Goosebumps and Gravestones
In addition to some great family stories, an inspiration for my book, "The Secret of Wattensaw Bayou," are The Slave Narratives. These are transcribed interviews with ex-slaves that were done by the Federal Government in the early 1930s. 2,194 such interviews were conducted. My home state of Arkansas had the largest number of interviews at 677. I read many of the interviews before I realized that there was a search engine for the entire collection. I had already developed characters for my book, including a young slave man who was a lay preacher. This character was important because of his spiritual influence on my protagonist.
I searched the collection and, to my surprise and delight, found the names of three slaves who were actually owned by Dr. William Cogswell Hazen, a historical character in the story. It was almost like finding a needle in a haystack, and I had found three of them! One of these was Israel Thomas, and my young lay-preacher was soon christened "Israel" in the pages of the book.
|Grave of Rev Israel G. Thomas|
Fast forward several months and my first opportunity to visit the old Hazen farm near Wattensaw Bayou (and now inside the town of Hazen, Arkansas.) With Geological Survey maps of the area, I was looking for cemeteries, specifically those on the old Hazen property. The first that I located on the ground was small, maybe 2 acres. The front held recent burials, but older plots dotted the back of it. There were many unmarked graves, and it was not long before I realized it was an African American cemetery. You can imagine my surprise when I found the marker in this photo. It took me a moment to realize that this was "my" Israel. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I got the proverbial goose bumps up my arms!
Israel was a preacher, just as I had fictionalized him in my novel. Later research told me that he founded the first Freedman's church in the new town of Hazen, Arkansas soon after the end of the War. I am still moved by this discovery.
Both of the other "Hazen" slaves that I found in the slave narratives are buried in the same poorly maintained cemetery. Their stories will come another time. It is almost like they have been waiting there all these years for someone to come and find them, in the narratives and in their graves.