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common ground

The Curation Crisis
Winter/Spring 1995, vol. 7(4)

Online Archive

*  "Worse than Bondage Itself"

(photo) Mouse eating through basket.

"Imagine you hear about an archeology project . . . that could lead to a breakthrough in your research. Except that now, less than a decade after [the material] was excavated, the federal agency that sponsored the project has no idea where any of it went, nor the time or resources to look."

S. Terry Childs

by Sharyn Kane and Richard Keeton

The first Africans who came to the Savannah River region arrived in the holds of slave ships to toil for English settlers eager to scrape an existence out of the New World's unforgiving landscape. When cotton boomed along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, so did the trade in human beings. By 1708, the official census in the latter state showed that there was nearly one slave for every white resident. By the time of the Civil War, the effect of almost 160 years had established slavery as an institution.

The aftermath of the war brought new hardships to the former slaves. With the abolition of the interdependent arrangement with their masters, they suddenly found that society had cut them adrift. They gathered in shanty villages that sprung up on the outskirts of towns along the Savannah and outside U.S. Army bases. Their new independence, though limited, aroused the ire of southern whites. Before a national election in 1868, the Ku Klux Klan went on a rampage, trying to prevent African Americans from exercising their new right to vote. A federal official in charge of managing Reconstruction on the South Carolina side of the river wrote of the episode: "Innumerable persons have been lying out in the woods since sometime before the election to save being murdered in their beds, their houses having in the meantime been frequently visited at night for that purpose."

In spite of harsh and oppressive beginnings, a culture had taken root. In time, small African American communities grew out of the Savannah River's rural landscape. The descendants of the African slaves built houses, farmed, operated mills, established churches and schools, forged out a community and an identity in the uneasy coexistence with whites that would characterize the African American experience. By the mid-20th century, the region was rich in African American history, the red clay and rolling hills imbued with the aura of a place that a people have made their own. Wars, Depression, and the boll weevil interrupted the rhythm of life along the Savannah, but its inexorable rural pace always returned.

A change was coming, however. The Richard B. Russell Dam and Lake, to be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the upper Savannah, would alter the land dramatically and permanently. The project brought about a multi-million dollar effort by the National Park Service and the Corps of Engineers to document the history of a place that would soon be underwater. Scores of archeologists, historians, and other experts came to the areas that would be most effected: Elbert and Hart Counties in Georgia, and Abbevile and Anderson Counties in South Carolina. Together, they spent almost two decades researching the 11,000 years of human activity along the river. Though the written record of the African American community was absent from most archival repositories, its strong oral history tradition, along with a large collection of documents preserved by individuals, provided researchers with a permanent record of a vanishing way of life in the South.

Anthropologist Eleanor Ramsey and historians Shirley Moore and Patricia Turner began their research in 1981. They combed newspaper archives and other documents to learn about significant events and noteworthy people of the region. Then, by way of talks at churches and civic groups, they encouraged residents to share their knowledge. The response was enthusiastic, and in many cases, residents provided invaluable photographs and documents that helped to tell the story of African American life near the Savannah.

Most of those interviewed in the Russell research were raised on tenant farms, and in their conversations returned repeatedly to talk of fieldwork, the land, and their families' experiences with tenant farming. A number either once farmed on Millwood Plantation or had relatives or friends who had worked there. Millwood, owned by James Edward Calhoun, was comprised of about 10,000 acres stretching for about seven miles on both sides of the Savannah River. Until the Civil War, Millwood was home to more than 100 slaves. When Calhoun died in 1889, he had 95 tenant farmers on his land. His heirs continued to manage the tenant system, usually through overseers, for years after his death.

Minnie Walker, 88, was one of the last tenants to leave Millwood, a departure in the mid-1920's prompted by plunging cotton prices and the dreaded boll weevil invasion, which ravaged crops from Texas to the Atlantic. Walker was born April 7, 1892, on a Millwood tenant farm. She didn't remember her father because he abandoned his home when she was a small child and headed west to Mississippi, apparently because of financial troubles.

Walker lived as a young child with her grandmother and her great-grandmother, who was blind. One of her first vivid memories was of her great grandmother's funeral. She recalled how the body was "laid out" for public viewing in their small farmhouse. "Her name was Susie," Walker explained, "but everybody called her Suckey." The minister who officiated at the services was the first the child ever saw. "He was black. We had all black preachers and had no white preachers. White people back in them days didn't mix with colored people," she explained.

Among her other childhood memories were conversations with her grandmother about when she was a slave, a time when a woman slave's worth was often determined by her ability to bear children because every new child added to a slave owner's wealth. Walker's grandmother explained that her own father was sold away from Millwood Plantation to breed more slaves. "My grandmama's father was sold. He, well the way she tell, he was a robust man. And this other white man bought him to raise children on his place. And Calhoun, the old man, didn't let her [Walker's grandmother] have to go out in the field like the rest, because he sold her father . . . I don't know [who bought him] . . . Just somebody who had come from somewhere and had a plantation . . . He [her great-grandfather] was used like a breeding horse. Yeah. That's the way it was back in them days."

Most of Minnie Walker's childhood was spent with a family she wasn't related to, although she came to consider the stepparents as her own mother and father. She talked about their tenant farm on Millwood property and her special fondness for the orchard: "My father's peach orchard was, I reckon, about three miles from the river. And he had, oh, all kind of cherries, and apples, and pears. And let me see, what else? Ah, peaches and apples, and corn . . . We had lots of them, lots of them old fashion peaches . . . He'd plant all seasons." Her stepfather paid a set annual rent of 400 pounds of baled cotton, processed by a gin in the nearby small town of Calhoun Falls, South Carolina. Going to the gin was an exciting excursion for the little girl. "[The] gin was out to Calhoun Falls. And . . . cotton buyers come in from somewhere and buy up the cotton. The gin man just have cotton stacked all around, all around. And this buyer come in and they put the cotton then on a freight train. Wasn't trucks and things to carry things like there is now," she said.

She married a tenant farmer, Mose Walker, on December 22, 1910, after an ardent proposal. "There was a gang of boys from Georgia around in the neighborhood and they all come to our house. And he [Mose Walker] spoke for me in front of all them boys. And I cursed him out. Just showing off in front of these boys." Mose Walker later returned alone and he said, "Well, I'm back here. You said I was just showing off because I was before them boys. Now I'm by myself and I ain't going to leave here until you tell me that I can come to see you on the 13th and I'll marry you." A lifetime later, she was still amazed at her young suitor's persistence. "You know how long he stayed there? Till the sun went down . . . I said, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself.' And he stayed right here till the sun went down. And I promised him that I would marry him."

Walker moved into her new husband's two-room house near a small spring on Millwood Plantation. A center chimney opened into a fireplace in each room, providing heat and a place for cooking. Each room also had a door to the outside. Floors were made of wood planks. Eventually, the young couple added paneling to divide one of the rooms into two bedrooms.

Tenant houses at Millwood and at other large farms were spaced farther apart than slave houses had been. "And the houses weren't piled up on one another," Walker explained, of the post-Civil War era. "It was ‘bout a mile in between houses."

As a bride, Walker began raising two small children whose mother, her husband's sister, had recently died. "When I got married, married with a family. That was my husband, my niece and nephew, and myself. There was four of us. Children ain't had no mother. Couldn't do nothing for ‘em from February up until I got married. And they was in need. I had to make clothes for ‘em. And nine months [later], here come my baby . . . After the first one, every nine months, here's [another] baby. And farming too. I ain't had time. That's the truth. I spent all my time as a busy person."

Between 1910 and the mid-1920's, Walker bore eight children, four girls and four boys. "The niece child died. And the baby [boy] like to died . . . The daddy didn't know how to take care of it, and they got me to raise it . . . The child, when I got it, wasn't nothing but just skin and bone. I said, ‘I believe me and the Lord going to raise this baby.' And I raised it up to be a grown man," she remembered.

World War I erupted about three years after Walker married and threatened her existence. "My husband didn't have to go and all. I know I got upset because I thought he was gonna go in. But he didn't go in and therefore my mind got settled. All I know about World War I, I know it was a whole heap of people come back home dead. They left here walking, but they came back in the casket."

Walker spent much of her early adulthood working in the fields alongside her husband and children. "Every one of ‘em [the children] worked, the foster one, too. [The boys] mostly, they did the plowing. The girls, they didn't plow. My girls didn't plow. But I plowed. My husband plowed . . . Up until all the children got married, I mostly did the planting with my hand. Dropped the corn and sowed the cotton seed, and things like that."

They were self-sufficient on their tenant farm in many ways. "We raised plenty food, just plenty food. [We bought] very little, very little. For a period of time, we didn't buy nothin' but canned goods or something like that. My husband raised wheat, plant potatoes, everything. My husband, he was born on the farm . . . Yes sir, we raised everything, corn, cane [to make syrup], peanuts, just everything raised on the farm. Growed [the peanuts] for the hogs and mule." Regardless of their hard work, however, the Walkers, like most tenant farmers, barely earned any profits.

In 1919, boll weevils swarmed into the Savannah River Valley after migrating through the South from Texas. Cotton growing was devastated and demand slackened, causing a panic. Minnie Walker remembered one particular year when hard times almost overcame her family, forcing them to move, to give up renting land, and to begin sharecropping. Trouble started, she said, when her family bought a mule to help ease farm chores. "That was the year we ain't had nair a penny. Debt we owed, you see. We ain't had nair a penny. ‘Cause we just had enough, you know, for to pay our rent. So the man come down from Abbeville and got our mule. You see, what we had [we used] to get food and things. That's when we got [on other land] and shared. And we worked there, oh, quite a few years."

Like many tenant farmers, her husband sometimes left home to find work elsewhere during the off-season. "He worked the farm and then when he'd get through with the farm, he'd go on to Calhoun Falls [to work in a mill] till he finished that . . . He stayed to the spring of the year and then he come back and have his farm."

The need for money also pushed Minnie Walker into searching out work away from home. She took in laundry for families in Calhoun Falls. "I got hitched up with people who wanted me to work, wash and iron. I broke down a buggy hauling coal, washing and ironing, to buy clothes and things for my children . . . It was getting hard. It was already hard all along. You see, colored people didn't have nothin' to do except get out there and help themselves."

She also cooked for two white women in Calhoun Falls. "The two women, [I went] from one to the other, when I could. I'd work for them. And then when I worked for them, they was so nice to me." She also trained to be a midwife and helped with the births of many local children. Reflecting back on her many occupations, she described herself this way: "Miss Walker had the hardest family in Abbeville County of working people. Awful, awful way women work. We didn't fool around."

Hard work was a lifelong tradition among many of those interviewed. Laboring from dawn to dark was how they overcame the frequent obstacles put in their paths. At times, even the earth seemed determined to make their lives hard, some remembered. Soil fertility varied significantly from one tenant farm to the next, with many tenants having to force a living from soils sorely depleted by overuse and erosion. Charlotte Sweeny recalled her father "always cussing" about the sorry state of his farm. "He couldn't raise nothing on it . . . too poor to even raise a fuss on. Couldn't even raise a good argument on it," she said.

Phoebe Turman was 13 years old when her family abandoned a tenant farm in South Carolina because of unfertile "sandy land" and crossed the Savannah River in search of better ground. They found it in Georgia, not far from the river in an area African Americans called Flatwoods. "Flatwoods was strong land, black land," she explained.

The trip across the river was firmly etched in her memory. She made the journey with her mother and her mother's brother and all of their possessions. Her parents had separated, with her father taking Phoebe's brother West with him, possibly to Mississippi. Turman remembered that the ferry ride cost 50 cents per person. "But I guess when they put a team [of horses or mules], it cost more."

But her family had little in the way of possessions, she recalled. "They brought their households, their furniture, what they had. Didn't have nothing... mattress, quilts, chairs, everything . . . Didn't have a wood stove. We cooked on the fireplace, [had] skillet, pots." They didn't own a horse or wagon, so the owner of the land they were going to farm sent a wagon to the river to carry them to their new home.

The trip held the promise of a new life for the young girl, who, when she stepped off the boat, was touching Georgia soil for the first time. Farming, however, proved equally disappointing on both sides of the river. "We worked a third patch," she explained. "You get a third of everything you make, potatoes, cotton, corn, everything." The landlord got the rest.

Even the meager amount tenants earned wasn't pure profit because to varying degrees, depending upon their arrangements with a landlord, farmers were required to buy their supplies, tools, and provisions from him. Tenants often could buy these goods on credit, then repay their debt from their share of the harvest. But the arrangement was rarely satisfactory, frequently resulting in little reward for months of hard work for the tenants. Turman remembered that after paying the landlord his share of the harvest, "Then you settle up and if there is anything left for you out of your third, then you gets that . . . You come out in debt every month."

Although the boat ride to her new home was a first for Phoebe Turman, crossing from one side of the river to the other by ferry or flat boat, as the crafts were also called, was commonplace in the days before bridges spanned the water. Landowners along the river banks often ran ferries as money-making ventures and used their slaves to operate them and collect fees. Besides providing vital transportation links between Georgia and South Carolina, ferries continued after slavery ended as a source of employment for African Americans. Even after automobiles became important, ferries continued to flourish, only relinquishing their role in the area in 1927 with the opening of the Georgia-Carolina Memorial Bridge.

Joe Isom piloted a ferry for about seven years, starting when he was about ten years old. He was working on a farm at the time for a white man who also wanted him to manage the ferry. Isom remembered that the boat was about 30 feet long. "Well, I reckon it would be near about that. It's long enough for two whole wagons to fit in there . . . I was puttin' folks across the river. Put the flats across, carrying people back and forth . . . A wagon cost 50 cents and a buggy cost a quarter. If he [a person] was walking, he wouldn't pay so much. It would cost, if you walking, a nickel or dime, or something [like that]."

Born in 1874, Isom was raised by a grandparent because his own parents died when he was an infant. At 107 years of age, he could look back on a time before railroads were a significant economic factor along the upper Savannah River. Flat-bottomed keel boats were the dominant transportation for moving heavy goods—including cotton bales—up and down the river when he was a young boy.

As a child, he watched as crewmen, many of them black, used long poles to push the shallow boats across the water. You know, folks got trucks now to carry the cotton to different states. But they didn't have none when I was a boy. They had a boat that they carried the cotton in . . . The boat was long, long, long as this house here . . . They ship [the cotton] to Augusta [Georgia]. I ain't never been to Augusta. They say it's bad to go down the river . . . They had poles, the boat didn't have no steam . . . Wasn't no trouble to go down there, but coming back they had to push it in the water using manpower."

Traveling along the river evoked other memories, as well. For some, ferry boat trips were happy and exciting times. Louella Walker associated the Lindsey Bryant Ferry, which crossed the Savannah River near her tenant farm, with fun-filled excursions she made to Georgia as a teenager. "Our mother would be watching to see if the boys would be coming home with us from Georgia . . . he [Lindsey Bryant] ran the ferry from South Carolina to Georgia. He took people across and back in the flats . . . Big, old flats . . . you know, you could put two buggies or two automobiles in there and they had a cable and the cable would help carry [the ferry]."

A poignant observation underlying many of the stories from the elderly African Americans was the realization of the speed of time's passage and how the years had erased so many of the treasured traditions and landmarks of their lives. Minnie Walker, for example, recalled visiting Millwood Plantation and finding that nearly everything she and others had built was gone. Many mourned the dwindling strength of social ties that had bound people together. Joining with their neighbors in happy and sad times, helping one another endure and even prosper in a sometimes hostile atmosphere, provided some of their fondest memories. Few wanted to live anywhere else. Charlotte Sweeny explained why she had photographed a railroad bridge: "I took a picture of that bridge ‘cause I was always so crazy about the Savannah River. I love that river. I call that my beloved river."

For further information, contact the NPS Interagency Archeological Services Division, Southeast Region, 75 Spring St., SW, Atlanta, GA 30303, (404) 331-2629.

MJB/EJL