Place: Oakland Plantation
Interviewed by: Melissa Hagen Dezendorf
Mr. James Helaire is the son of Vaslin Helaire, grandson of Frank Helaire and great-grandson of Jean Baptiste Helaire. Mr. Helaire and his family are closely linked with the history of Oakland Plantation. His great-uncle, Felix Helaire, lived at Oakland. James was born on the Reginald Prud’homme place, down the road from Oakland, in June 1930. After serving in the Korean War in the infantry and combat engineers, he received a degree in elementary education from Grambling State University and a degree in science and mathematics from Northwestern State University. He taught school in Natchitoches and Winn Parishes for 32 years.
Q) Where were you born?
A) Down here on the Reginald Prud’homme place, a little further down the road from here...It’s a brown house on a road called John Batten lived there and we lived in an old farmhouse up from there…
Q) So did you grow up in that house?
A) Partially, yes. About, up to about 12, 13 years old.
Q) Then where did you go?
A) We moved up Cane River…You cross the bridge [Bermuda Bridge], and go about three miles about the highway…I lived there until 1950 when I went off to the [Korean] war.
Q) Do you have any brothers or sisters?
A) Oh yes, I have umm let’s see, four brothers and six sisters.
Q) What do you remember about your house when you were living here? What was life like?
A) Well, no refrigerators, no electricity, we had to haul wood during the summertime and the fireplace during the winter, kerosene lanterns for lights at night… [woke up] Five o’clock was the usual time, we had to come out to the barn to get the mules and be standing in the fields when the sun comes up…we had a cup of coffee and a biscuit until mother would make breakfast and send it out to the fields.
Q) What would she send for you to eat?
A) Bacon, eggs, [cane] syrup, biscuits…we made our own grits…They had a mill right here somewhere…We made our own [cane syrup] back then. My daddy had a sugar cane mill…we had to haul and cut the cane, strip it before we cut it and haul it around to the mill, we had a mill where the mule walking around and around, with a grinding thing between two big wheels and the juice would run out the trough and then we had to drain it off into another metal container and that’s where you cook it. You had to add firewood to cook the juice from the sugar cane until it jelled and made syrup. It was really fun.
Q) When you were doing work in the fields, what were you picking?
A) See my dad was a sharecropper. That means we farmed a large area, half for the man and half for yourself. That’s what you called sharecropping. You made a living from that. When the end of the year, you sold your cotton and made your money. That’s when you got paid.
Q) So you only got paid once a year? What did you do in between?
A) Well if we had cotton to chop for somebody else, we would chop for a dollar a day. Sunup to sundown, one buck…I went to college on some of that money! Mother put it in a coffee can and I had money to go to college. We didn’t have grants back then, you just had to pay tour way…I had been saving money from first grade on…Cause she [mother] told me that cotton picking wasn’t going to last all my life. She was right.
Q) Did she see the machines coming or did she just know it couldn’t last forever”
A) Some kind of way she knew it wasn’t going to last forever.
Q) How about your grandparents, do you remember your grandparents?
A) I only remember Frank Helaire…John Baptiste, I should have said that first, since he was the great-grandfather [great-great grandfather of Mr. Helaire], I had a chance to talk to him. Yes, about 1935, I believe he died about that time, but I was large enough, five years old, I could read. He always wanted to learn to read. He lived in the potato house and I could find a piece of newspaper and take it out there and read it to him. I would take the Bible and read that to him and he would enjoy it…Just grin and grin, because he never did learn to read and he said he wanted to learn before he died.
Q) What do you remember about him?
A) He never did wear shoes. He never would walk on a floor. We had wood floor back then, but he always walked bare-footed and he liked walking in dirt bare-footed. When he would sit, he would sit where he could kept his feet in the dirt. He never did get in the house on a floor. He died right out there in the potato house where he had lived all the time. He was an exciting old fellow. I would enjoy talking to him, listen to him talk…he told me about how he got here from Africa. He was brought over on a ship, he and a whole bunch more people. They didn’t come ashore at the time, they parked out there in the water until they broke their pride. Got them where they could handle them and then they brought them to shore and put them to work.
Q) How old was he when he came here do you know?
A) No I don’t. He was a young man though…I can’t remember everything he told me about, you know, about when and where he came, how he came…I was trying to think of the man who brought him over here. Brought him, for one. I can’t think of his name anymore…I believe that’s where the Baptiste came in…Now he was John (French pronunciation – Jean) Helaire…but this Baptiste came in from the owner. That’s how he had to wear part of the owner’s name. That’s where the Baptiste come in. I can’t think of the owners first name. But that’s how they did it back then. Everyone had to wear part of the owner’s name.
Q) So he had a son named John, right. Then that’s where your grandfather came from, Frank…what do you remember about him [Grandfather Frank Helaire]?
A) …almost everything! Yep. Cause I spent a lot of time at his house. We all lived on the same farm. He lived, he moved down from the foot of the bridge here, all roads ran along the river, so Frank was further down from the foot of the bridge right there on the Reginald Prud’homme place on the same farm. That’s the way they did it back then. As a son got married he moved, there was a house prepared for him not far from his father. And that’s the way they did it then. That’s where his brother Felix, Felix was on this farm right here [Oakland], and all his sons, Mage Helaire [Emage], Lawrence Helaire, all they were scattered around thereon this plantation right here.
Q) Were you all a real close family? Did you do a lot of things together?
A) Well, work in the fields! That’s about it and went to church. St Paul Baptist Church, it’s on the river further up the road…See we had a frame building back then and a school right beside it. That’s were all the black schools started, around a church in this area. You didn’t have a school board back then, you just had somebody who finished 8th grade by some hook or crook and they set up a school…
Q) Did you go to school every day?
A) Yes, we went every day, but the school term for farm workers was short. We didn’t have but seven months. We had to get all the cotton out of the fields, all the corn out of the fields, and then start for school. So we had about six, seven months a year… You have heard of the three R’s? Reading writing and arithmetic? That was what we did. We didn’t have all this science and mathematics like we have today. Mostly it was reading, writing and arithmetic and history. Most history was by word of mouth. The teacher would have someone come in and talk about history to us. We didn’t get hold of too many books back then.
Q) When you weren’t in school, you said you were working in the fields…Did you get a break in the in the middle of the day? Did you go home to eat in the middle of the day?
A) Sometimes, if it was too far to walk or ride your mule, you would eat under a tree. You would bring your lunch in a tin bucket and have it hanging in a tree. Then a twelve o’clock you had to give the mule a break and you would take a break for lunch. Go back at one o’clock. When the sun gets to the top of the trees, it was time to go to the barn. It sounds funny but it’s true…get back in and get the mule fed. Go home. First thing [when he got home], we jumped in the Cane River and took a bath. Then went in the house. Wasn’t anything else to do after you eat your supper but go to bed!...Earlier part of my life we didn’t have radio and T.V. wasn’t thought of. Just went to sleep. If you lie down in front of the fireplace and read a book if you had one. Lucky if you had one.
Q) How big was y’all’s house?
A) It was about, oh, five rooms. Because all the boys slept in one room, all the girls slept in another room then we had a dining room and a kitchen. No electricity at first. I was in high school when we got electricity on the river. We had it [water] out of the well. You see how they have these gutters all around the edge here? Then the water would run off when it rained and it would pour into a thing they called a cistern. A big hole in the ground, concreted, pour in there. Then you would have a bucket on a rope, you would let down there and get the water.
Q) Did you have any toys growing up?
A) Well we had some toys that my dad made. Little wagons, little stick men you put them on a string and move your fingers and make them dance. It was fun.
Q) And you had chores too, I take it.
A) Oh, yes. Had to feed the hogs, close the henhouse door, make sure the gates were closed, feed the mules.
Q) Did you have your own mules?
A) Some cases we did, some we didn’t. We used the Man’s mules…
Q) What kind of animals did you have?
A) Cows, hogs, you pick one out of the bunch of your father’s. He always gave you one to learn how to look after your own. That was a lesson within itself. I had a pig. I had a calf, on the side from his. And even after I started teaching school I had a calf in my backyard up in the city. My first mother-in-law, I had a place down in Natchez on her farm, on the river there. I had my hog pen down there. That was something to do after school, I could drive down and feed my hog.
Q) Did y’all celebrate birthdays?
A) Oh yes. [We} Played games. They had a cake kool-aid, and we had games for the person that was celebrating their birthday. Girls played ring around the roses, boys played pitching crackaloo – throwing pennies to a line. Or a ball games, something like that. Oh we played all day for whoever had a birthday. We were glad to see that birthday come, because we got to have a day off.
Q) What about Christmas?
A) Oh we had a ball at Christmas…everybody got apples and oranges. That was about the only thing we didn’t raise, we were glad to see Christmas for apples and oranges. We got a toy too, if you had a good crop that year. But, if you had a lean year, you didn’t get any toys…They’d hang stocking up there [over the fireplace] and put apples oranges and candies.
Last updated: August 6, 2023