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.