Dr. Ernest J. Gaines is internationally known as the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying. He authored additional award-winning novels and short stories that became made-for-television movies. Though fictional, Gaines' novels and short stories take place at the forefront of several historical events. Through his words, Dr. Gaines preserved a way of life for African American, Cajun and Creole tenants and sharecroppers in Oscar, Louisiana.
A visit to the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette provides visitors with an alternative look at the work Dr. Gaines dedicated his life to doing, working as a preservationist. In the 2009 documentary, An Obsession of Mine, Dr. Gaines states that "[h]is body went to California, but [his] soul remained in Louisiana and those who held [his] soul are buried back there in that cemetery. The cemetery Dr. Gaines spoke of in the documentary is named Mount Zion Cemetery. The cemetery, measuring roughly one-acre in size, has been the burial site for African Americans living in Cherie Quarters on Riverlake Plantation since American Slavery. After returning to Louisiana and building their own home on Riverlake Plantation, Dr. Ernest and Mrs. Dianne Gaines began preserving the land there, including the cemetery.
For over a decade, volunteers from the local communities, guests from other parts of Louisiana, and out-of-state guests have gathered on the Saturday before All Saints Day to help Dr. Gaines and Mrs. Gaines preserve Mount Zion Cemetery. In a 2003 interview conducted by author, Anne Brister, Dr. Gaines described the process, including painting the tombs, cutting the grass, planting flowers, and more.
In preserving Mount Zion Cemetery, Dr. and Mrs. Gaines were responding to an issue not only the inhabitants of Cherie Quarters on Riverlake Plantation faced, but a phenomenon ocurring across Southern rural spaces. As landowners, policy makers, and corporations began to urbanize spaces like Cherie Quarters, inhabitants of the land were forced to relocated. Those communities were destroyed to make room for wide-scale agricultural farming. Cajuns and other local white sharecroppers received more fertile land to farm, and in turn, were able to produce better crops. They accumulated profits that enabled them to purchase tractors and tools, which gave them an even greater advantage over local blacks still using plows and mules. Dr. Gaines's first novel Catherine Carmier depicts the power struggles within the plantation sharecropping structure. Through a conversation with his characters, he mentions that Cajuns made more of a crop for the landowner, therefore they always received the best land (Gaines 74).
Fear of losing sacred spaces like the graveyard to wide-scale farming is reflected in Dr. Gaines's work, particularly an excerpt from his novel, A Gathering of Old Men, when one of the characters states,
I did it for them under them trees. I did it 'cause that tractor is getting closer and closer to that graveyard, and I was scared if I didn't do it, one day that tractor was gonna come in there and plow up them graves, getting rid of all proof that we ever was (Gaines, 92).
Rose Anne Brister states in her interview that she has studied Dr. Gaines's Southern use of pastoral imagery and sense of place in his writing. When she asks about his relationship to the land, Dr. Gaines replies, "the land is important to me and my work and to all the things I write about. It is one of the main characters in my work" (Gaines and Brister 550.) Ernest J. Gaines's novels and short stories not only continue to preserve the people of his childhood, but the land as well. Through his thick descriptions of sugarcane fields, plantation spaces, cramped schoolhouses, crowded cabins, and graveyards, Gaines proves that there is a cyclical relationship between the people and the land. His work as an author and preservationist provides a looking glass into an era of time and place of South Louisiana's past for local and global readers alike.
Cemeteries are usually reserved for sorrow and contemplating the finality of death. Having attended the Mount Zion Cemetery Clean Up, I watched that space transform into a place of fellowship and communal love. Community and family members gathered to reflect on the lives of their loved ones with laughs, smiles, and stories. Dr. Gaines passed away in 2019 and, although the cemetery cleaning will not take place in October 2020, his life's work is continued through Mrs. Dianne Gaines and the efforts of countless volunteers. They are succssfully preserving the legacy of Cherie Quarters by preserving Mount Zion Cemetery.
For more information about the cemetery and the annual cleaning, please feel free to contact the Ernest J. Gaines Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Obession of Mine. Directed by Joseph Sanford, Covington, LA: Pelican Picture, Inc. 2009
Gaines, Ernest. Catherine Carmier. Antheneum, 1964.
Gaines, Ernest. A Gathering of Old Men. Knopf, 1983.
Rose Anne Brister, and Ernest J. Gaines. "The Last Regionalist? An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines." Callaloo, vol. 26, no. 3, 2003, p. 549.