Family Background and Birth
The artistic and scholarly endeavors of Arna Wendell Bontemps, his role in the Harlem Renaissance, his contributions as a teacher-administrator, and his impact on the community of African-American writers have received almost no attention from scholars, with the exception of two or three doctoral dissertations and a few memoirs. Sharing their birth years, Bontemps and Langston Hughes were soul mates, and Hughes wrote in 1949 the most accurate available nutshell assessment of Bontemps’s literary sensibility, describing him as
one of America’s simplest yet most eloquent writers dealing in historical materials, as his historical novels and his “The Story of the Negro” prove. His prose is…readable, …yet rich in poetic overtones and the magic of word music…. I have known Arna Bontemps for more than twenty years and have collaborated with him on children’s books, plays, and the editorship of a recent anthology, The Poetry of the Negro. I know him to be a very thorough and conscientious worker, methodical, giving a certain number of hours every day to his writing, and a fine literary craftsman. His factual prose is not dry, but full of warmth and poetry. And he has both tolerance and humor.
Arna Bontemps was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, in what is sometimes referred to on both sides of his family as “Cajun Country.” He was of Creole stock. Some of his European ancestors were descendants and cultural relatives of certain original French settlers of the southern United States, especially Louisiana. Others of his ancestors eventually sailed to the United States from the West Indies, landing at New Orleans and working their way inland to Avoyelles and Rapides parishes. Some of this group remained in New Orleans. The name Bontemps, of course, is French, meaning “good times.” And these forebears of Arna Bontemps spoke the brand of French patois spoken by most Louisiana Creoles of the region and of their time. Jack Conroy, the American author who was Bontemps’s close contemporary, at age eighty-eight reported to the present writer that Arna sometimes “said something about his roots.”
2 Conroy knew Bontemps well, for they collaborated for a number of years, and agrees that not all of Bontemps’s relatives in Louisiana were black and that those who were had been at one time owned by a comedian on the French stage who called himself Bontemps, or “Mr. Good Times.”
3 Whether that was his real name we do not know. It is a fact, though, that Bontemps is a common name in France and other French-speaking communities.
The French family that at first owned the Bontemps slaves had evidently emigrated to Haiti from France. Once there, they acquired slaves and began to intermarry with them. Exactly what caused the mulatto Bontempses, the offspring of this mixture, to move to Louisiana will probably remain a mystery. Whether they separated themselves in some way from the owning family and fled to Louisiana without their blessings, or whether they were brought to the United States by the owning family is not entirely clear. But we do know that for several decades prior to the Civil War they resided in Louisiana and were classified as “free blacks” or “free persons of color.” Conroy conjectured that these former slaves came to Louisiana on their own.
There is, however, some evidence to suggest that they were brought to the States by their owners and that they shed their slave status shortly before arriving in Louisiana or shortly thereafter, for Louisiana court, land, and church records from as early as 1821 designate particular members of the Bontemps and Pembrooke families “free persons of color,” using the French labels “un homme de color libre” or “une femme de color libre.” Others are described on early census records with a “W” for white, while some bear the labels “Mu” for mulatto or “B” for black. A significant number of these persons of mixed blood were griffes, mixtures of one mulatto and one black parent. Many times no race is indicated on passenger manifests and census records, which implies that the person was probably white or thought to be. After these Bontemps men, both the former French slaves and their white relatives, arrived in North America, their blood became even more mixed than before, as these men began to intermarry with Native American women.
Prior to and during the Civil War, Louisiana was the province that had the greatest number of free persons of color. For many reasons, most of which lie outside the purview of this book, the greatest numbers of the free persons of color in Louisiana at this time, with the exception of those in Orleans Parish, an urban area, were to be found in such rural regions as Avoyelles and Rapides parishes, where Arna Bontemps’s direct progenitors settled. It is significant that throughout the antebellum period those free people of color who lived in the Louisiana Territory remained a basically rural people, with the greatest numbers of them living in eight inland and Mississippi River parishes where the largest slave populations could also be found.
In 1860 Alexandria, Arna Bontemps’s birthplace, had a total population of 1,461. Of this number 131 were “free Negroes,” 350 were slaves, and the remaining 980 were white.
7 This free black population was mainly composed of mulattoes. According to the Eighth Census of the United States, conducted in 1860, 15,158 of the 18,647 free persons of color were mulattoes.
8 Most of the Louisiana Bontempses and Pembrookes fit into this category. A smaller group were quadroons, octoroons, and griffes. During most of the nineteenth century, the Bontemps and Pembrooke men in Louisiana owned their own farms, for census records refer to them most often as “‘planters” instead of “sharecropper” or “itinerant” farmers. A comparison of census and land records in several courthouses in Avoyelles and Rapides parishes shows that the smallest number of acres listed beside one of these farmers’ names is sixty. These freedmen were not only planter-aristocrats, but some of them cast their lots in the professions; others were skilled artisans. The Bontemps men, for example, have been brick and stone masons for as long as they have been in this country.
In short, as far as was possible, given legal and social restrictions placed upon free blacks in Louisiana, they were found in every walk of life. Like others of their class, they originated during the French and Spanish colonial periods. This proud group was much better off than were their slave cousins, but they were denied full rights of citizenship because of the stigma of the “Negro” label. They could own property, testify in court, make wills and, in rare cases, vote when their voting could aid some cunning politician.
9 The Bontempses and Pembrookes became devout members of the Catholic Church, an allegiance they maintained until around the turn of the century, when some members of these families were attracted to particular Protestant denominations. Some became Methodists; others became Seventh-day Adventists.
Many of these freedmen were enterprising and had much of the instinct of the entrepreneur. In May 1862 one Hyppolite Bontemps, “f.m.c.” or free man of color, attended a land auction conducted by a public auctioneer and purchased for five dollars a parcel of land that was adjacent to his own farm.
10 About a month earlier, Hyppolite purchased a designated tract of land “for the sum of $51.00, he being the last bidder.”
Hyppolite Bontemps became the Father of Paul Bismark Bontemps and paternal grandfather of Arna Wendell Bontemps. These land purchases were made approximately one year after Hyppolite’s marriage in Avoyelles Parish to Euphemie Laurent. Their marriage certificate, written entirely in French, shows in the left-hand margin that he was a free man of color and that she was a free woman of color.
12 Neither the bride nor the groom could read or write, but both made their marks above their names, or “marque,” as the French text reads. The marriage took place in late March or early April 1861.
From all indications, Euphemie Laurent, the first wife of Hyppolite Bontemps, died early, for she was not the mother of all of Hyppolite’s children. Her name drops out of all records a short time after their marriage. From the list of offspring that census records of 1880 and 1900 assign to Hyppolite, it is unlikely that she died much prior to the 1880 census, for the 1890 census, destroyed by fire, is not available.
Hyppolite Bontemps was born in Avoyelles Parish in 1835 to Noel and Rosalie Bontemps.
14 Hyppolite had an older sister, Eugenie, born to his parents on November 16, 1823, although she was not baptized until 1824. He also had several brothers. While still in his twenties, Hyppolite married his first wife, Euphemie Laurent (sometimes spelled Euphenise in parish records) and, true to Catholic tradition they started their family immediately. On November 11, 1861, approximately nine months after their marriage, their first child, Louis Fenelon, named after two of Hyppolite’s father’s brothers, was born and baptized a little less than a month later. Their second child, a son Arthur, was born two years later on November 14, 1863. Paul Bismark Bontemps, father of the writer Arna Bontemps, was the last child born to Hyppolite.
Noel Bontemps, Hyppolite’s father, was still alive in 1880, but his wife Rosalie was deceased. He is listed at age seventy-six by the 1880 census and as married again to a forty-eight-year-old woman named Marguerite whom he married in the year of the census. Also enumerated in his household is a young grandson, Nathan Bontemps, age sixteen. Nathan is either one of Paul Bontemps’s older brothers or a cousin. It is not likely that Hyppolite and Euphemie Laurent Bontemps were ever divorced, considering that they were married by the Church, and considering the strictness at this time of the Church’s teaching against divorce, as well as the stigma attached.
The Louisiana census of 1880 shows Hyppolite still residing in Avoyelles Parish but married to a different woman.
15 His age is listed as forty-two, which does not accord with his birth year (1835) as recorded elsewhere. If this is his correct age, then he was probably born around 1838 or 1839, though parish records give his birth year as 1835.
16 The 1838 date would have made him close to twenty-two when he married the first time (1861) and accords with the age of forty-two listed by the 1880 census taker, who lists his wife’s name as Edvise and gives her age as forty-three. Hyppolite’s occupation is listed as farmer; his wife is described as “keeping house.”
It is interesting to note that not all of his offspring were living in the house with him, a practice that census records for the state throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth reveal as common. He kept at home the older children who could give him a good day as farm laborers. Listed in his household in 1880 were a nineteen-year-old daughter, Juliet, and a seventeen-year-old son, Jolite. Both are described as field hands. This census shows that Hyppolite and at least a portion of his family were living in an area of Avoyelles Parish called “Bayou Rouge Pharrie.” The census record lists his color as mulatto and his wife Advise’s color as black. This is the background into which Arna Bontemps’s father was born.
Paul Bismark Bontemps, who was to become the father of the writer Arna Wendell and his sister Ruby Sarah, was in 1880 living with an uncle in Avoyelles Parish and is described “mulatto male,” aged nine.
17 The uncle’s name is Laurent DuClaire. And in the same year his brother Victor Bontemps, described by the census as ten years of age, was living with a different household, relationship not reported. This could be the result of the European tradition of apprenticeship that these Creoles followed. At age seven, the sons would have been apprenticed out to a reliable relative or family friend to learn a trade. In the case of Arna’s father Paul, it was brick and stone masonry, a craft the Bontemps males had followed for generations. The ancestry of Arna Bontemps is especially interesting to trace, for as census records reveal, many of the Bontempses and Pembrookes, male and female, had the same first names. Among the males on both sides of the family the following names appear in successive generations: Nathan, Arthur, Eugene, Victor, and Joseph, and of course, Paul. Among the females of both families one finds in a similar pattern the names Euphemie, Caroline, Eugenia, Sarah, and Elizabeth, most occurring in several variant spellings. Among all branches of the Bontemps family, African-American, Caucasian, and Native American, the name Paul for male children is a decided favorite; with Nathan, Alexander, and Victor tied for second place. Paul and Alexander were kept by Arna Wendell Bontemps when he named his two sons.
Lists transcribed from original passenger manifests in the archives of the U.S. Customs Service in New Orleans show a Frenchman named Alexandre Bontemps arriving at New Orleans in 1837 aboard the ship Fortunata, which he boarded at Le Havre, the seaport closest to Paris. The most significant fact about the passenger manifests is that they show several sea captains with the last name Bontemps who were operating schooners and sailing vessels between New Orleans and ports in Europe and South America.
18 These manifests show T.Bontemps, J.Bontemps, and S.Bontemps, all operating a schooner named Sarah Ann between the years 1834 and 1839, making runs between Tampico and New Orleans. These are the three Bontemps brothers who came to New Orleans from France by way of Haiti, and it is not unlikely that they were related to the Alexandre Bontemps mentioned previously.
One of the three sea captains eventually settled in Mississippi, while the other two remained in Louisiana. Since these men were experienced sailors who owned at least one vessel, it was probably on board one of their vessels that the African-American branch of the Bontemps family came to Louisiana. Arna Bontemps’s widow, Alberta Bontemps, knows the story of these three brothers, for in a recent interview she commented, “there were three brothers, all from France. One settled in Mississippi; the other two settled at New Orleans. This was in the first part [half] of the nineteenth century.”
The variant spellings of the Bontemps surname as it appears on various written records can prove a matter of much confusion to the researcher. In Louisiana census reports for 1860, 1880, and 1900, and on passenger manifests from several decades earlier than 1860, it appears as Bontemps, Bontin, Bantin, Bontempo, Bonton, Bunton, Buntin, Bentin, Banton, Benton, Bonte, and Bontins. These variant spellings were used by many of the large number of cousins in the state. But on close examination, one finds that the immediate relatives of Arna Bontemps, as far back as 1821, and probably before this time, spelled their last name Bontemps.
20 Variant spellings of the Pembrooke name also abound but are not as numerous as variants of Bontemps. Census records between 1860 and 1900 show these variants: Pemmbrook, Penbrook, Pembroke, Pembrose, Pembrook, Pembrick, and Pembrooke. Ruby Bontemps Troy, the writer’s sister, has provided in a letter written from Huntsville, Alabama’s Oakwood College— where she was director of admissions for many years and where she still works part-time—the spelling Pembrooke, the one her family has preferred for several generations.
The Bontempses and the Pembrookes, those who did not remain in New Orleans, tended to congregate in central Louisiana, within a thirty- or forty-mile radius of Alexandria. I was surprised to find that not a single Bontemps or Pembrooke is listed in Father Hebert’s famous thirty-three-volume record of settlers of southwest Louisiana.
22 A search of each volume of this scholarly work, which covers the years 1756–1904, reveals that there were in the south-western region of Louisiana Bonins, Bonnets, Bonsalls, and Bonvillains, but not a single Bontemps. And among the persons with last names beginning with “P” are Pennisons, Penns, Peppers, and Pempletons, but no Pembrookes, not even in a variant spelling. A number of prevailing conditions kept these freedmen in the Alexandria-Pineville-Marksville area of central Louisiana. Prime reasons were the abundance of available farm lands and a climate conducive to producing a variety of staple crops—rice, beans, corn, sweet potatoes, and sugar cane. Furthermore, they sought an area where they could be themselves, keeping their dignity as human beings.
Sterkx has described this group of “free Negroes” as a whole and gives an account of particular conditions with which they were forced to cope during the antebellum and postbellum periods. He reports that there was never a time when they were not intimidated by ever-increasing anti-free Negro forces, especially during and after the 1850s, when the race question became a more contentious issue than it had ever been.
23 There was always a small but vocal minority among the white population whose sole desire, it seems, was to rid the state of this class of “free blacks,” whom they regarded as troublemakers: bad examples for the slaves and too proud not to take offense at ill treatment.
To better comprehend the extent to which specific freedoms were denied both “free blacks” and slaves in Louisiana, one needs to consult the state’s “Black Code,” a set of laws adopted as early as 1724 by the state’s Superior Council.
24 Even the Roman Catholic Church made a difference in its treatment of these parishioners and their white counterparts, for early church records show that this group was commonly referred to as “gens de couleur libre,” with individual members of the class referred to as “negre libre” or “negresse libre.” It was a liability to be “colored,” and an even worse stigma to “act colored.” This explains, perhaps, why Arna Bontemps’s father Paul was so intent on erasing reminders of discrimination in his home state, and why he objected so strenuously to his son Arna’s “acting colored,” a point to be treated more fully in a subsequent chapter of this biography.
The Bontempses were a particularly proud group, supersensitive about their privacy. They had found that many times they were even more defenseless in this environment than their relatives who were still slaves. Census records show that they were not only proud but high-strung, capable even of belligerence, for they rarely cooperated with census takers, often refusing to answer offensive questions or deliberately giving ludicrous or wrong answers as a means of venting their hostilities toward a dominant power structure.
The mulattoes among the group were more numerous than both the blacks and the whites, and they probably resented inquiries about race and color; such questions as census takers were required to ask. They sometimes refused to supply their ages, and more often than not, the category on the census form titled “relationship to above” bears such responses as “not reported,” “not available,” or “no relationship given.” Moreover, the space under “occupation” is for the adult Bontempses often left blank. A good example would be Hyppolite Bontemps of Rapides Parish, listed in the 1880 census. He is obviously a relative of the younger Hyppolite Bontemps who is enumerated the same year in Avoyelles Parish and whose age is given as forty-two.
25 This elder Bontemps’s age is given as fifty-seven, indicating that he would have been an uncle or cousin to the younger Hyppolite, the father of Paul Bismark Bontemps, and grandfather of Arna.
On the other hand, it seems that the Pembrookes were not as abrasive as the Bontempses, though they were clearly just as intelligent. There is no evidence in the census records of any of the Pembrookes failing to cooperate with census takers. It would seem, too, that the Pembrookes possessed less of a particular kind of physical stamina than did the Bontempses. Arna Bontemps’s own mother, Maria Carolina Pembrooke, died young from a lingering illness, and her oldest sister died in childbirth. And Joseph Pembrooke, her father, did not survive the rigors of relocating. He was in California only a short time before he became sick and died.
It seems, conversely, that the Wards, the relatives of Arna Bontemps’s maternal grandmother, were exceptionally strong and that they lived long, active lives. This is certainly true if Sarah Ward Pembrooke, Arna Bontemps’s maternal grandmother, is typical of the others, for not only was she a woman of exceptional intelligence and economic acumen, but her longevity is also remarkable. In 1972, approximately one year before he died, Arna Bontemps remarked that this grandmother had died only a few years previously, and that she had been still alive while one of his own daughters was in graduate school in California.
Nathan Pembrooke, maternal great-grandfather of Arna Bontemps, was in 1900 living in Ward I of what later became the township of Alexandria.
29 At the time of the census, Nathan Pembrooke was seventy-eight years old. His wife Elizabeth was seventy-two. By this time, all of their children were grown. Nathan and Elizabeth had several daughters who, because of their married names, are difficult to trace through written records. They did, however, have at least one son, Joseph Pembrooke, from whom Arna Bontemps is descended on his mother’s side. Arna himself corroborated this fact only a short time before he died, for he said in a lecture that his grandfather was Joseph Pembrooke and that he was the son of Nathan Pembrooke. Arna admitted to having great difficulty keeping up with the descendants of Nathan Pembrooke.
Joseph Pembrooke, husband to Sarah Ward Pembrooke and grandfather to Arna Wendell Bontemps and Ruby Sarah, his sister, was born on December 27, 1847. In 1900 he was fifty-two years old, meaning that he was approximately fifty-eight when the family moved to California six years later.
31 His Alexandria address is listed on the census as simply “Ward I, Tenth Street,” which would place his and his wife’s residence at this time near the house built around the turn of the century at Ninth and Winn Streets where Arna Bontemps was born: a two-family dwelling where Joseph and Sarah Pembrooke had moved by 1902, and where their daughter Maria Carolina and son-in-law Paul Bontemps lived. The census records show Joseph Pembrooke’s occupation as “farmer,” but it is known that he supplemented his income by working as an undertaker’s assistant to his brother-in-law Joe Ekomip, his sister Charlotte’s husband, who owned a funeral establishment.
Enumerated in the household with Joseph Pembrooke and his wife Sarah, who was forty-five in 1900, were their seven children.
33 Their eldest was a daughter, Mary Ellen (often referred to by her middle name), born May 9, 1872, who was twenty-eight years old and living at home. A second daughter, Charlotte (referred to most often as Clotilde, her middle name), was born May 4, 1875 and was twenty-five years old and living at home. Their third child, who was to become the mother of Arna Bontemps, was Maria Carolina, listed simply as Maria C. on census records. This daughter, who became in 1901 the wife of Paul Bismark Bontemps, was born on March 4, 1879, and was twenty-one at the time of the 1900 census.
Then came the fourth Pembrooke child, another daughter named Lourania. This is the “Aunt Ludie” to whom Arna and his sister Ruby have affectionately referred from time to time. She was born on July 28, 1881 and was nineteen years old in 1900. The fifth child and youngest daughter was named Anna J., the writer’s “Aunt Anna,” who was three years younger than her sister “Ludie,” for she was born on July 6, 1884 and was sixteen at the time of the 1900 census. Next on the list came the first son, Nathan Ward, who is Arna’s “Uncle Ward,” whom he mentioned so frequently.
34 Born September 7, 1887, this uncle’s age was given as twelve on the 1900 census. His younger brother, the “baby” of the family, was John Douglas, also known by his middle name. Appearing last on the list, he was born on April 7, 1891 and was nine when the 1900 census was taken.
Many of the facts listed above are corroborated by the unpublished “Autobiography of Anna J.Stokes,” Arna Bontemps’s mother’s sister, and by the obituary of Sarah Ward Pembrooke, written by Ruby Bontemps Troy, the first two sentences of which read: “Grandma was born in White Sulphur Springs, Louisiana. She was the daughter of Charlotte and Joseph Ward.”
35 This accounts for her naming the second daughter Charlotte, for it was her own mother’s name, and it corroborates the “Charlotte” listed on the 1900 census.
36 Arna Bontemps, too, said of this grandmother, about six months before he died, that her marriage certificate proved that she was born approximately eleven years before the end of the Civil War; that she had some familiarity with a school near Pineville, of which General William Tecumseh Sherman, President of Louisiana State University from 1859–1861, was once principal; and that the school was also near White Sulphur Springs, a town which no longer appears on the map of Louisiana.
Sarah Ward, who became Arna Bontemps’s maternal grandmother, had been one of a large number of children born to her parents. There were three sons and two daughters who survived to adulthood, though some confusion surrounds their names and sexes. One written source lists their names in this order: Philo, Sarah, Jane, Charles, and Joseph, R.
38 During the Civil War Sarah Ward’s father died, while still a young man and while his family was still residing at White Sulphur Springs, a summer resort.
As soon as the war ended, the young mother, Charlotte Ward, moved with her small children into the area that is now known as the City of Alexandria.
40 Sarah, her second child and oldest daughter, grew up there with her brothers and sister Jane. In 1871, when Sarah was approximately seventeen, she married Joseph Pembrooke, who was more than five years her senior. This young Pembrooke was already “an undertaker’s assistant and gentleman farmer.”
41 In May 1872 their first child was born, and they settled down to rearing a family in an environment attended by difficulties. Sarah Pembrooke and her husband Joe were never able to escape the untoward social climate of Alexandria while their five daughters were growing up, but if conditions were perilous for the young black female growing up in the Deep South, they knew that they were even more threatening to the life and well-being of the young black male. Consequently, the Pembrookes never abandoned their dream of moving North or West where they and their children could enjoy freedom. By 1891, when Douglas, the last child and second son was born, the racial climate in Alexandria had become more threatening than it had ever been.
Sarah Pembrooke was even more ambitious, more industrious, than her husband Joseph. She was a shrewd manager of whatever monies her husband brought home, the kind of bright, hard-working young mother who saw to it that she passed on to her five daughters her domestic skills and that they got all the formal schooling and artistic training available to them. And she must have been pleased that her talented children learned rapidly. At least one of these daughters became a teacher in the public schools of Alexandria. This was Arna Bontemps’s mother, Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-a) Carolina. And her youngest sister Anna became a “real modiste,” as her niece has described her.
43 Those among the Pembrooke girls who wanted it, received training in art and music. While their daughters were growing up and while their two sons were young boys, Joe and Sarah Pembrooke watched as their closest friends and relatives left Alexandria, Pineville, Bunkie, Marksville, and Mansura for a better life in California, Illinois, or New York.
By the turn of the century, their desire to flee to freedom had reached almost fever pitch. They had seen so many inequities in the state of their birth that they had by this time despaired of ever attaining the full rights of citizenship in Louisiana, or in any other Southern state. Even Mother Church, at least as the Pembrookes perceived conditions, had failed them, for in this area, where to be a Catholic meant acceptability and prestige, they had learned that where the Church’s treatment of its parishioners was concerned there was a noticeable discrepancy between black and white. It is unlikely that in these days the Church had any priests and nuns who were African American, and this fact the Pembrookes may have interpreted as a sign of God’s absence in the Catholic community.
These slights were felt even more acutely by some members of the Bontemps clan. The Church had not been strong enough in its objection to injustice to prevent the more sensitive among its parishioners from feeling rejected and alienated. The foreparents of these Bontempses and Pembrookes, like so many of their “free black” counterparts during the antebellum period, had settled in Louisiana because there the laws prohibiting socioeconomic mobility were not as stringent as those of some other Southern states, and “the ones they did have,” writes one historian, “were not uniformly enforced.”
44 But more than three decades after the Civil War had ended, their dreams of freedom for their grandchildren had not been achieved.
On a whole, the Bontempses and Pembrookes were industrious, law-abiding citizens. But these qualities were not enough in Louisiana to earn for them the respect they felt they deserved. Jim Crow sentiment among whites in the area was increasing with every new day. By 1890, post-Reconstruction disorders had reached their peak in the state. Inferior schools and the terrorist tactics of the Ku Klux Klan—or “White Caps,” as they were called—with those of other white supremacist groups had caused Sarah Ward Pembrooke to start making plans prior to 1900 for the entire family to make their exodus to a better land. Her health, too, had not been good in Louisiana, though she worked hard and did not complain. Her husband Joe felt that perhaps another climate would do her good. As for herself, she was determined to see that she and her family enjoyed freedom, if only for a little while. There was livestock and other property to be liquidated. Sarah Pembrooke knew that she would need to save every penny she could, for with sufficient cash on hand she would be able to purchase enough land in another state to assure the family’s continuity in the rural lifestyle to which they had grown accustomed. Her dream was to have enough land in their new home to support a truck farm that would sustain livestock and fruit trees to provide food for the family the year round.
Not all of the times in Louisiana, though, had been foul; both the Pembrookes and the Bontempses enjoyed strong family ties and were not without some of the comforts that enhanced the quality of life. Joe and Sarah Pembrooke’s youngest daughter wrote as late as 1953 with great joy about their memories of childhood, describing members of her immediate family with tenderness.
45 She described her childhood home as large, with several “extra rooms” and an eight-foot-wide hall and windowsills deep enough for a person to sit on. The house was on one corner of an enclosed acre and had a small lake behind it where the family often went fishing or crawfishing.
Speaking of each of her four sisters and her relationship with them, and of her two younger brothers, Anna revealed that they each had a nickname. She suggested that these nicknames were needed because they had, especially the girls, what she considered “long French names.” Her own nickname “Ann” was the sanest of the lot because it derived from her given name. Mary Ellen’s nickname was “Nell”; Charlotte Clotilde was called “Laet”; Maria Carolina’s nickname was “Ram”; and Lourania had two nicknames, “Ludie” and “Dub.” The two boys were nicknamed “Draw” and “Delos,” respectively. To keep things from getting dull, they also had a baby to play with, at least for a while. “Laet,” the second sister, was separated from her husband and living at home again. Her daughter, “Tam,” was raised as Anna’s little sister.
A source of particular delight to the Pembrooke children was their maternal grandmother, the former Charlotte Ward, who moved to Alexandria while they were growing up. Anna Stokes wrote that grandmother Charlotte “came from the mixed breeds of South America.”
48 She spoke French instead of Spanish, which was the language of nearly everyone in South America, and her father came from the “blue bloods” of England. He had been disinherited by the family and sent away from England because he married a circus rider. Charlotte Ward, the maternal great-grandmother of Arna Bontemps, became this Englishman’s second wife.
49 Thus Arna Bontemps had European relatives on both his father’s and his mother’s sides of the family, the French and the English respectively.
After Charlotte Ward’s parents came to the United States, they settled in a Southern resort town where they made huge sums of money. This is the town of White Sulphur Springs. They stored the money in huge wooden kegs and buried it during the Civil War.
50 Sarah Ward Pembrooke remembered her mother’s father and was with him, she recalled, when he buried the money, but she was too young when he died to give clear directions about its location. Anna Stokes wrote of how “they plowed the place up without success of finding it,” and how her grandmother (Charlotte Ward) became so frightened that she took her children and fled.
The mother of Joseph Pembrooke (father of Arna Bontemps’s mother Maria and husband of Sarah Ward) was a full-blooded Cherokee, and his father, a Southern planter, was English. When Joseph Pembrooke pioneered to California in 1906, his father was still alive.
52 Whether this English father was ever married to his mother or whether she was still alive by the time her son left Louisiana is not clear from available records. But the foregoing genealogical information is enough to eliminate most of the confusion surrounding the name Joseph or “Joe” that appears so often on both sides of Arna Bontemps’s family.
There is the father of Sarah Ward Pembrooke, Joseph Ward, Sr., and his son by his wife Charlotte, Joseph Ward, Jr. Then there is the writer’s mother’s father, Joseph Pembrooke. Still another is Joe Ekomip, husband to Sarah Ward Pembrooke’s sister Harriet. And on the Bontemps side of the family there were several Josephs in each generation from 1860 until 1900. These Josephs all resided either in Avoyelles Parish or in the adjacent Rapides Parish.
While Joe Pembrooke continued to farm in Rapides Parish and to work part-time for his brother-in-law at the funeral home, his wife Sarah supplemented his income by taking in sewing. As a result, there was enough money available to provide painting and piano lessons for the girls. With five daughters, Sarah had more than enough help with the household chores and was able to spend the larger part of each day in her dressmaker’s shop, which was attached to the house in Alexandria, and which her oldest daughter “Nell” helped her operate.
Their volume of business was such that they hired several other women to work in the shop. Sarah was an accomplished seamstress and tried to teach all of her daughters to sew. They all learned the art well; all except “Dub,” or “Ludie.” This next-to-the-youngest daughter was her mother’s pet, as Anna Stokes described her, and was “lazy and pretty” during her childhood and did not take readily to sewing.
53 Joseph Pembrooke was more than a little proud of his wife’s sewing skills, for without her help he could not have provided all the finery his five daughters required.
At least one of the daughters, Anna, the youngest, was born in her mother’s dressmaking shop.
54 Anna took naturally to sewing and began by making clothes for all of her nine dolls. Since she was not tall enough to sit at a machine to tread the pedal, she stood to sew, running to a machine every time she found one vacant in the shop. By age ten, she was selling her collection of doll clothes to her mother’s customers for their children.
55 In the late 1890s, when Anna was around twelve, the family discovered that “Nell,” her oldest sister, had been secretly married to a man she had been seeing for years.
Her father, Joe Pembrooke, had repeatedly refused to give his consent to their marriage. “Nell” discovered that she was pregnant but kept her condition a secret, failing to seek the care of a physician. She died in childbirth. The shock nearly killed Joe and Sarah Pembrooke, for they could not absolve themselves of guilt. Sarah was inconsolable and could not concentrate on sewing. The shop was full of unfinished work that she and the deceased daughter had started, and this is how Anna’s career as a modiste began, for she stepped in and finished all the work to the delight of the satisfied customers. Her success as a seamstress pleased her parents immensely, for by age fourteen she was earning more per week than most men with families earned.
If Sarah Pembrooke was dissatisfied with life in Alexandria before the death of her oldest child, she was even less contented afterward. Then, to add to her loneliness, by the end of 1901 her second and third daughters, one of whom became the mother of Arna Wendell Bontemps, had both married and left home. So most of the work in the shop fell on Anna’s shoulders, and she turned over most of the money she made to her mother. Sarah Pembrooke began to scrimp and save as never before, for she had “heard of a city called heaven” and had decided to make this California “heaven” her home. Heaven for her and her family had never existed in Louisiana.
In November 1901, five years before the move to California, Paul Bismark Bontemps married the woman of his dreams, Maria Carolina Pembrooke, third daughter of Joseph and Sarah Ward Pembrooke.
57 He was an experienced young man of thirty and strikingly handsome with his dark skin, coal-black silken hair and sturdy build. She was a fair-skinned, slender, twenty-two-year-old with an exceptionally pretty face.
58 The marriage license was purchased on November 6, 1901 and was recorded and filed in the Rapides Parish courthouse on the same day of the wedding.
59 The license was signed by the bride, the groom, and the officiating priest, Father L.Minard, Rector of Saint Francis Xavier Church, the same priest who pastored the parish for many years and whose signature appears on the baptismal records of both Arna Bontemps and his sister Ruby.
The signatures of three witnesses appear on this marriage certificate: W.A. Flowers, James Davis, and L.D.Laurent, probably a descendant of one of the Laurents who had witnessed Paul Bontemps’s father’s marriage to Euphemie Laurent in 1861, some forty years before. The hand is very tremulous, suggesting the writing of an elderly person; hence this Laurent is probably the same Louis Laurent who witnessed Hyppolite’s 1861 marriage.
Some of the same signatures representing witnesses at the wedding of Paul and Maria Bontemps also appear, along with others, on the baptismal records of their two children. Interesting to the student of Louisiana culture of that period is the fact that Paul Bontemps was required by law to purchase a bond before he could be issued a license to marry. This nuptial bond was required of all prospective grooms. Paul Bontemps purchased his bond on the day of his wedding and his best man acted as required security for the bond. A portion of the bond reads “know all men by these presents, that P.B.Bontemps, principal, and W.A.Flowers as security, are held and firmly bound to the Governor of the State of Louisiana for the sum of two hundred dollars, for the payment of which we bind ourselves…by these presents.”
By the time of his marriage, Paul Bontemps had perfected his skills as a brick and stone mason, and his wife had been teaching school in Rapides Parish for at least three years. Maria Bontemps had always been the most literary of the five Pembrooke sisters, all of whom were above average in intelligence. Though born and reared in Alexandria, she spoke with not a trace of a drawl or of the patois that her husband Paul never lost. Her son, in more than one place, corroborated these facts, and mentioned his mother’s “literary interest” and that she practiced drawing and had tried to teach her children to draw a bit.
62 And on at least one occasion, Arna Bontemps described his mother as “a real scholar.”
Paul Bontemps traveled a great deal, both as a bricklayer, who had to go where the big construction jobs were, and as a member of Claiborne Williams’s jazz band. In 1971, while in Alexandria searching for the name of the band Paul Bontemps played with, Arna said that his father played in Williams’s band and that the band, even in his later years, meant a great deal to his father, even though his occupation was brick masonry. Williams was one of the great band influences in New Orleans, but he also trained and directed bands in the smaller Louisiana towns.
Bontemps describes a young musician in Young Booker, who would go to small towns and teach people as did Claiborne Williams, for whom Arna’s father played the valve trombone. Arna also explained why his father had a particular kind of mouthpiece—it was one that would fit both the valve trombone and the baritone horn. Paul Bontemps played them both and never discarded the mouth-piece that Arna blew on when he was a child, “just to see if I could blow it.”
During the 1890s the Bontemps family was driven out of Avoyelles Parish by the “White Caps,” and some of the immediate descendants of Hyppolite Bontemps moved to nearby Rapides Parish, the area that is now the city of Alexandria. There were three sons, Victor, Charlie, and Paul, Arna’s father, who was the youngest. Paul settled in Alexandria; Victor and Charlie chose New Orleans.
65 These three Bontemps brothers, who also had one sister, were all sons of Hyppolite Bontemps by a woman whose first name was Pauline.
Pauline’s name does not appear in any of the census records of Avoyelles and Rapides parishes, but it does appear in church records. Arna Bontemps had Pauline identified by his father as the poet’s paternal grandmother less than a year before he died, during the period when he was gathering information to use in his autobiography. He confided to a former student who had become his Fisk colleague:
My father’s father’s name was Hyppolite; he had brothers named Louie and Finilong, and one named Victor…. Marksville is where my father was born and Marksville is only about thirty miles from Alexandria, but it’s like another world, like a European thing. It was a French-speaking world and my father’s father was Hyppolite and his mother was Pauline…. I have to use my father’s memory for part of it. My father told me that Pauline had lived with an old Frenchman and that they were all free. Well, I was able to verify that because I corresponded with a priest…. I tried to find the answer at Marksville [at the courthouse there] and they referred me to Mansura where records were kept prior to the Civil War and…the priest there got interested in the questions I gave him and went in and took time to research them and discovered that the only Bontemps prior to the Civil War was Noel, that they had a record of Noel Bontemps. He was a proprietor, as the French word is…a land owner. And both Hyppolite and Pauline were listed as free in the book of the free men of color. Now this Hyppolite was born in 1825, so that was quite a long time before Emancipation, so my assumption is that it was just prior to that [to emancipation] that this Noel emancipated Pauline. [Free people could and did own slaves.] And I perused a little further back and found that Noel did have a white wife previously who had died, and a daughter by this previous marriage.
It is obvious, then, that Arna Bontemps’s paternal grandmother, Pauline, was a mere girl when the Civil War ended and that she was considerably younger than both Hyppolite Bontemps and his first wife Euphemie Laurent. I have documented already that Euphemie, more than likely, died early. It could be, then, that the Edvise mentioned already, the forty-three-year-old woman living in the house with Hyppolite in 1880 was his third wife, for the census record does not show that they were married during the census year.
One confusing point, though, about this record is that it lists the marriage as the first for both parties, a statement that certainly is not true and which could be another instance of the Bontemps men giving deliberately erroneous information to census takers. The foregoing facts, then, would make Pauline the second wife of Hyppolite Bontemps, possibly his common-law wife, for common-law marriages have been recognized by the State of Louisiana since before Emancipation. At any rate, no written record that documents a formal marriage for the pair has been thus far located.
Arna Bontemps, in the aforementioned interview, also described the conditions in Avoyelles Parish that caused his father’s immediate family to settle in Alexandria. “You know in Louisiana,” Arna said, “there was great interest in Reconstruction. And we had a lieutenant governor, Pinchback, whom my grandmother [Sarah Ward Pembrooke] knew. But there was a reaction in the nineties, and my grandmother told me how they had the White Caps…who had been active in Avoyelles Parish and had driven out the Negroes.”
Arna’s father Paul Bismark Bontemps had been fortunate indeed where this wave of hostility was concerned, for he was not in Avoyelles Parish with the rest of the family when the worst of the oppression occurred and when his siblings fled to Rapides Parish (Alexandria). In 1890 Paul Bontemps turned nineteen, and by this time he had already left Marksville-Mansura to attend Straight University in New Orleans. Straight was a preparatory school that offered a curriculum from grades three through twelve. It was one of the American Missionary Association schools formed just after the Emancipation Proclamation.
By the time young Paul Bontemps finished his preparatory education, Straight had put some industrial training courses into the curriculum, just the kind of saleable training that would appeal to the pragmatic mind of this young entrepreneur. Like most black schools of the day, Straight had added, under the influence of Booker T.Washington, brick masonry to the curriculum. Paul Bontemps excelled in these courses and had already learned the art as a young boy, for in his own family there were several master brick masons. At Straight he was exposed to the latest technological advancements, and in New Orleans he found many opportunities to earn money as a part-time construction worker. This work experience allowed him to perfect his skills while finishing his schooling. Arna Bontemps described how his father’s two older brothers had already settled near New Orleans by the time Paul entered Straight. He also noted that these uncles were probably attracted to the kind of regular instruction offered by Straight University.
69 So Victor and Charlie Bontemps remained in Orleans Parish, where they both married and settled down to rearing their families.
Together with his brothers and the older men of the family, Paul Bontemps had grown accustomed to traveling throughout the state to various construction sites, wherever work was to be found in brick masonry and the other trades. Years later he told his children about having worked throughout the state, wherever the most profitable jobs were, building sugar mills, sugar refineries, railroad depots, or even smaller buildings, when the larger jobs were not available.
It was probably while he was a student in New Orleans that Arna’s father met Claiborne Williams and became part of his band. In New Orleans there were many opportunities to earn extra money as a jazz musician. It is not clear from available information, though, just which circumstances caused Paul Bontemps to meet his children’s mother, Maria Carolina Pembrooke, though we do know that they met at Alexandria.
It could be that he met her when she was still a girl, while he was helping to rebuild the Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church in the parish that became an important part of his life after his permanent move to Alexandria. This was in 1894 or 1895, when he was twenty-three and Maria was only sixteen. Or he could have met her several years later after he left New Orleans and had taken up residence in Alexandria. Or it could have been on one of the many road trips with the band, for the Alexandria Town Talk—a newspaper which had existed since Reconstruction—carried during the 1890s accounts of the performances of the Claiborne Williams Band in Rapides Parish, a fact that Arna Bontemps alluded to in the fall of 1972 when he visited Alexandria for the last time.
The writer concluded an account of his father’s youthful itinerary by saying “he wound up somehow in Alexandria, where he met my mother.”
72 We can place Paul Bismark Bontemps in Alexandria after 1894, not only because of his work on the Saint Francis Xavier Church, but also because in 1895 he witnessed the marriage of his sister, Cecelia Bontemps, to William Swann on January 15, 1895. The marriage was performed by Father L.Minard, the same priest who was to perform the marriage ceremony of Maria Bontemps seven years later.
Both Paul Bontemps and his bride were descendants of a class that existed in Louisiana and elsewhere in the South prior to, during, and after the Civil War, and well into the twentieth century. These Louisiana freedmen were no different from that famous group of middle-class African Americans who lived in the neighboring state of Mississippi, especially around Natchez.
74 This was a group of handsome, well-dressed, individuals who, because of their “free” status and their economic acumen, were able to rise above the thousands of other African Americans in the area who remained destitute and uneducated. These descendants of freedmen seized opportunities to start businesses during the last decades of the nineteenth century—such enterprises as the thriving dressmaking establishment of Sarah Ward Pembrooke and the undertaking business of her brother-in-law Joe Ekomip in Rapides Parish. Their free parents, even before the war, though not taught to read and write, learned many saleable skills as carpenters, brick masons, blacksmiths, managers, dressmakers, and cooks. In postwar days many African Americans became teachers, preachers, politicians, artisans, musicians, merchants, farmers, and small businessmen.
So the wedding of Paul and Maria Bontemps brought together two fine minds. Both were skilled in reading and writing, she as a teacher-artist and he as an artisan-musician. Both were from families who for generations had been considered “good livers” in this area of Central Louisiana. But by the time he married Maria, Paul Bontemps already had decided not to remain in the South. His parents and other older relatives could remember the time when terrorists during Reconstruction had driven some of the most vocal African-American politicians away from Rapides Parish and how one of the friends of the Pembrookes, himself a leading politician, had to seek refuge in Arkansas on being driven out of Alexandria.
This public figure knew, as did the older Bontempses and Pembrookes, that as far as darker-skinned citizens were concerned, Reconstruction in Louisiana had been a dismal failure, even in parishes like Rapides that had in 1870 a population approximately 60 percent African American.
77 Joseph and Sarah Pembrooke could remember well how during the summer of 1874 state police and military men had set up an armed camp to keep the peace in Alexandria. There had been unrest ever since the state elections of 1872, because conservatives had screamed election fraud and had tried to ignore the newly elected officers. This move toward the establishment of militant white unity resulted in the founding in 1874 of Caucasian, a newspaper that espoused racial hatred.
78 And The Alexandria Daily Town Talk was itself far from pro-black, for a perusal of its pages from the 1890s until long after the Bontempses and Pembrookes moved to California in 1906, uncovers an ever-mounting anti-Negro sentiment.
About four months after her marriage to Paul, Maria Bontemps discovered that she was expecting their first child. This was happy news for all of the Bontempses and Pembrookes. Nevertheless, Paul Bontemps was not unaware, even in the midst of his nuptial happiness, that 1902 was a stormy time in Louisiana, for he read every edition of the Town Talk, and so did the Pembrookes of his generation; the Town Talk was a paper that at that time was published each evening except Sunday.
But the spring, summer, and fall of 1902 was not a peaceful time anywhere, not in the world, not in the nation, not in Alexandria. As Maria Bontemps’s delivery drew near, the political climate grew worse instead of better, if newspaper reports of the period are credible. For months prior to October 1902 there had been a nationwide coal strike, with a bitter battle raging between coal miners and their opponents, the coal operators. Violence had broken out in some Eastern and Midwestern cities when coal bosses refused to pay their men union wages.
This was the time when the large railway corporations were enjoying their heyday, and when their activities filled the news. One week before Arna Bontemps was born, the report came out that during the preceding month the cost of living had risen more than 4 percent, wiping out modest gains of the previous August. But foremost in the news were religious conflicts of various kinds and reports of violence throughout the world. More than one fierce theological quarrel had arisen. There were reports of anti-British attitudes among the Boer clergymen, and serious religious conflict threatened all of Great Britain over the Anti-Ritualist Movement. Moreover, civil war had broken out in Colombia.
On Sunday, October 12, the day before Arna Bontemps was born, heading the national news were two stories: the Crown Prince of Siam’s visit to the nation’s capital city and the coal strike. Heating fuel had become scarce, and federal troops were preparing to go to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to stem violence among coal workers there. And in Australia there were also labor problems: workers were not striking; they were being laid off by the thousands. But there were very few African Americans in the national news, and when they did appear it was in connection with either the sensational or the ludicrous.
During the weeks leading toward and including Arna Bontemps’s birth, September and October 1902, the Town Talk covered state and local concerns. In the first part of September, officials of Rapides Parish were trying to get the citizenry to vote to bring a second cotton factory to the area. They argued that such an addition would provide enough jobs for area residents and a general boost to the economy as well. In late September there had been news about the Rapides cotton crop. The U.S. Bureau of Agriculture had taken steps to gather cotton statistics throughout the parish. This marked the second year that statistical data had been gathered from the ginners, who were asked to disclose the number of bales processed at each gin.
A streetcar strike was brewing in New Orleans and was reported in the Town Talk on October 1 under the caption “Streetcar Strike.” No cars were moving in New Orleans and there was no news about settling the issues that had caused the walkout. On Monday, October 6, one week prior to Maria Bontemps’s confinement, the Town Talk’s major story appeared under headlines “New Train Service—over the Southern Pacific into Alexandria.” On the day before, “elegant passenger trains” and “splendid freight trains” had come to Alexandria for the first time as part of new regular routes to the area. It was on one of these new trains that the Bontempses and Pembrookes, four years later, would ride to their new home in California. This issue also congratulated the Town Talk itself for its successful appeals to the people of the state and to the Southern Pacific Railway, for before this time the only train offering passenger service was a mixed freight and passenger local. Hence this expansion of railway service was a definite sign of progress for the area and it also meant jobs for many citizens of Rapides Parish.
Maria Bontemps’s uncle, Joseph Ward, Jr., younger brother of her mother Sarah Pembrooke and grand-uncle to her son Arna, was one of the first African Americans hired as a dining-car waiter after this expansion.
83 This was good news for the family and even better news for young Joe Ward, one who had always been restless. With his new job on the train he would get to see some of the places he had read about in the Town Talk. A few years later, around the time that the family was to move to California, Maria Bontemps’s own younger brother, Ward Pembrook, was to land a similar job on the same passenger train. Ward had turned fifteen one month before this new train service commenced, and by the time he and his family began to move, piecemeal, to the West, he was approaching nineteen.
Monday, October 13, was remarkable for Alexandria’s Bontemps family and for persons throughout the state of Louisiana. Late on the Sunday night before, too late for citizens to get the news, the streetcar strike in New Orleans had ended. The Monday evening edition of the Town Talk was full of the news, and on this same day, the Times Picayune and the New York Times gave fuller treatment of this breakthrough. There was dancing in the streets of New Orleans and widespread rejoicing throughout the state, for this two-week-old strike had effectively tied up transportation and, as a result, all segments of New Orleans’s population had suffered.
It was amid this atmosphere of celebration in the state that Paul and Maria Bontemps were given an even greater reason to rejoice. Their first child and only son was born on this day in the two-family dwelling at the corner of Ninth and Winn Streets. Sarah Pembroke was also relieved and her anxiety was brought to an end with the birth of this grandson, for having already lost one daughter to childbirth, she could not rest until her daughter’s labor had ceased and mother and baby were well. And as far as Maria herself was concerned, the sight and sound of her firstborn was enough to erase the memory of her travail. Paul Bontemps, equally proud and happy, gave his son a French first name, “Arnaud,” to match his French last name, with “Wendell” as a middle name added for good cadence. But this first name, probably because few people could spell and pronounce it correctly, was destined to be clipped “Arna.” The Town Talk carried no notice of this child’s birth.
But if Alexandria was elated by improved train service, and by the end of the New Orleans strike, it was still lamenting the scarcity of paved streets in the city. On the day Arna Wendell Bontemps was born, an editorial reminded city officials that they should try to get more streets paved “as soon as possible.”
84 Others in the city were concerned about the racial climate, for race relations in Alexandria in 1902 were not amicable and they were to worsen by the time Arna’s sister Ruby was born two years later, reaching the point of intolerance by 1906. African Americans were jeered at and made the objects of jokes, even in sports and the news media. On the very day of Arna’s birth, the Town Talk reported the news of the day before. On that Sunday (October 12) horseracing fans had enjoyed fine sport at Welch Park, where a large crowd had been present and where the betting had been lively.
But of the day’s events the paper’s story told an ugly tale: “Snowball and Nigger had a 250 yards run and Snowball won.”
85 And the few stories about African Americans in the news were negative: the death of an elderly manservant who had been “loyal” for years to a prominent family was used as an example to other African Americans of how they should behave; a “Negro” suspected of murdering a white man tracked down by a mob; every robbery blamed on African Americans, even when evidence and suspects were absent.
Arna Wendell Bontemps had been born at a difficult time in an environment that had oppressed his parents and grandparents before him, and that would surely stifle this manchild if it got the chance. But Paul and Maria Bontemps were making plans for their son’s future. He was an exceptionally fine baby, and like the parents of Moses, Paul and Maria began to consider ways of hiding their son from the evil that sought to destroy him and against which he would struggle during his entire life.
On the day of young Arna’s birth, news had come of a major technological breakthrough at Montreal. Wireless telegraphy had been used by railway stations to communicate with trains traveling as fast as sixty miles per hour.
87 The new Bontemps parents realized that there would be other breakthroughs, other opportunities, and they wanted their son to have a better life than they had growing up in Louisiana. They were also concerned with the more mundane matters of creature comforts. They would need larger living quarters, for the two-family dwelling, now that they had begun to have children, would not do for long. And there were other, more immediate concerns to be considered. The child Arna would have to be baptized and his godparents would have to be chosen. Meanwhile, the baby grew and Joseph and Sarah Pembrooke became doting grandparents. Paul Bontemps continued to take bricklaying jobs out of town, earning extra money with Claiborne Williams’s band whenever the could. But young Arna did not suffer, for it was hard to tell who loved him most, his mother Maria or his grandmother Sarah, both of whom showered him with love and the very best of care. Perhaps it was this maternal tenderness that produced in Arna Wendell Bontemps an affable sensitivity that would become his most outstanding trait and which was revealed in his dealings with others throughout his seventy years.