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From our roots, a story emerges

Remnants of Keatchi College
[Photos: John Macdonald]
Alice “Mimi” McCoppin and daughter Sally MacDonald survey the remnants of Keatchi College, which the author’s grandfather attended.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002

A journey with Mom to the northwestern Louisiana area where she grew up uncovers treasures to be shared for generations to come.

NATCHITOCHES, La. -- There was a brief lull in conversation as we drove through the Northwestern State University campus, past Turpin Stadium, where the Demons still play football. From the back seat, my 89-year-old mother began humming, and then her thin soprano voice grew stronger as the words and melody came back to her:

Normal's got a Demon with a long and fork-ed tail;

Tech has got a Bulldog, now don't that make you wail?

We looked at each other in astonishment and burst into giggles.

"Why, I haven't thought of that in 70 years," she said. "I wonder if they even still play Tech?"

We'd set out the day before on a 100-mile sentimental journey from her home in east Texas into what once was the cane-brake and cotton country of northwestern Louisiana, where she grew up.

It wasn't to be a big and complicated "roots" trip. John, my husband, would drive. Mom, whom the younger generation calls Mimi, would guide us to what she calls "my old haunts," the landmarks of her early life. And I'd enjoy.

"Jes' drivin' Miss Mimi," a grandson had said, putting on his best Southern accent. "Wish I could go with y'all."

The trip turned up much more than we expected. Transported back in time and place, Mom came up with jewels of family lore and morsels of bygone times that will enchant -- and dismay -- even the youngest in the family for decades.

Both much and little has changed in the farming communities around Shreveport, where most of Mom's family lived since before the Civil War.

Soybeans, rice, pecan groves and timber farms now rule where cotton once was king. Brick ramblers and plain-Jane mobile homes have replaced most of the creole-style plantation houses that once dotted the landscape. The locals drive on freeways to jobs in Shreveport and come home to what they consider suburbs.

* * *

Just before noon the first day, we drove into Bethany, a blink-and-you-miss-it town where Mom's parents lived while she was in college. The abandoned country store and the liquor store across the state highway that serves as Main Street still have signs saying this really is Lickskillet, La.

Lickskillet Store
Alice “Mimi” McCoppin recalls buying soda pop at the old Lickskillet general store, which is now closed.
"Any time the kids in school wanted to embarrass me, they said I came from Lickskillet," Mom said, putting on that look that said we had better not tease her about it.

"They say they called it Lickskillet because after dinner they'd call in the old hound dogs to clean up the dishes. I don't think that's true, but that's what they said."

My mother's name was Alice Johns before she met and married my dad, George McCoppin, and moved to Texarkana in east Texas. Her first name is pronounced the French way (a-LEESE), a bow to the creole people who settled this part of Louisiana in the early 1700s.

She and Daddy were married at the Baptist church in Bethany. She wore a beige dress, she said, and he wore a suit and the most stylish white spats. We couldn't find the church she remembered, but we did see signs leading out of town to New Boggy Baptist Church. We laughed at the hog-holler sound of that -- New Boggy church in Lickskillet.

A couple miles out of Bethany, John noticed a highway sign pointing to Johns Gin Road.

"Go back!" Mom and I shouted in unison.

My grandfather's family homestead is at an intersection of Johns Road and Johns Gin Road, both named for the family who farmed cotton and ginned it -- separating the fiber from the seeds.

We had found the plantation a few years ago with the help of a local who guided us through the tangle of local roads. We didn't think we could find it again. But there, with delicious serendipity, it was, hidden away 100 yards from the road in a green haze of young timber and fresh underbrush.

Most of the plantations in this part of the South, including my family's, were not the sprawling cotton kingdoms made famous in movies such as Gone with the Wind.

They were more like large farms. The owners built comfortable but not ostentatious homes such as my family's, a single-story white house of wood sitting on brick pillars as tall as a man. Wide steps lead to a shady veranda across the front. A wide breezeway runs through the middle of the house, between two rows of bedrooms and sitting rooms.

Many of these houses were plastered with bousillage, a mixture of mud, animal hair and Spanish moss.

In the old days, the cook house was in another building out back. Under the main house was a tiny commissary with packed dirt for a floor. Supplies -- tobacco, food staples and quinine for malaria -- were doled out there, first to slaves and, after the Civil War, to the freed blacks who stayed on to continue working the plantation.

Mom remembers the smell of the commissary lingered on for decades after the war, a mixture of "dankness, snuff and medicines."

I have had to work to come to terms with the fact that my ancestors owned slaves. Mom accepts it as a fact of life that cannot be denied, horrific as it is. It has helped me in recent years to realize that her father, my grandfather, turned his back on slavery early on.

* * *

After the war, times were bad and the plantation wasn't big enough to support both my grandfather and his brother. So my great-grandparents gave the boys a choice: One would get a college education, the other would inherit the plantation.

My grandfather, John Bunyan Johns, who was born in 1865 in the closing days of the war, chose the education. His brother, Dick, took the farm.

My grandfather went to Keatchi College a few miles from home, then to medical school at the University of Kentucky. Eventually, he came home to DeSoto Parish to be a country doctor, ministering to black and white alike. His eight children, including my mother, would visit Uncle Dick and Aunt Kate at the plantation in the summers.

I remember going there as a child to see Aunt Kate, not long before she died.

A few years ago, when we first went back to see Uncle Dick's plantation house, it was nearly in ruins. A forest of saplings hid it from the road, and we had to crawl through a sagging barbed-wire fence and wade through a thicket of underbrush to get to it.

But now it was being restored, brought back to its old elegance. The new owners had propped up the fence and padlocked the gate, so we could only stand at the road and gaze at the house through the trees. We yelled and whistled; an old dog came out to the road to stare at us. But apparently no one was home.

"That's enough," Mom said. "We saw it before and I'm glad it's being taken care of."

* * *

Our next stop was Keatchi College. There's not much left of the school, a crumbling, two-story, brick building and a clapboard wooden one with peeling white paint. The grounds are still shaded by gnarled oak trees and, on the late winter day we visited, garnished with daffodils and snowdrops.

The college, which had opened as a girls school, was used as a hospital for soldiers injured in the Civil War's Battle of Mansfield in 1864. It reopened as a college and admitted men in 1879, when my grandfather was 14.

Not far to the south is Grand Cane, a sleepy town with time-worn antique stores and one cafe. We went looking for Mamaw's house.

This is the town where relatives on the other side of my mother's family lived. Most notable was my mother's grandmother, Harriet Rogers -- Mamaw -- who died when Mom was 9.

"I think I'd know her house," Mom said, peering from the back seat at the old homes as we drove slowly past. "It should be just down this street and turn left. Right there! There's the tree we used to play under as kids. The church should be right up the street."

It was.

The Rogerses and Johnses -- both sides of her family -- are buried near each other in Grand Cane Cemetery. Baby Cecil is there, too, the only one of my grandparents' children to die in infancy. He was 2 and died after contracting diphtheria.

It's a miracle my mother didn't die young, too, She was born prematurely and weighed just a little more than 3 pounds. Her father placed her in a chicken incubator and she came out just fine, she reminded us.

We stopped overnight at a motel before driving on to Natchitoches (NACK-uh-tush) and Mom's college. The town was founded in 1714 by the French. It's the oldest permanent settlement in the vast Louisiana Purchase territory, which France sold to the United States in 1803 for a paltry $15-million.

Mom went off to college in Natchitoches in 1930 in the midst of the Great Depression. She was only 15 and was "scared to death."

"Lots of activities at school were discontinued when I went there," she said. "None of us had any money for activities anyway."

The school is on the Cane River, which isn't a river at all, but a camouflage-colored lake that wiggles its way south more than 30 miles through Natchitoches' plantation country. Cane River used to be part of the Red River, which is notorious for changing course suddenly and finally, leaving remnants of river high if not dry.

Mom remembers it changing course one night "taking the horses and mules with it."

Mom was to have a part in a school play but before she could perform at the outdoor theater she was offered a job teaching in a small school district north of Shreveport, so she left the school.

"You didn't give up a steady, well-paying teaching job in those days," she told us.

* * *

We drove up and down the river, looking for anything that matched her description of the amphitheater. There were several stairstep rows for the audience to sit on, she said, and it faced a small grassy stage at the river's edge. A clump of trees provided shade for daytime audiences.

"It must be gone," John said. "I don't see anything that looks like that."

Then suddenly, just as we were about to give up, there it was, exactly as she had described it from memory. Just as it had been 70 years ago: trees, seats, stage and camouflage-colored river.

"I knew we'd find it," she said, beaming in the back seat. "I can't get over it. You don't know what it means for me to see all these things again, all the places of my life."

I think we know, Mom.

If you go

Louisiana map
[Times art]
Taking a "roots" trip does not have to be a big production, even if your family has scattered.

Our trip back in family time was a casual, two-day drive from the city where I grew up and where I visit my mother regularly. We could have done most of it in one day, except that we wanted to make sure we didn't have to miss any of the places she remembered as home. And we wanted to have time to explore each place at a leisurely pace.

Here are some tips to making such a trip more meaningful, no matter in what part of the world your family's roots grow:

Take an older family member with you if you can. Every site we visited reminded Mom of another fond memory or another place she wanted to see from her childhood. I had never heard many of the stories, and now they'll become part of my repertoire when my own children ask about the family past.

If the older generation is not available to go along with you, don't forget other relatives, including cousins from your own generation. One of mine could not wait to hear about my trip. It triggered stories she had heard from her mother.

Before you go, read a book on the area. Mom and I had read Cane River by Lalita Tademy together when I visited last fall. The book is a novel about four generations of African-American women in Tademy's family, some of whom were slaves on Cane River plantations.

The book gave us new insight into the repugnant system of slavery and the part, sadly, that our own ancestors played in it.

And, as you go, take in the local culture -- places of interest and regional cuisine are part of your history, too.

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