Once upon a time there was a man who was alive.

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Natchez Literary and Film Festival

View of Downtown

Last week- Wednesday through Friday that is- I had the pleasure of attending the Natchez Literary and Film festival, thanks to the generous sponsorship of my school. The festival- a history convention really- dealt with free blacks in the antebellum South, or "free people of colour" as they were refered to during the period. There were, in fact, some quarter of a million free blacks in the South before the War, and slightly fewer than that in the North. Probably the best known representative of this interesting but little-studied group was a Natchez man, William Johnson. He was born a slave, but was given malumission along with his mother (his father also being his master). He eventually moved to Natchez in the 1830's where he took over his brother-in-law's barbershop (actually, barbershops in the nineteenth century where rather more elaborate; he also had baths, a parlour, and sold sundry items related to grooming, as well as other odds and ends). As black barbers were accepted widely by whites, he did quite well. At the end of his life he was worth some thirty-thousand dollars and owned fifteen slaves. (Slave-owning was not unheard of among free blacks in the South, odd- and sadly ironic- as it may seem.) He was shot by a neighbor, upset over a land dispute. The man who murdered him could not be convicted, as the only witnesses were black, and Mississippi state law disbarred blacks from testifying against whites.
But the reason we remember Johnson is his large and detailed diary he kept for many years, amounting to two-thousand pages in all. It was discovered in 1935, and later edited and published, providing a very rare glimpse into a free black man's life in the years leading up to the Civil War. It was a rather precarious one: he, and other men like him, were never fully accepted into Southern white society. They could not own weapons, vote, and were often regarded with suspicion. Johnson was well-liked and counted several white men as friends and hunting buddies (note that gun-ownership laws- and others- were not always enforced!). Of course, not all free blacks were as well off as Johnson. During a period in Natchez he styled "The Inquisition" a number of free blacks were arrested and deported or enslaved, as the town was gripped by fears of slave revolt and a general paranioa of free blacks.

But, it must be said, life was often worse for free blacks in Northern cities. No Southern city- Washington D.C. excepted- ever had a full-fledged race riot. In Northern cities they were all-too common. Blacks were not ghettoized in the South, as was the case in the North. Job opportunity was much higher in the South than the North. Of course, the reasons for this were not necessarily an elevated Southern sense of black dignity, but probably more economical reasons. Many slaves worked- away from their masters- in Southern cities, and thus any attempts at riots were swiftly broken up. Slaves were valuable property. Also, I daresay that because of this system, Southern whites were more accustomed to working with- and living with- blacks, which eased tensions and some elements of prejudice. Southerns- and Northerners alike- however still could not, by and large, bring themselves to see blacks as fully persons, as fully human or endowed with the same rights of man as they believed themselves to posses. But lest we throw stones at our ancestors and shatter our glass house, I seem to recall certain practises and ideas in our modern enlightened society that are exactly the same. . .

St. Mary's Cathedral

Anyway- my digression in history complete- our trip (myself and one of my professors) was very nice. Besides listening to papers being presented, we visited a number of historical sites. Natchez is full of old houses and churches and such, enough to occupy one for a very long time. We stayed in the very nice Eola Hotel (the picture above is from out of my room's window), which was only a couple blocks from St. Mary's Cathedral, built in 1843. I went to Mass there Thursday and Friday morning, and witnessed my first lay-eucharist minister communion. But I'll save my thoughts on that for another time. At any rate the church is beautiful and the people were friendly. The steeple is a wonderful landmark, and helped me orient myself while wandering around downtown.

Pearl Street Pasta and Blues and Biscuits are both quite good eateries, in my humble estimation. The mansion of Longwood is remarkable; any visit to Natchez should include it. And the little house of Mt. Locust on the Natchez Trace Parkway should not be missed either, so as to see how most of my kinfolk lived "back then." If you're lucky, you'll meet the Park Ranger who was born and bred in that very house (built in 1790). He's a retired fellow, but works, so to speak, as a guide for the Mt. Locust site (it's a perfect retirement-spot he told me). He'll show you the window pane- hand cast- that was written on while it was cooling. Oh, and if- back in Natchez- you look for Natchez-Under-the-Hill, you'll be disappointed. The former hive of villanry is all but gone, save four or five buildings perched above the River and a rinky riverboat casino. The River washed the rest away.

Longwood Mansion


A Strain of the Earth’s Sweet Being in the Beginning

The past few weeks have seen a gradual warming- with a crescendo today of the mercury hovering around eighty degrees this afternoon. In response, the earth is awakening from its slumber, which in South Mississippi isn't terribly long. The daffodils- the one above grows near Rowan Oaks in Oxford (William Faulkner's house)- are bursting up all about. The trees are budding out, and some are blooming. The Japanese magnolias are in full tilt, and the azaleas are gathering steam. Driving with the windows down in the moonlight night is sheer pleasure, with the tree-frogs and insects shattering winter's silence, and that scent of spring, of growing things, of fresh earth, lilting through. Doesn't get much better this side of Paradise.

Spring, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.


On His Becoming Poor

"As it is said: 'If we have been conjoined with him in the likeness of his death, so also shall we be in the likeness of his resurrection' (Rom. 6.5). It follows, therefore, that He Who Is, The One Who Exists, is necessarily born of the flesh, taking all that is ours into himself so that all that is born of the flesh, that is us corruptible and perishing beings, might rest in him. In short, he took what was ours to be his very own so that we might have all that was his. 'He was rich but he became poor for our sake, so that we might be enriched by his poverty' (II Cor. 8.9). When they say that the Word of God did not become flesh, or rather did not undergo birth from a woman according to the flesh, they bankrupt the economy of salvation, for if he who was rich did not impoverish himself, abasing himself to our condition out of tender love, then we have not gained his riches but are still in our poverty, still enslaved by sin and death, because the Word becoming flesh is the undoing and the abolition of all that fell upon human nature as our curse and punishment."

St. Cyril of Alexandria, On The Unity of Christ


Better Than Wine

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine;
Draw me after you; let us run.
The king has brought me into his chambers.

We will exult and rejoice in you;
we will extol your love more than wine;
rightly do they love you.

Behold, you are beautiful, my love;
behold, you are beautiful;
your eyes are doves.

Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly delightful.
Our couch is green;
the beams of our house are cedar;
our rafters are pine.

Song of Songs, 1.2-3, 15-17


Listening and Watching

I finally picked up American IV: The Man Comes Around. The title track is awesome. So is the rest of the album. Starkly evocative I think is the right way to describe it. Genuine. Black, white, gray. Cash was honest and hopeful- his eschatilogical vision at the beginning and end of the album envelops the sadness and love in between.

I also bought and watched To End All Wars, which came out last year if I recall correctly, but never made it to theatres around here. Powerful film. It is stories like that which make me realize that I really have no one to forgive- I have no real enemies, and yet I become angered over trifling things, and hold on to grudges. If only in forgiveness this film packs a redemptive punch, but it includes more than that. Well worth seeing.

And then Monday I watched in the theatre Hotel Rwanda, which portrays the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and one man's attempts to save his neighbors. I had heard about it via World Magazine last year, but it was slow in being released in this area. It is an incredible film- deeply moving, and angering. But, while it could have simply laid a guilt trip on us- and rightly- it doesn't simply leave it at that. Rather, we are given the story of a man who stands against the tide, in his own quietly and desperately heroic manner. Neither does it subject us to endless carnage and bloodbaths- I was actually a bit surprised at the subdued nature of the protrayals, considering the subject nature.

I must confess that I have paid precious little attention to Rwanda, other than recognition in my mind that it happened. I was nine when it happened. I don't recall hearing about it on television- I'm sure I did at some point, but it wasn't in my conciousness. I do remember reading- after the fact- a National Geographic article, and in particular a photo of a little boy's drawing of his memories. It was terrible- a little boy (I think it may have been the child who drew the picture) was being attacked by men with machetes- and it still sticks in my mind. This film really helped sensitize me to Rwanda- to the reality that the people who lived and died there were people. It's terrible that I need a film to remind me.


Finding the Past

Today my only class was cancelled. So, in leiu of school, I decided to visit the historic town- or what used to be a town- of Paulding, some forty minutes to the north. My history teacher had mentioned it Wednesday, and I had been aware of its historical significance for some time, but never visited. I arrived a little around twelve, under cold overcast skies. I had expected there to be little left in the town; I think there was less than I expected! A few houses, a post office, a community center/courthouse/voting center, and a rickety general store. You see, Paulding, established after the War of 1812, has gone steadily downhill, from its antebellum days when it was ranked with Mobile and New Orleans- which is very hard to believe today. The original courthouse sadly burned down in the 1930's, doubtlessly taking much of the area's history with it. The rest of the town has largely followed suit- almost nothing remains from the "old days."

My first stop was at a cemetery, pictured above, located a little ways from the post office. The first half of it is fairly recent, but climbing the little hill brought a much older, and much more decrepit section, bordered on the far end by an old rather sunken road. The tombstones dated mostly from the 1850's to 1890's, and many told the places of birth- anywhere from South Carolina to Central Alabama. I am not sure of the name or church connection of the cemetery, other than that several tombstones indicated membership in the Baptist Church- with dates and location of the person's joining. The ironwork on the gates was particularly beautiful, and the whole scene was rendered with more pathos by the overcast sky and cold. Despite the cold, I found wild jasimine and a lone bluet in bloom.

My next stop was St. Micheal's Church, which is Roman Catholic. This church- and the connected community- in fact is what drew me to Paulding. As you may imagine, rural Catholic churches, outside of Louisiana, are quite rare in the South. This one was brought by the presence of a considerable Irish immigrant community that settled in Paulding after fleeing the Potato Famine. Few and in between are rural Mississippi communities settled by Irish immigrants, at least from the 1800's. I know nothing else behind their history, but am sure there must be some stories there. St. Micheal's itself is the second oldest Catholic parish in the state, established in 1843 if I recall correctly. The adjoining cemetery is hauntingly beautiful, with two massive cedars and a fern-covered live oak. Two huge stands of bamboo border it- with the largest bamboo plants- trees almost- I have ever seen. Two simple statues- one of our Lord and the other of our Lady- preside over the grounds as well. Quite a few tombstones are of people who were born in Ireland- Counties Down, Meath, Limerick among others- and almost all are of Irish surnames. I hoped to find further information on the community and church's history in the church itself, but was disapointed. The church building itself fairly recent. I would like to return for Mass there sometime- at four o'clock on Saturdays, a sign indicated.

I had heard rumor of a Catholic monastery that once existed in Jasper County, near Paulding, and a web search confirmed it- it was a Cistercian house, founded in 1935 according to one Internet source; according to another it was in existence as early as the 1850's, which sounds more likely. I saw no sign or mention of it at the church, but a visit to the courthouse provided a little information. The courthouse, by the way, is fairly small, and terribly modern and utilitarian looking. It functions as an administrative center for the eastern part of the county; the county-seat proper has long since moved to Bay Springs, further west. The two ladies at the desk were very nice, but knew but little on the history of the place. They did provide me some information on the burning of the old courthouse, and told me where to find the monastery. Actually, where it used to be. Apparently it is no more; the buildings are now a hunting camp. I did not have time to search today- perhaps another time.

After St. Micheal's I went to the post office- post offices often being good places for information on little communities. The man at the counter was new there, but recommended I try the old postmaster. She had served for thiry-five years, and still lived next door. I walked across and knocked, but she wasn't at home. I hope to talk with her, as just looking at her yard indicated a great interest in local history: an old Paulding historical marker (yes, there's a new one across from the post office), various historical looking odds and ends and old outbuildings, and even a "See Historic Paulding" license plate (I don't think that project ever quite got off the ground!). But while walking down along the front of her yard, I noticed an old brick building across the little grassy track that seperates her yard from the post office. I walked over to it, and immediately knew its identity. Of all of old Paulding, only the jail, built in 1846, is still standing, and I found it, quite by accident. I had come across mention of it online, but had nearly forgotten about it.

It is a fascinating place. The ceiling is all decayed, and one whole wall section is gone, but the iron cells are all still in place, as well as the windows and doors. It's in terrible disrepair, but then it's a marvel it's still standing, and not torn down and the metal hauled off for scrap. Privet surrounds it, and vines and fern are growing inside. There was a little graffiti on the main door, and a beer bottle or two, but otherwise no trash: just bits of the roof and walls littered the floor. It was a bit of an unerving place at first, with the heavy iron cage-like cells, decay, and thick privet all around: but a wonderful little gem (I doubt its former occupants ever felt that way!).

I knocked on a few other doors in town- most of them actually (and they weren't as ominous as the once above!)- but the only lady at home was a recent arrival to Paulding, and didn't know of its history at all. The bits and pieces I found have left me wanting to uncover more of the town's story, and the people who came there, lived, worshiped, and died there. The land is slowly eating up what remains, and time has a bad way of obscuring history. I hope to catch some before it all turns to ash and dust.