Some years ago, when my grandmother died at 94, she was writing a novel based on her life. She left only a few pages and an outline, but her life was indeed novel material. The daughter of Chloe Curry, a cook and tenant farmer who had been enslaved in Alabama, and Will Campbell, a white Mississippi Delta cotton farmer, she was born at the end of Reconstruction and was raised by this pair, who stayed together until his death early in the 20th century. Since I started searching for more clues to the lives of my grandmother and her mother for a book two years ago, I have, for the first time, come face to face with my white ancestors.
In the past few weeks, I’ve discovered that not only my grandmother thought she should write. In a Springfield, Missouri, archive, I found several hundred pages of letters from the Campbell family, manuscripts for at least one novel and a few short stories, a memoir of the Civil War, and a host of essays on international political issues. I found three women writers and an extraordinary saga. Though I have mixed feelings about calling them family after just finding out about them, I did find in them a fascinating “backstory” to my grandmother’s birth.
My great-great grandfather, John Polk Campbell, a pioneer out of Maury County, Tennessee, went west and founded Springfield, Missouri in 1832. His life, according to Campbell memory, was something like a Kevin Costner movie: He fought the Sacramento people in California, built roads in Mexico, and suffered a pitiful death from scurvy in Cherokee territory. His wife, Louisa Terrill Campbell, brought him several slaves on their marriage and later gave him 11 children. A Texan who ran across her amused two family members by describing her as “a dark-complected woman . . . with a long nose and a hatchet face.”
Leonidas Campbell and his sister Sarah Rush Owen, Vicksburg, 1850s
(photo: Tara Engberg)
Louisa’s life after marriage was very hard and she became tough with it. One of her grandchildren said the only time she ever saw Louisa cry was when the youngest of her Confederate soldier sons returned home alive. In this regard, she had a lot in common with my black female ancestors.
A widow by the time of the Civil War, Louisa unknowingly became a heroine for a granddaughter she had taken in—Louisa Cheairs “Lulu” McKenny. In 1892, in a memoir called A Confederate Girlhood, Lulu wrote down the fascinating story of their wartime lives.
And Louisa Campbell’s daughter Sarah Rush Campbell Owen, known as Rush, wrote as a passion. She raised four children and a host of grandchildren and wrote letters and stories on the stationery of the Owen Coal Company, on grocery lists, and in blank church booklets. She had married at 16, and when her husband died less than 10 years later, she took over his company. To learn the business, Rush went into coal mines from east Tennessee to Pittsburgh, bunked with miner families, and lived on a diet of boiled potatoes and milk.
In 1901, at age 64, she published a small collection of vignettes, Anemone’s People, which are—surprise to me—all about black people. The only white character in this little booklet is a landowner who’s a businesswoman much like herself.
Finally, I discovered, in the collection at the History Museum for Springfield-Greene County, that Lucy McCammon, Rush’s daughter (and another granddaughter of Louisa Campbell), drafted numerous letters to her children on her husband’s office stationery and typed rather progressive political essays during World Wars I and II. I haven’t read them all yet, but one envisioned a world court to deal with dictators, said America should stand for peace, and judged that if the U.S. chose to follow other countries that have been taken over by greed and “gone down,” it should go down too.
Chloe Curry, Mississippi, 1870s
(photo: Tara Engberg)
Finding the Campbell women jarred me, simply because for so many years it did not even occur to me to look for them. I know very few other African Americans who don’t have their “white folks,” but none who have searched them out. My uncle, Arthur Davis, gave me his unpublished autobiography to edit before he passed, and his early-20th-century childhood was replete with neighbors who knew their white kinfolk, usually former masters, so there was no mystery. But for the rest of us, relatives stopped repeating all the details, and in my own childhood, for instance, the white folks’ papers were kept in a segregated library I could not visit.
More important, though, life for me as a Davis growing up in Virginia, with no knowledge of how we came to be called Davis, was still one of rich family lore. My great-grandfather was born in the county where Nat Turner lived and was an adolescent at the time of the revolt. Later on, he was in my hometown when Union troops came, and he rescued his family from the farm where they were kept. I have always felt how recent slavery was because my Davis grandfather was born in slavery and told of seeing the sea battle of the Monitor and Merrimac. We weren’t missing anything, and what we knew of the white ancestors was none too good.
My “furthest back” Davis ancestor was an African woman who was raped by a British sea captain. The son born of that incident was married to a biracial woman likely conceived in the same way, and she too had at least one child by her master, who was raised with their other children.
Looking for word of African American family members by reconstructing one’s ties to a white family can be excruciating, but it’s worth it because searching for documentation of blacks in 19th-century America is so difficult. Finding signs of any former slaves in the process is exciting, disturbing, and maddening, for one wishes to turn the paperwork over to other African Americans looking for those very people with no last names. Last week, the first item I found at the History Museum was a list from about 1860 of 37 people to be sold by Louisa Campbell’s son John in Mississippi, with I.D. numbers beside their names. The letter asks his brother Leonidas (I refer to him as L.A.) to return the list “with their respective value attached, or the aggregate amount you are willing to take for all the Negroes.”
The second item I put my hands on there was a letter written by Rush Owen about my great-grandmother Chloe Curry. It is one of the most scathing, hate-filled letters I have ever read, written after Will Campbell’s death in 1901. Rush describes the moral “debt” owed by Chloe for having the relationship with my great-grandfather, in which she saw the black woman as the vengeful debaucher of her brother. I was horrified not so much by the moralistic tone, which I would expect, but by the overwrought language that was rage itself. She blamed Chloe for Will’s “blighted, tortured life, cut off from his kind,” and predicted that when “her flesh shall fall away and her bones are knotted and twisted with pain, she will cry for that second birth that men call death, only to find herself [on] a . . . spirit path of double suffering.”
Louisa “Lulu” McKenny, late 1800s
(image: Courtesy of the History Museum for Springfield-Greene County)
None of us know what happened when Chloe went to work as Will’s cook, brought there by his aging housekeeper, but I know that as a married woman with children who lived as a tenant farmer, she had a lot more to lose in any intimacy with the boss than he did as a single, white planter in the Mississippi Delta. Maybe the very fact that the relationship persisted rankled Rush 20 years later.
Disturbing as it was, I was grateful she had left this draft of the letter in her papers, because it revealed that Chloe felt she had been wronged in some way by her first employer, Will’s brother L.A., and that Rush decided to let Chloe pay all of Will’s debts, which Chloe must have done by getting cotton crops out. I don’t know how long that took but she continued to farm cotton until she died, probably 10 years later.
The letter was also fascinating because by 1901, Rush had some things in common with Chloe, as a woman who had raised children and had run the family company, and in being alone. At Will’s death, Rush had lost her parents, all her siblings, and two children. She was the lone survivor of her family of 12.
And then, Chloe defied all the patronizing, if loving, descriptions in the family literature of loyal, witty, and wise African Americans who sat by the family’s hearths. In Rush’s fiction the servants are life-saving nurses and charming dreamers. From my grandmother’s lips to me, Chloe had come to Mississippi to make a new life after slavery; she was independent-minded, tough, and industrious. She had all the skills necessary for most women in the 19th century—farming, cooking, canning, sewing, and quilting. Thanks to a freedman’s school in Marion, Alabama, she was literate and could manage her books. There are no such black characters in the writings of the Campbell women.
The representations of African Americans in the writings of both Rush Owen and Lulu McKenny are generally sentimental, at times awestruck, and at others, quite even-handed. Still, they reflect the mythmaking at the heart of so many depictions of the race even today. There are also a number of those ethnic and national characterizations common in various eras, such as the antebellum notion of a “racial gift” for song. The observations also extend to immigrants—Poles, Italians, and Hungarians—and during World War I, Germans in general. If anything, black folks and the Irish get the better part of Rush and Lulu’s affections (well, the Campbells were part Irish).
Take, for example, the admiration for blind loyalty that even overlooks enslavement in a description of Link, a black adult of indeterminate age (referred to as a “boy” in A Confederate Girlhood), who saved one Campbell son under fire in the war, and served as Louisa’s bodyguard on trips to get medical supplies to the Confederate front. At the end of the war, Lulu writes: “So, we took the road again. Mother, Sam, Will, June Blackman and I, with our faithful Link, who paid not the slightest attention to his freedom, and would not hear of being left behind.” As Link is not mentioned again later, methinks he did notice he was free.
Rush saved newspaper clips in the 1880s and ’90s of stories about blacks, alleged black folklore, and cartoons with black characters. She was clearly studying how other writers handled the subject. This alone points to one way in which fictions of blackness have been sustained. When she studied life, she did a better job than when she borrowed from the “known” fictions of the time, like dialect tales. Her vignette collection has the virtue of sticking to the facts. In one, a black sawyer who cut lumber for her husband, though destitute, refuses to work for a woman. Another black man moves his family off her land because she brings his wife a broom and a galvanized tub.
Lulu McKenny’s mother died when she was born, and she came to live with Louisa, Will, and his brothers. She grew up with them and a number of African American children belonging to their slaves, and her memories of the blacks are very fond. As the story unfolds, though, one reason for this is overwhelmingly clear—she was seldom in the company of parents. She never lived in any one household more than three years, and for the five years from the outset of the war until her grandmother Louisa’s death in 1866, she saw very little of her, being left with aunts and friends, and then in boarding school.
Lulu describes in familiar terms how her “mammy,” Mary, “ruled supreme, not only in the kitchen.” She recalls taking solace from songs sung in camp at night on a month-long trek to Mississippi in 1861, with another mammy along to care for them instead of parents. Near Memphis, she got lost with Marina, “my little colored foster-sister.” That’s an interesting term I’ve never seen, and it speaks volumes as a coinage.
Some customs Lulu describes may have come here during Middle Passage, such as the singing of “songs of praise” on a departure, and they do indeed sound hospitable, as they were no doubt meant to be when practiced in Africa. Offered up in a racialized culture, the songs become a marker of white privilege, an image a black reader finds an uncomfortable reminder of the oppression of her elders. After all, when asked for a song, could the folk in the slave quarter say they weren’t feeling it?
Lulu’s story begins in late July 1861, when Union soldiers came into Springfield and broke up a church picnic the family attended. She was 12 and my great-grandfather, whom she called her “brother-uncle,” was 9. That day, Will’s brother Sam, then 16, packed a bedroll and rode off, and the next morning his brother Tom, 18, left. His oldest brothers, who were adults and in the South, had already joined the Confederate troops.
Will and Lulu witnessed the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, where three of his brothers fought, and the next day the Campbell house became a Confederate hospital. Within days the children left home, never to return. They were sent with a cousin on what turned out to be a long haul by horse, mule, wagon, and raft to Mississippi, where they would be stranded for two years. There they saw the fighting around Fort Pemberton, and went through the Union flooding of the Delta, which left Lulu and many others sick with typhoid fever for weeks.
Thulani Davis, New York, 2003
(photo: Robin Holland)
Louisa Campbell, who escaped from Missouri into Arkansas, did not come to Mississippi to get the children because she spent the next two years on horseback, setting up tiny field hospitals wherever the 3rd Missouri troops were fighting. This means, according to the Campbells’ military records with the confederacy, that she may have been at the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern (known also by its Union name, the Battle of Pea Ridge), and various other skirmishes in Arkansas. When Missouri was admitted to the Confederate States of America (CSA), her sons were transferred east over the Mississippi. As the war went on, her sons fought in Tennessee (Farmington, Chattanooga, and Murfreesboro), Georgia (Chickamauga), and Mississippi (Iuka, Corinth, and Vicksburg).
In 1863, Will and Lulu headed with Louisa for Arkansas but were captured by a Union patrol boat and taken prisoner for a few days. After their release, they camped across Arkansas, hiding from Union troops. Louisa left them periodically to go to battlefields before finally depositing them in Waco, Texas. By 1866, Louisa was dead of pneumonia, and two brothers were dead from war injuries. Will was planted in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and Lulu in a St. Louis school.
Maybe wisdom came to Rush Owen later on. If she continued to see race and class as fixing a person’s place in life, she was still not altogether typical of her times. Confederate though she had been, she later dedicated her novel to Walt Whitman and to the people of the “coal trade.” In middle age she had an unaccountable affinity for Eastern thought and her own type of 19th-century transcendentalism. Her writing makes passing references to Confucius, Brahma, and Buddha, and to being in the “one-moment-ness.” The narrator of her novel, like Rush, loses two of her children and then looks back and says, “After a time I had healing visions of them busy and happy. Then, I received my Illumination. I found the wells of peace, raised my weary head, and drank.” My illumination may still await, but if nothing else, hers has shed light on the direction whence I came.
“‘Don’t Grieve After Me’: More Than Singing for Your Supper”