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Imitation of Life

This post is in response to those readers of Unrefined, Sugar who asked to hear more about the segregated South of the 1950s. “Put that magazine down, honey!” my mother whispered. “It’s for colored people.” The year was 1948 and we were in the L&N Depot in Knoxville, Tennessee, waiting for a train to Chattanooga. When Mother stopped at the newsstand, I picked up what I thought was a copy of Life magazine. I hadn’t yet learned to read and had instead reached for Ebony which, with its red and white title, was easily mistaken for Life. This is my first memory of the so-called “separate but equal” society of racial segregation. Since I couldn’t read, I could just as easily have ignored signs proclaiming White Only and Colored Only and attempted to use the wrong...

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Lost & Found

At first glance, the 1854 house flying the French flag at 2306 Esplanade Avenue is unremarkable in a town teeming with antebellum homes trimmed with cast-iron galleries, but its story is far richer than most. Events within these walls rocked the international art world after a visit from Edgar Degas, the only nineteenth-century French Impressionist to ever work in America. “He drowsed in the vibrant sunlight until the carriage halted before the Musson home. Through bleary eyes, he admired a handsome, three-storied house with generous galleries and dependencies and, here and there, cousin Désirée’s promised sweet olive trees.” –Creole Son Degas (1834-1917) was born in Paris to a French father, Auguste Degas, and a New Orleans-born mother, Célestine Musson. In...

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The Black Pharaoh

Henri Christophe was a man in a hurry. Born a slave in 1767, he grew up in the French colony of Sainte-Domingue (Haiti) where he worked hard to secure his freedom in a world where man’s inhumanity to man was the rule. The French were among history’s harshest taskmasters, importing African slaves to be worked to death, usually within three years, in the sugar cane fields.  By 1789, Sainte-Domingue was the most lucrative colony in the world. With half a million black slaves, 32,000 whites and 25,000 people of mixed blood, it was also a time bomb of racial outrage. The inevitable slave uprising came in 1791, and Henri, at age 24, quickly joined the rebellion led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. A courageous soldier with superb leadership skills, Henri’s rise through the...

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