This past spring, on a trip to the coast, my wife and I decided to forgo the speed and ease of interstate travel for the interest factor of backroad pig trails. Despite the black water rivers and swamps cutting the land, vast fields and pastures seemed to overtake the two-lane road. Where there were homes, yards were at a minimum…except where pecan tree lined drives led to two story homes featuring circular drives, wrap around porches and columns. Mostly of the homes peaking my interest were small, broken down and square, four room homes dating from share cropping days or possibly earlier. The shanties sat on small square parcels of land and would be surrounded by towering corn stalks, tobacco or cotton by late summer. Known for rice and indigo during our colonial period and cotton during antebellum times, I guess land was too precious to allow for large plots of land to be used for recreational purposes…especially when there was little time for recreation. “Early thirty to dark thirty” days would soon be upon the farm workers of this coastal city and the surrounding area just as it had been decades ago…or may be centuries.
As I drove through the land I imagined poor whites and poorer blacks inhabiting the old share cropper’s shanties, battling each other for a life as “casual” farm laborers, having given up on the pursuit of jobs in the city. An elderly black woman stepped out of one of the tar paper houses, its broken-down front porch resembling the sway back of an overused plow horse. She was dressed as her ancestors dressed, a brightly colored scarf wrapped around her head and a long-sleeved print dress above what appeared to be bare feet. As I breezed past I almost asked out loud, “I wonder what tales she could tell?” While the journey was interesting, I became somber and introspective.
Tar paper and graying, slab wood shacks occasionally dotted the landscape around my childhood home. There was an abandoned and overgrown shack next to my house used as a clubhouse of sorts by my best friends and me. The younger me never thought about what it or these other broken-down homes represented. Our clubhouse was just a place to discuss girls, sneak smokes and talk about whatever preteens talk about…until our parents found out. I didn’t understand share cropping, tenant farming or farming on the lien back then. People bound to the land living from harvest season to harvest season, praying to pay off their crop lien or having a large enough share to put a bit of money away for the future. Hoping to buy a small piece of heaven of their own.
A friend of color told me of an ancestor of his born into slavery. Working as a tenant farmer on the same expanse of land he had toiled on before his own day of jubilee. Scrimping and saving until he could buy his own parcel of land. Clearing the land with his four children and wife, milling his own lumber and building his own four room palace. I’m positive he felt it was a palace. Filling it with hope and joy, twelve kids worth, growing his own work force and I hope expanding his little piece of heaven. There must be a tribute of some sort, especially when one considers the road blocks thrown in front of former slaves. Perseverance, persistence and a lot of patience I would suggest paid off in the long run.
As I’ve written before, my grandparents began their married life as farmers on the lien but they had several safety nets; family, the textile mills and they were white. Their dream included sixty acres and putting a child through college. Maybe there is hope instead of sorrow and the American Dream still exists. Hard work may in fact pay off.
Uniquely Southern, uniquely insightful, books by Don Miller can be bought or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf