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A Black Life That Mattered

Like the Corvallis story of the Creffield cult that resulted in my historical novel, Brides of Eden, I don't remember where I first heard about Lew Southworth, one of Oregon's  Black pioneers. I only know that as I lay on the chaise in the backyard suffering with swine flu in May of 2009, I entertained myself by putting together in my mind the words of what I envisioned as a children's picture book about this man's colorful, amazing, and inspiring life.


Sadly, I have never been able to publish my resulting text. Some editors said they'd never heard of Lewis Southworth. He wasn't famous enough.  Um, excuse me, how do they think people get famous? By people writing about them!  Sacagawea  wasn't  famous until  a hundred years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition when Oregon novelist Eva Emery Dye wrote her up as a character in a romantic historical novel.


Another said the book was interesting but that they already had somebody to cover such stories.  You mean you have a Black writer who writes all the Black stories?


It struck a spark with an editor at a division of Simon & Schuster who immediately  thought of the same illustrator I had, the inimitable Kadir Nelson, whose work often graces the cover of the New Yorker.  Lew's story came close at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where the legendary editor Frances Foster told me she had started listing possible illustrators. But then she passed me the hesitant responses of her underlings. One guy worried that Southworth seemed "too minstrelly" because he earned money playing the fiddle.  This New Yorker didn't approve of Southworth working to buy himself out of slavery.  I guess unless you lead a slave rebellion or something, your Black life didn't matter?


I told this story to my Black sister-in-law before she died in 2012, and her verdict was, "All the stories should be told."  I would bet good money if I sent this story in with a picture of one of her beautiful Black daughters as the author, it would be snapped up and published with enthusiasm.  But I am hopelessly honest and rule-abiding and could never do such a thing. On-line nastiness and controversy has no appeal to me.


Sorry, I am White.  Many of these editors and publishers are White. They are afraid of getting it wrong. Maybe they're correct in this fear.  Maybe if I published this, I'd get nothing but grief and so would they. But I still feel like I'm letting this deserving man down.  He should be a folk hero, and I don't see anybody else around here stepping up for him in this way.  It's so hard to let go, but guess what? I'm tired of trying!  I'm feeling like I'm up against something bigger than whether I've written this story effectively.


So this morning, while doing yoga, while thinking about going up to Portland to have lunch with my cousin who married a guy named Southworth,  I got the idea of just putting the story right here on my blog. Apparently that's the best I can do. This should be a beautiful picture book with Kadir Nelson doing wonderful illustrations of covered wagons,  gardens in the coastal wilderness of Oregon,  and storms on Alsea Bay. He can do dignified Black men like no one else and if I could pay him to do these paintings, I would.  I wasn't stupid enough to think I could write a Black story without  having the authenticity of a Black illustrator, but I guess  I underestimated the level of fear  involved in cultural appropriation or whatever.  Maybe I should just be grateful Random House wanted to publish Children of the River back in 1989.  I'm not sure a White woman could get away with writing about a Cambodian girl now.


So, Kadir Nelson, if you read this, please tell some publisher you'd like to do the illustrations to honor this Black life.  I'll bet they'd listen to you.





Lewis Southworth was born on America's birthday of freedom, the Fourth of July.

But he himself was not free.  His mother and father were slaves, and in Tennessee, in 1830, that meant just one thing: from his first breath to his last, he too would be a slave.


He had to bear the name of his master, Mr. Southworth, and it seemed he would always have to do whatever this man told him.


No matter what.



When Mr. Southworth decided to go West, he took Lew along, for Lew was a good hand with a horse and a crack shot with a rifle. 

Each day he walked that dusty road with Mr. Southworth's many children and their new young stepmother.


At night, out came Lew's fiddle.  Oh, Susannah, oh don't you cry for me…

Like magic, young people purely worn out from the day's trek heard that cheerful music and perked right up.  Soon they were swinging their sweethearts around in the campfire light, bound to dance as long as Lew kept fiddling.


When they reached Oregon, people talked of nothing but the big news out of California. Gold! Folks were panning it right up from the rivers and getting rich!

Farmers were leaving their crops and livestock in their wives' care and heading south.


Mr. Southworth agreed to let Lew go too as long as he sent home a share of his earnings.



Seemed like every young man in the country got to the gold fields before Lew, though.  All the best claims were already taken up.

Everybody had a gold pan.



But not everybody had a fiddle!  Not everybody could play like Lew.


Soon he was earning money faster than the miners, playing dancing music in the gold rush towns. 


He told people he was fiddling for his freedom.


You don't look like a slave, one miner told him.  Where's your chains?  Where's your master with his whip?  Just run away! Slavery's against the law up in Oregon anyway.


But Lew knew folks in Oregon still being held as slaves.  And he'd sure never seen the sheriff showing up to make the owners set those people free. He didn't trust the law to defend him or help demand his freedom.


Mr. Southworth said he was worth a thousand dollars.  That's what he'd have to pay if he wanted to be free.


So Lew was saving up the copper coins.

Saving up the pinches of gold dust.

Years, it would take him, for a thousand dollars meant a lot of fiddling.

But the important thing was to be free. 

No matter what. 


 Lew traveled around for a few years.  He played his fiddle in Eureka and Virginia City.   He sent Mr. Southworth money in payment for his freedom. First three hundred dollars, then two hundred more. 


Still his owner did not want to give him up. Lew was a valuable, hardworking man, he informed Lew, as if Lew needed someone to tell him this about himself!


In 1858, he came home to Oregon with a final payment.


At last, Mr. Southworth grudgingly agreed: he would stop trying to claim Lew as his property.


Lew was a happy man.

He may not have looked like a slave the way folks thought of it, but for twenty-eight years, his life had not been his own.


Now he was free.  His ransom, as he always called it, had been paid. Still young and strong, he could work hard for himself.  He could build his own life.


He took up blacksmithing and opened a livery stable in a bustling little river town called Buena Vista.



Freedom made life better now, but Lew did have some sad times—that dark day in 1865 when he first heard the news: Some fool actor back East had gone and shot President Abraham Lincoln dead.


Abraham Lincoln. The man who had proclaimed all the slaves be set free.  The one Lew liked to call the Great Emancipator.


Now he was gone.


 Something else troubled Lew, too.  He wanted a wife, but in those days there were very few Black women in Oregon, and nobody would approve of him courting a White one.


He had to watch and wait several years until finally he heard tell of a likely lady, a widow in Salem name of Maria Cooper.


After a careful campaign of visits, Maria said yes to Lew, and they wed in a summer ceremony.


Maria already had a little boy, so—just like that—Lew had himself a family.

He would be Maria's husband.

He would be Alvin's father.  

They would all take care of each other.

No matter what.



Teaching slaves to read wasn't allowed when Lew was a child, so when he signed his new son up for school in Buena Vista, he asked the principal to teach him to read and write too.  If the principal would help him, he promised he'd jump at the chance.


Education was like a prize in a game he'd never before been given the opportunity to play.  Now he made up his mind to win.


The principal was impressed with Lew's determination and readily agreed.

Lew would learn to read and write.

No matter what.  


In the 1870s, land around Alsea Bay opened up for homesteading and Lew staked a claim. He moved his family to the acreage near Waldport and got to work.  Deal was, if he cleared and plowed and planted it like the government people said, in a few years he could take  title to the land.


He could read his name on a fancy certificate.

The land would be his, free and clear.

No matter what.


 That sounded good to Lew.

Another opportunity to seize.


He built a house.  He cleared ten acres one year and another ten the next, chopping down huge Sitka spruce and cedar trees.  He planted an orchard of apples and plums.  He sowed pasture for his horses and hayed it in the summer.


He took his rifle to the forested hills and brought home deer and elk meat.  From the bay he loaded his skiff with crab, clams, and salmon.


His family never went hungry.


Maria worked in the garden and helped burn out all those stumps left by the logging. She milked the cow, put up the produce and salted the meat.  No end of tasks to keep a woman busy on a wilderness ranch.


One time she even had to shoo Alvin's little pet bear off the kitchen table where it sat eating up the sugar!


Alvin helped too, but schooling had to come first.

Whenever classes were in session, Lew made Alvin row himself two miles downriver  to  the wood plank school house at Old Lady Toby's on the north shore of the bay.



Truth be told, Lew Southworth was fast becoming one of the most respected citizens in the Alsea Bay area.  He donated a half acre of his land for a new school house.  He served as head of the school board.  He ferried people and cargo up and down the river on his scow.


When everyone else was too busy, he took the time to show a boy—somebody else's son—how to properly pack a gill net for fishing.


Good thing his neighbors paid no attention to the lawmakers at the Capitol when they made bad laws.  In those days, one law even stated Black people couldn't live in Oregon at all!


Alsea pioneers had no patience for this.  They had a wilderness to settle.  They needed rugged men with plenty of skills.  They needed hardworking people to build the community.


They needed men like Lew.

Men who saw what needed to be done and did it.

No matter what.



And if it weren't for Lew and his famous fiddle, who'd set everyone's toes to tapping at the Saturday night dances?  Neighbors floated down the river from miles around to hear him play.   Rowing up to the docks, they could hear the happy strains of  Soldier's Joy already floating out over the water.

Everyone loved Lew's music.


Everyone, that is, except the brethren at the Baptist Church he attended.


Fiddle music, they said, was the work of the devil. He had to quit the fiddle or stop coming to services.


Lew pleaded to their good sense.  How could his music be bad?  It kept up his spirits and made him happy about life.  Wasn't that almost like going to church?  And it did good to others, too, because it made them happy to hear it.


The church people wouldn't listen, though.  They wouldn't change their minds.


Well, guess what?  Lew wasn't about to back down either.

He'd stay away from their church, if that's how they felt about it, but he would keep on playing that fiddle.

He would keep on making his music.

No matter what.


On November 2, 1880, Lew put on his best suit and topped it with a yellow rain slicker.  At his dock, he climbed into his skiff and started rowing the four miles to town.


As he guided his boat along the south bank of the Alsea, ominous clouds darkened the sky to the west.  Wind bent the tops of the giant Sitka spruce trees with a warning.


But Lew kept on rowing.  A bit of bad weather couldn't stop him from something this important.


The Presidential Election.

Lew was a registered voter now.

He took pride in voting in every election, large or small.

He wouldn't miss this one.

No matter what.



By the time he got to Waldport, ocean breakers were sweeping over the bar, even washing across parts of the sandy spit.  The wind blew from the southwest something fierce, whipping up whitecaps at the crests of the waves on the bay.


Lew looked across to the North shore.  Lutjen's was the storefront next to the salmon cannery.

That was the polling place.

Through those high, rolling waves.


In the shoreline litter of fishing and crabbing debris, he scavenged for some big, empty  oil cans.  He lashed them, bow and stern, to his skiff.

If he capsized, at least the boat might float.


Seeing what Lew was about, a couple of men crept out of their fishing shack.

Was he really going to risk that crossing?  In this gale?  Just to vote?


That's right, Lew told them, intent on the business of making his skiff seaworthy.


Why you have to be so all-fired worked up about the election? one man asked.  Everybody's already agreed it's crazy to try going across in this storm.


Lew stepped into the boat.


Don't do it, Lew!  You'll drown for sure.  Don't be a fool.


Lew's eyes flashed.  He was no fool.  He was a free man who could make up his own mind. 


He had to go, he told them.  If he didn't do his duty, he'd be letting down that man he so greatly admired: Abraham Lincoln. The man who freed the slaves and helped give him, Lew Southworth, the right to vote.


He wasn't about to go forgetting that!

He shoved his oar against the dock and pushed off.

He was going to vote.

No matter what.


People stood on the dock in the lashing rain, watching Lew's boat bob up and down.  One minute it was tossed high on the foaming crest of a wave, the next it would disappear into a deep trough.


Over and over they lost sight of it, over and over Lew and his skiff came rising back up. At last he was so far off, they couldn't see the boat for a long time. And then…


They cheered!

On the far shore, Lew stood waving a signal with a wide arc of his hat.

He'd made it!


Lewis Southworth lived to be an old man with many friends.

All through his life he helped people, and people helped him.


He saw hard times and good times, and times that must have made him feel just purely proud.


But when he looked back, maybe his proudest moment of all was that Presidential Election Day in 1880 when he rowed across the stormy bay.


Because, when the ballots were checked, here's what the election clerks found, and this is the story that is still told today—


That on a certain November day back when the coast of Oregon was still a rugged wilderness, only one man from the district of Waldport turned out to have been brave and dedicated enough to battle the fury of the storm and cast a ballot:

Black pioneer, Lewis Southworth.


A free man.

Determined to vote.

No matter what.


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