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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

Artelia never got far from that cabin, but her face went around the world. Novelist William Saroyan wrote a poem to her beauty: 'Behold ... a young queen, not on a barge on the Nile a thousand years ago, but right where she is and right now.' Something about that face, that look, spoke to Saroyan of rivers, and royalty.

Today, Mary Lee lives on the very spot where Artelia was photographed. The cabin's gone, and Mary Lee chopped down the chinaberry herself. In their place stands Mary Lee's green-shuttered house, second of the Bend's 'Roosevelt houses,' so called because President Franklin D. Roosevelt rebuilt Gee's Bend and saved its people from starvation.

In the early '30s, Roosevelt learned that hundreds of slave descendants were dying on a U-shaped peninsula in Alabama. After the stock market crashed, cotton had swooned to a nickel per pound, and Benders couldn't grow enough to pay for seeds and supplies. A Camden merchant had been advancing them what they needed, warehousing their cotton until prices rose again. But when the merchant died, he left no records--and one ruthless widow.

It was a cool day in autumn. Armed with pistols, the widow's henchmen came by the ferry and went from cabin to cabin, closing out debts, settling accounts, robbing Benders blind. They took everything--tools, wagons, plows, furniture, eggs, hogs, mules--then wended like a funeral procession back to the river.

Mary Lee's father, Wisdom, sat in the dirt and wept. He might have given up, might have gone under, but for Mary Lee's mother. "She told him, 'Don't cry,' ' Mary Lee says. 'She told him, 'Everything be all right, everything be all right.' "

They survived that winter on wild plums and blackberries. They killed squirrels with slingshots and fished some. The Red Cross sent meal and meat, but life didn't get better until Roosevelt came to the rescue. He granted 100 families in Gee's Bend low-interest loans to buy modest farms and build new houses, with real glass windows and hardwood floors, the first some Benders ever set foot on.

Today, aside from a smattering of trailers, every Bender lives in a Roosevelt house, and much of Gee's Bend looks as it did in Roosevelt's day. Cows still have the right of way. Buzzards still circle overhead. And 100 homesteads still sit along red dirt lanes, in slightly uneven rows, like Monopoly houses.

Mary Lee's memories of those days--wearing a fertilizer sack for a dress, picking cotton alongside her mother, sleeping 12 to a bed on a mattress stuffed with cornhusks--remain clearer than any Rothstein photograph. So clear, she can hardly believe Wisdom's in the ground 22 years now and Aola sits in her own permanent posture of defeat.

'Ready for your shot?' the nurse asks Aola.

'She don't talk,' Mary Lee says. 'Sickness took everything but the laughter.'

The nurse swabs Aola's arm with cotton. Then, the needle. Aola jerks forward, laughing. Mary Lee puts a hand on her shoulder.

'Everything be all right,' Mary Lee says. 'Everything be all right.'

CHAPTER FIVE / Confronting the Future

The seventh child of Wisdom harbors a heavy shame about her lack of education.

'I loved-ed school,' Mary Lee says, 'but I loved-ed mens more.'

She left school in sixth grade, pregnant. She didn't even know what pregnant was when she found herself on hands and knees behind the cabin, throwing up the dewberries and dumplings she'd eaten for breakfast. Then she looked up and saw Aola's troubled face at the window.

School days are over for you, Aola said, explaining that a person was inside Mary Lee's stomach.

'Oooh!' Mary Lee says. 'That struck me! I cried all day long, telling the Lord to take it away. But the Lord wouldn't move that. Some things the Lord don't move.'

A sixth-grader brimming with prayers and fears: How Mary Lee sounded is preserved on reel-to-reel tapes in the Library of Congress. After the Roosevelt program was launched, government workers recorded hours and hours of everyday life at Gee's Bend, including sixth-graders singing a hymn to which Mary Lee still knows every word by heart:

It may be trouble at the ferry,

I'm gonna stand there anyhow.

Dear Lord! Dear Lord! Dear Lord!

Because she was 14 when she became a mother, childhood and motherhood are all jumbled up in Mary Lee's mind.

She's reliving both this morning, driving around the river to attend an important assembly at her grandsons' high school.

Mary Lee's three grandsons--17, 16 and 12--stay with her because their parents live in Mobile and can't handle them. There were nasty scenes, she says, loud arguments, and she had no choice but to take in the boys. 'It's a terrible thing to be afraid of your own child,' she says vaguely.

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