Family reunion in black and white

Descendants of a plantation's masters and slaves come together to recount history – and forge family bonds.

Richard Johnson and Harry Taylor have spent their adult lives 1,100 miles apart – Mr. Johnson as a human-resources director in Texas, Mr. Taylor as a tool-and-dye maker in Kentucky. That's not unusual for cousins. But Taylor is black; Johnson is white. And as the two men embrace today on a green Arkansas farm, under a Southern sun with bolls of cotton blowing in the breeze, the homestead in the background isn't just any white colonial or red-brick ranch. Nor is this just any family reunion.

Lakeport is a plantation – a stark fact and a complex heritage that can evoke pride, shame, anger, fondness, and humiliation, often all at once. Over 150 years ago, African-American slaves carved this place from the forests that dotted the riverbanks, while white landowners moved into the stately "Big House," which could be a backdrop for "Gone with the Wind."

Now, as the two men pose for a picture at a rare reunion marking the reopening of the plantation, Johnson hugs Taylor.

"You never know who you're related to," Taylor says with a laugh.

The photo they took might double as a prism on the Old South and the New. It's a glimpse of how far the country has come since slavery, with the descendants of its privilege and pain standing before cotton fields, their arms slung around each other, with equal rights and separate livelihoods.

Yet a sensitive past still lingers here, both on and off Lakeport grounds. Plenty of people didn't want this gathering to happen, and part of the day's celebration occurs in an African-American cemetery where slaves, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers are buried – without tombstones.

Still, that the ceremony is even taking place evokes a spirit of remembrance and reconciliation, of healing about the past and openness about the future. As the names of the African-American dead are read aloud, a white woman wipes tears from her eyes. "Let this help us remember the past," says Deacon R.C. Royal after reading from Psalms.

• • •

The Col. Robert and Jemima Johnson family dates back to the 1700s, with ties to Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas. Another American landmark figures into their past as well: the White House. Col. Richard Mentor Johnson, the ancestor for whom today's Richard Johnson is named, served as vice president under Martin Van Buren in 1836. He might have become president had he not been so candid about his relationship with a mulatto slave, Julia Chinn, and the two daughters they had together – a lineage that would eventually give rise to Taylor, the tool-and-dye maker.

Instead, he went home to Kentucky, while his brother Joel, who established Lakeport in 1831, turned his plantation into one of the largest in Arkansas. Joel's son Lycurgus built the mansion that stands today in 1859. The plantation has remained in continuous cotton production since the 1830s. Unlike many Southern plantations, only two families have owned Lakeport in its 177-year history. The 7,000-square-foot mansion is one of the few in the South that has escaped being remodeled, redecorated, or modernized.

Arkansas State University (ASU), which bought the house in 2001, plans to use it as a laboratory for its doctoral heritage studies program. The hope is to "tell the stories of all who ever lived and worked on the plantation," says Ruth Hawkins, director of the Lakeport project.

Today, family members have come from as far as Canada for the plantation's grand opening. White tents stand in the middle of the cotton field. A gospel choir sways and sings about the road to freedom. Relatives – black and white – mingle freely.

Johnson has brought an 1854 family Bible, and Dr. Hawkins's face lights up when he tells her. "I heard about this place the whole time I was growing up," says Johnson, whose father lived on the plantation as a child. "We knew it was a Southern plantation and we knew slaves worked on it. We can't undo history, but it's neat for people to come together and honor that."

Even for those whose ancestors were slaves or sharecroppers, Lakeport can be mythical – with all the longing and splendor of childhood as well as the pain of a circumscribed life. Gladys Royal grew up on the plantation across a ditch, "in the quarters," and her family picked cotton. She remembers visiting the commissary, where the Johnson family sold potted ham, peanut butter, and coffee to their workers.

"This is my first time to go into the 'Big House'," says Ms. Royal, who left Arkansas for Chicago during the civil rights era. "It took all of these years to come back and see it. I grew up with white people, and they were just like family. They still are." She strolls the winding porch and takes in the house's 11-foot windows. "Some of the happiest times were here."

• • •

As with any family reunion, there's tension. Some relatives of the plantation's former slaves refused to come. The reaction has been mixed among locals, too. Aketa Guillory, an ASU doctoral student, says many African-Americans who live nearby didn't want to visit on the opening weekend: With poverty and racism still common in the Delta, the past can be too painful. "You can't just say 'this is slavery and it ended in the 1800s,' " says Ms. Guillory. "They continued life as sharecroppers and tenant farmers way into the late 20th century. This pain goes a long way."

Even before the reunion, as renovations began on Lakeport, some community members were unhappy. The "Big House" conjured oppressive memories. Guillory says she had a hard time getting people who still live around Lakeport to share their stories. "That house, to some, is like burying someone in your front yard," she says.

Hawkins says Southerners, both black and white, are uncomfortable discussing a past with slavery, but that's changing. "Rather than let these wounds continue to fester, [people] have to be open and deal with them. There has to be a natural healing process," she says, noting that the meeting of families associated with Lakeport is "a step in the right direction."

One descendant who came is Lakinda Royal, a young woman who still lives around Lakeport. She arrived with questions about her relative, Mammy Charlotte, a slave who stayed on to serve as the plantation's last housemaid. Johnson descendants congregate around her, snapping pictures and telling her stories they've heard about Charlotte.

Charlotte took care of Verlinda Johnson Henning's father, Victor, when he was a child. "Mammy Charlotte had a seminal role in my father's childhood," says Ms. Henning. "It was a privilege and an honor to meet one of her descendants, with her own small child."

Ms. Royal is proud that so many have returned to Lakeport to see their roots. "They could have forgotten all of us," she says. Though many might be embarrassed that their ancestors were slaves, she says she isn't. "It makes me think how things were back then. [Mammy Charlotte] struggled to have a better life."

In an album of this autumn afternoon, the photos would go right alongside each other: Johnson and Taylor, two retired men, black and white, embracing; and then Royal, her 13-month-old daughter at her side and Mammy Charlotte on her mind. It's not a scrapbook that could have belonged to either side of this now far-flung family: Social mores would have forbidden it. But it is one the Johnsons and Taylors and Royals are all piecing together now, with the healing force of time. "We can't live in the past," says Johnson. "But you need to know about it."

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