A paragraph in the “Negro Folkways” chapter of Mississippi: A Guide to the Magnolia State describes “an old woman of Leflore County,” Cindy Mitchell. Offering her as an example of a typical religious leader of the “Mississippi folk Negro,” Mississippi: A Guide explains that Cindy was known to them as the “Good Shepard,” “so great was her hold on her followers” (24).1 “Cindy and the Joyful Noise,” published here for the first time seventy-plus years after Welty wrote it, describes a similar Cindy—a woman who began her life as a “yellow slave girl” on a plantation in Grenada County, Mississippi, and became a religious leader with a dedicated group of followers known as “Cindy’s Band” (22); the two women are surely the same person.2
Both Mississippi: A Guide and Welty’s essay include accounts of Cindy’s attempt to walk on the water of the muddy Yalobusha River. However, there are discrepancies within these two accounts. In both, Cindy has a wooden platform constructed just beneath the water’s surface to walk upon, but in Mississippi: A Guide, Cindy notices that some of the planks are missing from the platform before she attempts to cross the river. In Welty’s recounting, Cindy has almost crossed the river when she suddenly disappears, nearly drowning. While Mississippi: A Guide offers no explanation for the platform’s missing planks, Welty explains that the planks were “sawed through” by “mischievous white boys” (“Cindy” 25). In her December 1979 note regarding “Cindy and the Joyful Noise,” Welty seems to be aware of possible inaccuracies in her account of Cindy. Welty’s account is based on her visit with two of Cindy’s African-American followers, John and Ellen Goodall, and she writes that she accepted “without much question the anecdotes repeated by white people—I didn’t track things down as I should have tried to” (19). She seems to have had this in mind when she added a handwritten note to her paragraph describing Cindy’s attempt to walk on water, explaining, “this is told by the white people in Grenada.”
Despite worrying over the accuracy of her essay, Welty included it in her donations to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and seems to have recognized the implications of Cindy’s story. In Eudora Welty: A Biography, Suzanne Marrs writes that Welty sent the essay to Diarmuid [End Page 15] Russell in March 1941, having written it in the early thirties when she “visited the home of Mary Moore Mitchell, her roommate from the Mississippi State College for Women” (73). Though Russell “liked the essay,” he was “unsure where he might be able to place it” (73). Marrs notes that, even in 1941, Welty “recalled that these African Americans were part of an attempt to gain power and independence in a segregated environment” (73). In 1979, Welty was surely thinking of this, asking in her note, “what curious premonitions of the Civil Rights demonstrations to come lie in the dreams and exhortations and the dramatic performances of Cindy?” (“Cindy” 19). Like many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Cindy seems to have been both respected and feared by the whites of Grenada County, and her strength as a leader is evidenced by the Goodalls’ account of Cindy in Welty’s essay. Both consider themselves to be members of Cindy’s Band even after her death, and one of the aprons that Cindy and her followers wore, sewn with Cindy’s vision of heaven and hell, still hung on the Goodalls’ wall when Welty met them (see Fig. 1, “Cindy” 21).
In addition to this photo of Cindy’s apron, which can also be found printed in One Time, One Place with the caption “A Slave’s apron showing souls in progress to Heaven and Hell,” Welty also took several photos of John and Ellen Goodall and their cabin home (96). A photo of Ellen standing in front of the cabin is printed in Eudora Welty as Photographer, and photos of John Goodall sitting on the cabin’s front porch appear in Photographs and “Portfolio: Eudora Welty...