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I WAS BORN in Greenville, Mississippi, but my story begins deeper in the Delta, about fifteen miles away, in a little town named Longswitch. It's not really a town now, just a name left over from the point on the map where the Illinois Central trains, connecting New Orleans to Chicago, switched tracks. If you take the highway north from Greenville, past the rolling fields and the old cotton gin near Dunleith Road, you will come to a small bridge that crosses a dirty brown-colored stream. Make a left onto the one-lane road, cross the railroad tracks, and round the gentle curve. The four weathered houses, their wood panels missing chunks of white paint, are the last buildings remaining from the days when scores of colored laborers and sharecroppers lived on the fringes of the plantations--and, for that matter, the fringes of America.
The meager building that served as the Cato Baptist Church is gone, as is the once busy general store. Most days the only sounds that break the sleepy quiet are the ones coming from crickets, a few dogs, and a herd of cattle up the road a bit. A strong wind across these seemingly endless flat fields, dotted with only a few pine trees separating one plantation from another, disrupts the quiet like a siren in the night. In these fields lie buried my maternal grandparents. They rest in a family-owned plot of land where there are no markers or headstones, no epitaphs or flowers. They are simply covered by the same rich Delta soil that they worked until they died.
Like that of most blacks, our family history can be traced back two or three generations to slavery. Go back any further and our roots vanish into the Atlantic Ocean. The damnable business of selling human flesh destroyed our footprints, leaving behind only finely scripted bills of sale, filed away in dusty journals kept in southern courthouses. Slave traders and plantation owners reduced our culture and souls to statistics: height, weight, and sex. Nothing was written down for us, just passed along in stories told around the wood-burning stove, and when that storyteller died, so, too, did the details.
My family history can only be stitched together like some sort of patchwork quilt of memories--a story here, a date there. My father's sister and two brothers remember a few things. My cousin, Dr. Matthew Page, remembers more. Though the details are fuzzy, one thing is indisputable: from the very beginning, we were at the bottom. What little education we received was earned either at the handle of a hoe or at the end of a whip. The two constants were hard work and an unwavering belief that, somehow, the Lord would deliver us from the strange form of democracy practiced along the Delta. We had faith in a life that we could not see.
It is hard for me to imagine my ancestors' journey from Africa to America. The men were shackled two by two, the right wrist and ankle of one chained to the left wrist and ankle of another. They slept in the hold without covering on bare wooden floors in spaces no bigger than tailor-made coffins. In a stormy passage, the skin over their elbows might be worn away to the bone. The crew allowed the women to roam freely throughout the ship. They were fair game. By the end of the Middle Passage, more often than not, the living were chained to the dead. Not too long ago, I visited the slave castles in Ghana, the buildings where slavers herded their human cattle and shipped them through what the Africans called "the Door of No Return." More than four hundred years later, I could still smell the stench in the dungeons. Seeing those castles had a profound effect on me, and when I teach children about man's inhumanity to man and the importance of having common decency for one another, I think of the chains rustling along the dungeon floors. I often tell students that their problems pale in comparison: the remains of at least eleven million of their ancestors lie on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
My paternal great-grandfather, Woodley Turnbull, was a slave. It is not clear whether he was born en route or on American soil, but he died in 1929 and lived to be 106 or 107 years old. No one really knows for sure how old he was because there was no birth certificate, just speculation based on geography and the names of white men. Either way, his dark brown skin and sinewy arms and legs determined that he was a commodity, something to be bought and sold on the open market. If he couldn't read the section of the U.S. Constitution spelling out that he was only worth three fifths of a human being, then his master constantly reminded him.
My father's brother, James, lived with Woodley Turnbull in Detroit, shortly before he died. Great-grandpa Woodley was old and fragile, and Uncle James was a little boy then. The conversations between the two were brief: Uncle James not knowing what to ask, and Pa Woodley wanting to spare a young mind the details of his life, filled with "do this and do that." "Sometimes he would get a licking if he didn't move fast enough," Uncle James recalled his grandfather telling him. "Other times he got a licking just 'cuz."
Woodley Turnbull was somewhat fortunate--he had "a good master." The white Turnbulls were very wealthy and close to the English crown. They had petitioned the queen for land in the colonies before the American Revolution and had plantations in Virginia, the Carolinas, and in the Caribbean. Most of the Turnbulls were among the professional class as well--doctors and lawyers--and were considered to be combination planters. They traded their crops and properties among themselves, and for the most part, if they sold a slave, they tried to keep his family intact. That practice has had a lasting effect and can be seen in the similar facial and physical features of Turnbulls spread throughout America and the Caribbean. For instance, Dr. Charles Turnbull, the former minister of education in the Virgin Islands, could be my uncle. Another Turnbull, who now plays professional football for the New Orleans Saints, also shows a strong resemblance, but we have not established any blood kinship yet. Regardless of the white Turnbulls' peculiar notion of family, they remained businessmen. They chased dollars, not members of my family taken from the Ibo and Yoruba tribes.
That chase led to the Delta. The Turnbulls, like many other cotton planters, had exhausted their farms along the east coast. Some went to Texas and Louisiana. Others became so frantic for new land that they were ready to risk the hardship and fevers of the swamplands along the Mississippi River. Those fertile lands, straddling the Arkansas and Mississippi borders, were brimming with forests of oak and beech, hickory and maple, walnut and cypress, and alive with bear and deer, possum and squirrel. Doves and quail flew everywhere. The land that would eventually become Washington County was the most fertile in the region. But it was largely impenetrable: the forests were too thick, the diseases too rampant, the floods too frequent. Black panthers roamed freely on land, poisonous snakes flourished along the rivers and creeks. Not even the Choctaw or Chickasaw Indians settled in the area. They used it only for an occasional hunting party or as ceremonial burial grounds. One planter visited the area and urged his colleagues not to move there. He thought the slaves would surely die off in a few years from fever and overwork.
River pirates were the first white settlers. As historian Bern Keating tells the story, they lurked on islands and preyed on flatboats carrying produce from northern farms to market in New Orleans. Law-abiding Christians finally chased them out and pleaded with the federal government to work out an agreement with the Choctaws. The Treaty of Doak's Stand, signed in 1820, put the federal stamp on the inevitable westward rush from the Atlantic seaboard. It's unclear who was the first to settle in Washington County, but by 1827, Frederick Turnbull was one of the 170 names that appeared on the tax rolls for property owners. Forty-one of them owned between one to thirty-six slaves. The tax assessor's list also shows one "Free Man of Color." My great-grandfather, his real name lost somewhere between the slave auction in South Carolina and the Mississippi River, was not that man and, more than likely, accepted his hand-me-down name with the same enthusiasm as he did his station in life.
Clearing the forests and taming the Mississippi River required enormous labor and fortitude. Though the region was only for the rich planters, few lived in their usual style of verandas and columns. They usually came into the jungle with a gang of slaves, cleared a homesite, and built a log cabin. If the site was near the banks of the Mississippi River, they came to the banks by steamboat. If it was inland, they poled their way up the bayous by raft. Most families lived in log cabins with dirt floors. They suffered from hordes of mosquitoes bred in the swamps, and they shivered and ached all summer with the same malaria that attacked the poorest slaves. One writer at the time observed that the slaves in the Delta died in a few years, but the rich soil made enough money to replace them twice over. By 1829, Washington County contained 792 whites, 1,184 slaves, and one "Free Man of Color." The county included a little hamlet called Greenville, named after Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, a close friend of George Washington. Inventories of estates in county court records show that the most valuable properties were young strong male slaves. They averaged $500 in value. One little slave boy was valued at only $3.50. That was probably Woodley Turnbull. He would have been about six or seven then, uneducated, and barely able to speak the language.
Landowners were making progress, though. Within two years, 324 acres had been cleared and were on the tax rolls. The white population dropped during those years, from 223 to 202, and the number of slaves had tripled to 3,196. Within four years, the landowners had lost the nerve of the pioneers and chose to run their plantations from afar, leaving overseers in charge. By 1846, the county's white population had fallen about 20 percent from the 1830 count, but there were five times as many slaves, a trend that continued until the Civil War and caused many troubled nights among the rich and powerful. Though they owned most of the weapons, slave owners still had fresh memories of Denmark Vesey's uprising in 1822 in South Carolina, or Nat Turner's rebellion in Virginia in 1831 with its body count of seventy whites.
I'm not sure where my great-grandfather stood on slave rebellions. He was deeply religious and would later tell my uncle that his fate during slavery was in the hands of the Lord. Freedom must have been as remote a prayer as his native homeland in Africa. The cluster of slave cabins surrounded the fringes of the plantation, where masters and overseers could watch every movement. At night, overseers and bounty hunters, armed with guns, whips, dogs, and the power of the state, patrolled the community for slaves crazy enough to even whisper the word "freedom." One law read:
Patrol has the authority to arrest all slaves going at large and away from owner's property without written permission of owner (or his agent) after 9 P.M. Punishment authorized for runaway slaves 39 lashes or confinement in jail. Patrol authorized to enter after 9 P.M. the premises of Negro quarters of any person in the district to locate runaways, but only in a peaceable, orderly and quiet manner. When a slave represents himself to have been sent for a physician or for medicine, the patrol is to accompany him on the errand and to establish the truth or falsehood of the Negro's statement. In case of falsehood he was to be whipped as a runaway.
There was no option but to believe in something other than man, and God, not the North Star leading up North or to Canada, was the brightest star my great-grandfather could see.
Plantation owners had by the 1840s allowed slaves to have their own churches. Many slaves, who had tried to learn the words and hymns of their owners, were now able to worship as they saw fit. Still, they had to hide their African language and culture. Freedom, at least in terms of the law, would come after the Civil War. The Washington County delegation to the Mississippi Convention in 1861 voted against secession, but once overruled by other state delegations, the members threw the state into the war with the fervor of any other fire breathers from the Deep South. Ann Finlay lived in Greenville, and one of her letters describing life during that time was recounted in Bern Keating's History of Washington County, Mississippi: "Mississippi seceded; drums began to beat, men and boys to drill, and orators to pour out all their eloquence for the new cause. Men were putting their affairs in shape to go to the front, businesses were almost forgotten, every nerve was strained to the utmost." When Union soldiers made their way to Greenville, the locals put up little resistance before seeing their hamlet burned to the ground.
The national confusion over the institution of slavery spilled over into the slave community. On the eve of the Civil War, a census showed 1,212 whites and 14,467 slaves in Washington County. Some slaves joined the Union Army, others joined the Confederate Army. And still others, like Woodley, simply struck out on their own, running away from their plantations and floating up the Mississippi River. He eventually settled in a small Mississippi town named Bourbon. He carried his Bible and his farming skills, and somehow managed to eke out a living. No matter the suffering, he believed, life on earth was only a tick on God's clock: heaven was an eternity. The Lord was never far away, Woodley told my Uncle James, and he often went to the banks of the Mississippi and read, as best he could, his favorite biblical verse:
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song. And they that wasted of us required us mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion." How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land.
Woodley sat on the bottom rail of society, and from his vantage point, America was indeed a stranger place after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. He was a slave one minute, free the next, but in the eyes of most white southerners, still less than a man. His dark skin was a badge of servitude, a guarantee that he had no rights--at least none that the white man was bound to respect. "Ours is and ever shall be a government for white men," Governor Benjamin Humphreys promised Mississippi in his 1865 inaugural address. The onerous Black Codes, passed by the state legislature, were the result. If the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the codes all but replaced it.
Woodley's response was silence. He may have lost his culture but he surely had not lost his mind. Speaking against the codes was a crime, as was carrying a gun or a knife for a black man. Insulting a white man or preaching without a license was punishable by thirty days in jail and a $100 fine. By now, in his midforties, Woodley's challenge was to plow his little piece of land and grow as much cotton as he could--not to be perceived as sympathetic with the Reconstructionists and carpetbaggers who vowed to change the system. Woodley had more pressing problems. One of the antivagrancy laws required that by the second Monday in January 1866, all freedmen, free Negroes, and mulattoes in the state must produce written evidence proving they had a job and a place to live. Town officials had the power to arrest anyone violating the law, hold trials without juries for the suspects, and mete out sentences of ten days in jail and a $50 fine. If the convict didn't have any money, local sheriffs could give the violator back to his original master.
At some point, Woodley met and married a former slave named Kate. Not much is known about her or her family, except that she was raised by the white people, a not so subtle characterization of her working in the house as opposed to the field. The only story that Kate passed down was of the day her mother died. Kate was a little girl then, and her mother lay deathly sick in a back room. Their master, extremely protective of Kate and her mother, frantically paced back and forth near the room, occasionally going in to check on Kate's mother. Kate sat on the porch all day and watched the sun rise and eventually fall. As the sun fell, her master came from the back room. "She gone, little Katie, she gone," the master finally moaned.
Kate and Woodley Turnbull bore a son, Jake, in 1883. As best as we can tell, Jake eventually became a sharecropper like his daddy and worked the land. He had little education, maybe third grade, but could read and write well enough to get by. He married a woman named Francis Evans and they produced six children. The oldest one, Jake Jr., was my father. He was born in 1914, and by the time he turned thirteen, he had quit seventh grade and struck out on his own to become a man. He told everybody that he wanted to help his mama with his five younger brothers and sisters, but the truth of the matter was that he wanted to fool around and go hunting with his two older cousins. From then on, Jasse, as he was called, always hustled to have a little money in his pocket. He had a deep freezer that he kept filled with meat--coons, deer, rabbits, and squirrels. And fish. My daddy loved fishing, paddling his wooden boat out on rural creeks and sometimes the Mississippi River. He would string up his fishing pole, a long bamboo stick, and come back with tubs of fish.
I don't know when my father met my mother. But from what they tell me, it was love at first sight. My mother, Lena Green, was born and raised in Longswitch. She had an older sister, Sammie, a brother, Billy, and a half-brother, Booker. My mother's mother took Booker in and raised the children as if they were all brothers and sisters. It was only later in Booker's life that my grandmother told him that he shared only the same father with the other children in the house. Family members called my mother Bunche because, as the story went, she was as sweet as a bunch of flowers. Her parents died when she was small, and she moved to Greenville with her older sister, Sammie, to attend Coleman High, the colored school. She had become quite popular, and her striking looks melted Daddy. I'm not sure if they had a ceremony or not. I was born on July 19, 1944, in my aunt's house. Though thousands of blacks were riding the Illinois Central train past Longswitch to leave the Delta, my family stayed and depended on faith and a good education to deliver us to a Promised Land.