ATCHITOCHES, La. -- At the south edge of
Magnolia Plantation, eight simple cabins stood in a
field of clover. Generations of whitewash were
peeling from the mud-brick walls. All but one front
porch had rotted away, and there were gaping holes
where doors and windows used to be.
Hidden from the main house by rows of live oaks,
the cabins had been forgotten by many and ignored
by most. There was almost nothing left -- except
the stories of the slaves who once lived in them.
Betty Hertzog hadn't been thinking about slavery
when she agreed to go along with her rich friends'
plans to turn part of her beloved Magnolia into a
national park. She had been thinking about her
family's land, and her struggle to hold onto it.
Ms. Hertzog's ancestors settled that fertile land
at the south end of Cane River more than 200 years
ago, and she had lived in the big house at Magnolia
nearly all her life. She had too little money to keep it
going, no children to pass it on to. Sometimes when
she talked about her devotion to the land, it sounded
almost like religion. "If you had land," she would
say, "you were raised that it is very important, and
that if you had it, you had to keep it."
To listen to Betty Hertzog is to feel the abiding
power of Old South symbols. Slight but still sturdy
at 70, Ms. Hertzog is reserved to the point of
reclusiveness, happiest walking the plantation
grounds alone. But she had come to believe that the
new national park, with its droves of tourists, offered a way to hold onto the land -- to preserve her
family's stories and teach future generations about
the agricultural practices that made Magnolia the
Goliath of Cane River when cotton was king.
Bobby DeBlieux hadn't been thinking about slavery, either, when he began his campaign to turn
Magnolia's work buildings into a national park. He
had just been trying to rescue his town.
He had been trying since he was mayor in the
mid-1970's, and Natchitoches (pronounced NA-kuh-tish) was drying up: farms were dying, working
families were fleeing, much of downtown was
"I knew that history was the key to turning the
whole town around," said Mr. DeBlieux, 67, who
owns the Tante Huppé Bed & Breakfast on Jefferson Street. "First people would want to come here
to visit, and if they did, they would want to stay."
Mr. DeBlieux -- pronounced like the letter W --
doesn't look like an economic-development visionary. With his shock of cottony-white hair, his
shirttails hanging over sagging jeans, he
generally seems to have just rolled out of
bed. But he was right. Before long, that ugly
downtown had become a National Historic
Landmark, a mile-long quarter of French
Colonial buildings converted into antique
shops, restaurants and souvenir emporiums. The tourists came, and they stayed,
often in the 32 B & B's -- as people here will
tell you, the most in the state.
Still, when Mr. DeBlieux and his preservationist friends thought about Natchitoches's larger possibilities, they tended to
look down Cane River to Magnolia and its
sister plantation, Oakland. The old places
had gone to seed some, but with a little help
and money from the National Park Service,
they could make Natchitoches the Colonial
Williamsburg of Louisiana.
In 1994, with some deftly applied pressure
from Louisiana's senior senator at the time,
J. Bennett Johnston -- Betty Hertzog's cousin by marriage -- Congress created the
Cane River Creole National Historical Park.
As for how slavery would fit in, Betty Hertzog hoped the Park Service wouldn't dwell
on it too much.
"A lot of people around here have put
slavery behind them," she said. "It is a part
of the history here, and no one wants to
ignore it. But I don't want them to talk about
slavery and get stuck on that."
A little more than a year ago, though, she
started to feel uneasy about the Park Service's plans. A new ranger, a black woman
named Carla Cowles, had begun scratching
around the old slave cabins.
Slavery was pretty much all Ms. Cowles
was thinking about when she came to Cane
River. A heavyset woman of 40 with a
booming laugh laid over an edgy determination, Ms. Cowles (pronounced coals) had
started her career at Colonial Williamsburg. But she came away with a very different ambition than Bobby DeBlieux's: to
provide a face and a voice to the often-ignored stories of African slaves.
For a decade, in re-enactment and song,
she had shown the violent fate of captured
runaways and the pain of families torn
apart, had explained how people treated as
property had held onto humanity and hope.
Magnolia's slave cabins, she thought, would
be the perfect stage for her work.
"I'm here to tell the whole story," she
said. "Some people might call it revisionist
history, but I think what's been going on
around here is a lot of revisionist history."
Stories, of course, have consequences.
And from the beginning, what hardly anyone really counted on was how a new park,
on a plantation that once had 260 slaves,
might stir things up in a place where people
had agreed long ago that the last thing they
wanted to talk about was race.
When the Park Service held hearings
about what kind of programs people wanted
at the park, there was a lot of enthusiasm
about restoring the old buildings. When slavery came up, there was silence.
"Speaking about slavery proved difficult
for whites and blacks, and promised complications for park interpretation," the Park
Service reported. "Blacks and whites treated slavery as a delicate, nearly taboo subject for public discussion."
The Role of a Lifetime
Fred R. Conrad/ The New York Times
Carla Cowles, a National Park Service historical interpreter. |
Betty Hertzog had spent weeks getting
the big house ready for the Natchitoches
Fall Pilgrimage of Historic Homes, and on
opening day last October, it looked like a
movie set. Sunlight cascaded over the portrait of Magnolia's patriarch, Ambrose LeComte 2nd, striking a dandy pose in his
ascot and Colonial jacket. The Baccarat
chandelier bought years ago in New Orleans
was up in the grand foyer once again. The
air was suffused with the history of Ms.
Hertzog's ancestors -- it hung from every
wall, filled every shelf -- and she wondered
if she was doing her family proud.
"Daddy wouldn't have liked these tours,
because he didn't like strangers roaming
through his house," she said. "But you can't
make a living from farming anymore. The
tourists help pay to keep up this old place."
As an only child, she had always known
she would someday take over Magnolia. But
she had expected to live a little of her own
life first. She was just out of college and
heading to Houston to look for work when
the call came. Her father had had a heart
attack. Someone had to manage the harvest.
"It was panic, pure panic,'' she said. "I
really wasn't sure I could manage it the way
Daddy did, but I had to try, or else we might
lose it all."
So at 23, she traded her big-city dreams
for a job at a local bank, and began her turn
as caretaker of the land. No one asked her to
stay. No one had to. Magnolia was simply
not going to go the way of the other Cane
River plantations, into strangers' hands.
But it has been more than 10 years since
Ms. Hertzog oversaw a harvest. In the late
1980's, when the bottom fell out of cotton,
she rented her fields to corporate growers.
Soon, she began the house tours. And then, in
the early 90's, her rich preservationist
friends began talking about turning Magnolia's work buildings -- the slave cabins and
hospital, the blacksmith shop and cotton gin
-- into a national park.
On opening day of the fall festival, though,
she talked about Magnolia's good times, not
her own struggle. Dressed in a pink satin
Civil War-era gown, she showed tourists the
wooden clock rescued from the original big
house, burned down by Union troops; the
1851 trophy won by the family's prize racer,
an auburn thoroughbred named Flying
Dutchman; and the chapel fashioned from
an old workroom at the back of the manor.
Of the 700 tourists, all but 10 or so were
white. One black visitor, 55-year-old Sam
Dugar, had come looking for his own history. Mr. Dugar's father and grandfather had
been sharecroppers at Magnolia, but till
now he had avoided the place. As the tour
ended, he said he felt cheated.
"All I kept thinking was that they accumulated all this wealth because of the
blacks who worked here," he said. "But
there was nothing on the tour about black
people. It's as if their place in history was
Betty Hertzog insists she is not trying to
erase history. "We are showing this house,"
she explained. "I try to talk about what's
here, and the history that I am aware of. The
slaves didn't have a lot of records, and so
you don't know who was here and where
they all were on the place." If visitors are
interested, she tells them the slave cabins
are out there, on the Park Service's portion
of the land.
Besides, she says, talk of slavery can
offend. Her cousin Ambrose recalled a black
visitor who demanded back her $5 admission after learning that the house was still
owned by the original slaveholding family.
"She was yelling so loud, I could hear her
from my house," said Mr. Hertzog, who
lives next door. "I was wondering, what
does that woman know about Betty? The
days of owning slaves was long ago."
Certainly, Ms. Hertzog says, it was not
right for humans to be held as property. But
she feels no shame. "The government has
given them every opportunity in the world,"
she said, "so stop complaining about the
past and go out and do something."
She has a low opinion of the idea, embraced by some black intellectuals and politicians, of reparations for slaves' descendants. "I think they should be grateful they
got their freedom back then," she said. "I
think they ought to be glad they are Americans, living in a free country. The more of
that stuff that gets stirred up, the more hate
there will be on both sides."
From the little she has learned, she says,
her family did not mistreat its slaves. A
Northwestern State University historian
has found no evidence of abuse or neglect,
though a set of ankle stocks was evidence of
punishment. A Park Service archaeologist
also told her that the two-family brick cabins were larger and more comfortable than
the log dwellings on other plantations. And
inventories show that Magnolia's slaves had
more balanced diets than others in the area.
Strolling among the cabins one evening,
Ms. Hertzog said that in her mind, slavery
looked a lot like the lives of the sharecroppers -- slaves' descendants she remembered from childhood, who worked the land
for part of the crop. To this day, that is the
only way she has known blacks. Even after
the last families left the cabins in 1968, she
continued to employ a few black workers.
"That's just the way things have always
been," she said. "Each group had different
networks, I guess."
Some black old-timers, she says, have told
her that their years at Magnolia were the
best of their lives. While segregation governed life in town, she says, on Magnolia
blacks and whites raced horses together and
played on the plantation baseball team, the
Black Magnolias. She knew that black children would not have the same opportunities
as whites. "But for them," she said, "that's
the way life was and they accepted it."
As for Magnolia's slaves, she knew some
of their stories would be told at the new
park. But she wanted those stories to reflect
her family's hardships and kindnesses as
well. Which was why she was getting so
worried about the Park Service's plans.
Ms. Hertzog almost never talked directly
about Carla Cowles. And for more than a
year after Ms. Cowles arrived, Ms. Hertzog
never met with her. "I guess I have just
been too busy," she said.
But she complained a lot about the Park
Service, and said she had heard Ms. Cowles
and her boss were giving tours and talking
about slaves who had never even lived on
Cane River. She had been led to believe the
park would be devoted to agriculture, she
said, but increasingly it seemed the emphasis would be on slavery, on portrayals bound
to vilify her family. She felt betrayed.
"That's the way people from other places
feel about the South anyway," she said, "so I
don't doubt it a bit.''
An Outlet for the Anger
Fred R. Conrad/ The New York Times
Leslie Vercher, a Parks Department carpenter, is working to restore Magnolia's slave cabins as well as other historic buildings
that will make up the Cane River Creole National Historic Park.|
"When we learn about history, we are
often told about kinder, gentler times," Carla Cowles was telling a tour group at the
cabins. (Though the park won't open officially for a year or two, she has begun giving
tours of the work buildings and cabins.)
"We are taught to think about the lives of
the rich and glamorous, not about the common, everyday people -- people like you and
you and you."
"How many children do you have, sir?"
she went on, turning to a man in the crowd.
He held up two fingers.
"If you lived here, with your two kids,
would work be all that you did in your life?"
"No, I would have to take care of my
"Well, the people who lived here couldn't
even do that. Their children could be taken
from them at any time and sold away."
This is the kind of simple exchange that
Ms. Cowles uses to pull her audience into the
lives of the mothers and fathers, cooks and
carpenters who lived in bondage. The history of slavery is so painful and mind-bending,
she says, that teaching anything meaningful
in an hour seems impossible. So she makes
it personal, makes the tourists become
slaves, if only for one mental moment.
It was just such a moment that set her on
the road to Cane River. In 1989, with a 16th-century literature degree from the University of Virginia and yet another dead-end
job, she answered an ad for a job at Colonial
Williamsburg: "Talk about black history
and get paid," it said. It sounded promising
-- except for having to portray slaves.
Growing up in Williamsburg, the daughter of a millworker and a teacher's aide, she
had revered America's civil rights leaders.
She had watched her mother, who never
graduated from junior high, fight to get her
children into Advanced Placement classes.
And in college, which she remembers as "a
sea of whites," Ms. Cowles organized sit-ins
to demand more minority professors.
She saw no spirit of rebellion in slavery.
"I was like a lot of people who think slaves
were weak, and I didn't want to portray
weakness," she said.
Her bosses at Colonial Williamsburg persuaded her to try. She started off in secondary roles, singing songs that showed "the
lighter side of slavery." Later, in a burlap
costume, she portrayed a slave named Secundia, who had just learned that her mother had died on another plantation.
"I was singing to my dead mother," she
recalled, "saying how we were so busy
working in the fields that I never had time to
tell her I loved her."
The experience, she says, was transforming. Suddenly, the slaves she had studied in
documents came to life and had her face.
Their history became her cause. And her
portrayal of Secundia got her a job at the
Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in
St. Louis, organizing programs about the
Dred Scott Decision, which barred slaves
and their descendants from citizenship.
About a year ago, Ms. Cowles was assigned to develop the Cane River historical
and community outreach programs.
imagines the old cabins as a "living, breathing slave community," complete with people in costume portraying slaves.
She expected some resistance. She had
read the reports from all the public hearings. Early on, she turned to Frankie Ray
Jackson, a black former school-board member, for help in navigating people's sensitivities. As for Bobby DeBlieux and his friends,
she had little to do with them; at one meeting she did attend, she asked why she was
the only black person there. And she never
knocked on Betty Hertzog's door. She just
hadn't had the time, she said.
It's not that Ms. Cowles doesn't often deal
with whites in Natchitoches. She speaks
warmly of her boss, Laura Soulierre, who
has encouraged her pursuit of slave history.
She gets along well with the park volunteers,
most of whom are white. And she deals
comfortably with white tourists, putting
them at ease when they make clumsy comments about slavery.
"We can't heal old wounds until we look at
the way life was and all its problems," she
Yet for all the healing power of history, it
has increasingly channeled her racial anger. When she talks about that anger, she
casts back in her mind -- to the St. Louis
landlord who at first refused her an apartment because she was black; to the man
who called her a "pickaninny" as she guided
him through Colonial Williamsburg in her
slave costume; to the grade-school teacher
who tried to fail her for refusing to pick a
hero from a list of white American leaders.
Today, away from work, she leads an
essentially black life. She dates a black man
who calls himself a separatist. And though
she says she does not share those views, she
has had only two white friends. She tries not
to wallow in anger, but the more she learns
about slavery, the more she regards the old
plantation elite with suspicion and reproach.
"It is almost impossible, living as a black
person in America, and as a person who has
studied so much about slavery, not to be
angry about the injustices done to black
people," she said.
She avoids talking directly about Betty
Hertzog, just as Ms. Hertzog will not talk
directly about her. She speaks of no one in
particular when expressing resentment at
the "furniture and antiques" tours popular
around town. And while she is offended at
the wealth that plantation owners accumulated on the backs of slaves, she is disturbed
more, she says, by whites who ignore the
less noble truths of their families' pasts.
"They don't have to say, 'I'm sorry,' " she
said. "But if you remain silent about it, then
you have blood on your hands, too."
A Social Contract of Silence
Fred R. Conrad/ The New York Times
Miss Betty Hertzog is the last remaining family member from
the Magnolia Plantation.|
Last fall, for the first time, a black man
ran for mayor of Natchitoches. He was a
vice president at the local university and a
six-term councilman. Many whites quietly
talked of supporting him; polls predicted
record black turnout. Then the candidate,
John Winston, started talking about race,
with the slogan, "Let's make history! Let's
elect the first black mayor."
That didn't go over too well. White callers
to the "Talk Back Natchitoches" radio show
worried that Mr. Winston would not serve
all equally. Some criticized him for making
race an issue. White support faded.
In the end Mr. Winston lost, by 63 votes, to
a white anesthesiologist named Wayne McCullen. More than 95 percent of Mr. Winston's supporters were black; more than 95
percent of Mr. McCullen's were white. Both
men agreed there had been a backlash over
the race issue, and Mr. Winston has had
second thoughts about his slogan.
"When it comes to race, the truth gets
twisted to mean a lot of different things," he
said. "And so most people just prefer not to
talk about it."
Public discussion of race is never easy,
anywhere. But in this town of 17,000 in
central Louisiana, not talking about race is
at the heart of a social contract, rooted in
the slave-owning past, that governs all sorts
of black-white relationships -- or nonrelationships. Whatever the inner tensions,
Natchitoches has tended to get along.
Black and white Natchitoches are separate worlds of roughly equal size. (The
black half generally includes the mixed-race Creoles, though socially and politically
they float in between.) Whites live east of
Fifth Street, blacks west. Natchitoches Junior High is mostly black; the junior high at
St. Mary's Catholic School is mostly white.
On Sundays, blacks fill the all-you-can-eat
buffet near the Wal-Mart; whites crowd
restaurants on the historic waterfront.
Though there are a handful of influential
blacks, economic and political power rests
in white hands. Indeed, even if Mr. Winston
had won, he would have had less power than
the three well-endowed, and virtually all-white, private committees that turned
Natchitoches into a tourist town. Whites own
all the new businesses in the landmark
district. In this place where so much revolves around history, the history it tends to
revolve around is white Colonial history.
"The thing is, blacks think this historic
district is white elite," Bobby DeBlieux said.
"Well it is. But it's not because we designed
it that way. It's sad, but black people here
Blacks do not dispute those facts. They
just give them a different spin. "It's true
that blacks have not gotten involved in the
historic things," said Clifford Blake, who
owns a po' boy shop. "I had a chance to open
up a place on the waterfront, but I didn't do
it because it seemed like it was too white-dominated, and I didn't believe they really
wanted blacks involved."
To local preservationists, the racial climate reflects Natchitoches's history as a
"cultural island" in the South. From its
founding by French traders in 1714, they
maintain, its colonists were more accepting
of other races than the British were, and
generally kinder to slaves. Natchitoches,
they say, is the best place to tell "a side to
slavery most people have never seen."
"People here have always gotten along
and respected one another," Mr. DeBlieux
said, adding, "Maybe there's no social closeness now, but there's no tensions."
Even through the turmoil of the civil
rights movement, Natchitoches was calm;
there were no protests, and a single brief
boycott. But silence, Mr. Winston and other
blacks say, has been less a matter of contentment than ingrained reticence. They
recall the one time Natchitoches did come
close to open confrontation.
Back in 1927, a white plantation owner
had given the city a bronze statue of a slave
tipping his hat and bowing his head in
greeting. A plaque said the statue had been
erected "in grateful recognition of the arduous and faithful service of the good darkies
of Louisiana," and whites saw it as a symbol
of their enlightened view of slavery.
For 40 years the Good Darkey stood on
Front Street. But in 1968, as civil rights
protests gripped the South, young blacks
vowed to bomb it, calling it an abominable
symbol of servitude. In the end, after a
meeting with the mayor, blacks stood down
and the Good Darkey went gently, removed
by officials late one September night.
There was a sense of victory among
blacks, and integration came peacefully.
But that progress, many blacks say, has
gone only so far. They remain in their
separate world, profoundly wary of whites.
Across Cane River from the new park is
St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, organized 133 years ago by freed slaves. Even
today, says the pastor, the Rev. Leo Walker,
many in his congregation are struggling to
overcome generations of distrust.
"A lot of them harbor deep anger about
things that happened to them or their ancestors in the past," he said, "and they honestly
believe that no whites can go to heaven."
A Son of 'the Quarters'
Leslie Vercher winced whenever he heard
people call Magnolia's brick cabins "slave
quarters." They had once been his home.
His father was born and raised in the
cabins, and his family did not move off
Magnolia until the late 1960's. Those people
were not slaves, he pointed out. They were
the Hertzogs' employees, and they called
their homes "the quarters."
But when pressed to think about any
ancestors who lived there as slaves, this
fireplug of a man looked as if he might
become physically ill. He refused to watch
movies like "Roots" or "Amistad," and
rejected the term "African-American" because he had never known any relatives
from Africa. Certainly some black people on
Cane River were interested in seeing slave
stories, however painful, resurrected at the
new park. But Mr. Vercher saw slavery only
as a shameful part of the past, and tried to
wipe it from his mind.
"I don't want to hear about my people
being beaten and raped," he said, with his
Cajun twang and willful scowl. "Let it go."
But in a twist of fate -- he sometimes saw
it as a divine trick played by his late father
-- Mr. Vercher, 35, was now working for the
Park Service, restoring the cabins. For a
black man, especially one with a ninth-grade education, it was one of the best jobs
on Cane River, with decent pay and benefits
for his common-law wife and two sons.
His father, Ellis, had been happy that the
cabins were going to become part of a new
national park. The son was still coming to
terms with the idea.
Ellis Vercher was one of Betty Hertzog's
father's chief hands, and the family -- there
were 12 children -- lived in the cabin at the
end, the one with the porch still on the front.
Ellis Vercher was always proud to say he
was reared on a plantation, as if it gave
more meaning to the five-bedroom house he
built when the family moved away. And he
tried to instill that feeling in his children.
"I don't mind being out here," Leslie
Vercher said, "because I feel my daddy
when I'm here."
Asked what he thought life was like for
slaves, he frowned and said, "Hell, what you
think?" But then he thought again about his
father. There were indeed hard times, when
they would work all season and not make a
cent. But there were also good times --
cookouts, horse races and dances at the
company store -- and good friends.
"I found a marble the other day and it felt
funny in my hand," Mr. Vercher said. "I
thought to myself, 'I bet my daddy played
with this marble.' "
Bringing Up Slavery
A wintry chill hung over Cane River the
November evening Carla Cowles brought
slavery back to Magnolia Plantation.
For the opening of an exhibit called "Free
at Last," Ms. Cowles had invited two black
historical interpreters from Arkansas to
perform skits showing slave life through
fables and song. "We are going to be talking
about things that are uncomfortable," she
told the audience gathered at the cabins.
"We are going to show you how people
endured the institution called slavery."
Discomfort had been swirling through
town ever since a notice appeared in The
Natchitoches Times the week before. Ms.
Cowles had enlisted her boss to deliver
Betty Hertzog's invitation -- "I have had
very little contact with Miss Betty," she
explained -- and Ms. Hertzog seemed leery
about the whole thing. "You can never tell,"
she said. "It might just be a bunch of
Leslie Vercher was also worrying about
stereotypes. "It's easy for Carla to talk
about slavery because she don't come from
here," he said. "I don't think it would be so
easy for her to tell those stories if she was
talking about her own people."
Ms. Cowles had invited all 15 schools in
the area. But while teachers at three schools
accepted, the rest did not respond.
She shrugged it off at first. With such
short notice, there probably hadn't been
time to arrange transportation. Then she
heard that Samuel Jackson, a black man
who is principal of Natchitoches Junior
High, was worried the performance might
ignite racial tensions. She went to see him,
to explain that everything would be handled
with great sensitivity. But he stood firm.
Mr. Jackson said he had worked hard to
keep the peace at his school, where more
than 70 percent of the students are black
and almost all the whites are bused in by
court order. Just a few weeks earlier, he
said, a white student had shown up wearing
a T-shirt with a drawing of Ku Klux Klansmen and the words, "We were the original
Boys in the Hood." A black student had
come to school upset that a local white
fraternity was planning a mock slave auction. Exposing students to slave re-enactments, Mr. Jackson said, would be like
throwing a match into gasoline.
"I am afraid you would have white students making fun of the way black people
talked, and then blacks might respond in a
combative way," he said. "It could fester
into a big problem."
In the end, about 70 people -- black and
white -- showed up that evening. Leslie
Vercher, anxieties and all, stood in back,
pacing and puffing hard on a cigarette.
Betty Hertzog came, too. If the story of
slavery was going to be told, she said, she
was going to make sure it was accurate.
The two performers, Curtis Tate and
Daryl Minefee, leapt into the spotlight. They
wore tattered pants, bright shirts and oversize shoes. Their stage was a bench. Mr.
Tate stood on top, joking like a country
bumpkin. Mr. Minefee, wearing that same
foolish grin, sat playing an African drum.
First, Mr. Tate told several fables set in
Africa. Then he transported the audience to
America, and told a story about a slave
beaten by an overseer for bringing her baby
along to the cotton fields.
"The overseer was full of the master's
whiskey," Mr. Tate growled, flailing one
arm as if cracking a whip, "and when he
saw that baby he started whippin' that girl,
and whippin' that girl until she and the baby
started to bleed."
But instead of returning to the fields, the
woman ran to a wise elder who began
chanting an African incantation, and all the
slaves flew happily away.
For the finale, Mr. Tate portrayed a slave
named Luther and his master, James
McVicar. Luther had learned to read and
write, but kept it secret for fear of punishment. The year was 1849, and one day he
blurted out something from the morning
paper about a gold rush in California.
A disturbed Mr. McVicar forced a Bible
into Luther's hands and ordered him to read
his favorite passage.
Luther trembled and said: "Naw suh,
Massa McVicar. I can't read."
Mr. McVicar insisted.
Luther opened the Bible and read in a
quavering voice, "Moses said unto Pharaoh,
'Let my people go.' "
The audience held its breath as Luther
slumped over in fear.
Then Mr. McVicar grinned and jumped
with excitement. "I'll be darned, Luther,
you can read! Can you write, too?"
Luther, paralyzed by confusion, forced his
head to nod.
"This is great," his master shouted. "You
can help me keep my books; you can help
me with my ledgers."
For a moment, the audience seemed as
stunned as Luther. But soon people were
laughing and applauding in relief.
Betty Hertzog joined the standing ovation,
then headed home, elated. "I liked it," she
said. "I thought they did a real professional
job. It was especially good for children."
Students and teachers from Simpson Junior High, a white group who had seen the
show earlier that day, said they had learned
important lessons about blacks.
"It makes us understand what they had to
go through," said Jenna White, 13. "It opens
our eyes and makes us respect them more."
Mr. Vercher, though, was pacing and
dragging harder on his cigarette. With their
silly grins and floppy hats, he said, the
actors had given no dignity to the memory
of slaves. It was as if the Good Darkey
statue had come to life, not the strong,
resilient people who were his ancestors.
Slaves could not fly from the fields, he said,
and if a master learned that a slave could
read, he would reach for a rope.
"What kind of historians are they," he
asked, "if they make up things instead of
telling it like it was?"
When to Water Things Down
Carla Cowles was not stunned at all by the
show. It went exactly as she had planned.
The week before, she had called Mr. Tate
with a warning about the anxieties around
Cane River. She told him that blacks had
been feeling uncomfortable about slave re-enactments, and that Principal Jackson was
concerned. She also told him that the direct
descendants of Magnolia's original family
would be in the audience, along with some of
the town's powerful preservationists. She
went over the details of Mr. Tate's stories,
and did not ask him to change the content in
any way. But be sure, she cautioned him,
that none of the stories appear to reflect the
lives of Cane River slaves.
"There was a lot that went unsaid," Mr.
Tate recalled. "But I got the clear impression that she was feeling pressure."
After the morning performance, over
lunch at Lasyone's, a local meat-pie diner,
they discussed the surprise ending to the
Luther story. It did not, they acknowledged,
reflect the reality of life for most slaves,
who were beaten or separated from their
families for seeking education.
But the story was not a complete lie. The
truth is that there is no one truth to slavery.
It was different from state to state, plantation to plantation. Mr. Tate had documents
about a slave whose masters had taught him
to read and write, and others about a slave
beaten by whites when discovered reading a
newspaper. In using that first slave as raw
material for the Luther story, Mr. Tate said,
he was concerned more with whites like Ms.
Hertzog than blacks like Mr. Vercher.
"They are the ones who can't handle the
truth," Mr. Tate said, crouching over his
plate and lowering his voice. "Isn't it the
same for all black people, that we have to be
careful to make white people comfortable?"
As they struggled to reconcile the Luther
story with their strident commitment to
teaching what they saw as the holocaust of
slavery, it became clear that more pragmatic issues were at play, too. At historical
sites across the country, a new generation of
interpreters had begun to pull stories of
slavery from the dust of history. And often,
as Ms. Cowles and Mr. Tate kept hearing,
they ran into turbulence.
"It all comes down to economics," Mr.
Tate said. "Whites still control most museums and historical parks. Unless black
people start putting more money into these
places, then we will never really be able to
Ms. Cowles added, "If you make them
uncomfortable, they'll shut you down."
She had seen that kind of power right here
in Natchitoches. Just weeks before, another
Park Service official had come under attack
from local preservationists. The official,
John Robbins, headed up a prestigious federally financed center that develops and
teaches preservation technologies. Mr. Robbins had supported a Congressional proposal that would have allowed the center to
be moved. But after a few well-placed calls
to Washington, the bill was killed, and Mr.
Robbins was transferred to Washington.
"These people around here may come
from the country," Ms. Cowles said, "but
they are very smart and well connected, and
if you cross them you're out of here."
A few days after the performance, Ms.
Cowles stood in the doorway of a cabin and
reflected on all that had happened. "I did not
want to make the message too hard the first
time," she said, "especially with me being
an outsider and a black woman."
So she began to settle in for the long haul.
Early in the year, she turned down an
assignment on the East Coast and began
looking for land where she could build a
house. It might take years, she realized, for
the truth of slavery to be told on Cane River.
"If they felt good after that performance,
they'll come to the next one and the next
one," she said. "And I'll be able to present
something a little bit stronger each time."
Bobby DeBlieux says he understands that
slavery will be one of the park's main
themes, and he thinks that, too, will ultimately be good for business. There is an
untapped well of black tourists out there, he
says, who might spend money on a plantation tour that incorporates slave history.
Over at the big house, Betty Hertzog
sounds as if she is ready to move on. The 27-room house has become more showplace
than home. Almost all her personal belongings are crammed into two bedrooms; the
rest of the house stays dark unless tourists
come by. Her relatives don't come too often,
either, and so her most consistent companions are her two dozen cats.
|About This Series|
Two generations after the end of legal discrimination, race still ignites
political debates -- over Civil War flags, for example, or police profiling.
But the wider public discussion of race relations seems muted by a
full-employment economy and by a sense, particularly among many whites,
that the time of large social remedies is past. Race relations are being
defined less by political action than by daily experience, in schools, in
sports arenas, in pop culture and at worship, and especially in the
workplace. These encounters -- race relations in the most literal, everyday
sense -- make up this series of reports, the outcome of a yearlong
examination by a team of Times reporters.
Not long after the performance, she decided she was not going to worry about the
new national park anymore. She asked Senator Johnston's daughter, Mary Catalo, to
look out for the family's interests, and in
April, Ms. Catalo met with Carla Cowles and
offered herself as the family liaison.
Ms. Catalo, who is 37 and sells real estate
in New Orleans, is from the ninth generation
of the family that built Magnolia, and her
feelings about how its history should be
portrayed seem to mark a clear shift from
those of the woman she calls Aunt Betty.
"It is not a comfortable thing for me to
come out and say that my relatives owned
slaves," she said, "but it is important that
we all openly acknowledge where we came
from so we can start to work through the
problems that were created in the past.
"Racism is a difficult thing to deal with
because it runs so deep. To me this park
offers a chance to at least help start a
dialogue that doesn't exist right now."
Years ago, Betty Hertzog built herself a
house near the river, thinking she would
move there after her parents died. What
with the responsibilities of holding onto
Magnolia, she has yet to spend a night there.
"Every time I got ready to move, something else would happen and I needed to
stay," she said. "But maybe the time has
finally come. Used to be that it was hard to
leave this old place. But now it's harder and
harder to stay."