Bonnie Parker, Southern Original

8e804aaae395b5b98a1fcc34650cf891I grew up knowing the story of  Bonnie and Clyde as well as I knew the fairy tales my mother read to me.   In fact,  in family stories, one of our  distant (always emphasized in the telling)  cousins was rumored to have sheltered them from time to time.  And  if you dug long enough, you were sure to find a common ancestor. My family, however, did not see them as the glamorous  bank robbers  portrayed in the film.  We knew the Barrows gang as reckless killers who robbed and killed anyone who got in their way.  In their brief run they are said to have killed 13 people, as many as 9 of which were law men.   But contrary to the myth that they only targeted banks, they usually robbed  small stores or rural gas stations since  it was easier to escape detection.  Their take was usually small and they were constantly on the run.

Bonnie Parker was not  the pistol packing, cigar smoking desperado depicted in the press and crime magazines of the time.  She, never smoked cigars –   the famous photo of her with a cigar in her mouth was staged as a prank.  And as for the pistol-packing outlaw,  Bonnie was not actively involved in the shootings, and probably never  killed anyone, but only drove the getaway cars.

Bonnie grew up in the depression, the child of a single mother after her father died when she was four.  Life was harsh and they struggled to get by.  But  Bonnie  loved music and the stage. She  performed in school pageants and talent shows and excelled at writing.   She told her friends they would see her name in lights someday, a dream that ironically came true– but in a sadly distorted way.

Both Bonnie and Clyde were devoted to their families and made frequent trips to Dallas to visit.  When they had money, they sent it to their families; when they did not, the families sent them food and provisions.

While  in prison in 1932 after a failed hardware store burglary, Bonnie 56A54359-850E-434F-B12C-B3527D010FE5wrote a collection of 10 poems  called “Poetry from Life’s Other Side,”   One of these, “The Story of Suicide Sal,” about an innocent country girl lured by her boyfriend into a life of crime, was left
behind when the gang escaped the police in Joplin, Mo.    Two weeks before her death, apparently sensing that the end was near, Bonnie wrote a poem for her mother  called “The Trail’s End” that ended with the stanza:

Some day they’ll go down together;
And they’ll bury them side by side,
To a few it’ll be grief—
To the law a relief—
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.

We may never know the true story of Bonnie and Clyde, but their 3C1762F2-2A5B-467B-8A40-B2CA38E7AEC5poignant love story shines through. For Bonnie and Clyde  it was love at first sight and their  love endured overwhelming hardship.   Bonnie was still married to her first husband, shocking behavior in those days.  Clyde was a hardened criminal constantly on the run.  But Bonnie remained a loyal companion to Clyde, although she believed their violent deaths inevitable. Their daily lives were difficult as they struggled to evade discovery, resorting to campfire cooking and bathing in cold streams.   In 1933, Bonnie was injured in a car crash and badly burned.   She never regained full use of her leg and  often had to be carried by Clyde.

After two short years on the run, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were killed  in ambush on an isolated stretch of highway in the piney woods near Gibsland, Louisiana, about 50 miles from the farm where I grew up.  A  combined total of about 130 rounds left their  bodies  so riddled with  holes that embalming was almost impossible.  More than 20,000 people attended Bonnie’s funeral, and flowers arrived from all over the country, some said to have been sent by John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd.

Today, you can find Bonnie and Clyde memorabilia – and a t-shirt – at the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum in Gibsland, La.  On display are some of Clyde’s guns, Bonnie’s red hat, and grisly photos of the ambush scene. The  car in which they were killed is in a casino in Las Vegas; its price being beyond the budget of the little museum in Gibsland.  Until recently, the museum was managed LAGIBambushmus_3891by the son of one of the arresting law men but is now under new ownership.  The new owner says he may move the museum to nearby Arcadia if he can’t fix the roof.  LASAIambushsite_3896

In 1972, a small monument was erected at the ambush site.  Over the years, it has been riddled with bullet holes and covered with entwined hearts and initials of young lovers, apparently hoping  for a Bonnie and Clyde romance.

Sadly, against their wishes, the two were buried in separate cemeteries near Dallas.   Bonnie was still wearing the wedding ring from her first marriage when she was buried.  She was 24 years old.

Resources:

Bonnie and Clyde; Wikipedia; Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum, Gibsland, La.,

Bonnie and Clyde; Lovers on the lam,  www.biography.com

10 Things you may not know about Bonnie and Clyde, www.history.com

Bonnie Parker’s Poems, texashideout.tripod.com

 

Harriett Tubman: Freedom Pioneer

In 2020,  Harriet Tubman’s likeness will appear on the face of the
Unknown-1$20 bill. She will also be the first woman to appear on U.S. currency.  Ironically, $20 is the exact amount of her Civil War monthly pension.  To add to the irony, the slaveholding president, Andrew Jackson remains on the bill.  We might have chosen a more friendly partner, but at least he has been demoted from its face to the rear.

Harriet Tubman, originally named Araminta (“Minty”) was born into slavery in 1822 in Maryland, the fifth of nine children. Her childhood was one of daily beatings and forced hard labor. The family was fragmented when members were sold to distant plantations. Her skull was fractured by an irate overseer when she attempted to save a young boy, injuries which left her with headaches and seizures the remainder of her life. She says of her childhood, “I grew up like a neglected weed, – ignorant of liberty.”

72970509Around 1844, Harriett married John Tubman, a free man, a rare occurrence at the time.  Five years later, fearing she was about to be sold, she and two brothers escaped. By this time she had changed her name to Harriett. Her brothers turned back, but she continued alone and finally escaped to freedom. Her husband decided not to join her and instead married another woman with whom he had four children. Harriett was heartbroken, but refused to sacrifice her Harriet2 615 Jacob Lawrencefreedom and instead committed to bringing other slaves to freedom. From 1850 to 1860, by her own account Tubman returned to Maryland 13 times and rescued 70 family and friends. Harriet was a no-nonsense leader who carried a rifle on these trips to discourage slaves she was trying to help from trying to turn back. If necessary, she bribed people.

UnknownHarriett Tubman was one of the most prolific Underground Railroad conductors of all time. During the Civil War, she served as nurse, scout, cook and spy in the Union Army and became the first American woman to lead an armed raid into enemy territory. Harriet returned to Auburn, New York after the war and began another career as a community activist, humanitarian, and suffragist. The capstone of her humanitarian work was the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, located near her home in Auburn. Harriett continued to be active in the suffrage movement and appeared at suffrage conventions until the early 1900s. She died at her home in Auburn, NY in 1912, at the age of ninety. Harriet Tubman attributed her ability to risk everything for the cause of freedom to her deep spiritual faith.

In 1944, the S.S. Harriet Tubman, the first Liberty ship named for a black woman was launched in South Portland, Maine and in 1978, the U.S. Postal Service issued the Harriet Tubman stamp in 1978, the first in the Black Heritage Series. The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn, New York, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974, and her residence was declared an historic landmark in the 1990s.

Myths surround the life of Harriet Tubman. Photos on the internet of a beautiful young girl are falsely identified as Harriet. She has been credited with the rescue of over 300 people all over the south in 19 trips with a $40,000 bounty on her head. She has been said to have navigated the Underground Railroad using the quilt code. Several Civil Rights slogans are falsely attributed to her.
In my mind, these myths do Harriett Tubman a disservice. There is no need to exaggerate or embellish her story. The truth speaks for itself. There’s no need to say anything more. And beginning in 2020 her face on the $20 bill will remind us of incredible courage and unswerving dedication to the cause of freedom.

Kate Larson has recently published an excellent history of Tubman’s life.  See Book of the Week and also the  website for the book;
http://www.harriettubmanbiography.com

Disclaimer:  Harriett Tubman was not born in the south but is included here because of her significant impact on southern women.

 

Clementine Hunter, Louisiana Artist

 

RamseyHunter_wKittenPossibly Louisiana’s most famous artist,  Clementine Hunter was born in 1886 at Hidden Hill Plantation and spent most of her life at nearby Melrose Plantation  in the  Cane River region in Louisiana owned  by John and Carmelite (“Miss Cammie”) Henry  She worked as a field hand and was proud she could pick 250 pounds  a day  (a single cotton boll weighs about 0.15 oz).  She  bore seven children and on the morning before giving birth to one of them, picked 78 pounds of cotton.

In middle age, Miss Cammie brought Clementine into the Big House to cook and clean. There  she met Alberta Kinsey, a New Orleans artist who inspired Clementine to  paint.  In her words, ”

“..in the 1930s Alberta Kinsey came here…to paint and I had to

Melrose Plantation quilt, Clementine Hunter
Melrose Plantation quilt, Clementine Hunter

clean up her room. She gave me some old tubes of paint to throw in the trash, but I didn’t pay her no mind. I kept them and tried marking up some pictures in my cabin.”

Hunter painted what she  knew; plantation life in the early 20th century.  Although records were not kept,  she may have produced as  many as 10,000 works on canvas, bottles, boards, jugs, spittoons, lampshades and whatever else captured her fancy.    She also  produced quilts, pottery and needlepoint.  Many were originally sold for a few dollars or less.  Neither she nor any of her children ever  owned any of her paintings – she either sold them or gave them away.

Clementine Hunter achieved significant recognition during her lifetime, including  a letter from  President Ronald Reagan and an invitation to the White House from U.S. President Jimmy Carter (which she declined). She was the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Delgado Museum (now the New Orleans Museum of Art) . Radcliffe College included her in its “Black Women Oral History Project (1980).  Northwestern State University of Louisiana granted her an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1986 and  Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards designated her  a state honor. One of the more well-known displays of Hunter’s artwork is located in African House at Melrose Plantation.

African House Clementine Hunter
African House, Clementine Hunter

Clementine Hunter died on January 1, 1988 at the age of 101,  outliving most of her children.    She never learned to read or write and taught herself to paint.

 

Southern Originals: Marie Thérèse Metoyer

coincoin_rendition_medium
Marie Therese Coincoin, Artist Interpretation from Geni.com

Marie Therese Coincoin is truly a Southern Original.  Her life story is surprisingly little known, and yet so amazing as to be incredulous.   In the words of her biographer (1) Coincoin was “born a slave … and became an independent black woman in a world dominated by white men. She adapted successfully to all the situations that life presented to her; from being the concubine and housekeeper of a rich white man, she became a profitable farmer and businesswoman in her own right.”
“She was born a slave and became an independent black woman in a world dominated by white men.

This was a woman  born at the lowest rung of her society, who endured deprivation, injustice and hardship, not the least of which was her absolute lack of freedom.  Unfortunately, she left no written record, but nothing in the historical records suggest that she faced formidable challenges with anything but courage and grace.

Marie Therese Coincoin was born a slave  in Nachitoches, La in August, 1742.  She lost her parents to the plague when she was 16 and was taken into the household of her godmother, Marie de Soto.  During this period, she had five children with a fellow slave.   When she was 24 she was “loaned” to Pierre Metoyer, recently arrived wealthy French merchant .  Over the next 20 years she lived in the house with Metoyer and born him 10 children.  In 1777, a Spanish Priest denounced her as a “public concubine” and ordered her out of Metoyer’s home.  This prompted Madame deSoto, who still owned Marie Therese to finally sell her to Metoyer,  who bought her freedom as well as that of their 10 children who were slaves of the deSoto family.   Marie Therese, Metoyer and their children lived together in apparent financial and family stability for the next decade, although she was unable to free her three oldest children.  However Metoyer  eventually  succumbed to public pressure to marry a “suitable” French woman.

Cane River, Nachitoches, La
Cane River, Nachitoches, La
B9317032558Z.1_20150418161347_000_GO6AGJKJA.1-0
Melrose Plantation, (Photo: Henrietta Wildsmith/The Times)

We know nothing of her reaction to the ending of their relationship, however, we can only imagine the pain of this betrayal.  However,  in parting, Metoyer gave her a yearly annuity and a plot of land  on the banks of Cane River, which allowed her finally to be independent.  She built a house, farmed tobacco, raised cattle and trapped bears, and slowly accumulated more land.  Because of this size of her businesses, she eventually  took on slaves  to work her land.  Again, we can only imagine her sentiments at becoming a slaveowner after having gained her own freedom at such a price.  By some accounts, she did this in a desperate attempt to free her remaining enslaved children and grandchildren. Sadly, she was never able to free all of her children.

Melrose_Wash_House
Melrose Wash House Wikipedia Commons

Over time Marie Therese’s family became the leading family of Isle Brevelle, a thriving community of “gens de couleur libre”, free people of color;  business people, plantation and slave owners.      Cane River’s famous Melrose Plantation  was built by her son Louis over the period
1810-1832.    Melrose was completed by Louis’  son Jean Baptiste after Louis’ death. When Jean Baptiste died in 1838, the Melrose estate was valued at over $100,000. The Metoyer family owned Melrose Plantation from 1796 until 1847. http://bit.ly/1OCe35

(1) African American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2008