The whole thing started in the deep south in the early eighteen
eighties. Slavery had been over for a while but it was taking everybody
some time to work out what was going to happen next. The emancipated
slaves were free to come and go more or less as they pleased but since
there was nowhere really for them to go they stayed right where they’d
always been. The plantation bosses had come up with a brilliant plan
whereby the freemen still worked for the plantation but only indirectly.
Now they traded most of the cotton crop they grew as rent for a piece of
dirt to grow it on and what little was left over they were allowed to
keep for themselves and sell. This was an arrangement called
‘sharecropping’ hence the old slave compound on the Norwood
Plantation was now called a ‘sharecropper’s settlement’ and was
home to eighty seven men, women and children.
The eight hundred acre plantation was close to the small market town of
Hamilton in Louisiana not far from New Orleans. The place looked pretty
much the same as it had before abolition. There was the plantation
mansion of course which hadn’t changed at all and a cluster of mean
little dwellings built along an avenue in a clearing in the woods on the
edge of the cotton fields. These used to be the slave cabins and the
newly ‘freedmen’ still lived in them. As time had passed since
abolition a few vegetable gardens had sprung up here and there between
the cabins along with a pigsty or two and a couple of window boxes did
their best to support a few straggly flowers.
The truth was however that even though the bolts were gone from the
outsides of the slave cabin doors the flowers couldn’t do much to hide
the fact that life here was still so hard it could crush a human heart
like a dried walnut.
Still hard but usually a bit less cruel than it used to be - but not on
the hot, drizzly, morning of August 23rd at 9:34 in 1882.
The magistrate had made sure the sheriff understood that what they were
doing had to appear official and ‘proper’. That’s why he had taken
the time to hurriedly throw together a make-shift gallows in the center
of the settlement because a noose slung over a tree branch smacked too
much of an old style mob-lynching.
Either way Bess was standing, hands tied behind her back, under a noose.
Silent colored sharecroppers watched as the rope was pulled roughly over
her head and tight around her pretty, black neck. Somewhat oddly, she
was wearing a once fine but now torn and soiled, pale blue satin ball
gown. The dress was soaking wet which made it virtually transparent and
it clung to her hard, young body doing little to hide her perfect
breasts from the small crowd of white ruffians who jeered excitedly at
her desperate plight.
“Come on, show us her black ass,” they yelled and “yeh, stretch
her black neck but let’s fuck her first.”
Then they howled with laughter at their own mindless whit through rotten
teeth. The white socialites, including Marilyn Spencer, who were
watching from their carriage a discrete distance away did their best to
rise above the seedier parts of the proceedings but even they couldn’t
completely ignore the first signs of the baby growing in Bess’s belly
that the gown failed to hide.
A tattered confederate flag and a drum roll from a scruffy white soldier
in a thread-bare uniform lent a guise of formality to what, despite the
gallows, really wasn’t much more than a mob lynching anyway. In spite
of the predicament she found herself in Bess went on being the generous
soul she’d always tried to be. She wanted to ease the pain of those
that loved her so from somewhere deep inside she found a soft smile to
share with those looking up at her so sadly – until the drum roll
That was the agreed signal for the trapdoor to open and Bess’s heart
had time to beat once more before she dropped. She fell about six feet
before the rope snapped taut with a sickening crack like the breaking of
an old, dry twig and her feet were left to twitch and kick in a bizarre,
Normally this part of the show was met with enthusiastic applause and
more wise-cracks but today it went down a bit differently. Everybody,
even the white ruffians, had to turn their heads away when Bess’s
brief, mad dance was over and the remains of what had been the baby in
her womb ran down the insides of her thighs to drip pathetically from
the soles of her feet.
Exactly twenty two years later on August 23rd, 1904 at 9:34 a.m. Lester
Cummings was pacing in his modest little kitchen smoking like a steam
locomotive. He was a scrawny, unhealthy looking soul and he was being
driven crazy by the screams of his wife who was having a real bad time
giving birth down the hallway in the bedroom. Every time she screamed
out in pain he took another deep, shaky drag on his Lucky Strike.
Finally the screaming stopped and after a few minutes of uncertain
silence Lester crept to the closed bedroom door to see what was going
on. He put his ear to it first and when he heard nothing he knocked very
quietly – he was terrified any loud noise might make the awful
screaming start up again.
“Hello in there,” he said through the door, “is everything
The silence went on for a bit until the door burst open with a loud
whoosh and Lester was confronted by the enormous and bloody-armed
mid-wife. She just stood there in the doorway like a guardian at the
gates of hell staring at him like he was to blame for something
terrible. That made him swallow hard trying to get down a throat-full of
something nasty tasting until she announced, “it was a girl.”
She said it like she was telling him the time.
“Was?” he repeated.
“Stillborn,” was all she added by way of explanation and without any
sign of regret.
There was no room for grief right away, he was worried about his wife
now more than ever and dared to ask, “how’s Margaret doing? Is she
The mid-wife seemed almost surprised by the concern she heard in his
phlegmy voice .
“She’s going to be fine – more or less,” she spat at him, “but
you’re headed towards consumption.”
Then she shut the door firmly in his face. He stood there for the
longest time trying to digest what he had just been told – until his
baby daughter cried out with a gusty lung-full of new-born air sounding
very much alive after all.
Excerpted from "My Life in Black and White" by Chris Edmonds. Copyright © 2012 by Chris Edmonds. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.