“A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland”
Author: Sydney Nathans
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Price: $29.95 (Hardcover)
Readers of Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant, Pulitzer Prize–winning study, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” learned how millions of African-Americans left the South seeking greater personal freedom and a chance at a better job and a better life in the industrial cities of the north and in California.
Wilkerson made it painfully clear that these migrants were leaving a world of lynching, daily humiliation, being cheated financially at every turn. Jim Crow laws were a daily enforcement of second-class citizenship.
To read of the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—after Emancipation—is to wonder why any African-Americans stayed at all. And yet, obviously, many did.
Sydney Nathans, a Duke history professor doing research in the UNC library, came upon extensive records from a large plantation just outside Greensboro, Alabama, with an unusual history. Nathans studied intensively the overseer’s records, commissary accounts, etc. then decided to travel to Alabama to find and interview descendants of the original 114 slaves.
He met and became friends with Alice Hargress and many others, descendants of the original plantation workers, and in many visits over a 30-year period learned the story from their point of view.
In 1844, Paul Cameron, 36, a North Carolina planter, hoping to become even wealthier, bought a 1600-acre plantation in Hale County and brought down from Carolina those 114 enslaved workers.
Cameron was it seems, a decent fellow, as slaveowners go.
Unlike many of his peers, Cameron and his father, Duncan, were as known as men “of good feelings.” They tried to run their plantations on a kind of merit system, giving advancement and privileges to a talented few—the “first men”—of the plantation: blacksmiths, shoemakers, etc.
The Camerons also strove to keep slave families together. Within an unjust system, this practice was certainly more desirable than breaking up families and selling individuals separately, and, probably, brought out loyalty and more faithful labor from the workers. It was largely with family units kept intact that the Hale County place was peopled.
Cameron’s plantation in Hale County was, however, a disaster from the start. Cameron, an absentee owner, only lived in Alabama a few weeks a year, leaving the plantation to be run by managers and their overseers. This is never the best plan.
Some of the land was rich and black, as advertised. But a lot of it was red clay, suitable for some food crops like corn and beans, but not suitable for cotton.
Some of the land flooded during heavy rain. There were droughts, and the price of cotton fluctuated madly, and due to periodic oversupply, often went down. And there were, before the boll weevil, army worms, which could invade at the last minute and destroy the work of a year.
Cameron finally gave up and, in a most unusual move, in 1875 sold the plantation to the black families who had come with him in 1844 and stayed with him after Emancipation and through some very tough times.
Cameron was now out of the picture and the black farmers had to fight their way forward, through all the natural dangers of flood, drought and disease. They also had to contend with the KKK, Jim Crow laws, and being treated with condescension, suspicion and even hostility when they needed to go into Greensboro to shop. They were denied the vote and had no voice in public works projects, which became an issue in the 1930s when the federal government was financing road improvements but the workers were selected locally by the white politicians in power.
Black farmers were denied most financing of any kind, by the local banks, and even more shamefully, by the regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which favored agribusiness heavily.
The freedmen and their descendants persevered, started a credit union, built a church, and held on, a kind of island or oasis in an unfriendly sea.
Nathan writes that after WWII, “for the young, the land served a single purpose: as a springboard for departure. All the while, the ruling sentiment, almost a religion itself, was to hold onto the land, not sell off parcels, keep it intact and provide a home place for those who wished to stay in Alabama and a place of return for those who would want to come back” if life in the North proved far from Edenic.
When the sixties arrived, many of the black landowners marched in Greensboro for the right to vote and those demonstrations increased local hostility.
Still they persevered, and Nathans ends his book with a scene in 2013 in which Alice Hargress, then 99 years old, who had kept her land intact and free, is meeting with some young people at the Martin Luther King Safe House Museum on the outskirts of Greensboro. Ms. Hargress reminisces especially about the civil rights struggles of 1965, during which she was jailed most uncomfortably for three days. And then tells the youngsters: I’m moving on. It’s your turn now” and leads them in song.
“Ain’t nobody gonna turn me around,
Turn me around, turn me around.
Ain’t nobody gonna turn me around.
Keep on a-talking, keep on walking,
Marching up to Freedom Land.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.