Chapter 7: The Recreation Channel
Periodically throughout the year, the divisiveness of ethnic and occupational differences was somewhat bridged by open participation in community celebrations, such as Christmas, and recreational events, such as baseball and horse races. Public and personal holidays also interrupted the routine round of agricultural and domestic tasks. Some activities and holiday events were public and likely to be held outdoors where they were open, “wide open,” to everyone’s participation. Others were considered private, held at least partly indoors, and, in practice, ordinarily restricted to members of certain families or ethnic groups.
Outdoor Sports: Baseball and Horseracing
Both baseball and horseracing seriously competed for people’s discretionary time, especially, but not exclusively, men’s. An exception was one woman who proudly recalled her youthful success as a pitcher on the quarters’ softball team. Color and class lines, if not always gendered, tended to relax for outdoor public events, such as ballgames and horseraces, when blacks and Creoles of color might play on the same or opposing ball teams or ride in the same races. As Dr. Hertzog’s photographs show, blacks, Creoles of color, and whites might also sit nearby in the same bleachers or observe the events standing in the same general area.
Baseball was a major pastime from the 1930s to the 50s and 60s and played the length of Cane River at most plantations and towns, including Derry and Cloutierville. Temporary ballparks dotted the area, interspersed with a very few more permanent ones. The Tigers’ home park, for example, at neighboring Lakeview was complete with bleachers, and one of the Creole night clubs, the “Friendly Place,” had a relatively sophisticated field with a cane fence at one end. Otherwise, most fields were ad hoc temporary “brush” fields or simply pastures with dirt sacks to mark the bases. Some recalled Magnolia’s field as located between the tree-lined driveway and the blacksmith’s shop; others say it was nearer the overseer’s house, in the area that doubled as a riding ring. Still others recalled a site in the pasture behind the quarters. Baseball fields were temporary sites in any case and probably located in different places at different periods.
Mr. Matt, credited with starting the first Cane River team, is considered a major fan who encouraged the weekly ball games. Reputed to be an excellent pitcher too, he would often team just with Father Becker, the Cloutierville priest and a practiced catcher and hitter. Former residents remembered baseball enthusiasts streaming down Highway 119 Sunday afternoons, sometimes still eating the ice cream and cake the commissary sold at the games. They recalled the watermelons Mr. Matt kept on ice in the store to award the winning team at special games. Winners were expected to share the prize with everyone. Sometimes Mr. Matt would turn on the lights in the evenings when people in the quarters wanted to play softball themselves. Whether it was day or evening, the game was an economic, sports, and social event. Assembled spectators and, after the game, players too, might purchase the gumbo Ms. Lizzie had prepared and sold or the ice cream her husband, Shine, had purchased from Mr. Matt for resale to the crowd.
So many black people around Cane River were talented players that the Negro League, which sponsored games in urban Natchitoches, perhaps at Highland Park, recruited several local men. People are proud of one man, Pat Listach, who went to the major leagues, moving from the Milwaukee Brewers to his present infielder position with the New York Yankees.
Team names usually signaled their origin. The Magnolia teams started by Mr. Matt were the Magnolia Giants and, at another time, the Black Magnolias.
Some local baseball teams included:
Racing, like baseball, was a passion that found a home at nearly every plantation, saw mill town, small town, and local bar. A seasonal pastime, temporary “brush” tracks or exercise tracks were created in the late fall, sometimes, as at Magnolia, in the turn-rows of harvested cotton fields. Some plantations would convert harvested fields to tracks by plowing under 5 or 6 rows and leveling them with a disc. In the late spring, the short-lived tracks were returned to their agricultural work and plowed in preparation for planting the new cotton crop. One Magnolia riding ring in the 1960s was near the overseer’s house in an area that might double as a baseball diamond, the Hertzogs recalled, and another between the Hertzog and Cohen place. Like baseball, racing was an after-church event held in the late afternoons or early evenings. Dr. Hertzog’s films show white people, blacks, and perhaps Creoles of color, including women, animatedly talking and milling around Magnolia’s track still dressed in their Sunday finery.
Most events were scrub races that ran horses without special pedigrees but with the spirit or speed that might make them run well. Some of Magnolia’s better horses might participate too, depending on the worthiness of their competitors. More often, however, they ran on year-round tracks in Alexandria, at the Metarie course in New Orleans, or elsewhere. The Hertzog family was known for their horses and their horsemanship and several people noted that Ms. Betty Hertzog and her cousin Ms. Mary Gunn Johnston were skilled and caring horsewomen.
Indoor Activities: Boxing, Clubs and Juke Joints
Unlike outdoor events, class or race distinctions influenced participation at indoor activities, such as nightclubbing and boxing, which occurred at the several bars or juke joints that punctuated Highway 119. Some people recalled a bousillage and log structure located near the bend at Magnolia. It might have been a juke joint and gambling place that also held boxing matches. Mr. Matt is said to have closed it after a stabbing there. Others recall it as a family house, a movie house, and a delivery point for ice. The structure might have served each of these functions at different times in its history.
People from the quarters recalled boxing and drinking at the Green Derby near the Lakeview-Magnolia border, or going to one of Cloutierville’s black bars and gambling spots. Numerous Creole clubs, such as Bubba’s place, were located closer to Melrose. These clubs were reluctant to admit dark-skinned people until the early 1960s, Creoles say, unless they were known to be Creoles of color. In fact, dark-skinned people from other areas would have had difficulty being admitted unless someone local vouched for their Creoleness.
Former residents of the quarters recall enjoying birthday celebrations when kin and friends congregated to share festive foods and sometimes hear live music. People fortunate enough to have spare cash might hire entertainment from one of the local bands, such as the Creole LaCour brothers. These might be the times for fish fries and barbecues. More lively celebrations could be assured by the corn whiskey that was purchased locally from entrepreneurs who ran their own illegal stills. One still operated near the Magnolia pond behind the Big House until its owner was caught.
Only the most adventuresome woman interviewed recalled going to the clubs where, others argued, they might put their reputations at risk. For the most part, women’s recreation tended to be more house-centered than men’s, more associated with the private domain. House-parties in the quarters to celebrate personal events, such as birthdays, the church-sponsored social events, and house-dances at nearby plantation communities, were important times to be with friends and relatives. These also were opportunities to meet new people, including potential mates, in a relatively protected or closed context. Women in the quarters could occasionally combine child-care with fun by playing card games at home. A favorite one was pitty pat. The goal here is to pair off each of your cards with those of another player and get yours paired off first; shovelbutt was another game. Young girls also entertained themselves playing ball, often tossing one made out of rags.
Ethnic and class lines were briefly suspended for outdoor play among some children. Friendships existed among young black children from the quarters and white children from the Big House, who spent their summers at Magnolia until old enough to go to camp, and white children from the overseer’s house. Children of the Vercher family in the quarters, the Gallien overseer family, and young Ambrose Hertzog Jr. visiting from New Orleans, for example, played together around the yard, fished from the river banks, went swimming, and sometimes rode horseback throughout the plantation. They recalled Mr. Matt treating them to surrey rides around Magnolia from time-to-time.
June 19, Emancipation/Freedom Day, and July 4, Independence Day
June 19th marks a major event in the black community and, for different reasons, in the white community as well. President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, making it effective January 1, 1863. Word did not reach slaves in several states for many months and sometimes was not fully accepted by slaveholders or even believed by slaves. Sometimes it required federal authorities, particularly Union troops, to bring the word to the countryside once Lee surrendered at Appomatox in April 1865 (cf. Litwack 1979). Not until June 19th, many people argue, did enslaved people learn of their freedom in Louisiana, Texas, parts of Oklahoma, and perhaps elsewhere. June 19th came to be the day freedom was celebrated. It also marked the end of an era for whites.
As one black elder saw it, June 19th is Emancipation Proclamation Day.
Other people doubt that Creoles of color celebrated the day. But there was no disagreement about June 19th as joyous “celebrations of freedom” and a black peoples’ holiday. The blacksmith and deacon cooked the beef Mr. Matt had culled from the plantation herd and the quarters hummed with people busily preparing for the event. They needed to catch abundant fish for the fish frys, clean chickens for barbecuing, and sometimes fix goat soup too for the family and friends who came together at home and for the church celebrations held at St. Andrew and St. James. There might be baseball games, too, in the quarters during this “black” holiday.
The June 19th celebration began to wane with emigration from the plantation and the dispersion of worker families from the quarters to Natchitoches, Alexandria, Houston, and elsewhere. The rural social structure and plantation relationships between white and black people that had supported the celebration were weakened and eventually almost fully transformed. Nevertheless, the celebration lingered on in some fashion for a while. Some former residents noted that their family still celebrates it in a very attenuated fashion by taking time from work and holding weekend barbecues for friends and families. In the past few years, evidence of a renaissance has been appearing in urban Natchitoches, Shreveport, and several other locations. Spearheaded in Natchitoches by civic-minded black leaders and supported by public agencies and civic organizations, public celebrations are being organized to mark June 19th and its historic redefinition of black status and black-white relations. In its present-day iteration, for example, the planned weekend events in Shreveport now include picnics at principal local parks, locally prominent political guest speakers, and musical and other stage performances by renowned musicians, white and black. Special programs in the Natchitoches schools bring the events closer to youngsters. Television and newspaper coverage make it evident that present-day celebrants come from diverse ethnic groups and that the resurgence of interest marks continued changes in inter-ethnic relations.
July 4th was celebrated plantation-wide with time off from work
and more family parties, food, drink, and music. Mr. Matt brought Youk and
his Creole band to play at the store to the enjoyment of the assembled tenant
workers and farmers, and he distributed gifts of watermelons community-wide.
Yet, the relationships between June 19th and July 4th, or the
differences between them, were not clear to some black participants. Decades
later, these remain unclear. Interviewees recognized the celebration of
freedom as a connecting concept between the two events. In some people’s
view, “July 4th is the day we are supposed to celebrate;
it’s when they signed the Declaration of Independence and that’s
the day we were freed.” Others thought enslaved people had learned
about their freedom on June 19th, but freedom actually had occurred
on July 4th. No one expressed Frederick Douglass’ 1852
sentiments about the absurdity of black people celebrating Independence
Day before slaves were emancipated (Blassingame 1982), but his sentiments
seem to resonate in peoples’ continuing uncertainty about, or discomfort
with, the notion that different groups of people could become free at different
Christmas and Thanksgiving
Christmas was another event that brought families together in each of the community’s three residence areas, the sharecropper, the quarters, and the Big House. In the quarters, it was recalled with pleasure for the break it brought from the routine work week and for the opportunities to celebrate with family and friends. The holiday meant another chance to hear the band and enjoy special gifts. Black children especially appreciated small food gifts – precious apples, oranges, and candies – too costly for parents to splurge on during the year. Dr. Ambrose, who came with his family from New Orleans for the event, also treated the plantation children to the sought-after fruits, especially apples and oranges. Thanksgiving was another festive time when Mr. Matt had the blacksmith roast one of the cattle for the celebrating community.
The Hertzog's Christmas and Recreation
Dr. Ambrose Hertzog and his family from New Orleans, along with kin from Alexandria and elsewhere, joined customary residents of the Big House to celebrate the Christmas holiday together. On this occasion Mr. Matt would bring Father Becker to celebrate mass at the small family chapel. A time as well to ritually recognize the interdependence of the Big House and the labor community, Mr. Matt distributed food gifts in the quarters and among the sharecroppers and brought Youk and his band to play at the store early on Christmas eve. Later, the band moved on to the main house for the private Hertzog family celebrations. Sometime during the holiday week, people might also assemble at the store to see the photographs and movies that Dr. Hertzog had shot the previous summer during the family vacation at Magnolia. This might have been the time he distributed copies of photos to community people, photos they and their families still cherish, depicting them in action, for example, at the horseraces or in various poses around the yard and store and behind the Big House.
The Hertzog camp on the small island in Cane River Lake was another locus of family recreation. In the summer and at holidays, the camp drew the extended Hertzog family and friends from New Orleans, Alexandria, and elsewhere to fish for trout, perch, and catfish, among others, and to swim. Hertzog kin recall eating wonderful meals there, being well-served with fine food, and treated to entertainment by Youk’s band, sometimes playing on a barge that moved slowly around the island. Serious pollution in recent decades has been keeping swimmers away.
Prizes for Planters
Not without their own group incentives and public awards, prominent white and Creole of color landowners competed for the annual cash prize given by Natchitoches banks to the planter who qualified as having the First Bale of Cotton Ginned. Viewed as special, that first bale would bring the planter a premium price, Ms. Betty recalled. The Hertzogs usually competed along with others. An old photograph recently reprinted in the Natchitoches Times (July 23 and 30, 1997), showed the winner, the Creole of color family, Balthazar, along with that year’s other contenders (Figure 16). The Hertzogs did not enter that year, but the contenders included the Cohens of neighboring Lakeview and the Prud’hommes of Oakland, whose Big House now is incorporated into Cane River Creole NHP.