Monday, June 14, 2010

Florewood Forever

It was June of 1994 and I had received a wedding invitation from a high school friend of mine to be a part of his nuptials. Of course I would attend and happily though I was a little concerned about the location. My friend of now 32 years is White, I am Black and the wedding was being held in Mississippi. Clarksdale, Mississippi, to be exact, where the blues were born maybe 90 minutes south of Memphis and twenty to thirty years behind the rest of the country in just about every other way possible.
This was the historic home of Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Sam Cooke. This was also an area known as the Golden Buckle of the Cotton Belt, surrounded by endless fields, relentless mosquitoes and numerous plantations. At the time the biggest thing going in town was the Piggly Wiggly supermarket and here I come fresh off the plane from Chicago having never met the bride or her family that lived in the area. I put a lot of faith in my own backbone and my friend's family that also attended whom I knew quite well. Everything would be fine.

Since the wedding was scheduled for late Saturday afternoon I had the morning to explore and acted upon a recommendation to go and see Florewood River Plantation, an hour farther south - nice, even deeper in to the social wilderness. I'd never been on a plantation before and plucked up the determination to see in person what they were like, try to understand what they must have been like and end the mythical pathos about these institutions of refined southern living and human oppression.

It was easy to find being on the southern end of US Highway 49 right out of Clarksville and the ride was smooth and peaceful. I won't say I was conscious of the dark history that seeped from every mile of soil as I drove along but the destination itself certainly invoked interest rumblings in the pit of my stomach every so often when a working cotton field hove in to view. Where #49 feeds in to US HIghway 82 and not even an hour east of Mississippi Valley State University (Jerry Rice, anyone?) I arrived at my destination, parked and paid the small entrance fee, as ironic a charge as ever there was one: to actually pay to preserve a plantation!

The "Big House" wasn't Tara, as we were informed by our guide that few of the plantation homes ever reached those proportions, but the landscaped grounds leading up to the house were definitely in keeping with the desire to impress and intimidate all who visited here. Then the realities of life even for the privileged family began to work their soul draining charms upon we the visitors.

Heat and humidity were the order of the day in a home with nothing in the way of contemporary air conditioning. To open the windows invited the mosquitoes as evidenced by the netting above the beds so one could try and catch a breeze at night without a malarial bite to go with it. Interesting, too, were the porcelain jugs, washbowls and chamber pots in each bedroom that today are considered quaint decorative pieces but were used - and emptied by someone - daily back in the day.

Behind the house was the cook shack which was separate from the main home for two practical reasons. Not only would cooking smells not permeate the main house as much but also it reduced the chance of fire gutting the home since everything was made of wood. If the kitchen went up in flames they only lost the kitchen and could always build another one. My mind just went "Hmmmm."

An exhibit in one of the lower floor rooms showed the layout and size of the plantation in its heyday, exponentially larger than the grounds we were touring we were again cheerfully informed by our tour guide. One of our fellow tourists, as backward as they come, remarked to his wife and pointing at the exhibit that the "N" shacks were down the hill and closer to the woods. For all I knew he could have been descended from the plantation overseer or some local paddy roller. It just kept getting better.

Off to the plantation store we went to see how this establishment played an integral part in supplying and subjugating the slaves who had to "buy" everything on tick and repaying the credit with that much more unpaid labor right up through the liberated era of share cropping. None of this stunned me nearly as much as seeing a husband and wife team manning the counter and sitting out front in period costume. A stocky woman and her ample husband, both coal black from the relentless sun, actually dressing in straw hat, overalls, no shoes and a polka dot head scarf, straight out of "Gone with the Wind." Right then and there I nearly cried.

No relation to me whatsoever but there they were, literally adding depth and color to the experience for the sake of the tourists, two "slaves" in the living flesh and not via the imaginings of books or the interpretations of film and television. The accents, the sun darkened skin and the deference to "betters," even if paid a modern wage, there for all to see? The slave quarters we saw only a few minutes later were nothing in comparison to these living, haunting ghosts.

I had a wedding to go to. Whatever I was feeling, rage, sadness, depression, even understanding why such things need to be preserved so as not to be repeated, all had to be flushed from my mind in three hours time. One of my oldest and closest friends was getting married that afternoon. He needed me to be a part of his big day.

In the Summer of 1994.

Gotta go.

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