Monday, November 27, 2006

The "French Negroes" of Illinois--Joseph Perry Micheau

One of Sister Philomena's uncles was Joseph Perry Micheau, born February 23, 1888, in Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. He married Edna Julia Lewis of Carbondale, Illinois, on this date [November 27] in 1913 (which is why this story is a bit out of order in terms of the history of Prairie du Rocher.

Joseph Perry Micheau was the son of George Micheau [1852-1942] and Mary Emma Roy [1855-1902]. Edna Lewis [1890-1989] was born to John Henry Philip Lewis and his wife Maggie in Carbondale, Illinois.

Sister Philomena writes that the sisters known as the Adorers of the Blood of Christ had taken on the mission of teaching in the school for black children in St. Joseph's Parish in Prairie duRocher in about 1909. The Adorers discontinued teaching in 1913 or 1914, according to Sr. Philomena. Edna Lewis replaced the nuns, becoming the first lay teacher in the one-room "colored" school. ["Why separate schools is a good question," Sr. Philomena writes. "I really never heard the answer."

While Edna Lewis was teaching in the parish school, Joseph Micheau was delivering the mail in Prairie du Rocher. He also, following a family tradition, did work around the church. Sr. Philomena writes that her mother Zoe Wright Micheau, her uncles William and Sylvester, and her aunt Angelique, were all employed in some capacity. Joseph was the church's gardener.

Joseph was contemplating entering the priesthood. But meeting Edna Lewis made him think again. He wrote her quite frequently. Some of his letters to her have been preserved by his granddaughter. For example, on May 1, 1913, he wrote:

PDR, Ill. May 1, '13

Dear Friend

This is Ascension Thursday and indeed a most beautiful day. . . .

Ema [later to become Sr. Philomena], has not finished talking about her C'dale visit. Nen [his sister Angelique] expects to go to St Louis next Thursday. Both she and M. [his sister Margerette, known as "Margy"] are coming to see you but said I must make the first trip. Will tell you when I am coming in my next letter. Are you being well-treated by the Catholic people of Carbondale? . . .

Ed, enclosed is the cross, please let it be a token of myy dearest remembrance. Hoping that this will find all as well as it leaves us.

I am truly your friend,

J.P. Micheau
P.S. Sisters send love

Six weeks later, Joseph's feelings are quite a bit more open.

PDR Ill. June 15, 1913

Dear, Dear Ed---

Finding that I need you, I want you, and today thinking of you, am writing this little message of love . . . . [N]ow each little visit to your home makes you more dear . . .

You may think, well, he has changed his story. All to[o] true but it is not without due consideration and I dare say not to[o] hurriedly either. Frankly & Truely, Ed, it is with a tinge of regret that I cannot see my way through the required schooling to reach my former desires. And now feeling that it is not entirely my fault and trying to make the best of all things, my thoughts are turned to you. . . .

Joseph and Edna were married for 62 years before his death. They had five children of their union, and foster-parented several dozen more. There are 18 grandchildren; 10 great-grandchildren; and three great-great-grandchildren. Joseph and Edna's descendants include engineers, artists, teachers, and other successful persons. They represent seven generations of the "French Negroes" of Illinois.

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