By Tené Harris
There was something really peaceful about driving through this mostly rural area on a wide-open two-lane highway. The sky was blue with specks of pollen from springtime blossoms spiraling through the air. At 75 miles per hour, bugs spattered against the glass. It was warm but nothing like the heat that dominated June and July. I let the window down and felt the push of wind against my hand. It brought back childhood memories of family road trips.
As we neared Naples, Texas, the flat land shifted to rolling hills. Even the smallest of homes sat on huge lots. We got accustomed to the miles of land between one house and the next. At first glance, the tall commanding green things covering the landscape, resembled cacti. But they were pine trees, though not the kind you find in Oregon or California. They looked as if they were weeping. The breeze had finally gotten the better of my 6-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and she drifted off to sleep just as we neared Aunt Luanna’s house.
Both of my parents were from Texas. My brother and I were born on the Gulf Coast in Corpus Christi. Even though we moved north when I was young, I still felt a deep connection to the South. My mom and dad were part of the generation of blacks who left the South during the Great Migration in search of a better life. In 1964, my parents were married. That same year, my dad followed his sister’s advice and went to Michigan to take a job in one of the automobile factories that were booming. Once he was settled and found our new home in the same neighborhood his sister lived in, he sent for my mom, me and my brother.
Growing up, every summer my parents would load up the car and drive “home” to the south. In our case, that meant East Texas. My mom’s maternal family and my dad’s family were from the same little town, Dekalb. My mom’s paternal family members were from Naples. This was the family I knew little about and had come with my daughter to visit.
Living thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, now with my own family, I realized the importance of family history and wanted to share that with my children.
That morning, as we passed the landmark Aunt Oneida had told me to look out for – the steeple at Gethsemane Baptist Church – Jasmine shifted in her seat and her doll fell to the floor. The dirt was of vivid red clay. Maple and aged oaks stood guard. On the left side of the road, a sign read “Boyd Cemetery.”
I gently shook Jasmine awake. She stretched and yawned as she stepped from the car, wiping the sleep from her eyes. We walked across a field that led to a trail. When the tall grass and weeds grew high enough to reach her hip, Jasmine stood still and tears began to well up in her little eyes. My little girl who only knew a city life was scared. I picked her up and walked with her on my hip. I was feeling a little ambivalent myself, with the cemetery now in plain sight. I imagined all of my family members who had walked this land. My mom had spent summers on this farm and had shared so many stories about roaming the farm with her first cousins. They would sit outside their grandparents’ kitchen window eating fresh-picked fruit and mock their conversations.
I had come to this part of east Texas to meet a woman I had known nothing about a year before.
The trip grew from a call I made to my Aunt Oneida to invite her to attend my mom’s surprise 50th birthday celebration in California. She couldn’t come, she told me, because Aunt Luanna was celebrating her centennial that same weekend. I’d never heard of an Aunt Luanna. But meeting her, I realized, might fill out a lot of what I didn’t know about this part of my family.
Two concrete headstones stood in the cemetery. One read: “Mabe Boyd – 1840 to 1927.” The other read “Lou Boyd – 1853 to 1946.” Nearby was the headstone of Aunt Luanna’s brother, James Boyd, a World War I veteran. He died in 1994 at the age of 97. There was a huge concrete tomb with the name Napoleon. The placard with the last name and dates was worn. After taking a few pictures, we walked back to the car. The weight of Jasmine’s body began to tire me out.
We drove on up the road to a simple white house with an enclosed porch. A rusted old wagon wheel stood under the carport. We walked up the path to the porch and I heard a southern drawl that felt familiar.
“Come on in!” It was Aunt O.
There were lots of hugs and long glances, as we were introduced to Aunt Luanna and her daughter, Juanita, who lived with her. Aunt Luanna had long straight silver hair that was braided and pinned. We sat down and Juanita brought us sweet tea in glasses etched in a yellow and green floral design. Everyone laughed as Jasmine turned up her glass and said, “Yum!”
Two antique oval pictures hung on the wall. As I looked at the man and the woman in the pictures, I recalled the meticulous calligraphic script of the names in the large wooden family bible that Aunt O had shared with me just the night before. I knew that the man was Aunt Luanna’s father, Mabe Boyd, and the woman, her mother, Lou Boyd. This was the first time that I had seen a photograph of family members from the late 1800’s. I could see the resemblance between Lou and nearly all the women on my mom’s side. My middle brother had eyebrows just like Mabe. They were both attractive and you could tell from their clothing and the way they were groomed that they lived a good, comfortable life.
Aunt Luanna was small but strong. She lived on the Boyd Farm practically her entire life, with the exception of the occasional trip to Dallas to spend time with her daughters and one lone trip to Los Angeles in the late 60’s. Life in Los Angeles had gotten the better of one of her daughters, so she went to bring her back home. The hustle and bustle there was too much for Aunt Luanna. The quiet Boyd Farm with clean air and fresh running rivers and lakes, fruit trees, vegetables, poultry and cattle, was the only world she knew. At night, you could see every constellation, and the full moon was majestic.
As she spoke, I remembered my first drink from a well as a child. Lowering a wooden bucket with the tin can tied by twine, down to the water source and then turning the wheel to pull it back up, seemed like a lot of effort for a city girl, until I tasted the ice cold water. It was heaven, especially in the Texas heat.
Aunt Luanna talked on. The Boyd Farm covered most of the northwest corner of Cass County. Back in the day, it was full of fruit orchards, a blacksmith shop, a syrup mill, a smoke house, livestock, acres of vegetables, a schoolhouse and natural hot springs and creeks.
Several hours passed. Finally, I asked Aunt Luanna if I could come back the next day.
The next morning, we found her sitting on the enclosed porch with her food in a small stainless steel bowl and a paring knife. She no longer had her teeth, but she seemed to be enjoying every bite.
With her permission, I videotaped our conversation sitting on the porch. I asked her to tell me of her childhood on the farm. “There was always plenty to eat and plenty to do,” she said. They went to town a few times a year for cloth, coffee and other items they didn’t produce on the farm. Practically everything else they needed, they produced on the farm. Her mother kept the children healthy with castor oil and lemon several times a week, especially during the winter months.
Aunt Luanna began to talk of her father. Mabe had arrived in east Texas from Georgia, a freed man, in about 1859. He was a skilled carpenter, shoemaker, blacksmith and farmer. Over the years this man somehow amassed close to one thousand acres, 600 of which remain in our family. No one knew much about his parents. Some speculate that his father was a slave owner and that had something to do with his ability to purchase and retain so much land in east Texas. Truth is, we’ll never know. Too much time has passed and older family members have died.
But we know that he built a school for his own children and other black children in the area. She pointed it out, an old building hidden among tall weeds. “He called it Celeste School. I went there with my brothers and sisters,” she said. So did other black kids from the area whose parents were sharecropping on farms owned by white people. Mabe also built the home that housed the teacher he hired to instruct the children. Her home was miles away in Marshall, Texas. Back then travel was precarious on the dirt roads. The last teacher hired was Mrs. Dean, Aunt Luanna remembered, and the last students attended Celeste School during World War II. After that, more schools were built and the state of Texas took over the Celeste school in a different location.
I listened to Aunt Luanna tell the story of Mabe, her father, and wished I knew more about him, what made him so focused on self-sufficiency and education. Yet as she spoke, I realized his importance to the family, this relative of mine I’d never heard of.
Aunt Luanna lived to 106. We kept in touch through letters, as we promised we would. And I never forgot the story of her father, Mabe, and her mother, Lou. We were carrying Mabe’s legacy forward in many ways. His descendants are now college graduates in 11 states and two continents. We are teachers, engineers, authors, television writers and producers, military officers, computer network managers, nurses, business owners, longshoremen, and lawyers.
All that, I realized, started with Mabe and Lou Boyd, freed slaves who arrived in east Texas from Georgia with skills and a view of the future they could build with school and land.
That day, I wasn’t ready for our trip to end. As we rose to leave, Aunt Luanna took Jasmine by her hand and pulled her in close. She looked into her eyes.
“Don’t forget me,” she said.