There he raised two separate families “in the same yard.” One family was by his wife, a white woman who bore him seven children, the other by my grandmother, who also bore seven.

My mother was Martha Bell Smith, the daughter of Luanda Smith. Grandma Cindy, a fair-skinned slave, was the daughter of a slave by that slave’s master. As a teenager, she was purchased from a white family in Memphis, Tennessee. Her purchaser—a man known to my family as “Cap’n Anderson”—turned out to be my grandfather.

Ada Lois’s Mother, Martha Bell Smith Sipuel

Cap’n Anderson carried Grandma Cindy to his plantation near Belarie, Arkansas, in Chicot County. There he raised two separate families “in the same yard.” One family was by his wife, a white woman who bore him seven children, the other by my grandmother, who also bore seven. The two sets of children, each child born within two months of its counterpart, were delivered by the same black midwife. One set lived in a large white house in the middle of the plantation. The other, the group that included my mother, lived about a mile away in a small but tidy cabin.

The children of both families played together. In fact, I have heard my mother often speak of her white “brothers” and “sisters.” According to family legend, one of the white brothers became a prominent Arkansas politician, who went on to serve the state’s (all-white) voters for several years in the capitol at Little Rock. My mother told me that she once had called him when she passed through Little Rock.

According to her, his voice joyfully greeted her on the telephone. In fact, he invited her to come by the capitol for a friendly brother-sister visit; but, he added, she would have to keep her “little pickaninnies” away. Mother slammed down the phone. As far as I know, she never spoke to her brother again. His white wife sent her the newspaper clipping that announced the esteemed gentleman’s death.

Grandma Cindy’s seven children all kept the name Smith, perhaps in ironic tribute to an earlier master. The oldest was Frank, who was born a slave on his own father’s plantation in 1862, during the Civil War. The others were Kitty, Lucinda, Nan, Scott, and Gertrude. My mother, Martha Bell Smith, was the youngest, born in 1892.

My mother’s memory was that Cap’n Anderson’s black children had little use for their white father. When he would call on my grandmother, he often brought them little gifts of candy and the like, but the children all feared him. It was not that he ever beat or otherwise abused them. Instead, it seemed that they all instinctively distrusted the man and rejected what they took to be his immoral ways with their own mother. That attitude always troubled Grandma Cindy, who overlooked the circumstances of their relationship to proclaim that Cap’n Anderson was the only man that she had ever loved and the only man who ever had touched her.

When Frank was a very young man, he built a modest house and moved his mother and younger siblings off the plantation. Mother grew up in Dermott, Arkansas. The family baby, she had the best of what little was available, and she was the only one to receive any substantial education. After finishing Dermott’s public schools, she graduated from the little two-year teachers’ academy in the town and became a schoolteacher herself.

Ada Lois’s Father, Bishop Travis B. Sipuel

Stunningly beautiful, with light skin, hazel eyes, and hair that bore the slightest curl, she was teaching when she met my father, a handsome, very dark-skinned railroad man nearly fifteen years older than she. He was smitten hard and immediately. All of Grandma Cindy’s fair-skinned children married extremely dark spouses. His greatest drawback seemed to be his age. I remember her telling me that when he came courting she would tell her mother, “Mama, here comes your beau. He must be coming for you; he’s too old for me.”

Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, A Matter of Black and White, The Autobiography of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996). 7-10.

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