By Donna Lawrence
A reach for understanding of an unknowable past.
My grandmother wrote a genealogy tracing her family, the Corbins of Virginia, and it was fun to flip through the slender book and find interesting connections. Some of it was speculation. One Hanna Corbin married John Augustine Washington, brother of George Washington. She may have been connected to our family of Corbins—that was uncertain. But one connection that Grandma was sure of was William Tappico, King of the Wiccocomico Indians of the Algonquin tribes, whose granddaughter, called Mary Tapp, wed our ancestor, John Corbin in 1799. My dad was so proud of that, our Native American blood. But, among the records of births and marriages and deaths, one entry stopped me cold. It was the last will and testament of William Corbin of Culpeper County, who died on December 3, 1796:
“I give and bequeath unto my son Benjamin Corbin one Negro wench Sarah and her child Lydia and all their future increase.” Reading those words, I forgot to breathe. This first bequest was followed by gifts of other Negroes, wenches and children, to his other sons and daughters. I knew it was naïve to be shocked. The Corbins were landowners in Virginia two centuries ago. They would have had slaves. Yet seeing this in print, this was something I could not wrap my mind around—the giving of people as inheritance, owning them and bequeathing them to sons and daughters. Sarah and her child Lydia, Esther, Nanie, Delphea, and all their future increase.
It was years after first reading this when I found myself in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina. I had heard there were plantations along the Mississippi River that had been restored, and with visions of Tara, I decided that a visit to a plantation would be an enjoyable way to spend a free afternoon. I chose Oakley Plantation, because John James Audubon had lived there. Thoughts of my Virginia ancestors never came to mind.
My destination was near St. Francisville, about 30 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. I drove north along Highway 61, roughly following the Mississippi River, although the levees kept the river out of view from the road. I then turned onto Highway 965 toward the Audubon State Historic Site and Oakley Plantation. As it turned out, Audubon had lived there for only four months. He was hired as a teacher for Eliza Pirrie, the young daughter of the house. He tutored Eliza in the mornings and had his afternoons free for drawing. The 200-year history of the house is defined by this brief period when an American artist who would be famous one day came upriver from New Orleans as a tutor.
The area around the plantation house is still heavily wooded, with light lacing onto the drive that leads to the parking area. The Spanish moss dripping heavily from the branches of tall magnolia trees and live oaks looked ancient that day, as if it might have been hanging here sheltering Audubon as he walked from the house into the surrounding woods to sketch birds in 1821. I heard the descendants of those birds singing to one another far above my head as I walked, crunching the gravel on the path toward the house.
The Oakley house is tall and rather narrow, not at all the sprawling plantation house I expected. I wanted to go inside, so I waited for the tour guide by the broad stairs at the front of the house. The thick bayou heat of the last few days was gone, and I was presented with a fresh afternoon to breathe into my lungs. Suddenly the birdsongs from above were interrupted by the shriek of a peacock. In a moment, the glimmering bird sauntered into view, dragging his tail, followed close behind by three gray-haired Louisiana locals, who would be joining me for the tour of the house.
Since our guide had not yet arrived, they decided to stroll through the formal garden. I was busy imagining myself back in 1821, when I would have arrived by carriage in front of this staircase, stepping out onto that brick platform over there, and gathering my skirts to climb these steep stairs. I wondered how long it would have taken a carriage to travel the five or six miles from the river port at Bayou Sara to Oakley House.
The house was designed in the colonial style, with a West Indies influence reflected in the wide porch across the front of the top floor, protected by slatted jalousies, which allowed breezes to flow through, while keeping out the glaring sun. The guide took us in to the room where Audubon had stayed, with a narrow bed replicating the one he had slept in, and a few other pieces of furniture, and then we went through the rest of the house. The guide described the purpose of each room, pointing out notable pieces of furniture, mantels, pictures on the walls. This was a home of wealth, this three-story house. They had books and a pianoforte. They had a sitting room for the gentlemen and another for the ladies.
In the large central dining room, a swooping fan hung over the long dinner table, large enough for guests. A cord that looped across the ceiling and dropped down into the corner caught my eye, and I knew it before the guide said it. I didn’t want it to be that, but it was. In my mind I saw a slave child standing in the corner, pulling the cord, releasing it, pulling it, releasing it, endlessly moving this fan for the comfort of the affluent white people sitting around the table, enjoying an abundant meal. Lydia. This was Louisiana, not Virginia, but it was the slave child Lydia standing quietly in the corner, pulling and releasing the cord. I turned away.
The rest of the house filled me with sadness. I could picture Sarah, Lydia’s mother, carrying heavy trays of full teapots, stacked cups and plates, and platters of food up the steep back stairs to the upper rooms where the Pirrie family gathered to have tea, or to the front jalousied porch, where they sat on oppressively hot afternoons, in hopes of catching a breeze. Sarah would go back out to the kitchen, a small building outside the back door, where she would need to keep the fires always burning in the large fireplace she used for cooking and the brick baking oven, no matter how hot and thick the air. I saw where Lydia and Sarah slept, on burlap sacks in the corner of the cook’s quarters. Lydia’s father, if he were still around, would have slept there too. They would all be up before dawn, Sarah to stoke the fires in time to prepare the morning meal.
At the kitchen, the tour was over. The others looked toward the flower garden, and I walked alone to the slave’s cabins in back. At the end of a wide path, past the vegetable garden, the trees opened into a meadow with two slave cabins, each pinchingly small for a family. One room. This was where Esther, Nanie, and Delphea lived, and all their future increase, along with hundreds of men, women and children who arose at dawn and trudged out to work the 3,000 acres of cotton that grew on this plantation.
There are signs posted here, telling of the hardships of the lives of slaves who lived in these small cabins, and the many, many other cabins that used to sit in this meadow. The State of Louisiana does not ignore that history. They have lived with it for two centuries now. They have acknowledged it and moved on.
I imagined two long rows of these small wooden homes facing each other. I hoped that the people who returned here at night after a long day working in the fields had it in them to relax for a while, to eat, to talk, to sing, before falling into an exhausted sleep. Delphea would like the singing, while putting her children to bed on cushions of burlap in the corner, adding her voice to the song.
It didn’t make logical sense, but I whispered into the cabin, I’m sorry.
As I drove away along the curving road lined with trees, I thought about what had just happened that turned my afternoon so heavily sad. Was it guilt? No. That was too many generations ago. It felt like a deep empathy sent backward through time. That afternoon will be with me for longer than any happy day trip would be.
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Donna Lawrence has written for National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times, San Diego Daily Transcript, Ohio Magazine, Miami Magazine, and many other magazines and newspapers. She is the author of Leave Only Paw Prints, Dog Hikes in San Diego County, published by Sunbelt Publications. She also won the Silver award for Travel Memoir in the 2015 Solas Awards. She She lives in Los Angeles.