Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
4,694 words
SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

The Last Slave

by Lucille Lang Day

At a time when there were still laws in her home state of Mississippi to keep blacks and whites apart, the life of my maternal grandmother, Larissa McKay, was intertwined with that of a black man. Grandma arrived in San Francisco by train from Hattiesburg in the late summer of 1919, when she was thirteen years old. The Great War was over and so was the great flu pandemic. After these two events carried off half of the residents of her hometown of Bellefleur, the great aunt and uncle who’d raised her decided it was time to get out. She always said her first sight of the brown hills of California depressed her, accustomed as she was to the lush elm and sweetgum forests of her home state. She also said that Aunt Dot and Uncle Lou brought with them the last slave in the United States of America, Oakes, whom Grandma called “niggah” in the Southern drawl she never lost in the seventy-two years she lived in California. I don’t know what depths of contempt or indifference Aunt Dot and Uncle Lou felt when they used the word “niggah,” but I do know that Grandma had more love and respect for Oakes than she did for her great aunt and uncle.

Oakes wasn’t really a slave, though he’d been born one. He was about fourteen when the Civil War ended. According to Grandma, as a young boy he’d learned the alphabet from his mother, who’d been secretly taught by the governess of her master’s son. Curious and intelligent, with just this little bit of knowledge he was able to teach himself to read and write using discarded schoolbooks and an old Bible. He was tall and lean, Grandma said, with skin the color of coffee and cream, and was strong as the oaks that dotted the dry hills of California. After the Civil War he worked in construction for more than forty years before signing on as caretaker and servant for Dot and Lou about the same time Grandma was orphaned and went to live with them. Grandma never could quite figure out why he stuck with them, cold and selfish as they were. He’d known them for a long time, so she surmised that that had something to do with it.

Grandma’s father Cornelius McKay was Dot’s nephew, her brother’s son. I know this is getting complicated, but families have a way of doing that. He was the overseer at a lumberyard that supplied the company Oakes worked for, and the way I understand it, he arranged for Oakes to work for Dot and Lou and maybe others in the off season. Cornelius and his wife Rose lived in Roundhill, about sixty miles from Bellefleur. I’ve seen pictures of him. He was a long-faced man whose brow was always furrowed, as though in worry, and was so gaunt you’d think he hadn’t eaten a good meal in years. He died of tuberculosis when Grandma was just a baby, and Rose supported herself as a seamstress until she died herself, a few years later.

Dot and Lou never had children and never wanted any, but when Grandma was orphaned at age three, they took her in. Then Oakes, who was about sixty at the time, told them he was too old to continue doing heavy construction work and offered to do their handy work and housework in exchange for room and board. He also watched Grandma, enabling Dot and Lou to continue enjoying their childfree lives. They later explained, “We got ourselves a daughtah and a niggah on the same day.” Also, apparently, for the same purpose: as soon as Grandma was old enough to understand what dust rags and mops were for, she was put to work alongside Oakes.

Dot and Lou ran the dry goods store in Bellefleur. Grandma said there was a filling station next door and a blacksmith shop across the street. I guess it took a while for the folks of Bellefleur to figure out which century they were in. The store did well until World War I came along. Dot and Lou struggled through the war years, expecting things to pick up again when it was over, but instead everyone got the Spanish flu and sales were worse than ever. Rather than risk any further losses, they decided to take their savings and head for California, where Lou’s sister and her husband had a chicken farm. Lou wanted to go to Santa Rosa to be near them and raise chickens himself, but Dot, who fancied herself a fine city lady, put her foot down. She said the only place in California she’d consider living was San Francisco. Grandma and Oakes breathed more easily, because Oakes didn’t feel like building chicken coops and neither he nor Grandma had any desire to clean them.

The Palace of Fine Arts was the most famous building in San Francisco at the time, so almost as soon as they arrived, Lou and Dot took a streetcar out to see it with Oakes and Grandma in tow. It had been designed by Bernard Maybeck for the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 and looked like a Greek temple—all columns, arches, and domes. There was nothing like it in Bellefleur, and when Grandma saw it she felt like she’d died and gone to heaven. Oakes said, “Miss Larissa, I think we gonna like it here.” The Palace is still there today, by its own little lagoon near the Golden Gate Bridge.

While Lou and Dot looked for a house to buy, they all stayed in a boarding house near Fisherman’s Wharf. Grandma could hardly get to sleep at night because the air was so thick with the smell of dead fish. Lou and Dot were about to buy Victorian flats that had survived the 1906 earthquake, with the idea of renting out the upper floors, when a miraculous thing occurred: they heard that a house on Russian Hill designed by Mr. Maybeck was for sale and likely to go for much less than it was worth. It had been built for a doctor just a few years earlier, but he’d died recently, leaving a lot of debt, and now his wife had to sell it fast. Aunt Dot, a true Southern belle as well as a fine city lady at heart, pictured the Palace of Fine Arts and was so afraid someone else might buy it if they wasted a single minute. She told her husband to make an offer before they’d even seen it. Since Aunt Dot was the boss, they’d already made the offer when they set out by cab for Russian Hill.

It was a two-story, brown-shingle house with lots of redwood paneling and trim and a balcony overlooking San Francisco Bay and the Oakland Hills beyond. Grandma told me the living room had an enormous stone fireplace, large unpainted beams in the ceiling, and windows taller than any she’d seen before except in church. The master bedroom opened onto a small courtyard. The house didn’t look anything like the Palace of Fine Arts, but if Dot was disappointed, she never said so.

Grandma was ecstatic. She loved that house. In Mississippi she’d had the sleeping porch, and Oakes slept in what had once been a tool shed. In San Francisco they each had a real bedroom, and except that they spent so much of their time waxing floors, oiling wood, and dusting furniture, they would have thought they were indeed in paradise. They also did all of Lou and Dot’s errands, on foot, climbing Russian Hill sometimes two or more times a day. Moreover, they were the cooks and dishwashers of the household, and Oakes did all of the repairs—carpentry, plumbing, and painting.

Lou and Dot opened a stationery store on Market Street. In those days, people wrote far more letters than they do now. They sent letters just to say hello or invite someone to dinner, and a great many individuals, not just businesses, had their own letterhead. The telephone hadn’t fully caught on, and anyway, Grandma said, some people considered it impolite to call and disrupt the tranquility of a household unless it was an emergency. Lou and Dot sold both letterhead and plain stationery, with a wide range of paper choices, and they did very well.

Grandma couldn’t remember her mother, and Dot and Lou were no help. Neither of them had anything to say but “I hardly knew her. Only met her a couple of times. They lived sixty miles away.”

The first time Grandma thought to ask Oakes about her mother was after they came to San Francisco. She was dusting the china vases and silk-shaded table lamps in the living room, and he was standing on a ladder to clean the chandelier, when she asked, “Did you know my mother?”

He stopped what he was doing and looked out the high windows toward the Oakland Hills. “Yes, Miss Larissa, I sho did.”

“What was she like?”

“The fines’ lady you ever seen and pretty as could be, jes like you: shinin’ black curls and dark eyes so deep and mysterious, you couldna see the bottom. Her skin was fair but take a nice tan if she go out without her hat on. Mr. McKay didna like that none too much. Guess he thought she look like a niggah.” He chuckled, then continued. “She loved to dance, but Mr. McKay, he was sickly, so she didna get to dance much. She also loved birds and put seeds out for ’em so’s they’d never have to look far for food, and she was the best mother anyone ever have. Carried you aroun’ all the time when you was a baby and slept with you in her arms.”

When Grandma told me this over tea in her kitchen, it sounded to me like Oakes was infatuated with Rose McKay, and I wondered if he’d gone to live with Dot and Lou just so he could watch out for her daughter, but I was afraid to suggest this to Grandma. I didn’t want it to sound like I thought there could be anything sexual between Oakes and Rose. He was at least thirty years older than her, and the idea that she would have an affair with an old black man, a former slave, was preposterous. He’d have been lynched for sure if anyone found out. I just thought he’d loved her from a distance, the way people fall in love with movie stars or people they’ve only seen in photographs.

Oakes had no family. He told Grandma he’d been married for a few years as a young man, but his wife had died giving birth to a stillborn child. It seemed to me, hearing this story, that Lou and Dot’s household gave him a family of sorts. Having lunch with Grandma at the Fairmont Hotel when she was about eighty, I suggested that maybe Oakes had gone to live with Aunt Dot and Uncle Lou because of his affection for her. I didn’t even mention Rose. Grandma protested. “Lydia, why would an old niggah want to take on a child? His concern for me came aftah he moved in. First he got stuck babysitting. Then, as I got older, we worked together and became friends.” I never mentioned it again.

Dot and Lou worked Oakes and Grandma hard, with little appreciation, many complaints, and rarely a day off. She was allowed out of the house only to go to school and church and run errands for them. She never had another child over to play the entire time she was growing up, and whenever she asked to visit one of her friends after school, Dot said, “If any would not work, neither should he eat,” and set Grandma to work cleaning the oven, doing the laundry, or sweeping the floors. Grandma eventually got the point and stopped asking.

She never would have had any toys, but for the kindness of Oakes. Locked in a small, scratched wooden chest in his room, he kept his few possessions. These included his well-worn Bible, a rag doll, a yo-yo, a little wooden sailboat, and several three-dimensional wooden puzzles he’d carved himself. The puzzles formed geometric shapes like cubes, pyramids, and spheres. In Bellefleur Grandma had spent many happy hours with these treasures while her aunt and uncle were at the dry goods store. To give her time to play, Oakes did her share of the chores and swore her to secrecy. She knew she had a good thing and learned early to keep a secret.

At sixteen she almost ran off with a skinny young man who worked for the butcher. He was about twenty years old and always had blood on his hands and apron and sawdust on his shoes. He’d look at Grandma with a funny, lopsided grin when she came to pick up a chicken or ham or side of beef. She never thought too much about this until one day he said, “I seen you here a lot. Name’s Lloyd. What’s yours?”


“That’s the prettiest name I ever did hear,” he said, smiling his lop-sided smile. “I got Sunday off, and me and my brother and sister-in-law are having a picnic in Golden Gate Park. Would you like to come?”

Yes, she would. The trouble was, she knew that Dot and Lou wouldn’t allow it. On Sundays the three of them always went to morning services at Old First Presbyterian Church on Sacramento Street. While the others were at church, Oakes stayed home and fixed supper.

Grandma thought it would be more feasible to meet Lloyd someday after school if he could get away from work early. She thought Oakes would cover for her, although she’d never asked him to do so on any of the many occasions when she’d wanted to visit a girlfriend. “I always go to church with my aunt and uncle on Sundays, then have supper with them and read the Bible afterward,” she said, “but maybe I could go for a walk sometime after school.”

Lloyd did manage to get away from work a couple of weeks later, and Oakes did indeed cover for them. Lloyd was truly smitten, Grandma said, and he talked his boss into letting him off early again soon thereafter. On their second date, as they strolled by the Palace of Fine Arts, he said, “Larissa, I want to be with you for the rest of my life. Will you marry me?” He looked serious and nervous and wasn’t wearing his lop-sided grin.

When she hesitated, he continued. “There’s good jobs in the lumber industry up north. We can move up there. I’m tired of cleaning up for Mr. Olin.”

She said she’d think about it. Lloyd was not a handsome man, and she didn’t think she was in love with him. Also, she wasn’t excited about the idea of moving “up north.” She was cold all the time in San Francisco. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to a place where it was always cold at night, even in summer. However, she thought maybe she’d be happier with Lloyd than with Dot and Lou, so she considered saying yes.

The next day she told Oakes, “Lloyd wants to marry me and move up north.”

“You be givin’ up a lot, Miss Larissa. That aunt and uncle o’ yours got more money than you think, and they got no kids. You go runnin’ off with Lloyd, and they gonna leave they money to them chicken-farm folks in Santa Rosa.”

Like Lloyd, she wanted to be done with her present chores and condition of servitude. “I’m sick of cleaning things that are already clean.”

His eyes misted over. “That ain’t no reason to get married, honey.” He pleaded, “You gotta finish school. You ain’t in love with Lloyd. If you was in love with Lloyd, it be different. You shouldna see him no more. You be throwin’ your life away.”

If it hadn’t been for Oakes, Grandma would have eloped with Lloyd. There would have been no one to advise her not to, and no one to keep her company as she continued to mop the floors, polish the silverware, and cook dinner at the house on Russian Hill. Sixty years later she would say, “That old man saved my life. I never could have been happy with Lloyd, and Oakes knew it.”


Twice a year Dot and Lou went to visit Lou’s sister and brother-in-law on the chicken farm. They’d close up the stationery store on Friday night, head for Santa Rosa early Saturday morning, spend the night there, and come back to San Francisco late Sunday afternoon. While they were away, Grandma and Oakes had their best times together: this was when they were free. Sometimes they rode the merry-go-round in Golden Gate Park and ate hot dogs afterward at Ocean Beach. Once they took a ferry to Oakland. I don’t know where Oakes got the money for these outings. Maybe Dot and Lou gave him small amounts of cash in addition to room and board, or maybe he did odd jobs for neighbors while Dot and Lou were at the stationery store. I never asked Grandma about it.

The outing Grandma remembered best was when Oakes took her to Muir Woods the spring she graduated from high school. Early on a Sunday morning, they packed a picnic lunch and took a ferry to Sausalito. From there, they took a train to Muir Woods.

As they walked beneath redwood trees nearly 300 feet tall, Oakes pointed out horsetails, sword ferns, and mushrooms on the forest floor. Then he picked a cluster of needles from a low-hanging branch. “See them needles,” he said. “They flat. Pines got roun’ ones.”

Climbing a hill beyond the redwoods, he showed her bigleaf maples with gray-brown bark and rounded crowns, and tanoaks, which aren’t really oaks, with their hard, toothy leaves. He picked a lance-like leaf from a bay laurel and broke it, so she could smell its peppery fragrance. Pointing to turkey vultures soaring overhead, their wings forming broad Vs, he said, “They lookin’ for somethin’ dead to eat.” He also knew the Oregon juncos, with white-rimmed tails, and the California quail that scurried across their path.

It wasn’t a hot day, just pleasantly warm, but as they walked in the sun, Grandma was too warm in her long Victorian dress. For many people, it was now the Roaring Twenties, but for Grandma, stuck with Dot and Lou and their old-fashioned ways, it might as well have been 1890. She owned three dresses—one for school, one for church, and one for work—all with long skirts, high necks, and long sleeves. Today she was wearing the brown work one, to keep the others clean. She also wore black boots with small buttons, her only pair of shoes. When they reached the top of the hill and sat on a rock to eat the chicken sandwiches they’d brought, she looked out over the rolling landscape filled with the plants and birds Oakes had been showing her, then out toward the sea, before she turned to him and asked, “How do you know so much?”

“I read. I pay attention. I ask.”

She decided then and there that she wanted to be a teacher and open new worlds for students, as Oakes was doing for her.


Dot and Lou didn’t invite Oakes to Grandma’s graduation from Lowell High School. Although there was no celebration at home afterward, Oakes was elated that she had graduated. Surely he knew she would have dropped out if it hadn’t been for him. As Grandma told it, when she showed him her diploma, he smiled broadly and looked so proud you’d think he’d graduated himself. He said, “You a scholar, Miss Larissa!” She told Dot and Lou she wanted to go to San Francisco State College and study to be a teacher, but they pooh-poohed her, arguing that she had no need of a job.

Grandma always called Oakes the last slave, but, in fact, her own servitude lasted longer than his. The month following the graduation, Oakes took sick. He was in bed a lot, and now it was Grandma’s turn to take on extra chores. She did most of his work, took him food and tea, and worried over him. He said not to worry, that he was just tired and would soon get his strength back and be okay. But his strength didn’t come back; he just got weaker and weaker. Grandma thought he was in pain, though he didn’t say so.

She nursed him through summer and most of the fall. Lou and Dot and Oakes didn’t believe in doctors, and they thought of hospitals only as places where you go to die, so there was never any talk of taking Oakes to a doctor. One December morning he didn’t wake up. Grandma shook him gently, hoping it was just a deep sleep, but his body was already cold and stiff, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to rouse him. After the undertaker took him away, Dot opened the little chest in his room. Shaking her head as though she’d never seen anything so ridiculous, she said, “Look at what that old fool thought to keep.” Then she put everything in the garbage: his clothes, his Bible, the toys. Later that night, Grandma took one of the wooden puzzles out of the garbage and hid it in her room, where she wept, unable to sleep, looking out across the dark bay toward Oakland and Berkeley, which were growing so fast that it seemed every week there were more lights than there’d been the week before.

Dot and Lou were in their late seventies, around the same age as Oakes. Lou died the year after him, and Dot the year after that. Grandma ministered to them both, emptying their bedpans, mopping their brows, and going to them when they called out in the night. As Oakes had predicted, they left Grandma the house, the stationery store, and their money. Dot had hired a young man named Evan Howser to help at the store after Lou’s death, and by the time she died, he’d been running the business himself for several months. Grandma kept him on, so she could go back to school.

She went to San Francisco State College, got her credential, and became a high school biology teacher. At State she met Ralph Ludlow, who was studying to be a civil engineer. After graduation they married and moved into a house in the Sunset District, and she sold her aunt and uncle’s home on Russian Hill. I wish she’d kept it in the family, but I understand how she felt, not wanting to live with the ghosts of Dot and Lou, whom she didn’t love, and Oakes, whom she did.


About ten years after Grandma’s death, I became interested in genealogy. It was easy to trace the McKays, Larissa’s father’s family, who came to America from Scotland in the eighteenth century. My father was an Ellison, and I gathered a wealth of information about his family too. They were descended from British nobles whose line goes back to before the Norman Conquest. In the United States they became mostly teachers, ministers, and farmers, with an occasional lawyer or accountant.

I hit a roadblock when I tried to trace Ralph Ludlow’s line. The name “Ludlow” comes from an ancient town in North Wales, but I couldn’t trace any direct ancestors past his grandparents’ generation. There was rumor of Indian blood in the family, so I decided to get a DNA test. I swabbed my inner cheeks, put the swabs in an envelope, and sent them to a company in Florida. A few weeks later the results arrived, and I was astounded. I didn’t have any Native American genes, but I had a small percentage of African ones!

I didn’t think that Oakes was Larissa’s father, but I had a hunch that Rose was part black and Oakes knew her secret. I knew enough about my other ancestors to consider it unlikely that the African genes could have come from any of them. It was time to get Rose McKay’s death certificate, because it would give the names of her parents and date and place of birth. The same day I got the results of the DNA test, I called the town clerk in Roundhill, Mississippi, and ordered a death record for $10.00.

When the envelope from Roundhill finally arrived, I set aside my other mail and tore it open standing in the front hall. The certificate said that Rose McKay died of pneumonia on November 18, 1909. She was born in Prentiss, Mississippi, April 2, 1882, and her parents were Clive and Hattie Oakes.

I don’t know how Grandma would have felt to know that Oakes was her grandfather, but I’d like to think she’d be happy. My own reaction was excitement and pride, and I wanted to know more. I immediately wrote to the county clerk in Prentiss to get Rose’s birth certificate and maybe even Clive and Hattie’s marriage record, but I hit a dead end. They had no record of the marriage, Rose’s birth, Hattie’s death, or any other children born to Clive and Hattie in the 1880s. Then I checked other nearby towns, census records, and even the Mississippi State Archives. Nothing. Except for Rose’s death record, there seemed to be no trace of Hattie or Oakes in the state of Mississippi. There was no record, either, of Rose’s marriage to Cornelius McKay. I ordered Oakes’ death certificate in San Francisco, but it was no help: spouse (none), parents (unknown), date of birth (unknown), cause of death (natural causes, old age).

Did Cornelius know of Rose’s ancestry? By marrying her he was breaking the anti-miscegenation laws of the Jim Crow South. Certainly, Lou and Dot didn’t know. If they had, I don’t think they’d have made Grandma their heir. Who was Silas Smith, who supplied the information on Rose’s death record? Did Hattie die giving birth to Rose? Did Rose have siblings? When and how did Rose decide to pass for white?

I’m left with more questions than answers, but of course I have opinions and instincts about everything. I think Hattie did indeed die giving birth to Rose or shortly thereafter. At some point Oakes realized that his daughter looked white, and he wanted to give her a better life than she could have had as the daughter of a former slave. Maybe he posed as “Silas Smith,” Rose’s handyman, to provide the information for Rose’s death certificate, thereby creating the only extant record of Rose’s ancestry.

Oakes was a light-skinned black man. Maybe he was even a quadroon and thought his daughter was entitled to claim her white heritage. I don’t think he felt any shame in being labeled black himself or in having been a slave, although he helped his daughter pass and watched his granddaughter grow up as a white child. Perhaps anyone in the Jim Crow South would have done the same if they could, as a matter of advantage and survival. I don’t blame him for what he did, and for me, at least, knowing that he was Larissa’s grandfather doesn’t diminish the admirableness either of the sacrifices he made for her or of his dedication to her.

Maybe because I was always interested in her stories about Oakes, before she died, Grandma gave me the little wooden sphere with six interlocking pieces that she’d retrieved from the garbage. Now my four-year-old daughter plays with it, though she hasn’t quite gotten the hang of putting it back together on her own. Someday I’ll tell her all about Oakes’ and Grandma’s servitude, and the sad truth that the world has not yet seen its last slave. For now I just say, “Your great-great-great-grandfather made that puzzle a long time ago. His name was Oakes.”

SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Lucille Lang Day

is the author of a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story, which received a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award and was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. She has also published a children’s book and ten poetry collections and chapbooks, including Becoming an Ancestor, Dreaming of Sunflowers: Museum Poems, and The Curvature of Blue.

Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in more than 100 literary magazines, such as The Cincinnati Review, The Hudson Review, The Paterson Literary Review, Passages North, and The Threepenny Review. Her many honors include the Willow Review Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Joseph Henry Jackson Award in poetry, a Notable Essay citation in Best American Essays, and nine Pushcart Prize nominations in poetry and prose.

She earned her MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University and her PhD in science/mathematics education at UC Berkeley. The founder and director of a small press, Scarlet Tanager Books, she lives with her husband, writer Richard Michael Levine, in Oakland, California.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury