Tracing the history of Julia Railey

"Julia is fading. There is a No Visitors sign on the door, and now only the family and the minister visit her. Julia once told me she was never one for religion ... and that once Mr. Devlin, the Episcopalian minister, had come by to see her and noticed a book on her desk.

"According to her doubtlessly exaggerated account, he turned it over to read the title: 'Freud's Religion as Neurosis,' and dropped it as if it were the presence of the devil."

So Paul Greenberg wrote from Pine Bluff in the spring of 1963. He was 26 years old, talking about Julia Houston Railey, aged 71. Railey was a divorced social worker, a writer, and a descendent of the Roane family, politicians and planters of Arkansas in the 19th century. If you're looking for a line between modernity and antiquity, the story of her life is as helpful as an M.C. Escher print.

"I spoke to her over the phone a day or so before she went to the hospital--her family had chosen to have a family dinner for her at the country club the Sunday before she entered, and old Julia, with her sense for lively and rambunctious words, kept calling it 'The Last Supper.' June was in to see her a while ago and told me that the sedation had put Julia out of reach."

Arkansas still attracts bright young people, but the center of gravity is probably around Springdale, and they're probably too busy to devote their spare time to hanging out with aging locals. But that's what two of our greatest imports, June Biber Freeman and Paul Greenberg, were doing in Pine Bluff in the early 1960s. They worked hard, yet they found time to cultivate friendships with Julia Railey. June might have been the only other person in the state with any patience for books like "Religion as Neurosis."

Paul's friendship with Julia lasted less than a year, but he quoted her into his own old age any time someone laid on the Southerness too thick: "You come on over tonight and we'll play Old South to beat the band."

Julia must have known in her bones what I had to learn from Dr. Kenneth Keller at Mary Baldwin College: the "Old South" of Greek Revival mansions surrounded by fields of cotton, the "Old South" of Mississippi and Alabama and Arkansas, was anything but old, and the big-time planters (those who held the most cotton acreage and human chattel) were the nouveaux riches of their day.

Writing in September 1857 from Napoleon, Ark., a Mississippi River steamboat stop that was sort of the Atlanta airport of its day (hot, crowded, and dirty; you could get stuck there for days and sometimes bump into your neighbors), Amanda Beardsley Trulock noted the big-spending behavior of one of Julia Railey's relatives only two generations back:

"I saw Mrs. Roane last night. She was just from Memphis, has been there to put her children at school. She intends to travel independent I should think, for she bought at Memphis a Carriage and a pair of Horses which I understood she gave four hundred dollars for; also a boy to drive, which she said she paid eleven hundred dollars for. She also had a girl with her which she always takes to wait on her which I presume would not be valued less than one thousand dollars. The Carriage she probably paid from $250 to $300. Quite an expensive establishment."

By "Mrs. Roane," Amanda means the widow of Samuel Calhoun Roane, who is listed as the owner of 56 people in the 1850 Slave Schedules of the Federal Census. His younger brother John Selden Roane was the governor of Arkansas from 1849 to 1852.

Mrs. Roane turns up again in Amanda's letters during the Civil War, when Amanda heard that she'd sent her "servants" to Texas and that one of her daughters "married a Confederate officer and has gone derainged." Several of Amanda's former slaves went to work on the Roane place (under federal management, I believe) and in February 1865, Amanda reported that the freedmen had not been paid for work done there.

I would never have made the connection between Julia Railey and the Roanes on my own; I found it last week in some papers that Fufa Fullerton sent me 10 or 20 years ago. Julia inherited a house at 801 West Barraque Street in Pine Bluff from her parents; Paul called it "her crumbling old Southern manse."

Julia's mother, Mary Bres Roane Houston, wrote a short memoir of the house at 811 West Barraque, which Samuel Calhoun Roane and his second wife, Julia Embree (presumably the same person as "Mrs. Roane" above), built as a wedding gift when their daughter Juliet married her cousin Marcus Lafayette Bell in 1852. Juliet was the aunt of Mary Bres.

Some good soul salvaged Julia's papers from her Barraque house in the early 1970s and donated them to Ouachita Baptist University. Julia died on May 4, 1963. Paul appreciated the Book of Common Prayer's recognition that in death we are all equal. On the Tuesday after the funeral, he wrote this to the woman he was to marry: "Julia died Saturday afternoon. The Episcopalian funeral was Sunday. The service mentions no names, is the same for all, and there's no funeral oration. Did you know that? Very natural in an impersonal, Episcopalian sort of way."

It will take more reading (in Arkadelphia) to get a better sense of who Julia Railey was, but it's clear that she's someone I want to know.

Brooke Greenberg lives in Little Rock. Please send email to [email protected].