Don’s roots are not unlike the hot plate of étouffée carefully prepared for his return by his mother, Katherine: both Cajun and Creole, a spicy, savory blend of seafood and rice that is decidedly Louisianan. The instigator of the entire Roots series, Don wanted to better understand his deep Louisiana roots and wanted his mom with him every step of the way. The surprise family lunch and impromptu family reunion that welcomed Don home foreshadowed what he would later discover in his past: tight-knit families in small communities stick together, and while you don’t pick your family or your circumstances, you can make the best of them.
Don grew up not just hearing stories about his grandmother Mary H. Bouligney; she was a part of his life until she passed when Don was in his thirties. She was born in a small town called Brusly (pronounced Brew-ly) or Brusly Landing, and was raised by her grandmother Henrietta Jackson (Don’s 2nd great-grandmother.) Mary H.’s death certificate states her parents were Catherine Jackson and Harry Rivault. Family legend states Catherine died in childbirth; census records tell us Harry Rivault was a married white man.
As an orphan of mixed heritage in Louisiana born in the year 1915, life could have been bleak for Mary H., but Henrietta raised her as her own. Henrietta was the glue that held several generations of the family together. She owned her own home, ran a farm, and had three sons, two grandchildren including Mary H., and later a great-granddaughter all living with her. What might have been the motivation behind this maternal influence to several generations? Don’s mom Katherine was surprised to learn that as a young girl, Henrietta was an orphan too. This explains her open and accepting attitude towards caring for children without parents and taking them in.
Curious about the circumstances where Mary H.’s parents met, we looked into the life of Harry Rivault. Four years before Mary H. was born, her father Harry Rivault was newly-married to Odille Bossier, and living in West Baton Rouge, according to the 1910 United States Census. He stated his occupation was as an “overseer” at a plantation. Two of his white neighbors listed their occupations as “assistant engineer at Sugar Factory” and a “Hostler at Plantation.” The remaining families, all African American, worked as farm laborers. The sugar factory and plantation refer to the only place it could in West Baton Rouge: Cinclaire Sugar Mill. It is possible Mary’s mother Catherine worked at the Sugar Mill—anyone who worked for Cinclaire lived “on campus.” The field laborers lived in the former slave housing; overseers and management lived in a row of houses on a different street. He and his wife Odille never had children, and he tragically ended his life in 1941 after several months of poor health.
Harry’s grandfather and Don’s 2nd great-grandfather, Charles Bertrand Rivault, was a French carpenter who immigrated to Louisiana in 1848. He settled in West Baton Rouge and married into the Furbos-Landry family, who were one of the largest land and slave-owning families in the county. By 1860, Charles was the owner of two slaves, a 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. By September 1862, a year and a half after the start of the Civil War, Charles enlisted as a private in Company H, Regiment 4, of the Louisiana Infantry for the Confederacy. During Reconstruction in the 1870 United States Census, Charles managed to maintain $1,000 in personal property, worth approximately $18,000 today.
Living near Charles Rivault in 1870 were Moses and Catherine Jackson, Don’s 3rd great-grandparents. Moses and Catherine spent the first twenty years of their lives enslaved, and their children would become the first generation of African Americans born free after emancipation. The 1870 Census is significant because it’s the first time previously enslaved African Americans were listed by name in the federal census as citizens of the United States. Moses’ occupation is listed as a farm laborer. They did not have any real or personal estate values listed.
Next door, Valerie Landry was a white farmer with $2,000 in real estate and $400 in personal estate (combined values around $43,000 in 2014). He had several domestic servants in his home. All his immediate neighbors were African American. Because of proximity, it’s a fairly safe assumption that Moses worked for Valerie, and possible—if not likely—that Valerie could have been his former owner. Valerie Landry was a cousin-in-law of Charles Rivault, making him Don’s 3rd great uncle.
Don’s reaction to learning about the white and black sides of his family tree was profound— there was no angry condemnation, just a touch of sadness and an acceptance of the past that cannot be changed. The present and future, however, are bright, because while you can’t pick your family or your circumstances, you can make the best of them, and that’s exactly what Don is doing.
WATCH DON EXPLORE HIS ROOTS:
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They travel the world to chase the story, but this time the story is their own. Join the journalists of CNN as they explore their … roots. More behind the scene stories:
- Michaela Pereira
- Anderson Cooper
- Chris Cuomo
- Jake Tapper
- Erin Burnett
- Christine Romans
- Fareed Zakaria
- John Berman