My mother enjoyed visiting Natchez, Miss. As a boy who loved history, I also looked forward to our trips to that old city on the Mississippi River. We would tour antebellum homes and have lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant on the grounds of Stanton Hall. The ladies of the Pilgrimage Garden Club have served food at the Carriage House since 1946, and my mother always would order fried chicken. When trips take me through Natchez, I try to make it to the Carriage House and order fried chicken, the restaurant's silver dollar-sized biscuits and rice and gravy in her honor.
I realize now that the story told at Natchez was the moonlight-and-magnolias version of the Old South, something far from the slave-based cotton economy that made Natchez one of the nation's richest cities in the years leading up to the Civil War. It's a myth that still produces dollars from tourists in spots along the Mississippi River from Memphis south to New Orleans.
Just outside Lake Village, adjacent to the levees that hold back the waters of the Mississippi, they're telling a different story at Lakeport Plantation. On the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, I'm joined here by several dozen people who've come from as far away as Canada. Some are ancestors of Lycurgus Johnson, who in the late 1850s began building a large plantation home of cypress from the surrounding swamps. They're here for a Johnson family reunion.
Others like me are here because we're interested in the history of the region and want to hear the speakers who have been lined up to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Arkansas State University's restoration of the home. There are blacks and whites in the audience. Prominent Lake Village residents Sam Angel and Joe Dan Yee are here, representing the Jews and Chinese Americans who once were much more common in the Delta.
"The house was a showplace of the state's cotton aristocracy," historian Tom DeBlack of Arkansas Tech University writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "The exterior was painted the color of straw, and blue-green shutters adorned the windows. . . . Tapered white columns supported both levels of the portico. An ornate wrought-iron and lacework grill, in an oak leaf and acorn design, surrounded a first-floor porch on the northeastern corner of the house."
Lycurgus Johnson's father, Joel Johnson, came to Arkansas from Kentucky in the early 1830s and purchased land near Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America. At the time of his death in 1846, Joel Johnson owned more than 3,700 acres and 95 slaves. Lycurgus Johnson was 28 when his father died. By 1860 he owned almost 4,400 acres and 155 slaves. Johnson died in August 1876, but the plantation remained in the Johnson family until 1927 when Lakeport was sold to Sam Epstein, the grandfather of Sam Angel, for $30,000.
Epstein was born in Russia in 1875 and is described by DeBlack as "one of a number of poor East European Jews who migrated to the United States and sought their fortune in the Delta. Epstein started out peddling clothes and eventually opened a small store and made some good investments, overcoming poverty and religious bigotry to acquire a sizable fortune and become one of Chicot County's most respected citizens. Upon Epstein's death in 1944, his son-in-law, Ben Angel, served as trustee of the estate, managed the family's operations and carried on his father-in-law's tradition of civic service."
Sam Angel, Ben Angel's son, has continued the family tradition. He has served for 38 years on the Mississippi River Commission, which was established by Congress in 1879 as an executive body reporting directly to the secretary of war. The commission was charged with overseeing navigation improvements and flood-control efforts on and along the river.
"This place almost burned twice," Angel tells me after we've finished listening to a lecture by DeBlack. "We're lucky it's still here. And we're fortunate that Arkansas State University stepped up when it did."
Angel donated the house, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, to ASU's Heritage Sites program. Under the direction of Delta advocate Ruth Hawkins, the program has restored the Johnny Cash boyhood home at Dyess, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer house at Piggott and downtown buildings in Tyronza that now house the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum. The magnificently restored Lakeport Plantation opened to the public in September 2007.
Hawkins isn't one to shade the truth. She assigned Blake Wintory to run Lakeport. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in anthropology and a doctorate in environmental dynamics from the University of Arkansas. Wintory is researching slavery in the region through the pension files of the U.S. Colored Troops. He has traveled to the National Archives in Washington to research former slaves and sharecroppers in the region.
Wintory found information about two black Civil War veterans, Adam White and Howard Macamore, who sharecropped at Lakeport beginning in the 1870s. He makes sure that visitors to Lakeport know the contributions slaves and their descendants made to the development of southeast Arkansas. In 2013 Wintory began a monthly history lecture series so historians, archaeologists, genealogists, architects and others can speak at Lakeport, Arkansas' southern anchor for the Great River Road.
In April, Wintory partnered with Preserve Arkansas to present a workshop titled "Behind the Big House." It focused on slave dwellings and the experiences of those who lived in them. Joseph McGill, a preservationist and the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, was among those who spoke. This is unvarnished history, not the the myths I was told at Natchez when I was a boy. Arkansans should be proud that the story is being presented here without the moonlight and magnolias.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 09/17/2017