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Clementine’s Hunters: Prologue

Three decades after her death at the age of 101, Clementine Hunter is now considered one of the most important folk artists in American history.

In this multi-part investigative series, the Bayou Brief explores the life and legacy of Louisiana’s most consequential painter and the ways in which her work has been both rightfully celebrated and criminally exploited since her death.



Prologue by Lamar White, Jr.

Her name was not pronounced the same way as the darling daughter of a miner in one of America’s most well-known western songs, which itself was likely appropriated from a Mexican fable, Romance del Conde Olinos o Niño, and set to the rhythm of an old Spanish ballad. 

She called herself “Clemen-teen,” but, as she told it and as records from both the 1900 and 1910 Census confirm, her birth name was actually Clemence; she was baptized as Clementiam. Regardless of how her name was originally spelled or eventually pronounced, it derives from the same Latin word for “mercy.”

In the law, we use the word clemency, which refers to the power of the government to forgive a person convicted of a crime, usually for humanitarian reasons.     

Her parents almost certainly understood the small but symbolic power of the name they gave their first child, a daughter born in either December of 1886 or January of 1887 at Hidden Hill Plantation in Cloutierville (kloo-chee), Louisiana, a decade after the end of Reconstruction.

Antoinette Adams Reuben and Janvier Reuben, Clementine Hunter’s mother and father. 

It was an era in which white supremacy ascended back into political power and all of the protections that had been gained by newly-emancipated slaves and the generations that followed were eviscerated through violence, acts of terrorism, and institutional barriers, intentionally designed to systemically deprive them of the freedoms once promised by the Union’s victory over the Confederacy.  

In the late 19th century, Hidden Hill Plantation was a notoriously cruel and dehumanizing place for blacks and Creoles like young Clementine. 

*****

Like many of those who contributed to this series, I was born and raised in Central Louisiana, only twenty or thirty minutes down river from where Hunter spent all 101 years of her life.

Her artwork was, at one point, part of the area’s built environment, hanging on the walls of dozens and dozens of middle-class homes throughout town. Those in my grandparent’s generation all seemed to know her personally. Before she became internationally famous, she’d sell her work, often for less than a quarter.

While her paintings were sometimes demeaned as “primitive” in the ugliest sense of the term, the messages they communicated were both powerful and provocative to a community finally coming to terms with the inevitable reality of integration and the march toward civil rights. That is what made her work so valuable and why it continues to resonate: It was ingeniously confrontational.

I do not recall whether my own paternal grandparents ever owned any of Clementine Hunter’s art, but I would be surprised if they hadn’t. My grandmother’s sister, Sue Eakin, was a well-regarded Louisiana historian who spent a great deal of time conducting oral interviews with Hunter, which are now archived at Louisiana State University- Alexandria. And like Hunter, they also grew up on a cotton plantation, though their experiences, as white girls, were starkly different.

Although I was only five and a half years old at the time, I do remember when Clementine Hunter died, exactly 31 years ago, on New Years Day of 1988.            

But while this series may have been sparked by my own fascination with Hunter’s life and legacy, I recognize it is imperative that for her story to be told honestly and vividly, it must shared by those who have dedicated their own professional careers in pursuit of that story. 

Ideally, what we all hope to create is the most robust, comprehensive, well-researched, and authoritative online resource about the life, the art, the rise to fame, the death, and the subsequent criminal exploitation of a woman who witnessed and documented more of the American experience than anyone today could possibly conceive. 

In that respect, this series should be better understood as an ongoing, collaborative project, because in a life than spans more than a century, it would be a mistake to believe a linear biography is the best structure.  

***** 

However, there is one detail-  based partly on folklore and speculation and partly on a patchwork of evidence- about Clementine Hunter’s early life that merits mentioning, at least in passing, in every biography about her: Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, may have based the character Simon Legree, the villainous slave master, on Robert McAlpin, the original owner of Hidden Hill Plantation.

Only weeks after Stowe’s death in 1896, in a letter published in The Washington Post, a man named William Hugh Robarts recounted a sensational conversation he had with Stowe twenty years prior in which the writer claimed Legree was modeled after another well-known plantation owner in the area, Meredith Calhoun.

Robarts’s story was quickly rebutted in another letter to The Washington Post by J.E. Dunn, a correspondent for The New Orleans Times-Democrat, who argued persuasively that McAlpin- not Calhoun- was the likeliest culprit.

In truth, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an amalgamation of characters and stories that Stowe had collected from across the American South; however, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that the setting of the book was largely informed by the experiences of the slaves and their masters who lived in and around Central Louisiana.

Despite what locals claimed in the decades following her death, Harriet Beecher Stowe never set foot on Hidden Hill and likely never traveled to Louisiana at all, though it is possible her brother visited the area. It’s indisputable that the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted had been there, and Stowe was familiar with his descriptions of the land and its people. 

A year after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Solomon Northup published his extraordinary memoir Twelve Years a Slave. “It is a singular coincidence that Solomon Northup is carried to a plantation in the Red River country,” Stowe once remarked, “the same region where the scene of Uncle Tom’s captivity was laid.”  

Today, Hidden Hill Plantation is known as Little Eva Plantation, the name of the slave owner’s daughter who befriends Tom. It’s now a massive pecan farm that embraces, even markets, its connection to “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

A reconstruction of Uncle Tom’s cabin at Little Eva Plantation.

There are several reasons Hunter’s work became so well-known and well-regarded, which we will explore in greater detail throughout this series. Her art was infused with coded, subtle messages about race, power, politics, and religion, and perhaps that was a reason it first generated the interest of some of the region’s white middle and upper class collectors. Cammie Henry, the woman for whom she worked as a domestic servant and cook for decades, encouraged her craft and welcomed some of the nation’s leading artists and critics to visit Hunter personally. 

Yet, in the course of conducting our research into this project, it became increasingly obvious that the most significant reason Hunter’s work became globally famous is something that others have been previously reluctant to acknowledge, given the times in which she lived and worked.

Notwithstanding the important support she received from progressively-minded women, Hunter’s rise to prominence was guided, championed, and financially supported by a small number of gay men, almost all of whom were drawn to her from outside of Louisiana.   

*****

There may be a legitimate argument that Hidden Hill should have been renamed in honor of its most accomplished native daughter instead of a fictional character, but when she was still a child, the real-life Clementine and her family moved to new plantation home, fourteen miles up the Cane River, named Melrose.

There grows roses and other posies
Fertilized by Clementine.    



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