Saturday, December 29, 2012

Does my visit to the ancestral home of the Charbonnet attest to the differences in racial relations in New Orleans, as opposed to other places ... ?

When I think of how warmly, how easily Paul, and Shirley, and I interact -- and of how the stories of the accommodations to traditions of the times fit that profile, it's cause to wonder.  I sensed no holding back; no self-censoring -- in the leisurely evening talks in the kitchen at the end of each day of my brief visit.  We honored the opportunity to share meaningful time together, and used it to exchange the most intimate details about where life had taken us over the eons of separation, especially with Paul.   I've grown so fond of them both .  We have truly closed the circle, and are inside, together. 

I'm not certain that this new relationship across the racial lines are much different from those of our fathers and grandfathers of old.  Surely there are enough stories among those passed along by my father that would suggest this.  He spoke often of how Judge Charbonnet would intervene when one of his 7 brothers ran afoul of the law; would speak with them privately and send them home to their father with a caution that they mend their ways and pay attention to his word.

The story that brought Paul and I together was my writing of how his father, Paul, and my uncle, Louis,  both contractors -- would bid on the jobs that fell on either side of Canal Street in order that there be an equal distribution of opportunity.   I'm not certain that this wasn't just some silent gentlemen's agreement.  Surely there was no formal contract; just "family". They apparently did not defy southern tradition by mixing socially, as Paul and I do, but it was a different era, and there was custom and southern tradition to be honored.  There was something to be said for everybody having a place in the society, and honoring whatever status they enjoyed in life.

Though today's residents of the Tremé are very aware of Congo Square as a place of slave-trading, I'm not certain that Creoles ever considered themselves as a part of that story.  Surely my parents never passed any hint of a consciousness of the slave experience as personal.  That story needs more fleshing out.  My mother's slave ancestry is recognized, however, on our paternal side, there are few if any slave references -- yet ... .

Ours is surely a historical pattern indicative of the uniqueness of New Orleans culture, which recognized Creoles as a third class with relationships to both sides of the racial equation.

I often wondered at my Dad's reference to "when the Americans came."  I'm more and more certain that this referred to non-New Orleanian whites who brought with them from other parts of the country a different form of racial prejudice; one that was less tolerant of the subtle variations in attitude that was specific to the times and place.

The Charbonnet Family was probably typical of an easy-going cultural landscape with complex liaisons that may have had to do with a liberal sexual attitude brought from France where such affairs were tolerated by society, and only gently frowned on by the Church.

Surely this was true of Amable Charbonnet, who experienced in Haiti a culture that was led by a mulatto elite --  made up of sons of the Napoleonic French fighters who defended against the rebel forces of Toussaint L'overture -- bi-racial sons who'd been sent back to France to be educated then returned as the ruling class.  It was among the members of that brown culture that he seemed to have found meaning, at least comfort enough to have returned after the Revolution for a significant period of time before returning to New Orleans to take up life in one of the cultural centers of the new nation.  It was surely that experience which prepared him for taking up life with a mulatto woman with whom he fathered the descendants that formed my branch of the family tree.

Ken Norton's "Lydia Bailey," resonates as a wonderful telling of my story.  Also, Isabel Allende's more recent, "Islands Beneath the Sea" reads like Amable's personal account of that history.

Revising history after visiting with relatives ... .

I remember clearly the day cousin Ruth (Isabel Allen LeBeouf Warnie's daughter) and I were driving back from the Golden Gate Federal Cemetery in San Bruno after discovering the earliest microfiche records of our great grandmother.  In the Catholic Church records in Baton Rouge that of Leontine's mother, Celestine ("of no last name"), had turned up as being married to slave owner and planter, Edouard Breaux, of St. James Parish, Louisiana.  That was in 1865 as enabled by the Emancipation Proclamation.  At the time of that marriage, Leontine was 19 years old.

I'd assumed that this was an intact family that consisted of Celestine, Eduoard, Leontine, and Theophile (whom we've lost track of).  According to Diocesan records, 3-year-old Theophile's birth was legitimized by the marriage.  I remember wondering just how it had been possible to limit that little family to two children, and by what method was their spacing accomplished?

But the important fact to me was that -- atypical of many black family histories -- ours had not resulted from rape or sexual exploitation, but that there was a traceable familial relationship sanctioned by the church.  How naive was I?  Having learned over time that it was because of the fact that the Cajuns were an agrarian people with a long history of working the fields alongside their slaves at that time, that marriages were not a rare event, but were fairly common.  It was clear that Leontine was the result of a bi-racial union of some sort. 

I suppose that I was so wedded to that positive story, that when we received the documents from the War Department that included testimonies by the neighbors and friends in St. James, I failed to notice that Leontine provided the name of her father as Sylvestre Breaux, who is listed in the census of the time as Edouard's older brother.  These were the testimonies submitted to justify her as deserving of a widow's pension ($45/mo) for her husband, George Allen's, Civil War service to his country.

It is cousin Sandra's suggestion that Celestine had been raped 19 years earlier than the 1865 date of her mother's marriage to Eduoard, and that Leontine had been aware of her parentage all of her life.

I suspect that rape would have been so common at that time, that it would have been of no particular importance in the scheme of things.  In 1846 -- more than a dozen years after the British had outlawed slavery (1833) -- American slave-owners were producing their own "stock" by impregnating their female slaves in order to compete in the marketplace; in order to have chattel to pass along to their heirs; in order to preserve the Southern economy and the time-honored southern way of life which had been built upon the slave trade.  I've never gotten over the fact that those planters were quite literally producing and selling their own children.  Under those circumstances, it was necessary that Blacks be regarded as less than human.  Were that not so, the entire system would be undermined.  You can imagine that such a practice would been one of the inhumane results of human bondage that ended with the Emancipation Proclamation -- but would have been left out of history books in defense of our national integrity, or at least the integrity that we claim in theory.

But then I would not have been viewed as a part of the "we," at that time, since white male supremacy ruled the day, much as it has since that time.  White supremacy along with white privilege have been prohibitive of social change and has resisted any attempt at altering the lens through which we see "American" life in the century that followed.  

Small wonder that we've never been able to process that history. It says horrific things about us as a nation and of our trail of cruelty and abusiveness since we landed on these shores over 300 years ago. 

That's a part of my maternal family history, and there is no escape from its influences upon my life to this day.  Maybe the best we can hope for is that the country gradually begins to own its history and find ways to excise the trauma in order to move on.  There are visible signs that this is happening, at least in my world.

There is still significant work to be done before we're home free.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


... Paul, Shirley, and I searched in vain on Sunday morning.  We arrived at the wrong St. Louis Cemetery (there are four), for the tomb of our Charbonnet ancestor-in-common; the elusive Amable -- whose history involves some years in Santo Domingo (now known as Haiti) both during and after the Revolution in the early 1800s.  According to Paul's narrative, he was apparently quite comfortable living among the native population, so returned  to spend at least a part of his life on the island before his eventual return to New Orleans.

Amable was married for a time to a French wife, but took up life with my ancestor, Marie Beaulieu, (a mulatto enslaved woman) with whom he fathered a separate family -- here's where the Charbonnets went to "living color" somewhere around the mid-1800s.  It is of interest to me that, according to the records, Marie lived to the age of 104.

On Sunday we arrived to find that the cemetery was closed for the day, and that we'd need to come back on Wednesday, prior to boarding time at United Airlines.

Louis, Shirley and Paul, Betty, Armand, Simone, and Kim Charbonnet
After some hours spent searching, Paul felt "summoned," just as we were about to give up what was obviously a failed odyssey.  He called out to us that, indeed, the protective iron fence -- which had been our clue to identifying the tomb had disappeared -- obviously a victim of Time -- yet it was evident from the inscription that here lay Amable Charbonnet, b. 1790.   His daughter, Emma, a girl only 7 year's old, shared his burial place.  

The grave had suffered years of neglect and  surely had suffered the effects of Katrina, but its beauty was still awesome.  It was carved of white marble and was created in Paris.  The artist's signature was prominent on the front of the tomb, and one can only wonder who was responsible for commissioning this work of art?  Did Amable order it prior to his death?  It would have been brought by ship, of course, but that would have been some years after his demise.

Our cousin, Armand Charbonnet (of the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home -- about a two blocks away from the cemetery) -- explained that -- from the appearance of the grave,  Amable's body had been lowered into the ground, and the tomb added at a later time.

It was a moment that will be remembered always.  After centuries, the Charbonnets are now one ... and it appears that I've become the matriarch of a legendary American Family.  

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A simple act of kindness in the information age ... .

Received an email message from new friends, Nigel and Raynel Hamilton, shortly after reaching home.
Their brief words confirmed that the New Orleans experience was, indeed, not wrought by my imagination, but had really happened.  They've promised to stay in touch, and to visit our park when next they travel to the West Coast where Raynel's mother still lives.

Corpus Christi School
Haven't yet decided just how I will begin to incorporate the new chapter into my twice-weekly presentations in the Visitors Center theater.  They were surely important to capturing my life as it progresses now with the speed of light!

There are still things learned that are too disturbing to share -- at least not yet.  I'd not realized how wedded I've become to what was once purely speculative and now needs to be given up for the sake of truth-telling.  But then I'm still not certain that -- since there is no way to know when one's speculations outweigh those of others in geneaology -- just why I shouldn't just keep to a "truth" that may be less disturbing remains a mystery.

There are two new elements in the tracing of our family histories that may provide a more accurate record than before.  My late  sister, Lottie, was doing some great work -- separate from mine -- using's program.  My work was largely based upon stories passed down from my mother's sister, Vivian, and my grandfather, Papa George.  I'd gathered what I could from census records and the Family History Center of the Mormon Church.  Two family researchers had helped along the way, son, Bob, and cousin Doug Allen.  Together we'd built a fairly accurate history that is online and accessible on the left side of the screen above the archives.

Recently, Cousin Paul Charbonnet (paternal line) opened up the work and invited me to join him in that endeavor, and a new channel of learning popped up in my life, and Lottie's earlier work was revealed to me for the first time.  How I wish we'd worked together before she took leave of this dimension!

This is also true of Cousin Sandra Colomb (maternal side), with whom I was able to share a wonderful day during my visit, and it was her work that revealed new speculations on our great grandmother Leontine Breaux Allen's origins that begins to make sense when one considers the times in which she lived.

If my visit to our ancestral home accomplished what I'd hoped for, it was that the Circle of Life was completed for me.  In the Tremé I was able to remember the sounds of the street vendors (now gone), and remember things from early childhood as if there had been no interruption that brought me so far from what was surely home.

I now have the answer to the question of what to do with the dozen or so engineering volumes, the blueprint of the banana conveyer; the fading photographs of my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet; of buildings, a baseball field in the Treme, and other structures should be sent to the Amistad Collections at Tulane University.  There are already articles based on his work there, and -- with what I've learned of the value of ephemera through our park's cultural resources division -- I need to send those artifacts home.   I will send copies of the original blueprints to be exhibited at the Charbonnet-Labat funeral home to be hung beside the rest of the family photos. The processing firm that reproduced a copy of the banana conveyor included a disk from which more copies can be made -- will donate that to Armand and Louis for their collection.

But first I will confer with my children over Christmas dinner on Tuesday.