Monday, October 19, 2009

Natchez Trace V: Oak Square Bed and Breakfast

There were several bikes parked in front Oak Square Bed and Breakfast. I hoped they were just overflow from the group at the Bernheimer House. This was my last bet for a room in town. The wind was clawing through Magnolia branches as the clouds to the west darkened.

The Oak Square mansion was more traditional than Bernheimer’s eclectic mishmash. The columned antebellum stood at the center of a complex that spread across most of the block between Oak and China off Church Street. I rang the main bell a few times, and after a few minutes I heard laughter coming from the back patio. It was easy to pick out the proprietor. Her laugh was the female equivalent of the rebel yell, a rapid fire staccato that struck each note like an opera singer practicing scales. Her tittering would have sent a chill down my spine if I could have felt it after 6 hours on a saddle.

The cackling belle was Deborah. The raven-haired hostess had eyes as sharp as her laughter; try as she might to soften them with a falsetto smile.

Deborah managed Oak Square and lived with her daughter in the old bachelor’s quarters that made a wing off the backside of the main house. Deborah’s mother was the sole resident of the original structure.

Deborah wanted California prices for what she claimed was her one remaining room. I didn’t have much choice as the rain had started coming down. Still, when she motioned as if to hand me the key, I looked off to the side. I could save 120 bucks at the motel a few miles north on old 61. As tired as I was, I was feeling cheap and angry at myself for not having reserved a room at the Bernheimer House, a place with the history and family connection that would have been well worth the splurge and still cheaper than Oak Square. At this point my body would be numb to a downpour.

Then she hesitated, sensing I was about to walk. Women with a laugh like hers know how to read men less transparent than me. Her eyes flashed.

“You said you’re a writer. How about you write something about your stay with us and I won’t charge you for the room.”

At her prices a comped room was more than I could hope to get out of a travel article in this economy and m lowly perch in the pecking order. Somewhere beneath the exercise endorphins still flooding my brainpan flashed the thought that I shouldn’t accept. The backpacker crowd doesn’t spend 165 dollars a night on their honeymoons, and any bicyclist worth his racing jersey wouldn’t stomach advice from an obvious neophyte. I intended to write about my Scarlet O’Hara meets Elvira hostess, but I doubted my flattery would be just compensation for a warm bed and a hot breakfast.

My hesitation melted with the first thunderclap. Less than a minute after Deborah handed me the key, the skies opened. I scrambled to get my bike in the shed outfitted to accommodate a racing team.

I spent the rest of the afternoon waiting for the worst of the front to pass while soaking my spent body in a scalding bath. I walked to the grocery in a driving rain counting the lengthening gaps between lightening and thunderclaps. It felt good to walk on my heavy legs. I settled on a dinner of pimento cheese and Bunny Bread with a box of gingersnaps for dessert and a six-pack of Schlitz to wash down the Advil before a second soak in the tub. I had just burned more calories than in any other eight-hour period of my life, so the cold dinner was delicious, especially the beer. Before that dusty shelf in the back of the Piggly Wiggly, the only time I had seen Schlitz was in movies from the 70’s.

There was a footstool beside the antique four-post bed for short guests and bow legged bikers. I waddled up and over the edge of the mattress at eight thirty and enjoyed a lullaby of far off thunder and the cool air drifting through the plantation shutters. I fought the sweet anesthesia of magnolia blooms long enough to lock in the memory of perfect sleeping weather.

The cycling group was already at work on a breakfast of scrambled eggs, biscuits and grits when I walked into Dixie House, the smaller of the two guest buildings that also housed the breakfast room. With a plastered smile Deborah explained, probably for the thousandth time, the mystery of the grit to a visiting Californian. She graciously segued from grits to plantation breakfasts that the guests were served at 2 am. Sweltering afternoons were for sleeping, not exercise, and the parties did not commence until sundown.

Her practiced nostalgia of the halcyon days before busing, or the 14th Amendment, gave me thoughts of slipping out unnoticed. Instead I chose more coffee to wash down my eggs and Advil, a little more caffeine would help me palate Deborah’s brand of antiquarianism. We shared a common interest in time and place but came at our regionalism from different angles. Deborah had copious knowledge of 19th century family histories and the furnishings and fabrics they imported from the Continent. I had spent my college days studying the minutiae of the Louisiana slave revolts imported from West Africa by way of Saint Domingue.

In Deborah’s South young debs batted eyelashes at dandies who came from across the region to attend the lavish parties at Oak Square. Matrons planned festivities to the last detail and ruled the social scene with iron in their white glove--some things don't change. I couldn’t fault her if her tales weren’t stained with mention of the slaves who refilled the iced tea glasses, or of their even less fortunate family members toiling the fields. That’s the stuff for Marxists, economic historians, African-American genealogists, and me, the jerk thinking politics at the breakfast table.

Besides, the cotton fields would not have been visible from the porch. Oak Square was a town house. The family wintered in Port Gibson so the parents could socialize and the kids could go to school. They lived in the country during summers and harvests.

The big city cyclists lapped up the Margaret Mitchell routine, and why not, how many times will a Los Angelino spend the night on a plantation? The hard-core among the riders had had their fill and were furtively glancing at maps unfolded beneath the table.

Deborah’s phone rang. It was her mother with instructions from the big house.

“Yes mother…yes mother.”

Each yes mother was a little more strained than the last.

“Make no mistake who is boss around here,” Deborah said as she hung up the phone.

After the other bikers enjoyed their strawberry shortcake dessert-for-breakfast, Deborah gave me a quick tour around the property.

Deborah and her daughter Martha lived in the old bachelors quarters, an-add on structure built to maintain the illusion of chastity for the young ladies asleep in the main house. Martha was home on break from design school and eager to show me that the chastity was indeed an illusion. She pulled back a tapestry on the wall revealing a trap door that opened onto a secret passage to the main house. The wily dandies would crawl through the tunnel during the sweltering afternoons or after the shortcake served with 2am breakfast.

I asked about the antique billboard that hung above the stairs announcing the F.S Wolcott Rabbit Foot Minstrels.

“They did blackface shows here in Port Gibson,” she said. “They had the High Brown Follies, the famous mulatto dancers.”

Deborah summed up the show in a couple lines before pointing out the impressive cupola that rose over the staircase. I made a note to find the story of the minstrels.

Turns out that Fred Wolcott was a white carnival owner who had purchased the Rabbit Foot Minstrels from the estate of Patrick Chappelle, a black promoter who had created the show in Jacksonville at the turn of the century. Chappelle’s outfit began at a time when the popularity of the minstrel shows were in severe decline as they long been losing customers to musical comedies vaudeville. Chappelle had an eye for talent, and with the gorgeous follies and the voices of William and Gertrude Rainey, among the earliest singers of the Blues, he drew crowds to a dying stage formula. His refigured model would extend the life of minstrel shows for another 50 years.

Minstrelsy had been one of the most successful entertainments of the 19th century. At first the performers had been white men performing in black face, lampooning Africans as lazy, superstitious and ignorant souls happy to dance and sing about the simple life back on the plantation. After the Civil War the performers were predominantly black, though they still wore blackface, and the variety show followed closely to the traditional three act models.

Chappelle’s touring company had started out performing in opera houses in the South and up the eastern seaboard. Racial discrimination increasingly made the economics of minstrelsy a bigger obstacle than competition from vaudeville. In 1906 the Supreme Court justified the codification of racial segregation—separate but equal—in Plessy v Ferguson. Chappelle had chosen a rough decade to start his enterprise. He needed to fill the Opera houses with mixed audiences to turn a profit, though many of these halls had been built without the thought of segregated seating. The Rabbit Foot Minstrels soon abandoned opera houses for tent shows, and Chappelle was compelled to buy custom made Pullman train cars to carry his performers since third class colored-only compartments would have been intolerable for a traveling show. Then Chappelle had to fight the southern railroad companies in court to secure passage for his cars on their lines. His Pullmans were rumored to have secret compartments in the event of trouble in an era where a misplaced look could foment a lynch mob.

The Rabbit’s Foot troupe became the most popular touring group in the south. Upon arrival in a new town, the follies would march ahead of the large brass ensemble, an improvised parade to advertise the coming performances. Under the tent, cries for encores would follow every song, and the crowds roared approval of the dancing, tight rope acts, and comedy skits that punctuated the show.

I wondered if the later incarnation of Rabbit's Foot had ever performed at the Westside Theater. I wanted to ask Deborah so many questions about the brief sketch of her family history she had given at breakfast. She had lived through much of the recent history of this state that I had only known from books I read in college. When she was a child Mississippians chose to mourn the July 4th defeat at Vicksburg rather than celebrate Independence Day. She had been in the last all white class to graduate her high school, a fact that still curled her lips. Maybe I could have pried some stories of these years while making eyes with Martha, who must be bored out of skull in a town where one needs a klan card to make dinner reservations.

But I had 61 miles between Oak Square and my friends in Jackson and I was already a half hour behind the $5,00 bikes and fancy racing shirts. I thanked Deborah for the undeserved hospitality and got back on the road.

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