Massey Delacroix was an only child, sort of; both parents had other marriages and other kids now. Breaking with tradition, her mother took the name of her new husband. Massey, the last of the Delacroix lineage, was left with a mystery to solve about her ancestors. This mystery was intriguing enough to bring her from temperate small town Dover, New Hampshire, to the steamy humid city of Shreveport, Louisiana.
She strained to see behind her as she backed out of the parking spot near the Bossier City Historical Center library entrance. Being small in stature, she was glad she had chosen the sedan instead of the hulking SUV they tried to give her at the rental store. Though her legs were long enough to reach the pedals, she sat close to the steering wheel to see, still getting used to her new multifocal glasses. As she entered onto the city street, she relaxed enough to let her mind wander over the information she had gathered today.
The Delacroix family was a light skinned bunch of refined blacks who lived in northern Massachusetts. Massey’s dark skin hid a truth no one wanted to share. She knew her mother was a descendant of a black slave who ran away from a convent in this area of Northwest Louisiana. She had heard the story sung many times to her and her cousins in their childhood. Though it was a calm soothing lullaby that eased fussy babes to sleep, little Massey always listened to the words. As an adult, she realized the words painted a dark image of painful servitude, fearful escape, and tenuous freedom. She wrote them down once and forgot about them. Until a chance meeting with a historian from a southern Mississippi university, who inquired about her last name. He was fixated on the similarity to the name of a group of nuns who did missions work in Louisiana before the Civil War. He called them the Sisters of the Cross and said they were buried in a North Louisiana garden cemetery.
This brief encounter played in her mind about a month later, when she was brainstorming for a new book idea. Having tenure at the University of New Hampshire required research and publishing every few years, to show you are staying fresh in your field. Massey’s field was Africana and African American Studies. In all her research, it only now occurred to her to investigate her own family tree. What was so special about now? All her cousins were married and they took their spouse’s surnames. Knowing she was the last one to carry the family name made her feel obligated to tell their story before it was lost completely.
Her fiancée asked her when they could start thinking of a date. He thought a fall wedding would be nice. She said it was too soon to plan. She didn’t know which name she would claim as her surname; his or hers. Should she follow tradition or strike anew like her mother? Did it really matter? She knew it mattered. However, her mother, Sally, nee Delacroix, now Martin, was more interested in a name that carried a material history, one that commanded special treatment and luxurious upgrades.
Massey liked her name. She liked the fragile link to a distant past, even though her mother told her precious little about it. She could not imagine having someone else’s name. Hers had so much meaning. It had its own story, its own song. Few blacks could say that. Often Caucasians could tell something about their lineage, their country of origin or what their great-grandfather did for a living. Most African Americans are hard–pressed to provide any details about their ancestors, and even less about their name. She knew where her name originated.
The white men gathered outside in the main yard, around a crackling fire, drinking, swearing and sharing stories of the brewing war between the states. The black men moved purposely about, tending to the needs of the white men, despite their own tiredness from working the fields all day. This baby did not seem to want to greet the world tonight. The missus had carried it for a few days more than she liked and, now it was time, she did not appreciate the long labor. Her black nurse kept hot rags and cool towels to soothe her pains, but all she got in return were curses and accusations for personally prolonging the birth with her Haitian voudou. She was alternately pushed away then pulled closer to help bear down.
After many hours of abuse, the black nurse saw the head start to crown and took quick action to call the little black girl by the door over with more towels and cloths. The baby was coming hot and fast now, but there was too much blood, she said. The baby plopped out, small and angry red. It was quickly wrapped and sent out of the room. The white woman nearly passed out from the pain, after glimpsing the dark bundle of baby flesh and blood. She already knew before the nurse told her. The baby was dead. Thank God.
Mass held the bundle tight to her flat chest and ran as fast as her skinny legs could carry her toward the slave quarters. She passed up the shacks, avoiding the little fires of light, and kept on toward the river. She was very dark and very light footed, so she was not seen or heard in the night. She took deep breathes as she pumped her legs forward. She ran for all her life, headed north. She did not stop until daylight when she hid in a beaver dam. She hummed a familiar song in her head. She followed instructions well. The nurse had whispered one word, “run”.
In the darkness of the beaver dam, she allowed the wiggling figure to peep out of the cloth and catch some cooler air. The new eyes barely opened and the baby turned its head toward her close face. She had heard the softest cry while running but could not allow the baby to move freely for fear of detection. Such would be an immediate death sentence by bullet or rope if she was lucky. If she wasn’t, which was most likely, it would mean bloody stripes on her back, the humiliation of the slave auction block, and brutal daily raping of the soul, if not the body.
Mass gently rocked the baby as she began to put words to the song she hummed. She smiled and let her eyes comfort the baby’s dark eyes. She was familiar because she had been the missus’s little handmaid, so the baby had heard her voice many times. This familiar was enough to keep the baby calm and happy. She liked to laugh so she giggled a little now and the baby smiled back. She settled down in a less damp section of the abandoned beaver cave and tried to get a little rest, though always listening and alert to trackers. As the day became hotter, she took a piece of bark and fanned the baby’s face; she dared not move too much. The ripples in the red river water would give them away. Here they would be safe until dusk, when she could start running again.
The baying of hounds could be heard in the distance, mixed with the gruff shouting of men searching for the runaway slave. They noticed her absence in the big house and suspected she had run off. The men followed the dogs as they sniffed the ground and picked up the trail. The girl’s scent led them to the water’s edge and they picked up their trotting pace, following the serpentine course of the river, headed south. As they stumbled over cypress knees and tree roots, they sniffed and inspected the muddy holes along the bank. Their noisy clamor faded away as they followed the fake trail she made before back tracking in the river to hide.
The heat of the day brought on fitful napping, peppered with dark dreams of being beaten, mauled by dogs, and slowly drowning from snake bites. Mass was glad when dusk arrived. She gave the baby some of the reddish brown river water to drink before wrapping it up again for the next leg of their journey. They had to make it to the big river and find the railroad people whispered about. No one knew for sure it existed but they had to try to find it. Their life depended on the help of strangers to get them to freedom. Mass tied the baby to her chest, so both arms could swing freely. She could run faster and for a longer time before resting. She felt she could run until dawn.
A faint light shone in the window of the house’s dark silhouette. She knew this meant it was a safe place to get food or rest. She had run past a few but dawn was coming and they needed to hide. The baby was getting restless and they both needed to eat. Mass watched for a few minute taking in details like back doors, covered windows, then she carefully snuck up to the door and knocked out a soft rhythm. It sounded as loud as her thudding heart. She nearly jumped when the door slid open. A pale face stared out at her briefly, then the door opened wider to let her in.
Inside the modest home, there sat a youth holding a pistol pointed right at Mass. The woman, standing against the closed door, nodded to him and he put it away. She motioned for Mass to sit down at the table, something she never did in the presence of a white person. She hesitated a moment until she saw the woman fill a big bowl with soup from the hearth. She quickly sat down and began to unwrap the bundle at her chest to reveal the small infant. She dipped a finger in the soup and put it in the infant’s mouth. The infant refused it. She tried again and was refused. Once again she dipped her pinky finger and this time she caressed the infant’s tongue until it began to suck. She continued to do this until the baby was satisfied and refused her finger again, then she ate what was left.
The white woman washed the bowl and placed it back on the mantel. She guided Mass to a hidden stair up into the eaves. She advised they stay quiet as pattyrollers were searching houses in this area. She pushed the stair back into the ceiling and blew out all the lights except for a lantern in the kitchen. She and her son began their chores for the day. She said a silent fervent prayer that there be no searches today. In the narrow space under the roof, Mass and the baby slept until dusk.
The traffic was light as Massey drove to the hotel. She had spent all day at the Bossier History Center attached to the town’s central library. She tried to absorb as much information as she could while there. She wanted details about the area during the 1800’s, records of slave sale transactions, and especially, any records about the convents and schools during that time. Information swirled in her head as she stopped at the nearest restaurant for dinner. She ordered takeout and packed her meal in the back seat before heading across the Texas St bridge and pulling into the parking garage across the street from her temporary home at the Hilton in Shreveport.
She entered her room, arms loaded with food and notebooks. She sat at the table, stretching out her tired legs, and began to eat while reading over her notes from the day. She discovered a book of letters written by the Mother Superior of a convent in Shreveport; the nuns called themselves Daughters of the Cross. She was intrigued and wondered if this was the same convent to which the historian referred. That would certainly explain his insistence that her name might somehow be connected. Delacroix was not a very common surname among black people and there weren’t any others that she knew of. Her grandmother died before she was born, and even her nannan and parrain, her godparents, died when she was young. Her mother struggled as a single parent and didn’t have time to talk about the past. When she remarried, she did not seem to have any need to hang on to it or the name. Massey was left with little information, a song, and a distant ancestor who escaped possibly from this convent.
Laying comfortably in the bed, she combed through the letters, looking for any reference to a runaway slave. She was fighting sleep when she found a note about the nuns acquiring a slave named Simon. Apparently, he ran away with the Federal troops that came through that area during the Civil War. She continued scanning the pages until she dozed off, glasses on her chest.
The next morning, Massey went looking for the cemetery the historian mentioned. She found out there were two garden cemeteries in the city, which was unusual as these types of cemeteries were rare. She went to the one closest to the location of the old school grounds. The school was no longer in that spot; a mall sat there now. The garden was named Forest Park and it sat on either side of St Vincent Avenue, which was named after the old school, St Vincent Academy. She slowly walked along the curved paths, looking at gravestones. She tried to locate the older part of the cemetery. After about five minutes in the heat, she decided to go to the office and ask if they had a map. The staff gave her a schematic, showing sections of the vast garden, and they marked the area where the nuns were most likely to be located.
Massey’s hopes rose a little higher as she took careful steps in this section of the cemetery. The flat tombstones looked a little older than the ones she saw earlier. She was grateful for wearing sensible shoes with ankle support as the ground was soft from a night sprinkle and the terrain was uneven. She deftly moved among the tombstones, searching left and right. Ah, she thought, these names are starting to sound a little familiar from the map. Jackpot! she nearly shouted, when she located the little stones with Sister So-and-so engraved on them. This has to be them. How many other nuns could there be buried here? She dared not ask that question. This place was enormous, tombstones as far as the eye could see, from where she stood. She leaned down and peered at the names on the crumbling headstones. She saw it. Mother Hyacinth, the head of the convent. She hastily pulled out a note book and a camera. She snapped several pictures, then jotted down the dates and some notes. Mission accomplished, she congratulated herself. Now if only I can put this all together. She stepped energetically back to her little sedan, pleased with herself.
Massey had found the beginning of her ancestor’s treacherous journey to freedom. She quickly drove over to the busy mall and parked at the edge of the lot. Standing on the corner of the property where the Convent and school once existed, she imagined the rough terrain, the vast cottonfields of the surrounding plantations, the marshy bank of the rivers her ancestor had to cross, the wild woods separating each plantation, a long dangerous journey to freedom. A young girl with a baby strapped to her chest would have a nearly impossible mission to circumnavigate so much land, so many witnesses, so much peril to her already forfeited life. Yet she did it. She escaped, saved the baby, and started the Delacroix lineage.
Massey went back to her car and sat for a moment, absorbing the miracle of her very being. She was a descendent of this incredible girl, this determination and grit. She wondered if she had the same spirit lying latent within herself. She started the engine and drove through the streets of Shreveport, down Fairfield where some of the convent buildings still existed. She looked at the big fancy houses with smaller houses behind them. She wondered what it must be like to still have to cater to another group of people just because your skin was a darker color. She thought of her own life in the little town of Dover, NH. She was the darkest person there and doubted if there were any other blacks in town. She certainly would have noticed them if they were there. Though there was the occasional ignoramus spouting hateful slurs, she never felt that she was lesser than anyone else. Except when she came to the South.
Here in Louisiana, she was keenly aware of how some people acted around her. Little black kids giggled at her dark skin, smooth almost matte brown, with wide hazel eyes, “funny eyes” they called them. Black adults smiled at her with a hint of pity, “bless your heart” hung subtly in the air between them. White adults looked at her and avoided touching her skin altogether, putting change on the counter when she shopped in stores. White kids, well kids can be cruel. She felt emotions she had only read about, and thought surely things were better now. For the most part, though, people acted normal, looking but carrying on with their own business. She found herself at the intersection of Fairfield and 70th st. She crossed over and realized quickly that this was the black side of town. The houses were run down, yards dusty instead of grass. The children played in the narrow streets and ran to the side of the road or stood in the shallow ditches until cars passed by. There were no sidewalks to travel on or infrastructure for drainage. It looked like a separate town, more country-like, especially with the weedy empty lots along the streets. She could hear lively music coming from cars as they passed her by. She felt more relaxed and a little scared at the same time. She realized she had prejudices too, fear of crime in a black neighborhood, assumptions that a black man would seek to harm her. She was ashamed of herself.
She turned a corner where another empty overgrown lot sat, and drove to the next corner, preparing to turn and make a block to get back to the “safe” part of town. However, she paused on the corner because she saw people, black and white, young and old, working in a large garden. They had baskets and grocery bags full of vegetables piled up near the gate. Their hands were busy carrying more produce or holding tools to work the ground. Here amidst this dismal area of town sat a beautiful vegetable garden full of neighbors and kids working together, growing their own food. She took out her camera and snapped some pictures. Proof that all races and generations could get along and work together for a common good. She smiled and turned on the radio as she continued on her journey back to the hotel. She needed to sit and write for a while, make sense of her notes, before she took a short nap. The southern sun was no joke and that little hike around the cemetery wore her out.