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Prophet In New Orleans
The test of any institution
for society at large is its values. The Presbyterian values of education,
literacy, simplicity, democracy, dignity, and hard work have made a
productive membership in spite of a small size. Emphasis on these values
may have contributed to its smallness in membership, since these are not
values of wide appeal to many. Its emphasis in spiritual growth is to ask
for a searching moral analysis, then to urge earnest action. The results
are often highly individual.
New Orleans is a colorful harbor of many flavors of people. It was in G. W. Cable's day even more so. It was a city of every degradation. It was, looking back, only natural that the greatest humanitarian of the South came out of it.
Cable was named George Washington for his father who came to New Orleans in 1837. G. W. Cable, Senior was originally a Virginian. His family moved to Indiana. There he married Rebecca Boardman of a New England family moved to Indiana. The Boardmans descended from Samuel Boreman who came to New England in 1638. Rebecca's mother's families, the Nobles, were among the founders of Westfield and Sheffield, Massachusetts. Rebecca came from strong Congregational stock. It was natural in the South for her to become Presbyterian.
It was fortunate that Rebecca came of strong stock, because G. W. Senior gave her a few good years of a big house and eight house servants, then had a business reversal, became dispirited, and died. She was left with four children to rear. George, Jr. left school and became a clerk in a customshouse. He was the support of the family.
George's lack of formal education may have been a good thing. He liked to study on his own. He was left free from the somewhat questionable ideas of the colleges of his time. It accustomed him to doing his own thing.
From the beginning, he was under the influence of Presbyterian values at home. He seems to have taken quite seriously, what was taught him about fairness, compassion, individual responsibility, and moral judgment. Believing this, he did not have a college to teach him otherwise.
He seems to have grown up happily. This was largely through the endeavor of his mother. She was a courageous woman who took tailoring to learn how to make her husband's cast-offs into clothes for the children. She set a cheerful, non-complaining tone for the family. She held family prayers regularly.
The most singular experience of his New Orleans childhood and one to leave an impression was the yellow fever in 1853. He was to begin his novel, The Grandissimes, with the hero orphaned by the yellow fever. In 1853, he saw entire families wiped out, hundreds of orphans left on charity, and bodies left unburied at the cemeteries to decompose and stink in the Louisiana sun.
When the Confederate War broke out, he enlisted at 19, fought as a private in the Mississippi Calvary and had a "bloody, ragged" hole made in his arm by a Yankee bullet.
After the War, he worked as surveyor, contracted malaria, and could not work. He therefore had nothing to distract his reading for two years. He emerged a poet, not a good one, but good enough to know he was literarily bent and had some talent. Pursuing that bent, he became a reporter for the New Orleans Picayune. In 1870, he began a weekly newspaper column on some items of interest in the New Orleans area.
Items of history he found especially interesting, and these awakened him to writing historical fiction, drawing upon old Louisiana scenes and legends. He was soon writing short stories. He collected some and put them under the titles Old Creole Days, Strange True Stories of Louisiana, and then his first novel The Grandissimes.
In 1869, he married at First Church of New Orleans into another family of New England descent that had moved to New Orleans. He took as his wife, Louisa Bartlett, a Mayflower descendant. * They were an unusual young couple who realizing their talents and responsibilities, decided at the first, making money would be secondary in their marriage, no matter what. They held to it.
The couple after their marriage attended Prytania Street Church where George became a deacon and of greatest importance had a mission school to work in. George was soon Superintendent of the mission Sunday School.
The minister of Prytania Street church, 1866-1877, was Robert Quarterman Mallard, a son of the Midway Colony of Georgia, and son-in-law of C. Colcock Jones. It was into his manse that Mrs. Jones went after she left Georgia.
The church of Cable was then aware of the spiritual plight of the blacks. George was to carry this concern and compassion originating in C. Colcock Jones to its logical conclusion. Given the proper spiritual foundation, social conscience would develop naturally. The church could not confine itself to a solely spiritual concern forever.
Cable had the capacity to reason and to stretch. He began with good values, including the deep "humanitas" and compassion of Jones, then began to proceed in a spiritual evolution. He began as the son of a slave owner, a man who had fought in the Confederate Army, a man in an extreme Southern state, and in a not particularly ethically concerned city. In the end, he reached morally prophetic heights.
George Washington Cable became a promising literary figure in the nation at large. His first books were of real quality. Later ones substituted morality, for character development and although very weak as literature, they made him popular. These books gave him a position of a celebrity from which to be heard in the land.
Cable had no illusion about the blacks of his time and area. He was a detached moral thinker, and his judgment had enough honesty in it to be able to see the obvious. The blacks did not always have, and he was fully aware of this, access to good values.
But blacks were human beings. "I began to see that these poor fellow creatures were treated unfairly," he said. He made a private rule to live by, that it was wrong to relegate blacks to the role of peasants. This system in America repulsed him. There should be no caste of peasants in America.
He felt it was time a reform was begun to give the blacks their rights. The blacks were "freed--not free." He said a black man should be "free to become in all things... as his own personal gifts, the same sort of American citizen he would... if, with the same intellectual and moral caliber, he were white." This was said by a Confederate in the twenty years following the Civil War.
Cable could have said nothing. There was no reason save morality for him to do so. There was every reason for him not to do so. His books were best sellers. They might shut their doors. He had best keep his strange moral views to himself.
Here the Presbyterian tradition was tested. He was facing strong public opposition, although he felt there would be some support. It was a decision essentially Protestant. Should he take a stand? I would put him in the line of Luther, Knox, and Witherspoon. "I remember my favorite text, and it is a great consolation," he wrote, "Woe unto you when all men speak well of you." (Luke 6:26).
No matter what a church's aims, or creeds, or confessions of faith may be, it is ultimately by the decision of its best that it is to be judged. Cable took his stand for black rights.
The slander of Cable was everything that he could have thought of. He took it philosophically. Nor did he point to Southerners as worse than anybody else. This happened to be the sore spot of the South. Other areas had different ones and would be just as angry. "...Men who speak...the truth must have slanderers no matter where they live, North, South, East, West..."
At this time, an invitation came from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to do a performance in which each would do readings of their writings around the country. From this tour, both hoped to realize some money. Mark was to get the larger share.
The piece Cable gave the most on stage was "Mary's Night Ride," along with various Louisiana dialect pieces. "Mary's Night Ride" was taken from Dr. Sevier, a novel of Cable's, in which a young woman, Mary Richling, and her child, braved enemy lines to reach the bedside of her dying husband during the Confederate War.
It was always encored again and again. Cable and Twain got so tired of hearing it and so weary of Mary, Twain finally referred to it as that "infernal ride of Mary's."
At the performances Twain and Cable came on the stage together for effect. Twain was tall and big boned. Cable was short and small boned. When they came on together for a comic effect, carefully planned, the audience always roared. From there on it was a pleasant evening.
Both were reforming spirits. Cable was a sensible, pleasant, morally balanced thinker. Twain was a bitter puritan in reverse, "an outsider," railing in black comedy against things in general, a new type of intellectual just coming into vogue. Cable was never bitter because he never lost his God, even when he said, "slanderers are howling at my heels."
In the South, things could not have been much worse for Cable. There was social ostracism. Tax assessors falsely raised his taxes, but his speeches on black rights did not stop. A flow of articles and speeches continued.
Cable said a silent South of good will toward blacks existed, and he appealed to it. He said that all through the Sough when he finished his speeches, people came up to agree, thank him, and shake his hand. He was not alone in his views.
He began his article, "The Silent South," with a reference to Lee's statue in New Orleans. He said it spoke for "the South's better self." He described the South, "brave, calm, thoughtful, broad-minded, dispassionate, sincere..." He appealed to such Southerners for the rights of the blacks. This was published in 1885.
He was one hundred years too early. These good Southerners existed even then, but usually had been educated products of the small upper middle and planter classes that were dispossessed of power after the war.
To be fair to G. W. Cable he was not a monomaniac on black rights, He was also interested in and spoke out for prison reform, mental health reform, beautification (gardens), "home culture", as he called it, and a classless church. "That is to get high and low life to worship together," he said.
Nor was he a fool. He wrote on, "What The Negro Must Learn," referring to the blacks of his day, and was fully aware as a former businessman, of the needs of business. His moral vision was wide, as well as deep.
Ostracism drew the Cable's closer together. They had always been a close couple. He had written her in 1881. "How many sweet memories can I call to your mind tonight? ...the night we...stood on the river bank...the night we dropped in...to hear the choir practice... the time we rode in a carriage to Louisiana Avenue... Are those things too idle to be cherished?" For them they were not.
Louisa had always been in very poor health. He considered the heat and damp of New Orleans, along with the inflamed social ostracism she was subjected to because of the race issue. They also had four daughters. He decided it was best to move from New Orleans to the cooler weather of New England where his daughters might attend Smith College, and he could get Louisa away from enraged Southern whites.
He did not forget his obligations to the South in New England. He came back at least once a year to speak on reform subjects and to remain a thorn in the Southern flesh.
His wife died. He married again but wrote of the next marriage, "...I gave her clearly to understand that I must ever hold the memory of (Louisa) in tenderest love and devotion...a cherished and sacred past." He needed taking care of. "We marry...in November as quietly as we can."
Cable lived to see World War I., the drive for a League of Nations, which he approved as the only way to "look God in the face as we put away the sword." He kept his mind to the last saying, "People, especially old people, never should 'talk themselves old'."
He died in 1922. By that time, the prophet of New Orleans was largely overlooked. They laid him quietly away as the great decade of the KKK began.
He stood up for the Negro for no selfish reasons of his own. Nor was it simply the blood of a thousand protestants stirred in him. It was a stream of compassion of great purity. It was the descent thing to do. He did it in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, his great speech in which he said, "Class? That class? Our circle? ...The Christian circle is the circumference of the earth."
The Old South suffered two great ordeals--one, the Confederate War, the other, the black issue. It had been providential two morally big men stepped out to save its hour before the bar of history. One, George Washington Cable, the other, Robert E. Lee.
The Presbyterians were the heirs of the New England Congregationalists in the South. The Presbyterian pioneers much resembled the early settlers of New England. In addition there was formal acknowledgement of similarity in early agreements between Presbyterian General Assemblies and New England General Associations of Congregationalists whereby congregations of the two churches interchanged ministers of the Gospel.
Many of the churches that began as Congregationalists in the South eventually assumed the Presbyterian name. Some that did not might as well. Midway Congregational Church in Georgia, for example, produced over thirty Presbyterian ministers as well as Robert Q. Mallard, pastor of Prytania Street Presbyterian where
G. W. Cable was a member.
Congregationalists such as the Boardmans and the Bartletts, originally form New England, naturally affiliated with the Presbyterian churches when they came South.
Many Northern Congregationalists fell in quickly with Southern ways. At the First Congregational Church of Jennings, Louisiana, incorporates 1886, one of the early ministers, E. A. Bridger, "made some disparaging remarks" about the ladies of the congregation. The gentlemen of the church were enraged at this insult to Southern womanhood. After the sermon the next Sunday, the ladies were asked to retire to the outside. The gentlemen then produced a whip and flogged the minister in front of the pulpit from which he made the remarks on the ladies. Then he was asked to leave the area, and that he quickly did.
This Congregational Church later became the First Presbyterian of Jennings.
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