The two children (“the Wastrels” as I call them) have come for a visit in the old town. Originally they came from the frontispiece in my mother’s copy of “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson (signed to her by my great great grandfather who appears as a baby in the first panel, on the back of Emeline Netter). I have painted these children many times over the years. Sometimes they appear innocent, quizzical, whimsical. Other times they manage a precarious existence, living under ground, in trees, between worlds.
The ghosts rise not just from the Natchez Cemetery, but also from the site of the so-called ‘contraband camp’ referred to as The Corral. The camp was set up by an under-prepared Union army when it found itself over-run by slaves fleeing the plantations in the surrounding county. The Union army had no plan to house or protect the newly freed men, women and children, so they created a temporary camp, where an unknown number of African Americans perished from starvation and disease. The number dead is understood to be between one and three thousand. Those that managed to survive did so with nothing more than in-season peaches for sustenance. The discarded pits grew into a grove of peach trees which stands as the only marker to the tragedy.
The grandmother of a friend drives her Plymouth, as she always did, to watch the sun set from the bluff.
The train engine is one that actually just sold at auction. It used to run on the track from Natchez to nearby Washington, MS.
According to maps in the Historic Natchez Foundation archive, the old train round-table existed on this spot. Those who are familiar with the Natchez Pageant will recognize the ‘placard bearers’ and their paired rotation. Elysium, the Elysian Fields, is the idyllic afterworld for the blessed and fortunate. For a place with so few actual Greeks, the Hellenic sensibility shows well in the Antebellum South.
A giant possum sings “Won’t you come home Bill Bailey, won’t you come home,” presumably in time with the calliope player a few panels back.
A tableaux from the Natchez Pageant that celebrated the various National flags that have flown over Natchez. Notably the Confederacy was considered a nation whose standing equalled that of Spain, Britain, France, and the United States. As recently as 2014, there were still Confederate Flag Runners as part of the Garden Club Courts. That is preposterous.
A man playing the calliope. Calliope was the most eloquent of all Muses in Greek Mythology. When a steamboat would dock, the sound of the steam calliope could be heard all over town. Jumpy ragtime melodies, loud and warped, were both lovely and grotesque.
Family letters and diaries describe various scourges of Yellow Fever that took many lives, often children’s. Of the letters that survive from my family members in Natchez, seventy percent (let’s say) are about different illnesses and symptoms, boils and broken limbs. Consumption and cholera. The rest is about sewing, the weather, and wishing that to whomever the letter was written would come home.
Natchez Indians stand beneath the divine sun.
The cherub is from a 17th century French map of New Orleans, conceivably there could have been one of Natchez. The pudgy celestial infant appears to be dragging the River. Goodness knows what will turn up.
The portrait is of Walter Barnes, the beloved band leader whose orchestra drew a crowd of hundreds to the Rhythm Club on St. Catherine Street on April 23, 1940. The night ended in a devastating fire, killing 209 people, mostly African American. My great great grandfather’s house was just a few blocks away on N. Union and he went the next morning with many others to see the bodies.
Itinerant preachers used to go around the South teaching shaped note singing, a complex harmonic singing using shapes to denote different tones. They used The Sacred Harp Hymnal; the recordings I’ve heard are otherworldly. My grandfather used to talk about the Sacred Harp gatherings. The preacher here sings from the hymnal: “And alas did my savior bleed? And did my sov’reign die! Would he devote that sacred head to such a worm as I?”
There is a long artistic history of anthropomorphized animals, surrogates for human behavior that is hardly human. The mule is from Goya’s Los Caprichos, his series of etchings on war and human error.
The figures on the gazebo came from historical photos in the HNF archive.
The round headed fellow is my great grandfather, Dr. David Smith, who was an optometrist. He disappeared in the early 1920’s and died at Whitfield Hospital in the 1960’s. That’s all I know about that. I have a pamphlet from his optometrist shop and my Grandmother kept a photo of him on her desk, though nothing was ever said about him.
The hut is from Alexandre de Batz, an 18th century etching of a Natchez Indian dwelling. Next to the hut is scribbled “I can edit this out later”. And I did – originally a group of Klansmen having a picnic.
This panel and the next depict a scene from the book “Southwest by a Yankee” by Joseph Holt Ingraham (the figure in pen). He describes a slave auction happening on Main Street in Natchez as two slaves stand by watching. Ingraham overheard them discussing what they were bought for, compared to the man on the auction block.
A horse with a bullwhip, the French Explorer La Salle.
The young woman with unborn child is Louise the Unfortunate, who was said to be haunting the third floor of my Grandparents’ house where they both died in childbirth. Her gravestone is in the Natchez cemetery with only “Louise the Unfortunate” engraved. My grandfather bought the plot next to her and his stone reads “I Was Here But Now I Haint.”
The two figures in the back are from the Historic Natchez Foundation archive from roughly that spot in the 19th century. The group of four African Americans is from the NYPL Farm Security Administration archive.
The hot air balloons are a yearly thing in Natchez. I remember one year standing on the bluff at Rosalie, watching one burst into flames and crash into the river. Did I dream that?
Locals might remember C.T. Kelly who stood on street corners all over town, often he appeared to bi-locate. You’d be downtown and he’s there on the corner of Main and Commerce, rocking on his heels, jingling change in his pockets. You’d go out to the mall and there he is again, doing the same. Lime green pants and wide plaid tie, accusing somebody of being a communist.
In the distance, a Natchez Indian watching a sunset, or divine eye.
The large group is from a photograph of my great great grandfather (the baby from the previous panel), his wife and three granddaughters (one of them my Grandmother) which hung in my grandparents’ dining room. He was referred to by multiple generations as “Grandfather,” which I found confusing. He was formal, sentimental and uncompromising; he took in my grandmother and her sisters when their father “died” (see panel 8). I’ve always assumed I got my body shape from him, but his penmanship was much better. He was an exhaustive keeper of family history, or shaper of family myth, however you like.
Here we see the Natchez Indians attacking the French in 1729 at Fort Rosalie, now the house called Rosalie, seen in the background. The French retaliated by slaughtering nearly every last member of the sun-worshiping tribe. We used to play in the yard there quite a bit, a gorgeous view of the River.
My great great grandfather writes in his memoirs about fleeing Natchez as a child during the Civil War with their ‘trusted nurse Emeline Netter,’ which is a quaint way to refer to someone who was almost definitely a slave. According to some spotty census records, she would have been in her early twenties when the War started. I see the figures in the distance as the baby ancestor on Emeline’s back.