His parents were sharecroppers on a plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish. And as a child, Ernest Gaines dug potatoes for 50 cents a day. But his writings about the African-American experience in the rural south have made him one of this state's most acclaimed authors. Four of his books have become movies, and his novels are studied in classrooms from grade school through college. FOX 8's Dave McNamara finds out what has drawn the literary legend back to the plantation where he grew up, in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.
"All of my people lived here for five generations, and they're buried back there in that cemetery about three-quarters of a mile from this house," Gaines said, pointing to the Old Mount Zion Cemetery surrounded by the sugar cane fields of the River Lake Plantation in Oscar. The oldest graves, many of them unmarked, date back to the days of slavery.
"Because when they used to bury people back there, they just put them in a little box," Gaines said. "No anything - no cross, no stone."
But their lives, their struggles, their joys, their humanity are immortalized in the writings of Gaines, who grew up poor in the old quarter cabins on the plantation.
"The only thing I could write about was the experiences of my life and the people I knew and loved," Gaines said.
Gaines' life changed at the age of 15, when his mother and stepfather brought him to California. There, he was able to attend high school and spend his spare time reading in a library - things he could not do in his hometown.
"There were no books in the library about black people, African-American people," Gaines said.
That was the inspiration for Gaines to write. He graduated from San Francisco State University and was then invited to study creative writing at Stanford.
"And I did a lot of writing, writing, writing and writing," Gaines said. "The only thing I could think to write about was Louisiana. The body went to California, but the soul remained here."
He found inspiration for his book, "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," in this giant oak tree, 2 miles from his boyhood home.
"When I came to write about Miss Jane Pittman, I had that tree in my mind," Gaines said. "She is like the tree, that great oak that knew so much and seen so much and lynchings and killings and suicides and everything that Miss Jane had gone through."
Just as his stories are rooted in this land, Gaines now lives on part of the old plantation property, a half-mile from the Quarter where he grew up. You can still see one of the old cabins hidden in the overgrowth. The church that was part of his youth has been moved to his backyard.
If you've read Ernest Gaines' books, then you know about this old church. It's where families sang praises, where kids went to school. It was the center of the community. And how it's part of Gaines' home.
"I still recall hearing the old people singing and praying and the preaching. And the determination Sundays where you were determined to go to heaven," Gaines said.
Through books like "A Gathering of Old Men" and "A Lesson Before Dying," Gaines hopes his stories connect with African-American youth to help them understand where they came from. But he says the stories are also for white youth.
"I hope the white youth of the South would read my books and let them know that unless they knew their neighbors, whose black kids of the past 300 years…. They know only half, half of their own history," Gaines said.
As he approaches his 80th birthday, Gaines is starting another novel that he predicts will be his last. But he never wants to put down his pen.
"I wish I can write until the last day," Gaines said. "I wish I could."
And he has already written what will be his final statement to the world.
"I've told them what I want on my tombstone: To lie with those who have no mark. Without those people, I would've had nothing to write about," Gaines said.
With his stories, Ernest Gaines has given all of these lives a mark.
Gaines has been the writer-in-residence emeritus at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. ULL has also created the Ernest Gaines Center, an international center for scholars to study the works of the Louisiana author.