I. François Mignon and François Meteoyor:
On Oct. 26th, 1939, he boarded a train out of Penn Station in his native New York and headed toward a new life in Melrose Plantation outside of Natchitoches, Louisiana. In their book Clementine Hunter: Her Life and Art, Art Shriver and Tom Whitehead describe the New Yorker’s arrival as the “second most important event” in Hunter’s life, with the first being her own move to Melrose as a child.
Hunter never knew him as Frank VerNooy Mineah, his real name. She had met him two years prior, during a visit to Melrose with a French man, Christian Belle, presumably his lover.
The perennial writer-in-residence, Lyle Saxon, introduced Hunter to the new guest. He said his name was François Mignon, also of Paris, France.
Frank VerNooy Mineah had invented an entirely new life for himself in Natchitoches, where he had planned on remaining for only six weeks but ended up staying until he died in 1980. In many respects, Mignon was a complete fraud, but according to those who knew him best, his genius was still unquestionable. He could be forgiven for scripting a new name, a new history, and a new future, and more than any other singular figure, François Mignon is responsible for championing the artwork of Clementine Hunter.
He was the first to “officially” document her paintings in his journal from 1939. He was a prolific diarist, writing for six days a week for the next thirty years, but more than anything, he was a true believer in Clementine Hunter. He remained one of her closest friends until his death.
To understand Hunter, you must understand her relationship with the mysterious and eccentric François Mignon, a pathological liar who also recognized the truth of her art, but, more than anything else, you must understand Hunter’s muse, Melrose Plantation, a place every bit as complex and contradictory and conflicted about its past as Mignon.
And to understand Melrose, you have to begin with a relationship between another black woman from Natchitoches Parish and a white man who actually was from France, Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer. The two got married. They named their youngest son François.
II. Marie-Thérèse Coincoin:
The true story about Melrose Plantation will likely challenge some of what you probably believe about the antebellum South, because the area once named La Grande Côte, a bend in what is now known as the Cane River, was a unique enclave with a distinct culture. Eight miles north is the town of Natchitoches, the oldest French settlement in the United States and the oldest permanent European settlement in the vast Louisiana Purchase.
The town is named after a local indigenous tribe, a word that scholars believe translates as “land where the dirt is red.” Today, in nearby Kisatchie National Forest, there is a protected section of 38,000 acres of rugged terrain known as the Red Dirt National Wildlife Management Preserve.
In 1714, four years before Bienville settled New Orleans, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis established Natchitoches, which was essentially just a small fort intended to thwart Spanish expansion. St. Denis spent the next few years wandering, eventually making his way into Mexico, where he fell in love with the step-granddaughter of a Spanish commander. Eventually, he and his wife were able to talk their way back to Natchitoches.
St. Denis died in 1744, leaving behind five children and his wife, who, according to local folklore was the wealthiest woman west of the Mississippi River. (He has one living direct descendant, Monseigneur Jefferson DeBlanc, Jr. of Church Point, Louisiana).
At the time of the patriarch’s death, St. Denis’s window, now Madame de Soto, owned numerous slaves, including husband and wife François and Marie Françoise, parents of a two-year-old daughter Marie-Thérèse Coincoin.
By the age of 36, Marie-Thérèse Coincoin became the matriarch of one of the most powerful and influential families in Louisiana, a family that remains synonymous with the region and with Creole culture: the Métoyers.
When she was still young, Marie-Thérèse became the concubine of a white Frenchman, Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer, who, by then, had surpassed the St. Denis descendants in wealth.
Presumably, the two fell in love; they wanted to have their own children, but the church would not give its blessing. Marie-Thérèse was still a slave, which meant Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer would have to pay for her manumission. She already had five children before their marriage, at least two of whom were fathered by another man, and another eight children during their marriage, all of whom were raised as Métoyers.
All told, Marie-Thérèse had thirteen children, though the oldest three of them had never been manumitted.
In 1788, the couple divorced, but Métoyer gave his ex-wife a sizable tract of property, and Marie-Thérèse became one of the most consequential free persons of color in antebellum Louisiana. Together with her children, she founded Isle Brevelle, one of the nation’s first communities for free people of color. She tasked her oldest son Augustin with building the nation’s first church for free people of color; another son, Louis, was tasked with building it.
Ironically, despite her support for emancipation and her wealth, she owned slaves herself and wasn’t able to pay for the freedom of some of her own children and grandchildren. At one point, the Métoyer family was estimated to have owned at least 8% of all slaves in Natchitoches Parish. Historians largely agree that Marie-Thérèse was a complicated but ultimately a fundamentally decent and enormously accomplished woman.
Coincoin, her biographer writes, “was born a slave … and became an independent black woman in a world dominated by white men. She adapted successfully to all the situations that life presented to her; from being the concubine and housekeeper of a rich white man, she became a profitable farmer and businesswoman in her own right.”
Her son Louis did not only build a church. A dozen years after his mother’s death, he also built the big house at Melrose Plantation, which he founded in 1796. Upon his father’s death in 1815, Métoyer granted Coincoin and their children freedom property.
Louis, unfortunately, died a year before home’s completion in 1833; his son Jean-Baptiste finished it though, branding the family name on the floor near the fireplace.
Louis’s sons operated Melrose after his death, but by 1847, his son Theophile lost the property. A woman from New Orleans purchased it, though it is unclear how much she actually cared for the estate. After the Civil War, Melrose sat vacant and derelict.
In 1884, a successful Irish immigrant named Joe Henry bought his son John Hampton a plantation in Gerry on his 21st birthday, though he did not transfer title to his prized possession known as Melrose Plantation until his death in 1899. John and his wife of six years, Cammie, moved in, and she and her husband raised their eight children- seven boys and one daughter- in the home.
In 1918, John Hampson Henry, Sr. died unexpectedly from a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and his 46 year old widow decided to do something radical with the old plantation.
III. Cammie’s Colony:
Carmelite “Cammie” Henry was less interested in operating a plantation than she was in creating an artist colony. “(She) opened her home to the students and instructors, enabling them to paint the Melrose landscape. She also become interested in traditional weaving techniques and bookbinding, often sharing her skills with others in the community,” Lucy Gutman of 64 Parishes wrote. Still, Melrose remained a working plantation.
It is difficult to know the relationship she had with her late husband, but it is impossible to ignore the ways in which she completely changed her life after his death, poring herself into becoming a true patron of the arts.
“Having converted some of the plantation buildings into studio spaces, Henry invited artists from across the nation to visit, work, and even live at Melrose. In addition to Lyle Saxon and Alberta Kinsey, her visitors included Harnette Kane, Rachel Field, and Ada Jack Carver,” Gutman writes. “Saxon, perhaps her most frequent visitor, wrote most of his novel, Children of Strangers, while in residence. Because of Henry’s efforts, Melrose became an important artistic and literary community during the Southern Renaissance—a period of intense literary production by southern writers between World War I and the end of World War II.”
Photographer Richard Avedon also spent time at Melrose.
In late 2018, author Patricia Austin Becker published a book about Cammie’s Melrose, appropriately titled Cane River Bohemia.
The most talented and legendary artist to ever emerge from Melrose Plantation didn’t travel far, of course. She didn’t even realize she was an artist until she began painting in her fifties, with the encouragement of Cammie Henry but particularly because of François Mignon.
Cammie Henry passed away in 1948, decades before a woman she knew primarily for her cooking had become a true celebrity American folk artist. However, it is hard to imagine how Hunter’s talents could have been cultivated without Cammie Henry’s vision for building an artistic community, and Hunter, throughout her long life, never uttered a single criticism of her former employer.
But there is a reason she signed her initials “C.H.” in reverse; it was to distinguish herself from Cammie Henry.
By 1971, Hunter was becoming a national phenomenon. That year, she illustrated a book by James Register called The Joyous Coast. It was a surprise bestseller.
Throughout the book, Hunter painted a series of ducks she called “Qwah-Qwah.” It was an homage to a woman who fundamentally reshaped the history of her home: Marie-Thérèse Coincoin.