Volume 30, Number 1

Another Group of Dark-Skinned Outsiders

Don Kirksey

“Welcome home, mio amore,” Francesca yelled to her husband from the porch.

The trip back from the levee camp took over an hour, and it was near dark when the wagon creaked to a stop in front of House 14, the small, unpainted clapboard house assigned to Antonio and Francesca Zepponi. Before getting out of the wagon, Antonio reached into the right pocket of his long, heavy wool work coat and shifted the position of the pistol several times until there was barely a bulge. He did not want to talk to Francesca today about the levee, the muleskinners or the gun.

Arrivederci,” Antonio said to the driver and his friend Luigi who was sitting alone in the bed of the wagon.

Antonio placed his hand on top of the short tailgate at the rear and jumped down onto the freshly graded dirt road. He took a deep and final puff on his hand-rolled cigarette then flicked the butt into the air. It floated down onto the wet dirt and sizzled out.

"Buona noche," said Luigi.

The driver lifted the reins, shook them firmly, and the mule-drawn wooden wagon lumbered off toward Luigi's house just down the road. There were 100 similar tenant houses on the 10,000-acre Sunrise Plantation on the Mississippi River in southern Arkansas.

The absent owner of the plantation was a New York banker who had obtained the antebellum farm from the previous owner in payment of a debt. He planned to do something really different with the cotton farm. His intent was to use farmers from Italy to work on the plantation. He made a trip to Italy and made arrangements with local officials to send about 1000 young Italians from to the plantation over the next few years. He was betting that the young immigrants from Italy would be so hungry for success in America that they would make excellent tenant farmers. Antonio and Francesca were among the very first group of young Italians who came by ship from Genoa to America seeking a new and better life.

The New York banker hired a farm manager from another Arkansas plantation to oversee his experiment. The young farmers all knew him as Mr. Simon. Mr. Simon lived by himself on the plantation in a two-story white house. The house where he lived was a good distance away from all the Italians, at least a mile or two.

Mi sei mancato, tanto,” Francesca said. “I missed you so much.”

She was wearing a sleeveless cotton dress that was hand-sewn using material purchased just this week from the plantation store. Her shoulders were covered with a shawl she had brought with her to America from Ferrara. The shawl was a gift from her mother. She was leaning against one of the rough-cut 4x4s holding up the tin roof. Antonio could just see her in the fading light.

“Come here,” Francesca said.

Antonio bounded up the steps to join her on the porch. They kissed passionately then moved clumsily together through the front door and into the house. Guided only by the dim light from a single lantern sitting on the kitchen table, Antonio lifted his lustful wife and carried her across the unfinished pine floor into their only bedroom. Their double bed was made of iron, painted white, and featured a thin mattress of cotton lying on a shiny new set of iron springs.

Venire al letto,” Francesca said.

“English,” Antonio reminded her.

“Come to bed,” Francesca translated, obeying her husband’s gentle request.

She undressed quickly and slipped underneath the clean and fresh-smelling white bed sheets. She had washed them just this morning and dried them on the line this afternoon. Antonio carefully folded his coat with the pistol inside and gently placed the coat on the top of the quilt trunk at the foot of the bed. He took off his dirty boots and pushed them under the bed. He removed his pants and shirt and put them on top of the pile of clothes and then joined Francesca in bed. The bedroom was cold and they made small puffs of icy air whenever they spoke.

“Remember to be quiet” Francesca whispered. “Luigi is next door.” Luigi lived in House 15.

“Quiet, remember,” Francesca scolded her enthusiastic and not so quiet lover. Her words made smoke from the chill in their bedroom.

After they finished their lovemaking, the young couple lay face to face in the warm bed and talked about relatives and friends they left behind.

Antonio Zepponi and Francesca Roncali had been married a couple of years ago in May in the Basilica Cathedral of St George. The cathedral is a marble structure in the center of Ferrara and the largest religious edifice in the province. The front of the 12th-century cathedral has three adjacent gothic arches decorated with small rose windows and carved reliefs of saints. Antonio's friend Luigi and his wife Angelina had both been in the wedding. They left for American in September of the same year.

“I got a letter from my parents today,” Francesca said. “They said things are not so good there.”

Both the Zepponis and Roncalis were sharecroppers back in the Po River Valley. They were well acquainted with the mixed blessing that comes with living and farming so close to a meandering and powerful river. The Po is the longest river in Italy. It begins in the Cottian Mountains near Turin and travels eastward for 400 miles before emptying into the Adriatic Sea just south of Venice.

“The river flooded again this year,” Francesca said. “Just like last year, the deep water destroyed crops, drowned thousands of animals and hundreds of people. More farms have been abandoned and many of the young famers are still looking to leave for America. They asked about things here. What should I say?” she asked.

Tutto bene,” Antonio answered. “Tutto bene.

“Everything good?” Francesca exclaimed, somewhat startled by her husband’s optimistic response. He had never before even suggested they make the story of their life on Sunrise so pleasant. “I don’t think all the other Italian families who came over would hardly say everything is good. It’s been over a year since we got here and this life in America has hardly been what we were promised,” Francesca emphasized.

“Only about forty of the original one hundred farmers are left on the plantation,” Francesca reminded her husband. And Angelina is gone,” she added.

Luigi's wife and her friend Angelina went to sleep one evening with a high fever and chills and never woke up. Malaria or yellow fever had killed 24 other young Italians over the summer, and it was probably malaria that killed Angelina. About 40 more Italians had just left. Some moved north, looking for work in the cities. Some returned to Italy. Some had moved to other farms in Arkansas or across the river to Mississippi. Most just abandoned their houses, their land, their mortgages and their mounting bills at the plantation store and just left.

No tutto bene,” commented Francesca. “Tutto brutto. Everything’s bad.”

"We have a house and we have some land," said Antonio. "Very good."

Antonio and all the other young farmers had signed an agreement in Italy granting each of them 12 acres of land and a house. They each received free boat passage from Italy to New Orleans and free paddleboat passage up the Mississippi River to Sunrise Landing. The contract said they would be paying for the land and house with a percentage of their annual cotton harvest for the next 20 years. None of them young Italians had ever owned any land. They wanted desperately to become landowners in America.

The tenant houses where all the Italians lived were simple dwellings. They had only four rooms, and the only heat came from the iron cooking stove in the kitchen. A freshly drilled shallow well with a bright-red, hand-operated water pump stood alone in the grassless front yard.

The land on both sides of all the houses was water-soaked fields of brown stalks of cotton that ran all the way to the next identical house with another grassless yard surrounded by fields of cotton. Luigi was in House 15. House 13 was empty. The Rizzo family had moved out in July, and no one had moved in.

“Let’s have something to eat,” Antonio said to Francesca, hoping to stop thinking anymore about the Sunrise disaster.

“I have some supper cooked for us, and I can heat it up,” said Francesca.

She climbed out of bed, slipped on her dress and shoes and headed off across the cold wooden floor toward the warmer kitchen. He put back on his dirty clothes and shoes and joined her. He added a few sticks of wood to the fire inside the kitchen stove then sat down in one of the cane bottom chairs at their simple wooden eating table.

“Hello, can I come in,” Luigi asked?

He came through the front door before Antonio or Francesca could even answer and sat down across from Antonio at their kitchen table. Luigi had been coming over for dinner a lot since Angelina died.

“Come on in, Luigi,” Antonio said, joking. Luigi was already in the house and sitting across from him.

Antonio took out a saucer for them to use as an ashtray. They each rolled and lit a cigarette using tobacco leaves poured from a small cloth pouch. Francesca passed out plates, bread, and slices of ham, bowls of freshly cooked vegetables, and glasses of water fresh from the well. Then she sat down at the table.

“How was today on the levee, Luigi?” Francesca asked.

“Cold and wet and long,” said Luigi. “I’m going to pay off my bills and go home to Ferrara as soon as this levee work is done. I don’t want to watch anyone else die over here and be buried so far from home.”

“Maybe we’ll go with you,” Francesca said.

“Next year will be better,” Antonio insisted. “All the farmers left on the plantation now are from Ferrara. Some are friends. All are good farmers. Next year will be better. I just know it will.”

The Ferrara group of farmers had learned what Mr. Simon expected the farmers to do from planting to harvesting of the bright, white locks of the short-stable cotton. Some of them were even getting better at coaxing a complete day of farm work out of the notoriously finicky mules.

“The levees we are building should protect the crops from flooding next year, and we will all make more money. More money to pay off our bills and the mortgages.”

“It may be better but it may not," said Luigi. "Anyway, most of us just don’t like working for Mr. Simon anymore. We all signed on to become landowners, and now most of us feel more like slaves.”

On the first day the Italians arrived at Sunrise, Mr. Simon gave all the young immigrants a guided tour of the entire plantation. He spoke to the newcomers from atop his big horse. He was dressed in khaki pants, white shirt and a Confederate Calgary grey slouch hat with a gold tassel. He enthusiastically explained the Sunrise Experiment. Mr. Simon was convinced that the New York banker was right. The young Italian tenant farmers would become a new standard for cotton production throughout the South.

“Remember how impressed we all were with Sunrise on that first day?” said Antonio. "I'm still hopeful we will all become landowners."

“Impressed or tricked?” Francesca added.

The New York banker funded the construction of a small village at Sunrise Plantation. An entire town was built of timber freshly cut on the plantation and milled on the property. This small town included houses, stores, sheds, barns and shelters for all the farm equipment. The smell of sawdust from the nearby sawmill filled the air daily. Work had just begun on a small Catholic chapel where all the new immigrants could worship. Another major investment was a noisy, steam-powered cotton gin manufactured by Lumus & Sons. The gin was housed in a two-story building. Next to the gin was a private railroad line with shiny new rails. The rail line ran all the way to Sunrise Landing on the river. At the landing, the burlap-covered bales of ginned cotton were loaded onto paddlewheel steamboats. The steamboats carried the cotton bales downriver to the New Orleans Cotton Exchange.

“Remember, you are tenant farmers, not share-croppers,” became Mr. Simon’s daily chant to the young Italians who were left on the plantation.

This first year was a disappointment for the New York banker because floodwaters destroyed most of the cotton crop. In November the banker instructed Mr. Simon to turn his attention to levee building. Mr. Simon’s polite encouragements turned to days of ceaseless orders and angry outbursts. The Sunrise Experiment had turned into the Sunrise Nightmare for many.

“Last year there were only a few levees on the Sunrise Plantation. Next year they will be many,” Antonio said to Luigi, repeating Mr. Simon’s promise.

Mr. Simon was now overseeing a crew of muleskinners he brought in specifically to build the new levees. The muleskinners were all former slaves who had spent years working mules on cotton plantations around Mississippi and Arkansas. Antonio and Luigi had been mostly farming cotton in the spring, summer and fall. Now they were helping Mister Simon on the levee. They were helping by being his armed bodyguards.

The mules did most of the physical work building the levees. The term “skinner” was slang for someone who can “skin,” or outsmart, a mule. The dirt used to build the levees was scooped up off the top of nearby land by special mule-powered rigs called scrapers. The mounds of dirt that made the levee were about 10 feet high and 60 feet wide. They were built all along the side of the cotton field that was next to the river. A team of mules pulled each scraper. Each team of mules was guided by one muleskinner walking along side. Getting mules to work from daylight to dark was essential to building these dirt dykes.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” Luigi said and pushed his chair back away from the table and headed toward the door.

“Remember, Luigi, the wagon will be here to pick us up at daybreak,” Antonio said.

After Luigi left, Francesca asked her husband, “How was the work on the levee today, really?”

Antonio and Francesca had not talked about the levee work in a few days. He didn’t much like being a bodyguard but the money for the work was too good. The young Italians were paid in cash at the end of every week, and they could put away more money in three months being a bodyguard than the entire year of farming. He was not comfortable with the pistol. He had used a shotgun back in Italy to shoot birds and rabbits, but this year was the first time he had ever fired a pistol. Today Luigi and Antonio had fired their pistols into the air to break up a fight among the muleskinners. Antonio did not want Francesca to know.

“Nothing happened,” answered Antonio. “We just completed another big section of the levee without any trouble.”

“You are going to get shot or shoot somebody,” Francesca warned. “You spend all day walking around with that pistol tucked inside your belt like some kind of a pistolero. I hate it. I hate the guns. I want you to be a farmer, and I want Luigi to be a farmer.”

“I like the farming better too, Francesca, but I don’t know what the muleskinners would do to Mr. Simon if we weren’t there. Looking like a gunfighter is the whole idea. Nobody’s been shot yet,” he reassured her. “Not Mr. Simon, not a muleskinner, not Luigi, and not me. Mr. Simon wants us by his side all day. We are always within pistol range. All for show. I think all for show.”

“Somebody is going to get killed one day,” Francesca pressed. "Somebody. Do the muleskinners hate Mr. Simon?”

“They’re afraid of him,” Antonio said. “He rides around all day on top of his big gray Appaloosa wearing a long-barrel revolver strapped high around his waist. He also carries a Winchester repeater rifle fastened to the saddle just behind his leg. Some say he shot a muleskinner last year up near Helena. So the muleskinners ought to be afraid.”

“You and Luigi are the only guards on his crew,” Francesca said. “There are fifty crazy muleskinners out there, and who knows what coltelli or pistole they have. Sometimes I wish we were back in Italy just farming.” She knew things weren’t so good back in the Po Valley either. She just wanted Antonio and Luigi to be safe. She wanted her young husband and his friend to be farmers and not gunslingers.

Francesca and Antonio left the fire going in the stove and went to bed.

At daylight the next day, Antonio and Luigi boarded the wagon again and headed to the levee. Francesca had made biscuits and coffee for both of them. She also sent along a loaf of fresh-baked bread and two apples for the day, because there would be no stopping on the levee for lunch. Antonio and Luigi ate the biscuits, drank the coffee and talked all the way to the levee.

“Why do you think these freed slaves became muleskinners?” Luigi asked.

Antonio explained to Luigi that the levee building gave them work without having to go back to the other work in cotton fields. They did not want to plant, hoe or pick anymore. Also, each of the muleskinners was paid cash for each yard of levee built, so the crew could make good money when the levee work went well.

"You and I are making good money too, and all we have to do is walk around with a pistol and direct a little mule-team traffic,” said Antonio to his friend.

"And hope Mr. Simon doesn't shoot somebody," said Luigi.

Mr. Simon was a demanding and sometimes heartless levee boss who treated the muleskinners like slaves, and he treated the Italians only slightly better. To Mr. Simon they were merely another group of dark-skinned outsiders who didn’t belong in Arkansas.

Luigi told Antonio again that he missed Italy and planned to finish these next few weeks of levee work then go back to Ferrara.

The driver pulled the wooden wagon onto the levee work site and stopped. Antonio and Luigi looked out over the side and saw a crowd of muleskinners standing next to their mule teams in front of the temporary corral. Most all the mule teams were rigged and ready to begin the day. Mr. Simon was already in camp. He was standing on the ground next to his horse, shouting something toward the muleskinners.

Being a muleskinner on a levee crew was unique work for the few freedmen who had the skills and opportunity to join a levee crew. They all lived in a camp of canvas tents over near the levee. Each muleskinner shared his tent with his wife or a woman from town. There were no children allowed. After a day of levee building, the muleskinners spent the evenings drinking, gambling and often fighting. The greatest threat to life for every muleskinner was not Mr. Simon or the young Italians but other muleskinners. The fights at night sometimes ended in knifings or a shootings.

“Good morning, you bunch of idiots,” Mr. Simon bellowed. “Last night, one of you cut one of my best scrapper drivers in the crew. He is headed to the doctor’s office in town today, so there will be more work for everybody. The only people in my camp who are supposed to have knives or guns are me and these two Italians here. If any of you is carrying a gun or knife this morning, give it to me now or bury it in the mud.” Mr. Simon said. “Because if I see it, I’ll take it from you and send you back to the tents. No more work. No more money.”

He turned toward his Appaloosa, but before he could get mounted a single mule came rapidly down the levee with a muleskinner sitting on its back. The mule galloped straight into Mr. Simon, surprised him and knocked him to the ground. The muleskinner slipped adeptly off the saddleless mule and walked over to the dazed levee boss lying on his back in the mud.

“Want my knife, Mr. Simon?” the muleskinner asked. “Then you can have it."

The muleskinner pulled out a long rusty knife from inside his overalls and shoved it into the middle of the stunned Mr. Simon’s chest. Then, still holding the knife handle, the muleskinner pushed the helpless levee boss deep into the mud.

“No more work, no more money, no more nothing for you Mr. Simon,” the muleskinner said loudly into Mr. Simon's face.

Mr. Simon’s hand was on the handle of his Colt .45, but it was still in the holster. His hat lay upside down in a puddle nearby. Luigi didn’t move. Antonio stood up in the bed of the wagon, pulled out his new pistol and pointed it in the direction of the fleeing muleskinner.

“Stop,” Antonio yelled. “Stop.”

The muleskinner raced down the levee toward a stand of woods just beyond the corral. Antonio fired four rounds. All the shots from Antonio’s gun missed the muleskinner and kicked up big chunks of mud and water well behind him. The rest of muleskinners turned away and walked slowly and quietly down the levee toward their tents. The young Italians lifted the muddy and bloody body of Mr. Simon into the bed of their wagon. They tied his Appaloosa on behind. The driver slapped the reins, and the mules headed off toward the Sunrise. On the way back, Antonio and Luigi talked mostly in Italian about the horrible day and what they should do next.

“Go by the Sunrise Store,” Antonio instructed the driver.

The young Italians carefully placed Mr. Simon’s lifeless and bloody body on the porch and covered his face with his muddy Calgary hat. They left their revolvers in their holsters at Mr. Simon’s side and left his horse tied to the porch. Antonio relayed the whole story of the muleskinner stabbing and his escape into the woods to the Sunrise Store clerk. They talked while standing on the porch next to Mr. Simon’s body.

“Please send a message to the New York banker about today,” Antonio asked the clerk.

The wagon then drove Antonio and Luigi to Antonio’s house. This time Antonio asked the driver to wait. He and Luigi walked inside together and found Francesca in the kitchen.

“Mr. Simon was killed today by a muleskinner,” Antonio said.

“Stabbed to death,” Luigi added.

“We need to leave plantation right now,” Antonio said. “I don’t know what might happen next. We need to leave today. Go into the house and pack our bags.”

“We’re all going to go to New Orleans,” Antonio added. “There we can catch a ship going back to Italy.”

“I hope very soon,” said Luigi.

“I am ready to go,” Francesca said with delight. "No more pistols."

Antonio, Francesca and Luigi each filled a big canvas bag with clothes and stuff for the trip back home. The bags were the same ones they had packed in last year for their journey to America. The driver took them to Sunrise Landing where the three young Italians settled down for the night on top of a damaged and discarded bale of cotton lying near the dock.