“The story has all the force of any great production shown on the theatrical stage, and a plot too diabolical for the imagination of man, but one involving things held sacred above all else by even primitives – the theft of Love, Labor, and Land.
Such is the story the inhabitants of the town of Edgard, tell, and their Creole patois becomes almost unintelligible as they stammer out the sordid tale of theft, murder, deception, and death … The natives are said to be related and inter-related because of constant marriage between men and women of the same blood strain – and between whom there is said to be little racial difference, if any.”
The Louisiana Weekly expended its most compelling prose in relaying the story of the murder of Lionel Champagne and the subsequent death of his killer, Clarence Borne; two men whose roots were as deeply imbedded in the soil of rural Saint John the Baptist Parish as the vast fields of cane which flank the mighty Mississippi on each side.
The section of the Mississippi River which comprises Saint John the Baptist and Saint Charles parishes is historically referred to as the Côte des Allemands or German Coast, because of the pioneer population of German migrants who were settled in the area in 1721 by John Law and the French Company of the Indies. These German settlers very quickly gallicized their names, adopted the French language, and married into the neighboring French and Creole families. They also began investing in enslaved Africans, the labor force that would eventually transform the Great River Road into an early ‘millionaire’s row.’ The two constants along the River in Saint John the Baptist and the surrounding parishes, were sugar and the plantation economy. Even in the 1930s, some half century after Emancipation, the roles and rights doled out according to race were still largely unchanged.
The town of Edgard and the small farms and plantation quarters surrounding it were all abuzz in early July 1936, when word was conveyed, chiefly in the lyrical strains of its Creole residents, that Mr. Lionel Champagne, the manager of the Gold Mine Plantation had been killed. The Sheriff, William Duhé, and the District Attorney, John Fleury, reported that they could find no ready motive for the murder. The few eye witnesses and near-relations were reportedly hesitant to speak and the Sheriff and D. A. were hesitant to reveal what they could uncover.
The Louisiana Weekly, the state’s leading African American paper, was able to get the story from the local residents and translate it for its readership.
Clarence Borne, according The Weekly’s story, was an indulgent and hardworking husband and father, who according to the Sheriff, had never been in any trouble. He was a native of Saint John the Baptist Parish, born in 1902, one of five children of Edward Borne and Georgiana Miller. Early in life, he married Angelina Beauvais (also spelled “Bovey”), the daughter of Baptiste Beauvais and Susan Alexander. Together, Clarence and Angelina, lived in a cabin on the Gold Mine Plantation with their three young daughters, Louella (12), Ruby (10), and Dorothy (8). The Gold Mine Plantation, located near the small community of Tigerville (between Lucy and Edgard), was owned for several generations by members of the extended Angelo Champagne family. Clarence worked on Gold Mine as a laborer and Angelina worked for the Champagne family in the main house as a cook.
The general economic depression of the 1930s was hard on most farmers, many of whom were “land rich but cash poor.” Those who owned small tracts like, Clarence Borne, were especially strapped, inasmuch as one year’s crop helped to finance the next, with little to no cash or other capital on hand. Considering the manager of Gold Mine, Mr. Lionel Champagne, to be his friend, Clarence approached him and asked him to save his small tract from an impending tax sale. The two men agreed that Champagne would advance the money necessary to pay the taxes and Borne would work off the debt. This seemingly simple agreement between two men whose entire lives and livelihoods centered around the same few miles of cane fields along the Mississippi River set into place a dramatic tale of theft and deception.
Clarence Borne arose early and retired late, working to repay the debt he owed to Mr. Lionel. When he finally felt that he had sufficiently labored to repay the debt, he went to retrieve the title to his land from Mr. Champagne. Mr. Lionel refused to give him title to the land and ran him off the place. Clarence went to see a lawyer, who initially accepted the case but later told him to go home and accept his losses. A betrayed and dismayed Clarence went to his stepfather, Sylvester Antoine’s home at Tigerville and planned his next move. Meanwhile, Mr. Lionel, who had developed a liking for Clarence’s wife, Angelina, began to frequent his home and keep company with her. On July 6, Clarence returned to his cabin and observed Mr. Lionel sitting at his table, eating a meal, and enjoying the attentions of his wife. Clarence had borrowed his stepfather’s shotgun the day before under the pretense of going hunting. He grew enraged and fired two shots at his former employer and presumed friend. He charged through the door of his cabin, determined to end his torment by killing his faithless wife and then killing himself. His oldest daughter, Louella, somehow sensing that her mother was her father’s next target, diverted his attention by exclaiming, “Daddy, won’t you take me to my uncle’s house.” This diversion enabled his wife to escape through the fields near their home.
Clarence fled the parish, fearing for his life, knowing that no semblance of a fair hearing would be given a colored man for killing a white man. Sheriff Duhé and a posse of citizens searched the parish for several days for any sign of him. Four months passed, during which Clarence made his way by night to various towns, working piecemeal as a farm hand. Four months passed, before Clarence Borne returned to Saint John Parish. On November 1, he was discovered atop a pile of wood on the property of Emile Roussell. His face was covered in blood from a facial hemorrhage. He was suffering from pneumonia and the effects of poisoning. Clarence was rushed to Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where authorities questioned him. He managed to say that he was robbed along the road by two white men who managed to give him acid contained in a whiskey flask. Authorities also claimed to find a note in his pocket indicating suicide. Clarence never recovered sufficiently to be further questioned nor to stand trial. Clarence Borne died on November 3, after having lost his land, his labor, and his love. His remains were returned to St. John the Baptist Parish, where he still lies, within miles of the land for which he labored.
The fate of Clarence Borne, erstwhile an upstanding, hardworking husband and father is but one example of the violence, treachery, hate, and emasculation bred by so sordid and debased a system as Jim Crow. This is but one example of the iniquities which blemish the history of the Southland. Thousands of disenfranchised and economically disadvantaged black landowners lost their property in a similar manner. Tax sales and foreclosed mortgages, if not outright theft, enabled many white landowners to snatch up the homesteads of modest men like Clarence Borne.
Angelina and the three girls subsequently moved to New Orleans. Angelina was remarried to Felix Woods, a native of New Roads, Louisiana, prior to her death on 12 February 1969. The three girls all eventually married. Louella Borne (29 October 1924 – 26 October 1993) was married to Robert Romance. Ruby Borne (3 October 1926 – 21 May 1995) was married to Albert Ransom, Sr. Dorothy Borne (8 September 1929 – 27 June 1982) was married to Charles Shivers, Sr.
Sources: The Louisiana Weekly, 7 November 1936, pages 1-2; The Times-Picayune, 8 July 1936, pages 1-2; 4 November 1936, page 29; The New Orleans States, 2 November 1936, page 22.