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Crossing Over

Sunday Report

After 180 years of separation from their white neighbors, a stoic clan of slave descendants views a ferry as a vessel of hope--and doom.

August 22, 1999|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GEE'S BEND, Ala. — CHAPTER 1 / Mary Lee's Vision

She hopes the ferry won't come, but if it does, she'll climb aboard. She'll tremble as she steps off the landing because she can't swim, and she can't forget the many times she's crossed this ugly brown river only to meet more ugliness on the other side.

But fear has never beaten Mary Lee Bendolph, and no river can stop her. She'll board that ferry, if it comes, because something tells her she must, and because all the people she loves most will board with her, and because if there's one thing she's learned in her difficult life, it's this:

When the time comes to cross your river, you don't ask questions. You cross.

It won't look all that dramatic, just a new ferry taking a 63-year-old great-grandmother and her cousins across a Coca-Cola-colored river. But in this damp cellar of the Deep South, where the river has separated blacks and whites for 180 years, where even the living and the dead are less divided than the black and white towns camped on opposite shores, a new ferry will be like the river itself: more than it looks.

Some say the ferry won't ever come, others say any minute now. Either way, Mary Lee has already seen herself crossing. A round woman with a giggle like one of the river songbirds and a speaking voice pitched between a lullaby and a prayer, she often sees the future in her dreams and trusts these visions as she does her cousins. They never lie. 'The first mind you have when you get up in the morning,' she says, 'that the right mind. Then another mind come and tell you something else, that the wrong mind.'

This morning, her right mind tells her something's coming, something big. Maybe a ferry. Maybe death. Maybe the end of her holy place on the river, the only home she's ever known. It all seems the same in Gee's Bend, Ala.

Gee's Bend is where the Civil War came and went, but the slaves stayed, and their children stayed, and their grandchildren stayed, and their great-grandchildren, and so on, until today, Mary Lee and 700 of her kin cling to this bulb of bottom land that their ancestors were chained to. They bear the surnames of the last slaveholders to live here. They grow corn near the slaveholders' headstones. They come and go amid the ghosts and dust devils that dance on the site of the old Big House.

The South was once dotted with such places, where slaves lingered long after Lincoln freed them, most famously the sea islands off Georgia and South Carolina. But Gee's Bend is the only place anyone can think of where the slaves did more than linger. They conquered. They outlasted the masters, bought back the plantation and lived upon it in blissful isolation, not a collection of historical anomalies, but a vast family, sharing the same few names and the same handful of fables, like some hybrid of Alex Haley and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Some of their isolation owes to geography. The Alabama River all but encircles Gee's Bend, carving from the caramel soil a U-shaped peninsula 8 miles wide and 16 miles long, a virtual island set apart from the 20th century, as it was from the 19th. Some of their isolation owes to personality. 'Benders' have always held themselves aloof, a regal clan proud of their capacity for solitude. But most of their isolation owes to white folks across the river, who have done everything possible to make Gee's Bend lonelier than a leper colony, and who now--suddenly, oddly--want to bring Gee's Bend a brand new ferry.

White folks. Mary Lee wonders what they're up to now. Every few decades, they remember Gee's Bend, and so begins another spell of hard times.

White folks say a ferry would bring the modern world at last to this rural wilderness 60 miles southwest of Montgomery, where the heat-crazed insects sound like a million clocks ticking; where only two businesses exist, a post office the size of a phone booth and a general store with nothing on its shelves; where the night sky is unbroken by a single street lamp or stop light, and Orion feels close enough to gather in your fist, like a cluster of fireflies.

Mary Lee knows better. A ferry would also bring tourists and hunters and developers and criminals and snoops. In other words, the end of Gee's Bend, the last place on Earth still safe enough for children and dead folks to go walking after dark. 'When you can sit in a place,' she says, 'and everybody be lovely--no fussing, no killing. To me, this don't even seem like the USA.'

Then why not fight the ferry? She might. Except white folks never take no for an answer, and even some of her cousins are insisting, because a ferry, after all, would settle old scores. 'It's a symbol of what we had,' she says, 'a symbol to what was taken from us.'

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