Preserving Legacy: Widow of Ernest Gaines wants historic designation for his home, land

Staff Report

Nearly three years after the death of Ernest Gaines, his wife, Dianne Gaines, says she wants to ensure that a vital part of his legacy remains intact.

For her, nothing represents his legacy better than his home.

Dianne Gaines visits the grave site of her late husband, Ernest Gaines, at their home in Oscar.

As she considers a move to New Orleans – closer to her family and her doctors – Gaines wants to see his home in Oscar receive designation as a Louisiana landmark and perhaps see its placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

The state of Mississippi has bestowed similar honors for two of its acclaimed authors – William Faulkner (“The Sound and the Fury”) and Eudora Welty (“The Optimist’s Daughter”).

Their homes are protected through the National Register of Historic Places.

Gaines wants Louisiana to preserve his legacy for her husband, an Oscar native whose literary works include the 1983 novel “A Gathering of Old Men” and “A Lesson Before Dying,” a 1993 novel that won the National Humanities Medal.

Ernest Gaines, who died in Oscar in November 2019, was perhaps best known for “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a 1971 novel on the struggles of African-Americans, as told by its narrator, Jane Pittman.

The home in Oscar – designed by Glen Morgan and built by James Robert in 2004 – was along the grounds on which he worked and attended school as a child.

The acreage is home to a church sanctuary that also served as a school for children of the sharecroppers.

It’s also home to a cemetery, the resting place for his family members and others who lived on the acreage.

Dianne Gaines said she remembers a word challenge that led to an essay about one of his greatest fears.

“His obsession was the cemetery,” Gaines said. “He had nightmares that unless we did something, it would be plowed under, and sugarcane planted on it. He so cared about that cemetery.”

Ernest and Dianne Gaines worked with Ralph Chustz to start a nonprofit cemetery before they received permission to take it over and maintain it.

“We started working with Ralph to start a nonprofit cemetery corporation, and the descendants of the property …there were about 16 of them who owned little pieces, and we had to get 16 people,” she said.

“They transferred their ownership to the nonprofit cemetery corporation.”

The obsession was about upkeep of the cemetery so it would perpetuate.

“Otherwise, he had fears of what would happen to it,” Gaines said.

Ownership of the cemetery led to beautification efforts.

They also performed upkeep on the church.  

“Ernest went to church and went to school because there were no public schools for them,” she said.

“The people in the quarters built that church with the idea that there would be school during the week for children, and then church on Sundays and maybe once or twice at night.

“They did that, and they paid the teacher to come from New Orleans and teach them.

“People don’t realize ... They always think about us needing things, but those people were very independent, and they took care of their own,” she said.

“I want this to be a tribute to Ernest.”

Ernest Gaines has two brothers buried in above-ground vaults.

Gaines would drive over to the cemetery to reflect and reminisce, his wife recalled.

“He would come often,” she said. “We would park the car, and he always tell me where he wanted to be buried.”

They conducted a cemetery beautification shortly before his death in 2019.

It was as much about bonding with each other as it was about work, Gaines said.

“We’d all work in the cemetery and then everyone could come into our house we’d serve them a dinner,” she recalled. “He would sit outside and talk and laugh with everyone until they’d get tired and leave.”

His death remains a difficult subject for her.

They had sat at the kitchen table earlier that day, where they talked for hours.

The next evening, he enjoyed one of his favorite pastimes: “Monday Night Football.”

“I went to bed, but he stayed up because he loved football,” she said. “There was no expectation of his being ill … nothing. 

“He just had a very good time, put on his pajamas and went to bed -- and never woke up,” she said.

“He had on his pajamas, which meant he had already done his nighttime routine … it meant he was OK at that time.”

She remembers one of their final chats at the table.

“We were talking about current events, talking about family … everything,” Dianne said. “He then asked me if I thought anybody else sits and talks the way we did.

“It’s so warm to my heart because it meant so much to him because he thought it was such a unique, special experience we shared,” she said. “I suspect other people do that, but I didn’t tell him that.”

His greatest charm perhaps came from his love of simple things in life, and not to put himself above others, Gaines said.

The best example could be found on the inscription on his headstone: “To Lie with Those Who Have No Mark.”

It referred to the deceased sharecroppers who could not read or write.

“That was exactly what he wanted on his tomb,” she said. “Even with all the awards and acclaim, he never forgot where he came from –and that’s what I loved about him.”