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Sunday Report

Crossing Over

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

Some readers applauded. Others recoiled. Most paid Curl no mind. Wilcox County is one of the poorest in the nation, with barely enough money for tractors to resurface the dirt roads, let alone a ferry to reunite two historically alienated communities. So when Curl wrote a second ferry column, and a third, most folks figured he was wasting his time.

Years passed. Curl gave up. Then, three years ago, a few of his old ferry columns caught the eye of Mary Lee's new congressman, Earl F. Hilliard, the first black representative from Alabama since 1876. Hilliard knew Gee's Bend. He'd marched with Benders in the '60s. He remembered their poise under fire, their role in the movement. When he learned they were still without a ferry, he came and stood with Curl by the river.

After a short news conference, to announce that they would find a way to restore the ferry, the two men cast off in Curl's boat, hailing 'a new day in Wilcox County.' They made an unlikely pair, and everyone went down to the river to hear what they had to say.

Everyone except Mary Lee.

She had work to do.

CHAPTER FOUR / A Community of Survivors

Mary Lee rises with the river birds and changes her 87-year-old mother's diaper, then straightens the house, then feeds her three grandsons, then feeds her six cows, then drives her mother around the river for one of the frequent checkups Aola Bendolph requires now that Alzheimer's has left her frail and mute.

They start up County Road 29, the only road in and out of Gee's Bend. A two-lane blacktop, it forms a perfect circle at the bottom of the U, then winds north, past dense woods and slow-moving creeks, through shade-drenched meadows and one unexpectedly beautiful valley.

At the top of the U, they turn left on Alabama Highway 5, headed south with the river, then cross a bridge below William 'Bill' Dannelly Reservoir, named after the judge who denied a request from Benders, heartsick after King's assassination, to re-christen their community King, Ala. Instead, Gee's Bend was renamed Boykin, after a senator Benders had never heard of. Regardless, Benders still say Gee's Bend, as do road signs. Mary Lee pronounces it in a prayerful mumble that sounds like 'Jesus been.'

Name or no name, Benders were able to honor King in their own way. The two farm mules that pulled King's casket through the streets of Atlanta came from Gee's Bend.

Across the river now, Mary Lee and her mother come to the Camden town square--jail, bank, courthouse, Curl's newspaper. From Mary Lee's front door, it's a distance of only four miles as the red-tailed hawks fly, but it's an hour's drive around the river, which is why Mary Lee's Chevy Corsica has grown old before its time.

The trip leaves both women spent. In the doctor's examination room, Aola slumps forward in her wheelchair, muttering, laughing at nothing. Mary Lee leans against the wall, glasses slipping down her nose, a faraway look fixed tight on her face. She's thinking about scheduling a doctor's visit for herself, to find out why she's been 'heaving,' why she's been urinating blood.

The room is cold and bare, except for the walls, hung with black-and-white photographs of Gee's Bend in bygone days. Baptism in the river. Girl in a cotton patch. Ferry crossing to Camden. Mary Lee eyes each one.

'We have people ask about those pictures all the time,' the nurse says. 'But they were taken so long ago, no one knows anything about them.'

'I know,' Mary Lee protests. 'These my people.'

'What?' the nurse asks.

'This Roman,' Mary Lee says. 'That Rissa, that Cassie, this Perkin . . . .'

The nurse watches, mouth agape, as Mary Lee goes around the room, identifying the long dead.

White folks have always felt compelled to record Gee's Bend. Writers, students, storytellers, anthropologists, photographers, reporters, all sorts of strangers have come shambling down the one road in and out of Gee's Bend, especially since the road got paved in 1967, fulfilling a promise King made the night he came.

These photographs in the examination room are blurry and unremarkable, but others of Gee's Bend hang in museums, including one of Artelia Bendolph, first cousin to Mary Lee's husband. She was 10 years old when Arthur Rothstein made his way to her loblolly pine cabin, beneath a massive chinaberry tree. At the depths of the Great Depression, the federal government hired Rothstein to find and photograph the poorest of America's poor. He found them in Gee's Bend. In Artelia, he met their queen.

Among the many images Rothstein made--the ghostly Big House, its elegant cornices and fanlights still intact; the sad slave cabins, dung and newspaper stuffed in their cracks; the womenfolk teaching girls to piece artful quilts with rags, 'the onliest way we had to keep warm,' says neighbor Lucy--none achieved the power of Artelia. Hair in cornrows, face in gentle repose, she stood at the glassless window of her cabin, a faraway look on her face.

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