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Burying Miss Louise

Transcendence and regeneration in the rural South

by Roger Pinckney

Published in the January/February 2004 issue of Orion magazine



Painting by Robert Gwathney/Smithonian American Museum, Washington, DC/Art Resource, NY; used with permission

PRINCE RIVERS, the last black man on Haig Point Plantation, dropped dead when the developers told him he had to move. The Scouten brothers left him there as a young man, after the big plantations went all to hell, after the boll weevil took the cotton and the blight took the potatoes. “Move into the big house and watch after the place,” they told him. “We’ll come back directly.” But they never did.

The land was sold, then sold again, each time with Prince Rivers part of the deal. But Prince got old, then older, and he couldn’t brush out the roadsides or clean the ditches or tighten the fence and finally not even cut firewood anymore, so he waited for the Scoutens and burned the porch railings to keep warm, then the decking, and finally the siding and the framing, one wall at a time until there was only a single room at the middle of the house with the old cornshuck insulation all soggy and bedraggled and the roof about to fall in and a pitiful rusting stovepipe sticking through a hole in the south wall.

That’s what the house looked like when they found Prince Rivers in the garden, just after the buzzards did, face down in a riot of magnolia and azalea and camellia. They buried him in the old slave graveyard, where the graves face east so the spirits can fly home to Africa, next to his kin, and to the Bryans and the Simmons and the Champions. Next to where we will be burying Miss Louise.

DOWN HERE ON Daufuskie Island, the best place you probably never heard of, there are 150 of us on 5,000 acres, no bridge, no bank, no traffic lights, no traffic at all. The fast food has hooves and horns and fins and feathers. There’s no gas, no yoga, no yogurt, and no law, except the immutable statutes of God and time and tide.

We have white folks and we have the Gullah people, descendants of slaves brought here from West Africa in chains. The white folks are potters and poets and dope runners gone out of business, and a dozen shell-shocked real estate types, and the corporate retirees they brought here when it looked like this place would someday become the next Hilton Head. Lord knows the developers tried, but it never did take. Today, the trees are still standing and the bucks ghost the edges of deserted fairways and wild turkeys skitter through the oleanders at the edge of your yard.

The Gullah got land with freedom, on “The Great Day of Jubilee,” as they call it. A hundred years later, you would have had to put them in chains to make them leave. But hard times and few jobs and land taxes are doing what chains didn’t. The Gullah have been drifting away, nearly gone now, crossing the water to Charleston and Savannah. And those who swore they would die here are getting their wish. One by one, like Miss Louise, they are crossing the river too, crossing over Jordan.

MISS LOUISE WILSON was well thought of and the mourners have come from all over, by bus and car and finally by boat across blue and rolling Calibogue, the estuary separating Daufuskie from South Carolina and the rest of the world. Her ancestors worked Haig Point cotton but she grew up next door on another plantation, called Cooper River. She was skinny and acidic and philosophical, about the color of a tarnished penny from a healthy dose of Cherokee on her momma’s side. She was old and these Gullah revere their elders.

But mostly the local folk loved her for her daughter, Yvonne.

Yvonne—say it: Eee-vone—grew up here on Daufuskie, running barefoot on these sandy roads, beneath great mournful oaks and towering pines. She went to school at Mary Fields Elementary, long before Pat Conroy launched a literary career by teaching there and getting fired for insubordination. Yvonne migrated to Savannah when pollution from the paper mill killed the oysters and drove the last self-sufficient Gullah rivermen off the island.

She came back when the developers promised jobs and she found one, driving a bus between the ferry dock and the new beachfront inn. But she also found a real estate office sitting square atop a slave graveyard.

Now you can cut the developers some slack if you wish. Road easements down here are simply paths everybody always walked. Property lines are where your great-granddaddy strung his fence to keep the wild horses and free-roaming cattle out of your great-grandmomma’s okra, peas, and corn. And titles to land, passed down without probate from slave times, keep a tribe of lawyers up at night as it is.

You can cut them some slack if you wish. Your great-granddaddy is dead and your relatives moved to Savannah and New York and Philly, and the sad and careening shanties stand forever empty. The wild island horses, the Marsh Tackies here since the conquistadors, have been corralled and barged away. The few cows and scattered goats, sure symbols of wealth in the African tradition, are tethered to keep them off the golf courses.

The developers moved back a few dozen feet from the nearest tombstones—and excavated for their reception center anyway. But when they began unearthing bones from older unmarked graves, they just threw them into the Cooper River and kept on digging. And then, you know, you can cut them no more slack.

Yvonne Wilson cut them no slack and lost her job. She was thrown off company-run ferries and ostracized by her Gullah neighbors hoping for jobs in the new developments. But finally the story reached the Cristic Institute and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and in 1989, after a segment on 60 Minutes provoked a flurry of national outrage, the developers agreed to move their reception center.

It was a little victory in a long war, a war that our most African of cultures is losing, losing land and language and collective memory to the Great White Hoax, to assimilation and taxes and public education and mass communication, to this great shift of history, while the live oaks weep their long strings of Spanish moss and the last of the old Gullah go to ground.

AS WE GATHER FOR Miss Louise’s funeral in the dappling shade outside the First Union African Baptist, we sense both the loss and the victory. We feel it, but we do not speak it. It is in this sandy ground beneath our feet, ground that would cry out if it could. It is in our bones and in our blood and in the very air we breathe, white and Gullah alike. So we stand around and shake hands and make funeral small talk, me and the other white neighbors in the best clothes we can muster, khakis and clean denims, sport jackets, and maybe a tie scattered here and there among us. The Gullah are in all their finery, the women voluminous in white and purple and green, wearing hats like square-riggers under full sail; the men with their spats and gold-headed canes and suitcoats that catch the sun like a drake mallard’s head.

The hearse is a Ford pickup, Jesse Williams at the wheel. Jesse is Yvonne’s man, or used to be until she ran him off. Yvonne has two daughters grown up and gone off the island for work, ten-year-old twins still at home, and a young grandson she cares for in the Gullah family tradition. She pulls in around three hundred dollars a week maintaining Daufuskie’s dirt roads, the only black female motor grader operator in South Carolina. Jesse came back around when Miss Louise died, and Yvonne—wore down to about nothing—let him in. She sits beside him in the cab. The twins ride in back with Miss Louise, supine in her plywood box, a twist of wild Cherokee roses on the top just starting to wilt in the hot September afternoon.

The pallbearers wrestle the casket inside and I follow and sit down next to Miss Wendy. Miss Wendy is from Wisconsin, with half a lifetime in the advertising trade. She took sick a dozen years ago and came south for her health, first to Hilton Head, then Daufuskie. When her doctors finished with the chemo and the radiation she knew she would never have children of her own, so she latched onto Yvonne’s twins with a biological ferocity. This dance with death so marked her that she can’t even drive by a church without misting up, and here in the First Union African her tears flow freely.

The preaching is Baptist, long and good, about the generations springing up and being cut down like grass. The funeral director, the “funeralizer,” the Gullah say, has the “catchers”—his wife and two male assistants—stationed before the casket. There are eulogies and scattered prayers and finally we join hands for “Amazing Grace,” words from a repentant slave ship captain put to an African melody so long ago. And the music dies and there is an eternity in a single silent second and then a great shriek of grief, a guttural howl of rage and despair as Yvonne leaps across two pews and throws herself atop the casket.
She sends the funeralizer’s wife sprawling, store-bought flower arrangements clattering to the floor. The men peel her away from the casket, haul her outside while she kicks, thrashes, claws at the air, moaning now not only for Miss Louise, but for all the generations stretching back to her ancestors in chains, for the land lost and the water fouled, for her older children grown up and gone, and for the twins, sure to follow as Daufuskie’s Gullah dwindle to memory and names on a few scattered stones.

The whites file outside in stunned silence. The Gullah follow, nodding, satisfied that Yvonne’s grief has found appropriate release. I find her in the pickup, halfway through a cigarette. “Don’t know why I fell out like that,” she says.

I take her hand. “You did right,” I say.

Jesse climbs in behind the wheel and backs the truck to the church door and the pallbearers load up Miss Louise. The twins climb on again and this curious procession lurches to life—Yvonne’s pickup first, then a smoking sedan and another pickup, followed by a long string of golf carts in various states of repair, and finally a derelict and groaning school bus—long ago gift to First Union from the Port Royal Baptist Church—wheezing and steaming, loaded to capacity, a great iridescent Gullah rainbow showing through its windows. School Road to Church Road to the front gate at Haig Point, where the sign says you can’t go unless you belong.

But the Haig Point security guards know better than to try and stop Yvonne. She has made arrangements and Hampy has brushed out the cemetery and Clarence has dug the grave. The security guards, in this most gated of gated communities, head this parade of death and life down the avenue of oaks that used to lead to the big house where Prince Rivers waited for the Scoutens, where the camellias still grow wild in the cool green woods and the golf fairways twist through the timber and the million dollar homes nestle in the pines.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the preacher says at the grave as he throws a handful of Daufuskie Island dirt upon the casket. There are a few more words and another hymn, and then they lower the casket into the ground. The twins throw in slippers, glasses, false teeth, and Camel Straights after it so Miss Louise will not come back looking for them. Yvonne gathers her young grandson and the funeralizer knows what’s next as surely as he knew she would rush the casket. He studies the edge of the grave, the caving sandy hole with the plywood casket in the bottom, and says, “You ain’t passin’ that baby. Somebody gone fall in that hole and they be a lawsuit.”

But Yvonne has her mother’s grit. “He’s my grand and I gone pass him,” she says.

So she leans as far over the hole as she can without toppling in. Jesse leans from the other side and I catch him by the belt and pull so he won’t fall in too. And the baby goes over the casket and now we know that Miss Louise won’t come back looking for him either. We all take turns with the shovel and pretty soon Miss Louise is in the ground.

WE WILL GO HOME and ponder all these things. Tides will ebb and flood, the winds will blow, and storms gather out at sea. In about three days, Yvonne will run Jesse off again and he will steal a pistol and go looking for Freddy, convinced Yvonne is seeing another man. But Freddy will not avail himself and Jesse—all primed to shoot somebody—will wind up at Yvonne’s and shoot her in the head.

Yvonne will fall but not die. The twins will bolt and hide in the bushes beside the house. The fire department will ring Yvonne’s house and call the sheriff and wait three hours until he arrives. But Wendy will get there first and when they try to send her home, she will not go. She has beaten cancer and she fears neither bullet nor arrest. She will cross the line and gather the twins and take them to her house and feed and comfort them.

And later Deputy Gunny Barr will talk Jesse out of his pistol and Jesse will get twelve years of hard labor and they will strap Yvonne to a gurney and haul her to Savannah and she will come back to Daufuskie, slurring and stumbling for the first few weeks, and then stand up at the First Union African Baptist and testify, thanking Sweet Jesus for His love and Great Gawd A’mighty for giving her such a hard, hard head.

Wendy will later join the church and they will dress her in a white robe and lead her to the river. And there the deacon will pray and the preacher will pray and Yvonne will stand on the bank with the sisters and they will all clap their hands and sing:

Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water,
God gonna trouble the water.

And Wendy will weep and they will plunge her into the ebb tide so the river will carry all her sins away. And then she will slog ashore and those who see her will not be able to tell salt tears from salt river, but they will all gather round and welcome the new white member of the First Union African Baptist Church.

But we do not know any of this yet. Briefly stuck in time, we stand by the fresh grave in a great whirlwind of history and magic and grief, as the knot of mourners drifts away in twos and threes and the security guards fidget and the Spanish moss moves in the seawind, freshening now with the changing tide. But we do know this: Miss Louise has finally come home.

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ROGER PINCKNEY is an award-winning journalist who writes for the nation's top outdoor magazines. His first novel, Little Glory, was published by Wyrick & Co. in May 2003. Pinckney lives and writes on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, where he works to preserve the environment and local culture. "Burying Miss Louise" appeared in Signs and Wonders, a collection of essays published by Wyrick in 2004.

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