The Deepest South

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I was expecting a dusty old museum or a weed-grown cemetery. Instead I have been dropped onto the set of Gone With The Wind . As I get out of my rental car in front of the old country compound the Campo, two other cars pull up, and out come seven teenage girls in white pink, and green hoop skirts and one young man in Confederate gray.

 

I was expecting a dusty old museum or a weed-grown cemetery. Instead I have been dropped onto the set of Gone With The Wind . As I get out of my rental car in front of the old country compound the Campo, two other cars pull up, and out come seven teenage girls in white pink, and green hoop skirts and one young man in Confederate gray.

Many Confederates dreaded living under Yankee occupation, but only a few actually left. Perhaps as many as ten thousand went to Brazil.

The girls wave their fans and giggle, shake their long hair in the wind, and then put their heads together and whisper. We are, I remind myself, below the Mason-Dixon line—five thousand miles below, to be exact.

The Campo is in a place called Santa Barbara d’Oeste, two hours north of São Paulo. It consists of a cemetery, a chapel, and a monument, but its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The Campo is, in fact, the glue that has held together a loose community, descendants of refugees from the Old South, more than 130 years after their ancestors left the United States.

 

The teenagers are young Brazilians who on other days go to school, watch soccer games on TV, listen to the music of Djavan and Daniela Mercury on their Walkmans, and no doubt drive their parents crazy. But each of them has at least one ancestor who came to Brazil from the ruins of the Confederacy and has a keen interest in dressing up in old-fashioned clothes.

“I love learning about my heritage,” says eighteen-year-old Francine Weisinger, in clear but Brazilian-accented English. “My grandmother teaches me about foods and songs. I like to sing the songs, especially ‘Oh Susanna.’”

The presence of the youngsters has been organized by the Associação Descendência Americana, as the descendants’ society is known. It holds community picnics at the Campo four times a year (in January, April, July, and October), and it often sends out guides and teenage escorts when visitors drop by.

My official guides to the Campo are two more simply dressed women. “My ancestors came from South Carolina, Alabama, and Texas,” says a seventyish Luciana De Muzio, pointing to the rows of tombstones behind the chapel. “We also had one from Ohio, but we don’t talk much about him,” she adds with a smile. De Muzio, a white-haired widow with sharp blue eyes, is from the last generation that spoke English as a first language.

A generation younger, De Muzio’s fellow guide, Nancy Ferreira da Silva Padovese, is the mother of two of the teenage Scarletts. Her name, her dark features, and her hesitant English are indicative of assimilation into a population in which Portuguese families and Italian immigrants have far outnumbered Americans. As if to emphasize all the mixing and make another point as well, she stops at one grave and says, “This is my Aunt Justina [actually a great-great-aunt]. She was a slave.”

Many Confederates dreaded the idea of living under Yankee occupation, but only a few actually left the re-United States. Some crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. And others—perhaps as many as ten thousand—went to Brazil, whose emperor, Dom Pedro II, encouraged the immigrants with offers of cheap land.

Once there, however, the Americans encountered certain restrictions that ultimately aided in the survival of their community. For example, Protestants could not be buried in public cemeteries, so when Col. Anthony T. Oliver’s wife died shortly after her arrival in Santa Barbara in 1867, he buried her on his own land. Then, because of the injunction, he allowed other Americans to bury their loved ones beside her.

Within a few years the Campo was a communal burial ground; the immigrants built a chapel, and the site became a gathering point for the living as well as the dead. Americans had settled all over Brazil, and just about all the settlements died out quickly. People returned to the United States, or disappeared into the Brazilian surroundings, or relocated to the cluster of settlements around Santa Barbara. This was the only colony that developed a community center and the only one to survive.

If you ask the descendants of the settlers, however, there was another reason this Confederado community endured. Passing by the graves of the Campo, Nancy Padovesc makes a sweeping motion with her arm and says, “São todos teimosos” (they were all stubborn).

 

The Campo, shaded by palm and ficus trees, sits in the middle of rolling fields of sugar cane. The chapel is a simple red-brick building. Its spare interior—white walls, wooden pews—has just two adornments, a cross and a large portrait of Robert E. Lee. Religious services are held at the quarterly picnics; according to the Associação bylaws, services must be in one of the faiths of the original settlers—Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist. In front of the church a white stone obelisk rises from a granite base that bears the Confederate battle flag and the names of ninety-six families—names like Bookwalter and Carr, Dumas and Kennedy, Trigg and Yancey—that made the long journey.

The stubbornness of Nancy Padovese’s ancestors notwithstanding, I keep wondering what other factors—personal, cultural, or circumstantial—kept this community together. At one social visit (it is impossible to look for Confederado sites without paying a few house calls) I stand transfixed as two elderly Confederados discuss America. One is Luciana De Muzio, worldly, educated, fluent in English; the other is Sonny Pyles, one of the last Confederado farmers, who speaks little English and has never left Brazil.

“Have you ever been to America?” Sonny asks.

“A couple of times,” Luciana replies.

“How was it?”

“Fascinating, but I could never live there,” she asserts. “The people are too cold and objective.” This is the standard Brazilian stereotype of Americans. “They’re not like us.”

“It’s not America that makes people like that,” Sonny demurs. “It’s civilization. People from São Paulo are cold and objective too.”

Indeed, the hundred kilometers of highway that separate Santa Barbara and the city of São Paulo may be as important in explaining the survival of the Confederados as is the distance between Brazil and the United States. Communities can be built and nourished on shared isolation as well as on a shared past.

The pitted dirt road that leads to the Campo is much as it was when the first American immigrants arrived, but Santa Barbara itself is a thriving urban center with neat blocks of houses with tiled roofs. Out of the 161,000 residents, only about thirty families are of American descent, but they play a major role in the town’s history. Nowhere is this clearer than at the Immigration Museum, where about half the exhibit is dedicated to Santa Barbara’s American roots.

The museum is situated in one of the city’s few colonial buildings, a white stone structure with salmon trim that was once the local jailhouse. The American exhibit—which includes background on the United States, the Civil War, and the postwar South as well as on the immigrants who settled in Brazil—is on the second floor.

It is an Ellis Island in reverse, showing not what immigrants brought to America but what Americans took to a foreign land and used to preserve their culture: Confederate money, textbooks for the English-language schools the settlers founded, Thomas Alonso Keese’s wood and leather trunk, Ethel MacKnight’s wedding dress (white cotton with a high neck), the Minchin family Bible (opened to the first psalm), the Crisp family’s wall clock, a circa 1900 photo of a baseball team, and the music for “Home Sweet Home.”

The, museum offers history, but considering the community’s size it is also like a large family album. Spend a few hours in the company of Associação members at the Campo or in town prior to seeing the exhibit, and many of the family names—and some of the faces as well—will look familiar. One room shows various generations of Confederado descendants and includes childhood photos of people still active in the community. I found pictures of Luciana De Muzio and Sonny Pyles just a few hours after witnessing their exchange on the differences between Americans and Brazilians.

The former president of the Associação and now its treasurer, Noemia Pyles lives just a few blocks from the museum. She showers visitors with community artifacts, news clippings, photos of picnics at the Campo, and questions about the United States, which she has never visited. “We want to put together a tour of the United States, maybe even make it an annual tour,” she says, showing a letter from a travel agency that wants to handle the bookings.

Americans who seek out Brazil’s Confederados are often impelled by an interest in the Civil War, but time spent with a Confederado family yields something different. A Confederado gathering is a family affair. The Civil War is an important event in the communal saga, but it doesn’t always come up in conversation. The shared experiences of migration and assimilation into Brazilian culture loom larger.

The chapel’s spare interior has just two adornments, a cross and a large portrait of Robert E. Lee.

“I understand that using the Confederate flag can be a delicate matter in America,” says Noemia Pyles. “For us it’s a family symbol, not a political one.” Though the Confederados feel a strong attachment to the United States, and especially to the South, their experience has taken some ironic turns. The most important contributions the Americans made to Brazil were in agriculture (the steel plows they brought were superior to what most Brazilian farmers were using at the time), education (they founded schools based on a spirit of free inquiry), and religion (they were the first indigenous Protestant community). So it was that in the 1870s and 1880s republicans who wanted to abolish the Brazilian monarchy, end slavery, and separate church from state took up the cause of the Confederados , promoting them not as refugees from a conservative, slave-owning society but as representatives of advanced, liberal, democratic America.

 

When questions about Southern patriotism and slavery come up, Confederados enjoy the discussion as much as any American Civil War buff, but at a certain point they tend to become mystified. For one thing, by the third generation in Brazil most in the community had adopted the country’s more casual attitudes toward race relations. For another, their ancestors were not necessarily the Rebels least willing to be reconstructed; they may simply have been those with a stronger taste for adventure.

Many came from what is called the Broad River group, a collection of intermarried merchant-planter families that first emerged as an identifiable community in Virginia and North Carolina just after the American Revolution, when a number of them migrated to the Broad River area along the Georgia-South Carolina border.

“The most ardent advocates of opening the Alabama territory—and other lands farther west—to American settlers came from this nucleus,” writes Laura Jarnigan, a historian who has studied the Confederados . “Once land grants in Alabama were made available from the federal government, many of the Broad River group were among the first to make their way” to Huntsville and Montgomery. Jarnigan adds that those who left did not sever ties with their old neighbors and that one of the societies formed to promote emigration to Brazil after the Civil War was in the Broad River community of Edgefield, South Carolina.

One American descendant almost every visitor looks up in Brazil is Judith MacKnight Jones, the community’s unofficial historian. “See this pecan tree?” she says with pride; it towers over her house. “Its original seeds came from Texas. Then, when the variety no longer existed in Texas, we sent seeds from this tree back there to plant.”

 

Jones, who is eighty-one, can trace her family farther back than most. “The MacKnights started in Scotland, then spent a hundred years m Ireland before landing in Pennsylvania,” she says. “Then they drifted south. My great-grandfather, Calvin MacKnight, brought the family to Brazil. They were all farmers. It was the only thing they could do. They didn’t even know the language.”

A vital resource for the community, Jones is the author of two books in Portuguese on the Confederados and the keeper of the group’s genealogy. “People call me almost every day either to give me information about their families or to ask me what I know,” she says. She is also, among other familial connections, the aunt of the most famous American descendant in Brazil, the rock singer Rita Lee (born Rita Lee Jones). “My brother-in-law was a fanatic,” she says. “He made sure his daughters had Lee as a middle name—after Robert, of course.”

Though today surrounded by an urban landscape, Jones’s house sits behind a high fence and still has the feel of a country place, with a wide covered porch and lots of shrubbery. The land it’s on once belonged to Col. William Norris, the founder of the Confederado community, and it is in Americana, a larger town three miles east of Santa Barbara. Though Santa Barbara was at the center of several clusters of Confederado farms, when the railroad came in the 187Os it passed it by. When a station was built, the Americans called the area around it Estação, but the Brazilians named it for its residents.

 
 
Their ancestors were not necessarily the Rebels least willing to be reconstructed; they may simply have had a stronger taste for adventure.
 

Though it has fewer visual links to its first American residents, Americana rather than Santa Barbara is the place most Brazilians associate with the Confederate settlers. With 167,000 residents, Americana is located on the main routes (road as well as rail). The American settlers didn’t plant cotton for very long, hut the crop’s early influence helped make Americana one of Brazil’s textile centers. The town has also worked to polish its American connections, most prominently by adopting a municipal crest that incorporates the Confederate flag.

The specific American sights in Americana are more tangential than those in Santa Barbara—or, depending on your point of view, better integrated. The Presbyterian church in the center of town is a legacy of the Confederados . On the city’s eastern edge two institutions highlight the American contributions to the region. Carioba House is a working museum, a series of small textile factories that offer a glimpse at the industry cotton created. “Brazil needed help growing cotton,” says Judith MacKnight Jones. “A lot of propaganda went out to attract people who knew how to plant it. Southerners came with knowledge, implements, and seeds.” Also on the eastern edge of town is Salto Grande, a municipal museum in a huge colonial farmhouse. From its grandiose plantation exterior to the former slave quarters in its bowels, the house has the feel of a museum in the Old South, even if its style owes more to Portugal. Among the more curious displays is a picture, in a collection of photographs of local personalities, of “George Jones, heroi de 1932.” No further explanation is offered.

 
Teenage descendants of the Confederates dress up like their ancestors and still feel comfortably Brazilian.

Unlike the kinfolk they left behind, the Confederate Brazilians got a second chance at secession. In 1932 the states of southern Brazil attempted to break away from the federal union. The center of the rebellion was in the state of São Paulo, where most Confederados lived. And just like their grandparents in the American war of secession, many of the Confederados went off to fight.

Americans have visited Americana and Santa Barbara over the years and come away with a range of reactions. Jody Powell went in 1972 with then governor Jimmy Carter and wrote of the unexpected emotion felt by everyone in the party from Georgia. “None of us could explain exactly why Americana touched us so deeply,” he observed. “Part of it was the feeling that we had discovered a part of ourselves that we hardly knew existed.”

But if Americans are sentimental about discovering long-lost kin, most Confederados approach their American connection with a more complex blend of memory and emotion—a mix that allows teenage descendants of Confederate migrants to dress up like their ancestors and still feel as comfortably Brazilian as the descendants of the first Portuguese settlers.

“When I was growing up, I wondered if I was more American, Confederate, or Brazilian,” recalls Judith MacKnight Jones. “I made my first visit to the United States in 1951, and it was only when I saw the Brazilian flag on my return, and felt the tears in my eyes, that I knew where I truly belonged.”

On the other hand, Nancy Padovese has never been to the United States and never questioned her Brazilian identity. Yet, she says, when her husband went to America on business a few years ago, on his return he remarked, “I learned more about you in the last two weeks than in all the years we’ve been married.”

Searching for some symbolic summation of the Confederado experience, I found it in the church at the Campo. Luciana De Muzio told me that the current chapel is the third one on the site, but it wasn’t until I read a brief history of the Campo at Santa Barbara’s Immigration Museum that I understood why it had to be rebuilt twice. The earth underneath keeps shifting.

Unlike the characters of the classic tale of the American South, the Broad River folk themselves moved like the wind, looking for more hospitable lands. They moved from place to place, until they found a patch of land that would move under their feet and spare them the trouble.

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