car parked close to ours, leaving only about two feet on the passenger side. Some young men were looking out open windows and talking to a pretty girl.

She, the black girl, cleared the way for us and said to me, “What’s your name?”

“My name? Lorenzo,” I said sarcastically. She laughed, and I said, “What’s yours?”

She told me. She raised her right hand.

High five! Her hand was warm.



My Fellow Americans. . .

November 9, 2016 in SOUTHERN JOURNAL,U. S. Politics | Comments (2)

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

By Larry Joseph Calloway ©

 The networks were so unprepared for Donald Trump’s win that my election night switching caught only one panelist who could speak with authority for the key voters euphemistically called “white – no college degree.”  He was J. D. Vance, the black-haired concise-speaking author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” an immediately personal story of his poor and violent family from Appalachian Kentucky.

I was reading it in October along with another pre-election bestseller, the radical history “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg. These books are cultural not political, but they explain something about the “populist uprising,” as Vance termed it in an interview while adding that Trump understood the anger behind it but offered no solutions.

Apart from politics, my research represented an obsession with my father’s hardwood Appalachian roots. He was always wanting something far away. His sisters talked of North Carolina when we visited their farms near Lyons, CO. They were pretty and spoke in sweet accents. My father drank. He died. I was about to set the periodic ancestry project aside when, suddenly, up popped an email from a total stranger in Longmont, Colorado. I’ll get to the deep synchronicity* of it in a few minutes.

Writer-lawyer Vance’s family moved from Jackson, KT, to Middleton, in southern Ohio, so his grandfather could work in the Armco steel mill. It rusts away now under a Japanese name. His grandfather died as an out-of-work alcoholic. His mother, pregnant at high school graduation with his older brother, was more in love with drugs than any of her half dozen husbands.

His elegy is for his grandmother, who raised him. She was a heroic exemplar of the lost mountain culture of pride and toughness. She disciplined him relentlessly to pursue self-improvement through education and even, among other folksy wisdoms, learning golf because “that’s where rich people do business.” (Trump is an international developer of golf courses.)

Mamaw, as he called her, represents the culture lost when the families of several generations were uprooted by economics and dropped dead by economics. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” as my father used to say. I had his brother-in-law minister, a chaplain of the Arizona National Guard, read it at his graveside ceremony. Vance does not mention churchgoing in Middleton, but I suppose religion was a part of the lost culture because in every North Carolina hollow where I searched for Calloways there was a church — usually Baptist — often looking forsaken. Vance observes out of nowhere, “I wasn’t surprised that Mormon Utah — with its strong church, integrated communities, and intact families — wiped the floor with Rust Belt Ohio.”


The Grass and God in America

Part 1, New Mexico and Oklahoma

October 28, 2014 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (0)

Tags: , , , ,




As we, Patricia and I, began our drive in a Murano loaded with camping gear on a southern route from Crestone to Washington D.C. we established an informal division of blog labor, a reversal of occupational roles. She would be the journalist. I would be the judge. She would tell stories and keep track of things. I would hand down opinions. Soon I wanted to trade jobs because while she could enjoy the ride and report on whatever came down the pike, I would have to think.





I did not want to think about politics — the CNN audio on Sirius radio was all about “government shutdown” and “default.” I did not want to think about, on the other hand, the sad lot of ordinary rural Americans suffering out of sight of the politicians. After some judicial deliberation I chose another category of human behavior to observe and judge: namely, religion. After all, we were driving through the American bible belt. Pat liked this and suggested that on Sundays we should stop and go to church, especially to mega-church if we found one.

So, here we go. Let me first of all define religion so that we will not be detained along the way with argument. (more…)

A Hunger In The Land

Part Two, Oklahoma and The Cherokee Nation

October 28, 2013 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (5)

Tags: , , ,

At a restaurant called EAT in neon letters three feet high I ordered chicken fried steak and gravy, which is the essence of the official Oklahoma State Meal, created by the legislature in 1988 to promote beef and other agricultural derivatives including corn bread and pecan pie. EAT was crowded, and many of the noon customers were voluminous. There is no famine in this land (Gen 26: 1).

Not at least the sort of famine that drove Abraham and then Jacob and his sons into Egypt, where God saved them. The biblical stories of manna from heaven and the miracle of the loaves and fishes require you to suspend disbelief. But what if the famine and the salvation were allegories? Abandoning their God and going down to Egypt, worshiping “the idols of Egypt,” the people were at last brought back, spiritually. Estrangement, being a stranger in a strange land, is the greatest suffering. That is why the prophets and some of the Psalms lament Babylon. Dwelling in exile, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel admonished, brings estrangement from God. Which is to say: Religion is cultural. Suppress it and a way of life declines and dies. It’s in the Book!

How then could Christians ignore these profound themes of the Pentateuch? How could they not know the evil of exiling a people? In Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in a set of dioramas at the Cherokee Heritage Center, we saw the tragedy of exile. In the 1830‘s the Cherokee people in the American southeast were dispossessed. Their remarkable acculturation — a high rate of literacy, adoption of constitutional government — did not save them from depredation by frontier Americans under protection of southern politicians. They, men-women-children, were rounded up by the hundreds and marched a thousand miles by U.S. soldiers. The tragedy is now called “The Trail of Tears.” Those who survived were settled here, in “Indian Country.” What remained of their traditions was suppressed. Their children were educated in places like the girl’s school that once stood on these grounds. (more…)

The Music Everybody Knows

Part 3, The Ozarks and New Orleans


Tags: , , , ,

Because much of the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas is federal, all the campgrounds were closed, so we found ourselves checking-in at the Dogwood Motel in Mountainview (pop. c. 3000). The young man at the desk recommended a catfish restaurant and the Ozark Culture Center north of town.

Catfish needs no definition. Even anthropologists argue endlessly about culture, but at the proud little state park culture is about music and storytelling and broom making and copper annealing and dress making and wood carving and wool carding and weaving and cigar-box guitars and letter-press printing and quilting. You go from studio to studio where exhibitors show how things were done, as musicians in a pavilion outside sing old-timey songs. Bill Clinton visits here often, they say.

P1000630The printer caught my interest, the quilter, Pat’s. I was reminded how much work it took to hand-set type and justify it and make the impressions right. A printer apprenticeship was five years. The foot-treadle press must have been satisfying work because the printer, not the machinery, was in control of the speed and the paper feeding. The quilter showed Pat how to design and sew a “log cabin” patch, a square that has dark colors in one corner giving way to light colors in the opposite corner — like the cold side and the fire side of a log cabin.



Going In Peace

Part 4, the Natchez Trace


Tags: , ,

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches walking meditation. Early one morning in Hanoi he took a long line of us walking — slow and mindful, step by step, breath by breath — against the rush-hour torrent of 125 cc motor scooters, as government agents, no doubt, watched.  I am wondering how walking meditation would go over in the small towns of the American South, if I tried it.

The region is mostly Protestant and about one-third Southern Baptist. Our drive through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee on backroads left the impression that another third of the people attend non-denominational churches distinguished from each other by catchy themes. We noted signs proclaiming: Church of Divine Intervention,  Abundant Life Church, Life Changing Ministries, Free Will Baptist Church, The People’s Church and Baptist Ministry churches of New Zion, Old Jerusalem and New Hope of the Brethren.

I imagined many of these were solitary creations of men like Robert Duvall’s preacher in “The Apostle.” Take, for example, Jehovah Java in Lake Providence, LA. It is an excellent espresso coffee shop in a Starbuckless world, and it is part of a non-denominational church. It was created by a minister and his wife who love the Bean and the Lord. (more…)

Family In A Perfect World

Part 5, A North Carolina Holler


Tags: ,

Appalachian “hollers” (hollows) are perfect little worlds, or used to be. They provided everything a large family needed: timber, firewood and game from the surrounding mountains, grazing on the descending  slopes, farming in the fertile bottom lands, and even fish in the streams. And in almost every holler was a church and a cemetery next to it. The people were Baptists. They baptized in the water — total immersion. My grandfather and grandmother on my dad’s side were from the Appalachia’s of western North Carolina,  near Mars Hill, which now is a picturesque little college town.

The college was started by the Southern Baptist Convention, but in recent years it has turned to other sources for funding. The region is diversifying. Many of the rural churches look abandoned. They are eclipsed by McMansions on the hills. In one of these land coves north of Asheville, half way between the Blue Ridge Mountains Parkway and the Appalachian Trail, we found Calloway Road.

I knocked on the door of a modular home, arousing a large dog inside. A pretty woman about the age of my daughters hushed the dog and came to the door holding a soft warm cookie with a bite gone. I told her my father’s people came from around there. She listened carefully. I smiled. Finally, she said, “I’m a Calloway. Would you like a pumpkin cookie?” She left and returned with two in a Ziplock bag. Pat and I ate them later. They were spicy with flecks of dark chocolate but not too sweet.

Amanda took us down the hill to meet her mother and father, Charles and Linda (same names as my parents), a greying couple who were at work in their farmyard. They were stacking boards for a communal barn raising set for that weekend. They had a pet mule, some goats, a few beef cattle, a young border collie and a garden. There were other acreages nearby, and Charles affirmed most of the neighbors were family. His grandfather, of the same generation as mine and perhaps from the same river drainage north of there, bought the cove about 100 years ago. He lived into his 90‘s and raised a self-reliant family.

Linda, Amanda, Charles

Linda, Amanda, Charles


Free At Last In Washington

Part 6, the capitol grouds


Tags: , , , ,


P1000985 - Version 2In a time of militant religiosity, when “God Bless America” is the standard ending of most political speeches, it was encouraging to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, Washington’s newest. There is no “God” in the 14 quotations approved by his family to be cut in white stone.  How do you explain a memorial to a powerful minister that does not mention God? Certainly he was not Godless, this man of peace, liberation and non-violence. Suddenly it occurred to me that the divine presence there on the edge of the Tidal Basin on the nation’s spacious capitol grounds is universal Humanity.

One quote of the Rev. Dr. King says:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. . . “

No, the absence of the word God there requires no apology. Rather, the quivering politicians should be asked to explain their use — and I mean use — of God.  The slogan “God bless America” was invented during a time of war with God on our side. It is a declaration of patriotism, even an implicit directive to those who do not fear the Old Testament God. (more…)

Why I Love Black Walnuts

First Posted June 2006

October 27, 2013 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (0)

Tags: , , ,

When I was a boy one of my father’s sisters gave him a tree, a sapling, and we planted it in the back yard in Denver. He said it was a black walnut from the mountains of western North Carolina, which are practically owned by the Scotch-Irish, his people. That gnarly stick of a tree survived from winter to Colorado winter, growing a few feet a year in the rich alluvial soil of our back yard.


Each summer I’d look for the black walnuts – a blossom, a green pod on a branch, a fallen clunker with a shell like a hand grenade – but the tree never bore. It needed pollination, I would learn. It needed to be back in Madison County, N.C., of which both my paternal grandparents were third- or fourth-generation natives. The little tree kept growing, and even after my father was gone it spoke to me of roots.


A family tree!


Better than the paper kind, I thought. You can’t taste a genealogy, can’t chop it up to put in ice cream or sprinkle on brownies. You can’t make fine oiled gun stocks or cabinets out of kinship charts. I didn’t care about doing the Alex Haley thing, which turned out to be fiction anyway. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to any backwoods Appalachian “holler.” I had grown up reading “Li’l Abner” and “Snuffy Smith” in the comics. I knew the stereotypes. TV brought “Ma and Pa Kettle,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee Haw,” Festus on “Gunsmoke,” and so forth. Hey, I could relate to these comedy characters, but I didn’t want to discover we were actually . . . related!


Then came “Deliverance” by the troubled Georgia poet James Dickey, whose inbred, demented, violent stereotypes cast a shadow on the southern mountains in general. The movie with Burt Reynolds and John Voight was a blockbuster, and “Dueling Banjos” from the sound track was a hit. It was filmed on the Chantanooga River, which runs along the Georgia-South Carolina border, but that was a little too close to home, the “home” I had never seen, and would not see until. . .  (more…)