“You have a marvelous figure,” said Yvette Dumaine, seamstress, to Madame Antoine. “I understand that you are a dancer.”
“Yes, I am, said Antoine. “A dancer at the Lycee Fragonard and, sometimes, at the Theatre de l’Opera.”
“Moi, aussi,” said Madame Dumaine, beginning to pin a hem. “I have taken dance at l’Atelier Alexandre. Also, I have danced in one performance at the Theater de l’Opera.”
“I want this dress to be, you know . . .”
“This dress must allow you to bring your emotion to the stage.”
“Yes. Quite well said. I conclude from that remark that you have the soul of a dancer.’
Outside the Dumaine St sewing shop a drum corps was marching. The drummers were followed by a crowd of laughing young people and by adults who loved the beat.
“Eek!” exclaimed Madame David.
“Oh! Excuse’ moi!” said the dark-skinned male who whipped into the studio from the courtyard.
“Normand!” exclaimed Madame David.
“Pardon!” said the young fellow – who reversed his path.
“This will not do!” said Madame Antoine.
David sputtered, “Anh!”
Yvette explained, “That is my son, David, who helps me in the shop.”
“A thousand pardons, m’am, I beg of you,” said David, who bowed.
“Maman,” said Yvette’s son from the next room, “I’m going upstairs with cafe au lait and toast for papa.”
“Mais, oui, Normand. Tell papa that i will be joining him when I take the measurements of Madame Antoine’s dress.”
“Oui, maman, ” Normand said as he popped a croissant into his mouth. “A plus tard.”
As Yvette finished pinning the hem there was a clatter from the stairway. “Maman, sorry to interrupt, but we need you,”said Normand. “I don’t think that papa is breathing. His eyes are closed. He has not answered me.”
“Sacre bleu,” said Yvette. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”
“For a year he has been very ill!” said Yvette. Upstairs she broke into a wail, which was followed by sobs. “Oh, maman,” exclaimed David as he joined her in sobbing. Mother and son began recitation of the rosary.
The funeral for Homer David, long-term cotton factor whose office was on Decatur St, was held at the city’s most important church, St Louis Cathedral. The tolling of the cathedral bells were heard across the city.
In the square outside the church a platoon of soldiers paraded. On the public seating students were copying their lessons. The smell of fried beignets lingered in the air.
The rites were attended by formally-dressed Anglo men – seated on the downriver side of the cathedral – and by the Creole families connected with Yvette – on the upriver side. A string trio played selections from Charles Gounod.
Following the funeral, a family meeting was held in a back room at Tujagues’ Restaurant on Decatur St. Roy Villere, attorney, read the outcome and disposition of the goods and finances of “the honorable and successful Homer David.” It was attested to that Monsieur David intended that his common law wife of 20 years, Yvette, to be released from slavery. “Oh, yes,” exclaimed several members of her family upon that news. She was, in addition, granted the sum of 200 livres.
Their son, Normand, was certified as a free person. “Allelujah,” said several people. Though born to a woman whose status was that of negress and slave, Norman would be given papers stating that he was a free male.
In the morning, there was a meeting with the cotton factor who’d worked alongside M. David for 10 years. Together they had bought and sold cotton for farmers in the area around Shreveport and Jefferson, Tx.
A steamboat leaving for Jefferson, Tx, that day was carrying letters asking friends of M David to consider letting a house and conveyance to Yvette David and son.
To reach Jefferson, boats traveled to Shreveport. There the boats used 12-Mile Bayou and Cypress Bayou to reach Caddo Lake.
It was agreed that Yvette, seamstress, would have improved prospects for her proprietorship by re-locating to Jefferson. It had recently become a busy port . Buildings were being constructed rapidly. Her late husband had his most active contacts in Jefferson.
The adventure of re-starting her businesses in a growing port was full of promise. “Women need new dresses, even amidst the woods of Texas,” a young woman remarked at the bon voyage party. Normand was sent for tickets for the steamship Marie Claire, a prominent and swift steamer. It steadily took furniture, hardware and people to Shreveport, to Jefferson and to plantations along the Red River valley.
On the day of debarkation Normand and Yvette arrived at the levee near Elysian Fields Ave, one of the busiest places in the city. They soberly made their way to the gangplank of the Marie Claire. Ascending to the Hurricane deck they observed groups of excited people on the cargo deck of the Marie Claire. While a brass quartet played on the wharf, there were whoops from the crowd. “Hot damn!” “There is to be a river race!”
A long blast on the boats’ steam whistles preceded a proclamation that, “The captain of the steamboat Rex . . . the crowd quieted . . . has hereto challenged the captain of the Marie Claire to a race to Shreveport. A sum of $20 and the honor of a captain’s skill is at stake.”
Such a contest jazzed the travelers. It gave people something additional to bet upon.
But it did not affect the dangers – snags, which were tree trunks – and sand bars, subterranean wrecks as well as on-board fires – of a river voyage. In fact, it enhanced the opportunity for explosions of the steam boilers.
When the boat left the dock, decks of cards fluttered into action at tables inside and outside. Amateurs ready to have fun had drinks in their hands and anticipated the fun of winning money. Professional card players were ready to make their week’s wages. Some passengers were anticipating visits to plantations. Storytelling was to be mingled with fried chicken, beer and whiskey.
In their room, Yvette and Normand compared notes on the outcome of their card games. “Merde!” said Yvette. “Tas de merde.” She had, without realizing it, lost half the sum of her recent inheritance. David surely must have lost much, too. He would not say how bad his losses were.
About noon a notable clearing appeared in the otherwise thick wall of greenery that surrounded the river. Alerted by the ships’ whistle, field hands appeared on the levee. On the Marie Claire roustabouts began to maneuver crates toward the gangplank at the bow of the ship. The ship was stopped at Woodburn Plantation. Slave women used the gangplank to lightly step aboard. They were vending sweetmeats and fried pies. They also sold fried catfish sandwiches wrapped in news paper.
On the river the scenery did not change hour after hour. There were 2 or 3 stops a day at plantations. The Marie Claire passed perhaps 3 steamships a day that were headed south. The monotony was lightened by the belief that the ship on which they traveled was ahead of the Rex.
The following night, spirits were high. the word was passed that the boat would land at Shreveport in 2 hours.
Shhhh k-k-k-k- shhhh. Suddenly a piercing metallic noise rose above the engines’ throb. Gzzzk-k-k. It was dreadful and strident. People paused.
The massive explosion shook the entire structure. Flames shot into the air. Screams cut the night air. Timbers were wrenched. Boards splintered. Nails and splinters of glass flew. Briefly, all was lighted as though it were daylight. Water inundated the decks. Upper levels buckled and collapsed. Timbers were afire. The screams had become an all-encompassing cacaphony. A vortex of water sucked boards and bodies into the depths of the river.
David was vaulted into the air by the sudden uplift of boards. Near him the metal exhaust stacks were collapsing. The pilothouse disappeared underwater.
Smacked into a section of wall board, David was at rest for a moment. Water and fire surrounded him.
The human cries had been extinguished. The ominous sounds remaining were those of moving water and sizzling fire atop the water. A wave of brown liquid flecked with jagged fragments of wood was bearing him away from the smoke and fire.
Reaching into the blackness unknowingly, water enveloping his legs, arms and head, David was semi-conscious. He choked and jerked his mouth and head away from the watery death.
Escaping his state of shock, David’s muscles began to spasm. He found himself astride a broad board – clutching it desperately. He grabbed the section of intact wall board. He coughed violently. He screamed, “Mama-a-n!
He was drifting in the black water. Ugh. With his feet, legs and hands he felt the muck of a river bottom. Instinctive paddling motions gave way to stumbling and crawling.
Argh! Branches lodged in the mucky shoreline blocked him. The mud held tight to his legs and feet.
Tumbling past the sticks and vines, he felt an increasing amount of solid ground ground beneath his feet.
The shouts of people and the neighing of horses were converging upon him. Torches were looming.
“Hey! Hey! ”
“Hey, you!” “You survived!”
He fell into a ditch, landing on his hands, elbows and knees. His feet came in contact with some living, fleshy being. It was a moving being. Two burning, knife-like points seemed to pierce his ankle. In the dark he could not see his attacker. Was it a snake delivering a burning, fiery pain? He reached down to grab the assailant. It was a heavy snake that had wrapped its body round his leg. It now bit his hand. Aargh!. His scream was piercing.
From the dark of the nearby roadway: “Paw! Here’s the fella. Over here. Bring the lantern. He’s in trouble. “
“That’s a moccasin wrapped around his leg!”
“He’ll die if we don’t cut him and try to suck the poison.”
“Here’s a knife. Watch out. It’s sharp.”
The snake was gone in the darkness. Blood streamed from the knife cut. The boy attached his mouth to the cut above the ankle to suck blood and spit it. Suck and spit. Suck and spit.
The black man, survivor of the steamship explosion and sinking, was facing death by a venomous snakebite.
“Let’s get him to that hay shed up the road and lay him out.”
“You may well live past this snake bite, fella.”
“Like you survived the steamboat explosion.”
“Lord Jesus been good to you today.” Son and father chuckle.”In his own way.”
Norman’s rescuers were the Simpsons, father, Ezra, and son, Alan. Their occupation was selling oats, hay and sorghum to cattle herders arriving at their pens on the edge of the Red River.
Mrs Simpson brought Norman water and, later, buttermilk. His body fought the fever for days. He recovered.
The next week Mrs. Simpson looked at him kindly. “Who are you, boy?”
“I’m Normand Davis, m’am. Born and raised in New Orleans.”
“What do you do, boy?”
“I was freed last week when my daddy died. It was in his will and testament. I had some money. But I lost it in the explosion.”
“Well; sorry, boy. I do not know that you are free.” She shook her head slowly. ” No papers. Hard to prove that you are free.’
“We will feed you. When you can stand up and lift a tow sack of sorghum, you will re-pay us. We will let you stay in the barn,” said Ezra.
“That is kind of you, sir. Thank you.”
On the table in the middle of the house, he saw a pair of steel scissors in an open box. Normand knew scissoring from being a helper in his mother’s sewing shop; he made an offer: “M’am, my mother was a seamstress. She taught me to use scissors.”
“Can you sew, boy?”
“I can cut and fit fabric to make clothing, m’am. I can make simple stitches .”
“Well, let’s see.”
“One thing I can do is cut hair. I can make folks’ hair look fresh, m’am.”
“Well, my son Alan would look better if’n his hair was cut.”
“I’ll do it, m’am.”
“My friend Sarah has been wanting me to trim her hair. Would you cut hers straight around?”
Shreveport was a town of about 5000 in 1850. There were about 2500 whites. Slaves outnumbered whites, at about 3000. There were some 30 free blacks. Free blacks were a complicated issue for citizens and the law.
“We have laws that keeps free blacks apart from slaves. Letting them mingle will Not do either group any good,” said Wilson Rafferty, magistrate, at the city office.
Continued Rafferty, “You’ve got to register as a free black, to keep us up to date on what you are doing. You have to keep your papers with you at all times.”
A wooden building at 300 Commerce St housed the city offices. On its right was a two-story building with 3 cotton factors’ offices. On the left was a two-story building in which were a tanning company and a drayage. Four sturdy wagons attached to mules were tethered to stanchions on the street. A block away and across the mud flats were several steamboats.
“This boy almost drowned in the explosion of the Marie Claire last month. My husband found him in the shallows of the river after the ship sank. He lost his mother to drowning. And he survived only by the hand of the Lord. He says he’s a free black raised in New Orleans. He lost his money and his papers.” said Mrs Simpson. “He is staying in our barn. He’s cutting folks’ hair to earn his keep.”
Davis’ health improved as did his skill in cutting hair. He earned enough money as a barber to sustain room and board. There was enough left over to send money to the City of New Orleans to have his manumission papers replaced.
“Fine young black man. Speaks well. Well, he’s handsome, too,” said the Simpsons’ neighbor, Jessica Ford, to Rafferty.
Davis’ need to grieve for the loss of both his father and mother bore him in another direction. The sense of rhythm and movement that his mother possessed must have drawn him to the fiddle. Asking about the loan of a fiddle, the widow Willa Coley responded, “Let me think about it.”
She’d begun to come by the Ezell’s for haircuts for her 2 daughters. Mrs Coley told him she would be willing to let him borrow her late husband’s home-made box fiddle.
Thus Davis began. His tone moved steadily from halting and squeaky to smooth and clear of note. The Coley girls were his first listeners. It became apparent that Davis’ big eyes, features that tended toward the Caucasian, and dusky skin color were appealing to the girls.
A conspicuous citizen of Shreveport in the pioneer era was well-favored Bushrod Jenkins. He was a square-jawed young man with chestnut locks. He was from a capable Virginia family. He courted and married Edith Grigsby and thereby became proprietor of the large Grigsy Island Plantation.
In 1836 he joined several other property owners in founding the Shreve Town Company, a land speculation corporation. Shreve Town was situated at the meeting point of the Red River and the Texas Trail. The chances were good that businesses would be established at the junction.
By 1845 it was apparent that Shreve Town was going to be a success.
On Texas St,, Jenkins was planning a post-harvest Christmas party for his wife, Edith, and friends. A dance was to be the centerpiece of the celebration, which would last most of the night and end with a 6-course breakfast.
Word had spread among the planters’ wives that a handsome fiddle player named Norman C. Davis, a free black, was able to play reel after reel and supply the music for a dance. Edith Grigsby heard Davis playing on the riverfront. She encouraged him to find additional players to form an orchestra.
On this day, Davis was told that Jenkins wanted a meeting. Norman walked to the Catfish Hotel.
“Whatcha got there, boy?” inquired Jenkins.
“Name’s Normand, sir. Got a little square box, sir.”
“Ha ha! Nor-mand?? Ok, boy!”
“Normand Davis, sir, if it please ya. Sir. Ah, Mr Jenkins?”
“Ha ha! That’s right, boy, I am Mr Jenkins. Proprietor of Grigsby Island Plantation.”
“Well, that’s mighty fine, sir, Mr Jenkins. Your plantation’s well known, sir. Cotton far as the eye can see.”
“Surely. We got some 1700 acres. Mostly cotton. And you’ve got a little box. With strings on it . And a fiddler’s bow.”
“Suh, yessir. Call it a fiddle. Even if it is homemade.”
“Well, let me hear it. Play it, boy.”
“Yessir! Mr Jenkins. If it please you, sir. Ha ha. ‘Play it.’ I reckon, sir.”
“Well, the hell, boy. Are you going to play it? Music! Cmon.”
“Yessir. Ha! Somethin’ like this.”
Plays one note. Pulls the note out hesitatingly and scratchily.
“Well. Huh! You not worth a damn on that fiddle. Boy, that’s not gonna do.”
“No, sir! Ha. Not at all, sir. No, sir. ‘Not gonna do’.”
“Well, look here. They tell me you can play.”
“Suh! They do? How bout that! Sir.”
“Boy, give it another go. Cmon. They say you can play enough for us to dance.”
“Ha! They do! Do tell!”
“Boy, what’s your name?”
“Name’s Normand, sir. Normand C Davis, if it please ya. Sir, Mr Jenkins.”
“Well, hell, Norman, play that damn thing.”
Plays a strong, clear note. Startles Jenkins.
“Hell, boy. More like it. Son of a gun.”
“Ha. Yessir. Glad you liked it, sir. Appreciate it, sir.”
“Now, let’s hear some playing, boy. Play a song. Cmon, boy.”
“Yessir. A song. ‘Play a song,’ says Mr Jenkins.”
“You a free negro? They tell me you a free boy.”
“Me? Me? Yessir. I got papers. Ain’t no bondsman. No, sir. Got papers. Sir.”
“Well, play that damn fiddle, goddamn your black ass.”
“‘ Play that fiddle. ‘ Yessir. Yessir.”
Pushes the butt of the fiddle under his neck for a moment. Reconsiders. ‘Ha.’ Waves his bow. Big smile. Pushes the end of the violin violin into his chest. Looks like a jester, a fancy player. Maneuvers the bow, Plays pizzicato phrase.
“No, boy. Put that box under your chin. This ain’t right. The fiddle goes against your neck.”
“Yesssir. See: goes up here, under my chin, sir. Proper. Good ‘n proper.”
“You are some kind of funny, boy.”
“Well; ha. I am some kind of funny, sir. You said it. Yessir.”
“Hell, boy, play that ‘motherduckin’ fiddle. Quit your damn fooling around. They tell me you can play enough for a dance. Cmon, let’s see it. Damn!”
“Yessir. Here we go, sir.” Smoothly plays theme from ‘Blue Danube’. Jenkins turns around, chin in hand. Listening.
“Well, there it is. You can play. Damn. That’s what we need. And so that will do.”
Jenkins turns around: “You got other players? More people who can play music? A little orchestra?”
“Un, huh. More players. Yessir.”
“How many you got, Normand the fiddler?”
“Well, let me see, sir. There’s Frank, the cornet- playing slave boy, he’s from Blanchard Farm. Isaac John, a free man – free black. Has a farm back o’ town. Play mandolin. Jim Brown a free person, too. On tambourine. There’s two roustabouts working on steamboats: Billy, playing ‘tee fer,’ and Robin, playing banjo.”
Jenkins frowns. “Lot of players, wouldn’t you say? You need all of ’em?”
“Sir; yessir. Makes the sound sweet. Makes the women – I mean the people – want to dance.”
“What do you know about the women, you black bastard. If I catch any of you looking at the women I will have 39 lashes ready to be served. What the women want will never be any of your got-damn business. Is that clear?”
“Yessir, boss. Yessir, sir. Apologizing, Mr Jenkins.”
“Well, sir: Mike and Joe from Angus McNeil’s warehouse. Yessir. Play guit-ars.”
“Hell, fiddler. That’s too damn many musicians. To many. Too damn many.”
“Well, Lawd be, sir. Hate to say it. But I need ’em all. You want people to dance and have a good time? Am I right, sir?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, fiddle player. Yes. I want everyone to dance. Bring your musicians. This better be the best dance ever given in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana. The damned best one ever.”
“Showl do, mister Jenkins.,” replied Davis with a barely audible lilt in his voice. “You – are – a generous man. You a believer. ‘Preciate you, sir; yessiree. Showl do.”
Attendees at the holiday supper who weren’t too inhibited to dance seemed to enjoy the gallopades and quadrilles. Normand, a black brocade vest over his starched white shirt and black breeches, was conspicuous as the leader of the melody makers. He announced that Mrs. Grigsby had given the group a name. It was the Ethiopian Orchestra.
The musicians saw the celebrants to their carriages and horses. In the flush that followed the successful conge,’ Mr. Jacobs, one of the dozen founders of Shreve Town, grabbed Davis by the shoulder. Squeezing the fiddler in a way that indicated perhaps he had imbibed more than his share of wine, Jacobs told Normand to see him at his office at 10 in the morning.
Whether the meeting was to sooth umbrage or to proffer praise was not clear to Normand.
Inside the office in the morning, Jacobs said, “Normand, yousonofabitch! You don’t know what happened last night. But I can tell you, understanding that nothing said in my office today will ever be repeated, that your music . . . and the dancing . . . and the supper and drinking – gave the planters a boost. Gave us a new sense of partnership and shared purpose. Your music and the wine was engine oil of the best kind.”
With tears forming in his eyes, Normand replied, “Thank you. Lordy, sir, thank you.”
“I have 5 lots of land outside the town’s western boundary that are neither here nor there but today I know what I’m going to do: I’m going to offer them in a special sale to you. Yessir, you’re a black. But you’re a free black. And I like you.”
Jacobs paced the office. “This sale, if you agree and you make your payments, will not be public knowledge. It cannot be. But if you can keep your end and I keep mine, it will constitute a blessing for the community.”
Davis’ sobs were deep and pitiful. His hands cradled his face. He fell to his knees.
“No sir! No! Sir! I means, yessir! Yes! Sir!”