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BAROZZA ON CANVASS

BAROZZA ON CANVASS
By John Michael Lockhart

With the advent of smartphone, it’s so easy to take the immediacy of amateur photography and homemade videos for granted. Grab your cell from your front pocket, slide the home screen up with your thumb and start shooting. But, if you grew up in the 1930’s, like 82-year-old Roy Hotard, Jr. of Port Allen, photographs from your youth are most likely precious and few and homemade “moving pictures” from this era are almost certainly nonexistent. As is the case with most people of his generation, only a handful of pre-World War II photographs of Hotard have survived, assuming more ever existed.  There’s the family photo with him, his parents Roy Sr. and Hilda, his sister Gerry and his dog Blackie. There’s the photo of him feeding the chickens at Barozza Plantation in West Baton Rouge when he was three, him dressed as a cowboy when he was about five or six and a prized photo of him riding a horse with his grandfather, Denis Hotard, who was the overseer at Barozza from 1925-49, when he was just a toddler.  With so little of his charmed childhood captured on celluloid in the 1930’s, Hotard began reconstructing some of his most cherished memories at Barozza on canvass 34 years ago at the age of 48. Those paintings are a testament to just how endearing those summers at Barozza remained to Hotard long after he grew into adulthood, served his country in the armed forces, married, graduated LSU and began a career as an architect, raised a family and served his community for 12 years on the West Baton Rouge Parish School Board. Over a two-decade period from 1980 until 1999, Hotard painted 11 of his fondest memories of West Baton Rouge’s plantation life during the Great Depression with nothing but the still vivid mental images from his youth as his guide. While Hotard says he has given away a lot of his artwork to family members and friends over the past 35 years, he’s never brought himself to part with any of his plantation paintings. They’re just too personal, he explains. And each of those 11 paintings is also painstakingly accurate, he assures. While his failing eyesight has caused him to put away his oils, acrylics and paintbrushes for good, two years ago he completed an 89-page biography of his youth from his birth in New Orleans on April 9, 1932 through June 10, 1943, the day his family loaded up their 1938 Dodge, including his dog Blackie and his sister Gerry’s lamb, and moved to West Baton Rouge permanently. The completion of that book, which was written for the benefit of his offspring until the Riverside Reader recently requested a copy, coincided with Hotard’s 80th birthday. Hotard’s biography details a captivating glimpse into rural life on a plantation during the Great Depression from the perspective of a city boy from New Orleans during an era in which the ghost of Huey Long dominated Louisiana politics and FDR’s New Deal programs changed the relationship between the federal government and everyday Americans forever. Through his descriptive, personal narratives and intricate, detailed canvasses, Hotard captures more about West Baton Rouge plantation life in the years leading up to World War II than any camera of that era ever could. “Every tree you see, every building you see is exactly as I remember it, and I painted from memory because that’s all I had. There weren’t many pictures taken in those days,” Hotard notes of his paintings.

hotard family The Hotards: Roy Sr., Hilda, Roy Jr., Blackie & Gerry.
Barozza Plantation during the Great Depression
During the 1930’s, Barozza was a 600-acre plantation owned by Frank Carruth, who resided at Catherine Plantation. Also known as Barrowza, the plantation’s name came from its founder, a member of the prominent Barrow family, that owned a number of plantations on both the east and west banks of the Mississippi River. Barozza, which was established about a decade prior to the Civil War, is bounded on the north by the Mississippi River and by dense woods on the south. A dirt road, running north and south from the River Road, bisects the plantation’s east and west boundaries. Most the land is used to cultivate sugarcane, the money crop. A few acres are planted with corn that is used to feed the plantation’s horses, mules, cattle, hogs and poultry. In Hotard’s biography, he writes, “For the first seven years of my life, conditions at Grandma’s house and the plantation as a whole reflected the way people lived and worked there one hundred years ago. This was true of most rural farming areas in the region. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no indoor running water, no telephones, no natural or butane gas heating, no paved streets or banquettes.” According to Hotard, Barozza was home to about 25 African American families in the years leading up to World War II who lived on the plantation as tenant farmers at no charge, in return for their labor. Each of them lived in an area of the plantation known as the quarters, in unpainted shacks distinguished by vertical wood plank siding and rusted, tin roofs. Each family raised their own vegetables in their own small garden and would typically have a few chickens and a hog. Water was manually pumped from a centrally-located well in the quarter, to all the workers and their families. The only white residents at Barozza during most of the Great Depression were Hotard’s grandparents, Denis and Leoncia Hotard, and a teenage girl from Thibodaux, Sarah Freman, for whom the Hotards took on the role as foster parents.
big house barozza
Roy Hotard’s painting of the Big House at Barozza Plantation.
From city lights to plantation paradise
“My grandfather, Denis Hotard, had grown up on his father’s plantation in St. James Parish. He had been doing farming all his life and somehow he found out about the opening and became the assistant overseer. “When the old guy left, my grandfather became the overseer. “I lived in New Orleans until I was 11 and during that time, starting when I was four years old, I used to come to Barozza during the summer time and spend a month with my grandparents because my daddy was an only child and I was the oldest son, so I was the little king. “We would visit Barozza usually for the 4th of July and my parents would leave me with my grandparents until they returned in August during my father’s annual vacation. “My little sister, who would hang on my mama all the time, wouldn’t come spend her summers (at Barozza), so I got all the attention. “I would go from the big, bright lights in the city of New Orleans to a farm where they had these kerosene lamps, they had milk that came out of cows and not out of the bottle and vegetables that came out of the garden and not out of the can, plus they had lots of animals. “They had chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigs, everything and I could play with all those animals and it was just like going to Disney World, for me,” Hotard recalls. “All the workers on the plantation called me Mr. Lil’ Roy; we lived like kings. “I looked at Grandpa Denis as a king, but in reality he was the overseer and on that plantation his word was the final word. “He directed the operations at Barozza, he would tell all the colored workers what, when and how to do their work. If there was a dispute between the workers, he was the judge and the jury. “Every worker on that plantation treated him with respect and each of them addressed him as Boss Man or Mr. Hotard. If one of the workers failed to address him properly, he received a whack from Grandpa’s riding crop,” Hotard recalls. According to Hotard, nights on the plantation were quite a contrast from the nights in New Orleans. With the exception of the area closest to his grandparents’ house, the plantation was “absolutely and completely dark” in the absence of a full moon on a cloudless night. The nighttime sounds at Barozza were also noticeably different than those in the city. The plantation was filled with eerie sounds emitted by crickets, frogs, domestic animals, owls and other wild-winged animals. Going to bed involved quickly slipping through an opening in the mosquito netting that enveloped the bed, which Hotard says felt like sleeping inside a mesh tent. At his parents’ home in New Orleans electric-powered fans made the summer’s heat more bearable but there was no such luxury at Barozza. Coal oil lamps, which didn’t emit much more light than a candle, supplied indoor lighting at his grandparents’ house, he says. Hotard would spend four hot but glorious summers at Barozza before electricity would finally arrive at the plantation in late 1939.Life on the plantation
While the nights at Barozza were quiet except for the animal and insect noises, the plantation came to life with the crack of dawn and daytime activities were numerous and varied. Ol’ Gip was Hotard’s grandparents’ yardman and it was his duty to shuck the corn in the corncrib, shell the kernels from the cobs and grind some of the kernels into cracked corn. His other duties included splitting the firewood and bringing it indoors, caring for the animals at the Hotards’ home and carry out any other orders the Hotards requested of him. With the exception of only one summer when an assistant overseer lived on the plantation with his young family, there were no children at Barozza with whom Hotard was permitted to play. Therefore, Hotard began shadowing Ol’ Gip. “I loved following him around while he did his chores; I probably asked him a million questions regarding feeding and caring for the animals. “There were so many domestic animals to watch and touch; I could even hold some of the babies in my arms. “I often went with Grandma or Sarah to collect the freshly-laid eggs from the henhouse. It was only then that I came to understand that eggs came from someplace other than grocery stores,” Hotard recalls. Most of the food consumed at Barozza was harvested and prepared on the plantation with the exception of some meat and all fish. As Catholics, fish was always purchased from a vendor on Thursdays and served in the Hotards’ home on Fridays. A variety of meat, including poultry, beef and pork, was served for dinner the remaining six nights of the week. Vegetables and rice and gravy were almost always served for lunch each day and fresh fruits grown on the plantation was preserved and served year-round. Among the store-bought goods were rice and flour and the iceman delivered a 25-lb. block of ice every other day. Bathing was also very different on the plantation than what Hotard was accustomed to in New Orleans, he says. At Barozza, baths were usually a Saturday night affair and cleaning up the remaining six days of the week was restricted to washing your face, hands and under arms with water from a washbasin and bar of soap. The weekly bathing ritual took place from the confines of a No. 2 galvanized tub as follows: First, a bucket of cold water was poured into the tub followed by a bucket of water that had been heated on the stove. Hotard’s grandfather was always the first to bathe and an additional bucket of hot water was added for each successive bather. The following morning, the bath water was tossed into the yard and the ritual would repeat itself the following Saturday night. Hotard recalls that winters on Barozza were much colder than winters in New Orleans, explaining that there were no buildings in the country to shelter you from the winter winds. Even going to bed at Barozza during the winter months contrasted with the same nightly activity in New Orleans. “Grandma would heat bricks near the fireplace then wrap each of them in a towel. After I climbed through the mosquito netting, she would place the wrapped bricks at my feet and cover me with hand-made quilts that were so heavy that it was almost impossible to change position as I slept. “The fire in the fireplace projected a dim, flickering light that created weird shadows on the wall and ceilings that, with the creature noises and howling wind outside, made me feel like I was sleeping in a spook house,” Hotard says.
plantation scene
Another plantation scene Roy Hotard painted from memory.
Coming of age in the segregated South
In the 1930’s, segregation in Louisiana was the law and virtually no one challenged it. In New Orleans, Hotard recalls the separate drinking fountains and toilets, the separate hotels, theaters, schools and churches. Growing up in New Orleans, Hotard says his contact with African Americans was restricted to “talking to street vendors in context of purchasing goods.” While segregation was also the law on Barozza and African Americans on the plantation were clearly treated as second-class citizens, Hotard was exposed to far more day-to-day interaction with African Americans on the plantation than he ever was in New Orleans. Short, heavy set and “round like a ball”, “Fat Maggie” was responsible for mopping the Hotard’s home on Barozza. She also ironed their clothes with black irons heated on the wood-burning stove. Hotard describes her as appearing to be in her 30’s with “many children, all named after states: Maryland, Kentucky, Nebraska, Alabama and so on.” Ike, on the other hand, was thin and elderly. His primary job was to care for the working mules held in the mule lot, the harnesses stored in the tack building and saddling his grandfather’s horse. He was also responsible for hitching, filling and driving the worker’s water cart and for milking the Hotards’ cows and delivering the fresh, warm milk to their home. In addition to Ol’ Gip, Fat Maggie and Ike, a black lady about the same age as his grandmother, Cora Fields, became an integral part of young Hotard’s daily life. “Cora was the mammy at Grandma’s house and she represented the image depicted in movies featuring life in the 19th century. “Cora was tall with large hands and feet, graying kinky hair that was always covered by a bandana tied across her head and she always wore a white apron to protect her clean, hand-me-down dress. “Her worn-down shoes, purposely slit along the little toe area, relieved the painful pressure on her corned little toe. “Even though she lived in the quarters, she was my grandmother’s constant companion and I referred to her as Nanny Cora. “She was a hard worker and she worked seven days a week, except for an occasional holiday which always had to be approved in advance. “It was her job to carry in water, wash the dishes and wash our clothes, and kill, gut and de-feather the poultry prior to cooking. “She would also help my grandmother prepare our meals and it was her job to set the table. “When I was little, she also is the one who gave me my baths in a galvanized wash tub. “She also tended to my grandparents’ garden; she did the planting, the hoeing and the harvesting and anything else my grandmother requested of her,” Hotard recalls. And it was Cora who first made Hotard aware of the racial injustice in Louisiana by sharing stories of her own personal hardships of growing up as a “colored person” in the segregated South, he recalls more than three-quarters of a century later. “Once I called her a nigger and she immediately sat me down, got in my face and informed me, ‘Mr. Lil’ Roy, dar is niggers and dar is coloreds; I is colored, niggers is trashy people.’ “I never made that mistake again,” says Hotard.
Next week: Hotard recalls how electricity brought Barozza into the 20th century, the contrast he witnessed between the citizens of New Orleans and the inhabitants of Barozza when America entered World War II and moving to West Baton Rouge permanently in 1943.

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