- A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland by Sydney Nathans
Harvard, 313 pp, £23.95, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 97214 8
Between 1910 and 1930, more than a million black Americans moved from the rural South to industrial cities north of the Mason-Dixon line. Refugees fleeing grinding poverty, political disenfranchisement, inadequate education and the ever present threat of violence (a comprehensive system of white supremacy known by the shorthand Jim Crow), they found employment on the bottom rungs of the burgeoning industrial economy. Despite pervasive prejudice in the North, the migrants spoke of a second emancipation, of crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land.
The Great Migration, as it came to be called, produced the modern urban ghettos of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities, which epitomised African-American life in the 20th century as surely as the Southern farm and plantation had in the 19th. It inspired innumerable responses from artists, including novels, blues ballads, Broadway shows and ‘The Migration Series’, a collection of sixty small canvases by the black painter Jacob Lawrence. This population upheaval has been the subject of numerous scholarly treatments, most recently Isabel Wilkerson’s bestseller The Warmth of Other Suns, and Ira Berlin’s The Making of African America, which considers the black experience within the framework of four historic migrations (the other three being the forced removal of slaves from Africa to North America; the ‘second middle passage’ that uprooted slaves from older states such as Virginia and brought them to the cotton kingdom of the Lower South; and the arrival in the last quarter-century of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Africa). Population movements have been a defining feature of African-American life.
The fact is, however, that more blacks preferred to stay in the South than embark on the Great Migration, and far less attention has been paid to them. A Mind to Stay by Sydney Nathans deals with one small slice of that population. The book, Nathan’s life’s work (he began the interviews that led him to reconstruct this story forty years ago), is a marvellous example of how ‘microhistory’, based on a deep immersion in local sources, can illuminate broad historical patterns. It also suggests some of the limitations of this increasingly popular genre of historical analysis.
A Mind to Stay spans nearly two centuries of history. The first part, which begins in the antebellum period, focuses on the experiences of ‘two Pauls’ – Paul Cameron, the son of Duncan Cameron, one of the largest slaveowners in North Carolina, and his slave Paul Hargress (originally named Hargis after a previous owner) – and their families. Duncan Cameron prided himself on his paternalistic regard for his human property. He tried not to separate family members when buying or selling slaves, and relied on incentives – such as credits that slaves could use at local shops to purchase cloth, whisky and other goods – rather than violence to elicit efficient labour. (On the other hand, slaves who tried to run away received severe whippings.) After an unsuccessful stint as a lawyer, Paul Cameron took over management of the plantation while his father concentrated on running a local bank. It took the younger Cameron a while to develop his own system of discipline. He acquired a reputation, Nathans writes, as an owner ‘who whipped his workers just to show them who was master’.
In 1844, like innumerable other planters in the Upper South, where tobacco and wheat were the main crops, Paul Cameron purchased a plantation in Alabama, part of the booming cotton kingdom. He acquired 1600 acres of land for $30,000 borrowed from his father, an immense sum at a time when the income of an urban workman was around $300 a year. Cameron had no intention of moving there himself; he sent 144 of his slaves from North Carolina to Alabama and hired an overseer to manage the plantation (which helps to explain the voluminous correspondence that makes a book like this possible). Like his father, he made an effort to keep families intact, but inevitably some of those transported left behind loved ones.
Because of the world market’s insatiable demand for cotton, the key raw material of the industrial revolution, many cotton planters acquired fortunes. Paul Cameron was not among them. Almost at once, he complained that he had been cheated. The land was not nearly as fertile as he had been led to believe. Moreover, his slaves, who no doubt resented the forced removal from their homes, proved recalcitrant workers. Cotton was a far more demanding crop than wheat or tobacco, and the overseer reported constant battles over the pace of work. In the 1850s, Cameron purchased another plantation, in Mississippi. But the one in Alabama never proved as profitable as he had hoped.
Four of the slaves sent to Alabama were Paul Hargis, his brother and their two sisters. Their parents and another brother remained in North Carolina. Unfortunately, while the Cameron family papers comprise one of the largest manuscript collections in the University of North Carolina’s Southern Historical Collection – some 33,000 pieces of correspondence, business papers, tax records and all sorts of other documents – only what Nathans calls ‘shards of evidence’ exist about the Hargis siblings’ lives as slaves. Nathans is inevitably reduced to speculating about their experiences and aspirations. Juxtaposing the two Pauls is an effective narrative device, and the Hargis descendants dominate the 20th-century part of the story. But it has the unfortunate result of casting all the other slaves into the shadows; apart from a handful of individuals, we learn very little about them.
One thing we do know is that when Cameron purchased his Mississippi plantation and moved 35 slaves there from Alabama, the extended Hargis family, now with spouses and children, were not among them. Relatively speaking, they were fortunate. In Mississippi, faced with the back-breaking task of clearing the land and then producing as much cotton as possible, Cameron abandoned all semblance of paternalism. His overseer hired Irish labourers to do the dangerous work of draining the boggy soil, not wanting to risk the lives of valuable slaves, but to maximise production he gave each slave a daily quota for picking cotton. Those who failed to meet the target received a whipping. In his recent book, The Half Has Never Been Told, Edward Baptist has identified this ‘whipping system’ as a pervasive means of increasing the productivity of labour in the cotton fields.[*] But neither of Cameron’s holdings resembled the ultra-efficient and immensely profitable enterprises Baptist claims cotton plantations had become by the mid-19th century. More often than not, crops did not live up to expectations. Baptist portrays resistance as virtually impossible, but in 1860 a ‘slowdown’ by Cameron’s slaves in Mississippi forced the overseer to reduce the daily quotas. In early 1861, just as Mississippi was seceding from the US, a slave, Zack, who had been whipped for not meeting his quota, attacked the overseer with an axe. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang.
As numerous historians have shown, the Civil War thoroughly disrupted the slave system. Cameron’s plantations were no exception. In 1862, Union soldiers entered the Mississippi Valley. Fearing his slaves would run off to the federal army, Cameron moved them – 111 in all – to his Alabama plantation. Slaves there, according to the overseer, quickly learned of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and became more difficult to control. Meanwhile, the Confederacy requisitioned some of Cameron’s slaves to help build a railroad. ‘We are in the midst of a terrible revolution,’ Cameron wrote to his son. In 1864, when federal troops approached the Alabama cotton belt, Cameron hurriedly returned 65 slaves to North Carolina, among them Paul Hargis.
As on many Southern plantations, the end of slavery was succeeded by ‘an unfolding insurgency’ on Cameron’s holdings, a bitter struggle between former master and former slave over access to land and control of labour. The freed people on the North Carolina plantation, Cameron’s wife complained, were ‘indisposed to work’ (that is, they refused to work as if they were still slaves). They were insolent and set their own pace of labour. ‘They are armed and so am I,’ the overseer reported. Many ex-slaves soon struck out on their own. Paul Hargis, however, continued to work for Cameron in North Carolina. We know Cameron’s responses to the end of slavery, but can only infer why Hargis remained. He had been relatively privileged as a slave; perhaps he was grateful. He seems to have had a closer connection to Cameron than most of the other slaves. In 1866, when he registered his marriage with the Freedmen’s Bureau, he even changed his last name to Cameron.
The following year, frustrated by his inability to control his former slaves, Cameron evicted them all from his North Carolina plantation and rented the land to white tenants. Paul Hargis Cameron and his wife headed west, to reunite with their relatives on the Alabama plantation. When he arrived he changed his name back to Hargis. Unfortunately for all concerned, a series of disastrous crop failures followed the end of slavery in the Lower South. Labour conflict, incessant rain and the advent of the ‘army worm’, which devoured the growing crop, combined to devastate cotton output. Cameron tried various means of adjusting. In 1868 the land was worked by ‘squads’ consisting of family members. Although there was a white plantation manager, the squads pretty much directed their own labour. Many former slaves eventually left the plantation, but the extended Hargis clan remained.
Paul Cameron had long wanted to get rid of the Alabama plantation. In 1874, in the wake of the economic depression that came after the Panic of 1873, he sold it in eight plots to a dozen of his former slaves. The purchasers did not have to put any money down, and could pay over five years, in cotton or cash as they saw fit. It remains unclear exactly why Cameron sold the land to blacks – not a common practice in the postwar South – and offered such lenient terms. Land values had plummeted because of the depression and white buyers were difficult to find; perhaps the remnants of Cameron family paternalism still lingered. In any event, Paul Hargis and his brother Jim together purchased a hundred acres for $800. ‘The Cameron plantation,’ Nathans writes, ‘became their foothold in freedom.’ At this point, halfway through the book, Paul Cameron disappears from the narrative and the focus turns to the Hargis family.
In the aftermath of slavery, freedpeople throughout the South demanded access to land. When General William T. Sherman met with a group of black ministers in Savannah in January 1865, he asked what would enable the emancipated slaves to live as free people. They answered: ‘Give us land.’ Sherman set aside a portion of coastal South Carolina and Georgia for the exclusive settlement of black families, but Andrew Johnson, the deeply racist southern Unionist who became president after Lincoln’s assassination, ordered it returned to the former owners. A few northern radicals, most notably Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, advocated confiscating the land of Confederate planters and distributing it in forty-acre plots to former slaves, with anything left over sold to help pay off the national debt. The phrase ‘forty acres and a mule’, encapsulating the former slaves’ desire for land, reverberated throughout the postwar South. The hoped-for land distribution never materialised, but over time, a substantial number of blacks managed to acquire small plots for their families. Paul and Jim Hargis remained on their farm and held onto it tenaciously. As Nathans points out, in subsequent years they pledged all sorts of property as security for loans from local merchants – crops, cows, horses, wagons – but almost never the land itself. They kept it for the rest of their lives.
Not everything was harmonious on the black-owned farms carved from the Cameron plantation. To support himself in old age, Paul Hargress (who changed the spelling of his surname around the turn of the century, presumably to sever the link with slavery represented by Hargis) deeded parts of his land to nine relatives, on condition that they each pay him $10 a year – a kind of private pension system. But many of them did not fulfil their promises and there were recriminations. Moreover, some Hargress family members resented non-blood-related farmers living nearby. Ned Forrest Hargress, reputedly the son of a slave woman raped by the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest as the Civil War drew to a close, inherited some of Paul Hargress’s land. (Ned had taken his surname after working for many years for Hargress.) At some point, according to family lore, a group marched to his farm to try to evict him, shouting: ‘We are full-blooded Africans and we are here to claim our land.’
Obviously, in an agricultural society it’s better to own land than not. Compared with renters (who paid for the use of land) and sharecroppers (who received part of the crop as payment for their labour at the end of the year), landowners enjoyed a modicum of economic independence. But land was hardly an economic panacea. Land is not the only scarce factor in production; access to credit is also crucial. Landowners had to borrow from local planters and merchants to get through the year, and often found that they remained in debt after selling their crops. Renters and sharecroppers had more freedom of movement; if they were dissatisfied with an employer they could move on. As Nathans points out, in the 1920s renters on nearby plantations seemed to enjoy a higher standard of living than Hargress’s descendants. Land locked owners into a declining part of the American economy. Genuine economic opportunity lay in the industrial North: those who took part in the Great Migration, including many thousands from Alabama, knew that.
Nonetheless, events during the 1930s illustrated the vulnerability of those who did not own land. As the price of cotton collapsed during the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration devised a plan to stabilise agricultural income by paying farmers to cut back on production. Some of the money was supposed to be passed along to now idle renters and sharecroppers. But many planters simply evicted their workers and kept the money for themselves. In 1939, a plantation next to Cameron’s was sold, and the new owner turned to raising cattle, expelling the black tenants. Land ownership, even in dire circumstances, offered a bit of economic security.
In the decades that followed, the federal government favoured agribusiness over small farms and refused to offer black farm owners loans and other support on the same basis as whites. Like the black experience under the New Deal, this sorry history illustrates how outside forces powerfully affect the lives of local communities. Microhistory, however, seems to have difficulty integrating the local and national stories. Nathans alludes only briefly to the major political developments that affected black life in Alabama. The Civil War was followed by the bitter struggle of Reconstruction, as the effort to reunify the nation was called. Southern whites, abetted by President Johnson, sought to relegate blacks to the status of plantation labourers with few political rights, while Republicans in Congress rewrote laws to guarantee legal equality regardless of race. In 1867, black men throughout the South for the first time acquired the right to vote and hold office, and a wave of political mobilisation followed. The overseer on Cameron’s land reported that he couldn’t stop the former slaves abandoning work to attend political gatherings.
After a few years of a remarkable experiment in interracial democracy, Reconstruction in Alabama came to an end, the victim of a violent counter-revolution spearheaded by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred organisations. White supremacy resumed. In the 1890s, the Alabama Populists made an effort to unite farmers, white and black, in a new political coalition. After their defeat, new laws rescinded blacks’ right to vote almost entirely. Nathans notes these events, but not how they may have affected life on the Cameron land, or what strategies black purchasers deployed to hold onto their farms. It remains unclear how much the closing off of political participation influenced the decision to move to the North. Nathans notes that an oral tradition developed among the freedpeople and their descendants in which the years immediately following slavery were recalled as ‘hallelujah times’. But without a look at events at the state and national levels, it is difficult to understand why.
Paul Hargress died in 1918 at the age of 91. The protagonist of the 20th-century part of the narrative is Alice Hargress, born in 1914, who married the grandson of Ned Forrest Hargress. A Mind to Stay begins with her participation in a voting rights demonstration in Greensboro, Alabama, in 1965, not long after the more famous confrontation in nearby Selma, where the violent assault by police on peaceful marchers shocked the world. Alice Hargress, whom Nathans interviewed on numerous occasions, was not a radical, although in the years before 1965 she had persisted in trying to register to vote and was one of the few blacks in her area who eventually succeeded. She told her family that because ‘whites have the power,’ direct confrontation would be suicidal. The way to get ahead was through developing an unimpeachable character and striving to excel: ‘You got to know more than them white children if you want to get anything.’ But she joined the movement, faced tear gas, and spent three days in jail. She and the others were part of a struggle that led directly to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
By then, another exodus of blacks, which began in World War Two and extended into the 1960s, had led more people north even than the Great Migration. The number of Southern black farmers continued to shrink: there are now only around forty thousand in the entire region. When Nathans met Alice Hargress, none of her eight children and numerous grandchildren was living in Alabama. They had dispersed to Detroit, Los Angeles and other cities. (One of her grandsons would work as a cook for President Obama at Camp David.) But Alice Hargress held onto the land she and her husband had inherited. She called it ‘heir land’, meaning that any member of the extended family who encountered difficulty in the North would have a place to which they could return.
Ned Forrest Hargress, born in 1865, died aged 99, two months before Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. He lived his entire adult life under the shadow of Jim Crow, and was never once allowed to cast a ballot. Alice Hargress died in 2014, three weeks shy of her hundredth birthday; she lived to experience the civil rights revolution. In some ways, life in Alabama has changed enormously, yet political and economic power remain in the hands of whites. ‘We’re a long way from being free,’ Lewis Black, a voting rights organiser, told Nathans in 1981. Too many still are.
[*] Basic, 560 pp., £13.99, October 2016, 978 0 465 04966 0.