Lara Lee’s Poison Garden

Editor’s Notes:

When “Black News” commissioned its writers to come with a story that depicted pre-civil war history in north Georgia, the writer/storyteller Sinclere Lee wrote a trilogy entitled ‘Lara Lee’s Poison Garden.’ It’s a story about a five-year old slave girl who experienced the cruelty of slavery at a young aged when her mother dies in an accident on the way to New Orleans to be delivered to another plantation.

Twelve years later, Lara returns to the Lee Plantation as Rebecca Lee; a Femme Fatale who in the face of death, sets right the cruelty of the Lee Plantation and the its evil, Massa Lee.

By Sinclere Lee

The work on the plantation was terrifyingly brutal to say the least.  The sexual exploitation of slave women was without mercy and unending. The ripping away of all dignity of the slave made it all possible and their acceptance of this way of life made it all right.  While life in 1840, America was Hell on Earth for the 6 to 7 million African slaves, but in some parts of the South like North Georgia it was pure Hell. However, there were moments of family and solitary relief from their miserable lives that brought some joy to their lives.  The relief came when Lara Lee and Momma went foraging for food in the forest to make a meal for them, and the Massa.

Lara Lee spotted a patch of mushrooms in the underbrush near the stream that ran through the Lee Plantation.  Before she could gather the brown looking treats, she heard Momma yell in a loud voice, “Lara Lee, don’t touch them mushrooms ‘cause they’ll kill you,” She said.  “They’re called ‘Death Caps’ mushrooms, and they’ll kill you dead as a Nigger hanging from a tree for running away."

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“Remember Lara Lee, some mushrooms are poison, and will kill you ‘fore you can get to the outhouse to take a shit.” Momma began to tell Lara the story about how her uncle went picking mushrooms and gathered a mess of ‘Death Caps’ and gave them to Massa Lee’s son.  Nobody knows if her uncle poisoned Massa Lee’s son on a count of the beating or just by accident, but they hung uncle anyway.

The ‘Death Cap’ mushroom is found throughout the South and closely resembles edible straw mushrooms.  It's resistant to heat and the poison withstand high cooking temperature, but when eaten, the mushrooms quickly damage cells throughout the body.  Within 6 to 12 hours after eating the ‘Death Cap,’ there's violent abdominal pain, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea appears, causing rapid loss of fluid from the tissues and intense thirst.  Signs of severe desctruction of the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system soon follow, including a decrease in urinary output and a lowering of blood sugar.  This condition leads to coma and death within 48-hours.  The most horrific of endings of life know to man.

“Momma how do you know what mushrooms is the good one and the bad one?” Lara asked.

“Back long time ago when the Creek Nation had this land, there was a Creek chieftain named ‘Blue Sky’ of the Red Sticks tribe.  Chief Blue Sky used to take run-away slaves into his tribe, and he raised lots of slave children too.  He would teach them the ways of the Creek Nation, and over time, long after the white man took their land and moved them far west, our family kept to secrets of the mushrooms…”

Momma continued to tell Lara about the time when her grand-pappy was caught by a Creek war party, and brought back to their camp and raised by them for many years until white solders attacked the Red Sticks camp and grand pappy was brought back to the plantation.  He taught his family all the things the Red Sticks taught him. Lara listen, and wanted to hear more about the Creek Nation.

Lara looked like her momma somewhat, who had a deep brown hue, but Lara could pass for white — her kind were called mulatto.  Mulatto is a term used to refer to persons born of one white parent and one Black parent or to persons born of a mulatto parent or parents. Although she was considered a slave by most white southerners, being of the Massa’s blood made her royalty among slaves.

During the exploitive time period of America slavery, white slave owners would have sex with their Black female slaves, and the result often was children being born.  Many slave owners did not help their mixed blooded mulatto children; they labeled these children Black and let their Black mothers raise them.

These white looking children were considered slaves just like their mothers.  The one-drop blood rule that southern whites followed said, that if you have one drop of Black blood in you then you are Black, no matter how much white blood and genetics you have in you.

“Lara Lee pick up your baskets, we got to get back to the Big House… hurry child we got to go ‘fore it get too late,” Momma said while gathering all the plants they had foraged for that day.  They had gathered, some wild Asparagus, Cattails, and some Dandelion for soup, Kelp and plenty, plenty Curled Dock because can eat it cooked or raw.

Lara notice that Momma had put some of the Death Cap mushrooms in a separate basket from the ones safe to eat, and wrapped them up as to hide them from view.  After gathering all their belongings, they headed back to the Big House.  Less than five hundred yards separated the Big House from the wooded area where Lara and her mother were foraging for food.  Because there were so many toxic plants in the wooded area where they were foraging for food, some on the plantation called it the 'Poison Garden'.

The main entrance to the Big House or antebellum mansion included a line of eight huge pillars, and a balcony that ran along the whole outside edge of the house to offer shade and a sitting area.  Evenly spaced large windows, and big center entrances at the front and rear of the house to add to the box like style of the mansion.  The Big House also included grand gardens with geometrically cut bushes to compliment the symmetry of the house.

The interior of this mansion was just as extravagant as the outside.  Common features included enormous foyers, sweeping open stairways, ballrooms, grand dining rooms, and intricate design work.  The design work included intricate shapes and patterns made from plaster used to adorn walls and furniture.  It was also used to create wood and floor designs.

When Lara and Momma got to the front of the Big House, there was a buggy pulled by two horses that Momma didn’t recognized. " I wonder who they is?" Momma asked herself. 

They made their way to the back of the mansion, and entered a small door that led to the basement, the only entrance for slave.  In the basement were stairs the led to a hallway that let to the kitchen.

Ol’ Joe was in the kitchen when Lara and Momma open the door… “Hey y’all, did y’all get ‘nough vittles for supper?”

“Yeah, I think so, I hope so,” Momma answered Ol’ Joe.  “We got some wild Asparagus, Cattails, and some Dandelion for soup, Kelp and plenty, plenty Curled Dock… we got a lot of mushrooms for soup.”  Momma said as began the separate the harvest they had gathered.

Ol’ Joe was cutting the heads off the five big Catfish, and taking his hands pulling off the skin.   Ol’ Joe cut the Catfish into smaller pieces to grilled on the wooden stove. He turned as he saw that Momma was headed to the dining room to ask Massa Lee how many for supper.

“Where you going woman… you can’t bother Massa Lee when he’s talking business,” Ol’ Joe told Momma with the authority of the head plantation Nigger.   Ol’ Joe was like many Black, slave overseers who help the master keep control of the other slaves.  The other slaves hated him more than they hated Massa Lee.   Ol’, Joe was particularly harmful to the other slaves in that he often killed unruly run-aways and rape young slave girls as young as 10-years old. Lara was safe because she was only five.

When Ol’ Joe left the kitchen, Momma walked towards where she heard the master's voice, it was coming from the foyer— he was taking to the two men whose buggy was in front of the Big House.  She slowed up and stop in her tracks when she heard Massa Lee talking about the delivery of two breeding pairs to New Orleans.  Momma was surprised to hear the Massa talking of selling her and Lara off.  She caught herself to still herself because she was so besides herself with painful anger.  As she continued to listen, Massa Lee began talking about the trip his two drivers were to take to Natchez Mississippi.

“The trip usually takes about seven-hours to get to Natchez, and my man Ol’ Joe will go along to keep them other Niggers in line.  It’s will be 10 Niggers in all, what we call two breeding pairs… two heifers and eight bucks.” Massa Lee made his money as a breeder. Some women breeders were able to avoid the fields or other arduous labor as the result of having babies.  A ‘breeder’ always fared better than the majority of female slaves.  Slaves were given rewards for motherhood. a customary right that most masters agreed with even if it were not their offsprings.

And there were repercussions for not having babies or not breeding.  Young women who had not demonstrated fertility faced the possibility of separation from family as well as additional labor, the fate of Lara’s Momma, who had given out of her breeding utility.

While breeding humans was objectionable to most slave masters, the money was good and the driving force for Massa Lee was all about the money.  He kept mentioning that he was getting two thousand for each of the eight bucks and four thousand each for the two heifers — close to $25,000 — a quarter million dollars in todays' money.

"I’m sending the li’ girl Lara," he explained to the two slave buyers, "so her Momma won’t make a big fuss when they’re separated them," 

“Remember, the lil’ girl is to coming back with Ol’ Joe.” Massa Lee gave his final message for the two buyers before they sat for supper.

“When they get to Natchez, my two drivers will come back to the plantation, and Ol’ Joe’s gonna take the Delta Queen nonstop to New Orleans so to meet y’all there, and remember the girl comes back with Ol’ Joe.”  He barked at the men with the interest and concern of a father.

When Momma got back to the kitchen, she could barely compose herself with her constant crying.  Yet, she continued to prepare the supper for Massa Lee and his two visitors.  Ol’ Joe came back into the kitchen with some cured pork for supper.  Momma started making the soup from mushrooms and potatoes.  Everything was ready to serve but the soup and it was supposed to be served first.  When Ol’ Joe left the kitchen to set the plates for serving, Momma went to the basket where she hid the Death Cap mushrooms, unwrapped them and put the poison in the mushroom soup.

Ol’ Joe came back to the kitchen and asked for the first course, which was the mushroom soup and baked bread.  He took the soup and bread to Massa Lee and the two slave buyers, but before they could eat the soup, Ol’ Joe came back to the dinning room with a plate filled with grilled Catfish.  After seeing the Catfish and fried potatoes, all three men at the table passed up the soup and went straight for the fish and potatoes. Next, came squash and cured pork with baked chicken.  The poison soup was place to the side of the table uneaten by the three men. After the men finished their supper, they went to the parlor for drinks while Ol’ Joe cleaned up the table.

“Joe, take the rest of the food to my two drivers… they gonna need some food for the long drive to Natchez.  Take the mushroom soup and everything we didn’t eat, and you can have some of the soup too… we didn’t touch it.” Massa Lee said as he joined his guests in the parlor.  The two drivers were eager to get the food and they ate every bit — the soup too.

Later on that night, Ol’ Joe entered Lara Lee’s room; Momma was sitting on the side of her bed crying, and wondering if the poison soup was gonna do the massa in for his dirty trick by selling her and Lara Lee.

“Momma it’s time to go… I know you know the wagon is waiting on y'all,” Ol’ Joe said.  The wagon was twenty feet long, and with one inch thick bars around the top and sides that made the wagon look like a giant cage.  She had packed her few things with Lara’s, and hoped at some point in their travel to escape to freedom with her daughter.

“Lara, Lara wake up Momma need you to wake up ‘cause we got to go,” Lara woke up from her sleep with a thresh and a yawn. “Wake up honey, we got to go… they're waiting for us.”
When they got to the wagon, there were eight men and one other woman crammed in this tight space with very little room to move.  Ol’ Joe walked to the front of the wagon to talk to the two drivers who were complaining about stomach pains.

“Y’all alright?” Ol' Joe asked the drivers.

‘Yeah! But, it was something we ate that's making us sick.” One of the drivers said in pain and holding his stomach.

“Well, lets go, we got a long ride ahead.” Ol’ Joe said and joined the other slaves in the wagon.  Each slave was chained from hand to feet, and Lara Lee sat in Momma’s lap. The wagon jerked a few times and slowly the jerks tuned into a slow roll.

The wagon picked up speed and started swerving from one side of the road to the other while moving faster.  “What the hell is going on with that driver?” Ol’ Joe said, standing up to check on the passengers.  Then the wagon veered off the road and down an embankment twisting and rolling until it stopped.  There were screams of help and cries of pain… the wagon was a tangled mess of bodies wrapped in the inch thick bars that made it a death trap if an accident like this would occur.

First, there was dead silence, and Ol’ Joe made his was to the top of the embankment, and started running back to the plantation in the dead of night.  He was dead tired when he reached the plantation to tell Massa Lee about the accident.

When Ol’ Joe and Massa Lee returned to the scene of the accident, everything was dead still when Massa Lee instructed Ol’ Joe go see if he could find Lara Lee.  He claimed back up the embankment with the child in his arms and handed her to Massa Lee.

“Massa Lee, you want me go see if I can see if some mo’ Niggers is still alive?

“No! Fuck them Niggers, and go see if you can saves my horses!”


Next week at this time, find out what happens in: Part 2 of 'Lara Lee’s Poison Garden'



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