Volume 5, Number 10 January 21, 2002
by Dr. Ridgely Abdul Muímin Muhammad
This past weekend I attended a participatory workshop held in Plains, GA called "Your Town: Designing Itís Future." This workshop brought in rural development experts and local community activists to interact and learn more about how to move rural communities towards common goals. Along with the volumes of materials provided by professionals, we were privileged to hear first hand stories of the histories of small Georgia communities like Archery, Plains, Monticello and Pebble Hills.
Deacon Ravens of the St. Mark AME Church stated that he was proud of the independent spirit and drive for excellence that was generated by Bishop William Decker Johnson on the people of Archery, Ga., a very small rural community about 2 miles from Plains which was the birthplace of former President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Ravens compared the life of those who lived on nearby plantations to his own by referencing a specific incident in his teenage life in Archery.
Mr. Ravens had three brothers, one of which was to be married on a Saturday. While preparing to go to the wedding, he and his brotherís boss at the saw mill came by. Their boss said, "I, god, if yíall canít come to work today, then you need to come and get your pay." Mr. Raven said that he and his brother ran down to the mill and were there before their boss got back to get their money and proceed to the wedding. Mr. Raven, a retired High School principal, said that because they did not live on the plantation and their father owned land, they did not have to bow down to such threats.
It seems that over time, white people have transformed this "I, god.." saying into the softer, "By, god.." phrase. Indeed the plantation owner saw himself as "god" over those who lived and worked out there. And until a countervailing power intervened to transform his omnipotent view of himself in relation to his Black workers, he stayed "god".
This view of plantation life in the 1930ís and 40ís by Mr. Ravens is in stark opposition to the image presented by another of the speakers at the "Your Town" conference. Mr. James Hadley, a retired military man, introduced his newly released book, "African-American Life on the Southern Hunting Plantation." Mr. Hadleyís father worked on such a plantation, Pebble Hill, right outside of Thomasville, Georgia, for 53 years.
Mr. Hadley interviewed many people who had worked on these plantations who gave a more positive view of plantation life such as:
"In retrospect, I feel that many of the surrounding plantations were blessings for rural blacks that had limited outlets for gainful employment in South Georgia during the early 20ís. The plantation offered work and a reasonable degree of security for those who sought a safe haven where they could support their families."
"During the Depression, I found that the families on the plantation were better off because the plantation owners provided them with...food, clothing, and other things that they could help them along and gave a break to those that were farming out there."
Indeed the plantation owner took care of a lot of the responsibilities for his workers and their children that the individual Black farmer or city worker had to do for themselves. This "burden" became more acute during economic hard times such as the Great Depression. It was during this time that Bishop Johnson Home Industrial College closed down and many small farm owners left their farms to seek government assisted jobs.
In a book entitled "One Third of a Nation" Lorena Hickok made extensive "confidential" reports to her boss, Mr. Harry Hopkins, as she traveled over thirty-two states between 1932 and 1935 investigating the day-to-day toll the depression was exacting on individual citizens. In one letter to Mr. Hopkins, head of FDRís Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Ms. Hickok comments on the surprising acceptance of Southern white farmers to the higher wages to "Negroes" provided by the Civil Works Administration (CWA):
"Generally, the farmers seemed to be most enthusiastic about CWA. They felt that it had helped them, by reducing the number of tenants and laborers they would otherwise have had to support. There have been many cases, relief people tell me, of farmers asking that some of their men be put on CWA."
So the CWA and other government programs by offering higher wages attracted both the plantation worker and the small independent Black farmers to leave the countryside seeking a better life in the larger cities. However, for the rural communities left behind, life still revolved around those large landowners who held prominent positions both in the small towns and in the county. These large white farmers, landowners and their relatives became the city councilmen, mayors, judges and county commissioners in these rural districts. These rural districts in turn grew or did not grow based on the development philosophies of these "prominent" families. It was quite hard for the "little" people to vote against their employers and benefactors.
At the "Your Town" workshop the mayor, a Black city council woman and former city councilman reported on some of the reasons for their success in breaking the downward trend of the town of Monticello, GA, population 2,400. The former city council man said that they were able to break with tradition because the new, more progressive city council had three new members that were not from Monticello. "Since we had just arrived here over the last several years, we did not know who to be afraid of," he said.
This fear can be traced back to both the plantation life of the modern era and stories about the "Knight Riders" and KKK which sprang up during the Reconstruction years. In the South there are extreme differences in the perception of that history and those institutions developed during that period. These differences in perception lay at the root of how Blacks and whites in the rural South are able to or not able to work together for community improvements. For instance in preparing myself for the "Your Town" workshop, I decided to read up on the history of Terrell County where I operate Muhammad Farms. Here is an excerpt from a 1970 book entitled, "The History of Terrell County."
"The Ku Klux Klan was a law and order league of mounted night cavalry men, called into action by the intolerant condition of a reign of terror under the rule in the South at the close of the War between the States.
During the Reconstruction Days in the South it became an absolute necessity to have an organization, such as the Ku Klux Klan to protect Southern firesides. Our own Confederate soldiers organized it. When they returned home after the surrender, their fortunes gone, and homes destroyed, they found the "Carpet-baggers" and scalawags here. They were forced to keep the freed Negro in subjection until he could be freed from the tendency and influences of the scalawags and carpet-baggers.
From the beginning, there was only the thought of social pleasure and recreation in this order. But they discovered that their queer costumes, and their weird and mysterious doings affected the minds of the Negroes, and, so the whites turned their efforts into a means of defense, as was needed by the South at this time. It seemed as if the very foundation of Southern civilization was threatened. If white or black in any community of the county was giving trouble they found a K K K note on the door. This meant leave the county at once."
Many left and never came back and differences of opinion on that reality still effects voting, decision making, funding and the feeling of community in these rural areas today. Some stayed and found safety under the wings of benevolent plantation owners. Some dared to continue farming as independent land owners, albeit on smaller and less fertile strips of land. They remained to fight these same "benevolent" plantation owners now writing the rules on the County commissions and USDA County committees. The prominent whites now did not only own the best tracts of land, but were in charge of distributing the benefits of a forced taxation to the "good old boys". They were "benevolent" to the Blacks on their plantations while still supporting the "terrorists" who frightened the "free" Blacks out of their land, businesses and wits.
These same "Robbing Hoods" have become more sophisticated in their corruption and can now make wrong seem right, as with the Pigford vs. Glickman Class action lawsuit. The Black farmers by settling out of court found out the hard way, that lawyers serve the highest bidders, white sheets can be dyed to look like black robes, "justice" is only blind to itself, the helpless are left helpless and the public is left without a clue wondering, "well, what do they want now?"
We hope that you get to see Mr. Tom Burrell on "BET Tonight" this Tuesday, January 22nd at 11:30 p.m., as he discusses the plight and fight of Black farmers and land owners.
***News Flash: Black Farmer to appear on "BET Tonight"