Notes on home, family, and our ancestral land
We’re making good time, me and my cousin Brenda. Two hundred and twenty-five miles of chatter as I pilot my old Acura sedan across Middle and South Georgia. Brenda is nearly twenty years my senior, my great-aunt’s daughter, but more like a big sister to me. Of my older cousins, she is the one I always wanted to be like: popular, pretty, big city. Though Minneapolis was home for a good bit of my adult life, I’ve lived the last sixteen years in Atlanta, where Brenda has spent just about all of hers. At least I finally got the big city. I also got the tardy gene. We are late for many things, but not today, not this family funeral. In twenty miles, we’ll arrive at our ancestral home-place in Jackson County, Florida, long before the hearse arrives bearing our cousin Jerry.
As Mama (who got it from Jerry’s fiancée, Dianne) told it, Jerry laid out his clothes before he went to bed on a Tuesday night, so he could get a jump on the busy day ahead. The next morning, February 3, he pulled on his underclothes and his shirt, and then raised his leg to put on his pants. His heart gave out before he could get his foot past the waistband. He was sixty-three years old. Given our family’s medical history, it was an on-schedule heart attack.
Years ago, Jerry came back to Jackson County from California with his mother, my cousin Barbara Jean. Along with my mother and their brigade of cousins, Barbara Jean grew up in the 1940s partly at our home-place, which we’ve always called Down on the River. In time, the promise of opportunity pulled her and her mother farther south to Miami in the 1950s, where an aunt had set up a family outpost during the Great Migration. While thousands of other black people chose industrial destinations in the North and West, Barbara Jean and her mother chose the tropics. Bright lights, bougainvillea, and dog tracks drew them away from the Panhandle and the family’s original house with its tin roof; broad, L-shaped porch; and a mulberry tree, black with treats. After school, when they were little, all the cousins hoisted onto its limbs, gorging themselves. The juice from the fruit stained their fingertips ruby as jam.
Later, Barbara Jean and two of her four children born in Miami rode the coattails of the Great Migration west to California, but there, fortunes fell. The home-place, back in Jackson County, offered healing. So, in the early 1990s, Barbara Jean and her son Jerry, by then in his forties, came back to the family land where the old house—by then hoary and abandoned—teetered. Weeds licked its brick ankles.
In that house, built by Papa, my great-grandfather James Addison Leslie, generations of my family struggled out of the womb into a world of striving. From Papa’s house, they walked along a dirt road to their segregated school each morning, a building that on Sundays was their church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist. White kids rumbling by them on the county school bus sometimes spewed spit and slurs. The Leslie kids launched rocks in reply, compact missiles pelting the sides of the bus. Barbara Jean, Mama, and the rest of the cousins studied from outdated, hand-me-down books from some of their tormentors, but they did have one advantage. African-American schoolteachers who taught in that part of the county rented rooms in Papa’s house because he was the superintendent of “Colored” schools. It was as though they had live-in tutors.
Just beyond the mulberry tree, at the edge of the River Road, Papa built a little store. Mama, aided by memory and old photographs, gave me the rundown of the goods that lined the shelves there. Florida Queen cigars, Prince Albert tobacco, cigarettes, Hunt’s canned peaches, Hershey’s cocoa, canned pork and beans, sardines, saltines, mackerel, cheese, grits, Moon Pies, Jell-O, bottled Kool-Aid, Lipton tea, Luke’s corned beef, and Ivory soap. Mike and Ikes, and Coca-Cola, RC, and Dr Pepper sodas all beckoned near the counter. Outside was kerosene. At Christmas time, red apples were in stock, their tender skin cuddled by tissue paper. Tins of snuff were stocked year ’round. The moonshine Papa and his brothers made—always during the autumn timber burn to camouflage smoke from the still—was jarred, sealed, and carted down to the edge of the Chattahoochee River, which ran along the foot of our property. They’d sell it to boats gliding down to Apalachicola.
The family also grew their own cotton, picked it themselves, sold it at market. (“No, we didn’t pick for white folks,” Mama has sniffed more than once.) They raised hogs, cattle, and chickens, and grew tobacco, peanuts, sugarcane and all the vegetables I’m likely to find at a meat-and-three joint. They made their quilts, hooch, and syrup from their own stock. The kids rode their own horses bareback. They were self-sufficient and not beholden to white folks for a living. As long as they were on their patch along the Chattahoochee, that held true. That had to rub some white folks the wrong way.
Papa added a gas pump in front of the store, and, as his coffers grew, he built a garage near the barn for his Model T Ford. Whites occasionally stopped at the store. Out in the sticks, sometimes convenience meant more than race. There were at least a couple of white people with whom Papa was friendly. Mama remembers Mr. Rufus Lawson sitting outside the store some afternoons drinking a “Co-Cola,” talking with Papa. About what, she doesn’t recall. Back then, children weren’t supposed to listen to grown folks’ conversations. Yet, the family was always wary of white folks. How could the Leslies forget? Papa was formerly enslaved. He didn’t talk about it but his manner suggested lessons learned. Vigilance was necessary for survival. That’s why he often spent nights in the back room of the store, his rifles by the cot where he slept.
The value of an education, entrepreneurship, a sense of self-pride, and belief in self-defense—all of that was nurtured on the family land. They were better armaments than stones against a segregated world. To prepare us for one that would ultimately integrate, the elders passed those lessons down to Brenda, Jerry, me, and our generation of cousins. They prayed we’d face better odds. In many ways, we did. We didn’t have to pay poll taxes to vote. We watched Nelson Mandela walk free and apartheid fall. We saw a black president inaugurated twice. But we also faced new treachery, more nuanced than what our elders endured, but just as damaging.
Despite all of that history, when she moved back home, with Jerry soon following her, Barbara Jean must have been unburdened by sentiment. In all lights and from all angles, Papa’s house looked unsalvageable. The booming economy of the Clinton years was around the corner but its benefits would pass her by. She did not have the money for the home’s restoration. Neither did Jerry, by then a full-grown man but always short on funds. No one had lived in the old place full time since probably the early 1980s. The barn, garage, and store were gone. So, Barbara Jean committed an unpardonable sin, as far as my mother was concerned. She torched it.
“Didn’t tell anybody. Didn’t call. Just burnt it up. I mean . . .” Mama said to me, not long after.
The tin roof was pushed into a pit and covered with earth. The mulberry tree remained, gnarled but not impotent. In the telling, Mama tried to smother her hurt with incredulity, but even over the phone the pain peeked out along the edges.
That land has been ours since Reconstruction. Over the scorched earth, on that six-acre portion of the family’s original farm, Jerry and his mother saddled a nice, new, double-wide trailer. When I was nine years old, that stamp-small portion where the trailer later came to rest was legally carved out from the rest of the family’s nearly three-hundred-acre tract. My great-uncle and great-aunts designated it as a refuge for any heir who needed a place to stay, short term or long, then or in the future; a place to turn when there is nowhere else to go, a place where no one can put you out.
“Heirs’ property” is the colloquial description of land transferred from one relative to another when the giver dies, but the bequest usually comes without the legal heft of a will. It’s a common practice among rural, cash-poor but land-rich families who want descendants to keep their property: leave it to several people in the family so it’s difficult to sell since all the parties have to agree to it. At least, that’s the intent of heirs’ property. Several cousins, aunts, uncles, and siblings can lay claim to the inherited parcel in varying degrees. Timberland and pastures confer wealth and power, in theory.
But families are messy, and developers are greedy. What if one or two cousins want to sell and the rest don’t? What if some feel nostalgia, pride, or even spiritual attachment to the land, but others don’t? As many families, especially African-American ones, have discovered, heirs’ property is no fail-safe against loss, no fortress against regress.
By 1910, black families like ours owned fifteen million acres across the South, staking our claim to a cruel and beautiful place built with our labor. Now, that number has dwindled to roughly 2.9 million, by U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates. Some land loss experts place it at less than two million. No one knows the exact amount of land lost to heirs’ property squabbles, predation by speculators and corporations, and pillaging of black land by rival white farmers, but experts say half that land loss was due to heirs’ property disputes. There’s a story for every acre.
Our place hugs the northeastern edge of the county, a swath of pine, ponds, rutted roads, and fertile fields. It rolls along the watery corner where the Chattahoochee joins the Flint River and cleaves Florida from Georgia and Alabama. Enslaved people worked cotton fields for generations, making Jackson County long one of the top cotton producers in the state.
Cotton is still a cash crop there. From late each October through the low light of early November, tons of fluffy white fibers are baled and loaded high onto skeleton trailers. They look like stacks of matted sheep as the trucks lumber to market. Headwinds force white wisps free as they go. The dander floats, then clots in the roadside brush. Remnants roll for miles like sea foam along the edges of green lawns that front modest, brick ranch houses.
To paraphrase scholar Loren Schweninger, our blanket of land tethers us to the moment my family went from being property to owning it. We became citizens on paper. With iron plows we tilled our own soil; with calloused hands we cast seed; and cotton, sugarcane, and tobacco sprouted by season. Belief in our land and each other strengthened with the yield. We defended it all with guns and prayer. In that way, we became Southerners.
The late playwright August Wilson said that more than any other place, including Africa, the American South is the ancestral homeland of African Americans. As a girl, my mother found arrowheads in the soft earth of the fields. They were reminders of the Creek and Seminole Indians to whom the land first belonged until whites forced them out in the 1820s and ’30s. When white settlers came in, many from the Carolinas and Georgia, they brought with them the human chattel that drove Middle Florida’s economies. My family may have been among them. Perhaps they were purchased later at auction. Perhaps their memories of Africa grew less vivid with each passing year, each sale of their bodies, until all that was left was an unrelieved, chronic ache. For them, there would be no return. Or, maybe their only tie to the land of their ancestors was through a phrase, a prayer, or foodways passed down by an elder. Knowing for sure might bring me a little peace, but it probably won’t come to pass. For that reason, I choose to believe Wilson was right. Jackson is where I begin.
Brenda and I are nearing the home-place. We left Atlanta just after seven a.m. and watched the sky changing through the colors of a bruise—indigo, lavender, peach, tallow white—as the sun inched higher.
Jerry’s will be an a cappella home-going. We’ll beat out the rhythm of each hymn with handclaps and foot pats. The eulogy will thunder on forever. Then, we’ll lay him down by his mother, Barbara Jean, and our forebears in the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church #1 Cemetery, not a mile from the homestead. Five generations of us molder there under a choke of dried pine needles, dog fennel, and scrub oaks. Sun and rain have furrowed letters and dates on some headstones so deeply, only the oldest among us can remember who rests where. All lie east toward the River Road, a soft cursive line south to the homeland.
The car smells like an orchard. Brenda is devouring one of the apples I brought along so we won’t have to stop for breakfast. We are quite pleased with ourselves for planning ahead, although I shouldn’t have put on a girdle before a cross-state drive. I did it because my mother will take one glance at me and see every mashed-in, smoothed-out extra pound. Then tell me so. Brenda is trim, her salt-and-pepper hair curled and sparkling. Blush in a muted shade of magenta caresses her cheeks.
Brenda’s legend and influence over me began when I was little and she would visit the homestead. Even though I grew up sixty-three miles away in Tallahassee, Jackson County was where my mother and I spent most weekends after my parents divorced. Brenda shared our country roots, but look how far she’d gone. If it was possible to get drunk off her sophistication, that’s exactly what eight-year-old me did. I swooned when she and her husband, Melvin, walked into a room. Big Afros, funky bell bottoms, and suede vests. He was a professor at Clark College before it merged with Atlanta University to form Clark Atlanta, and she worked for the federal government in downtown Atlanta. They’d even been to the Hyatt Regency’s revolving penthouse restaurant, the Polaris, where they probably nibbled on “Birds of Polaris” salad—which was little more than chicken salad in a melon half, but it was somehow more elegant when consumed with a rotating view of the city. To touch the hems of their garments was to be healed of my small-town blues. She was prettier than Pam Grier. He smelled of Monsieur Jovan musk cologne. Together, they looked like black progress.
Just before Melvin started his career at Clark as a biology professor, a group of social activists and scholars gathered on campus for two days in late June 1971. A dire call had brought them together: Black people were losing their farms by the hundreds. What could be done to stop it?
My great-great-grandfather, Ephraim Leslie, had been part of a stream of emancipated black people who bought Southern farmland during Reconstruction. Four million enslaved people had been freed. By 1890, twenty-one percent of blacks owned land almost exclusively in the South. By 1950 they owned twelve million acres. But in the span of twenty years, by the time the scholars gathered for the conference at Clark, that number had plummeted to five and a half million acres.
Animating the scholars’ debate was the question of citizenship. If you are landless, and have no land to return to, who are you? Where do you belong?
Robert S. Browne of the Black Economic Research Center posed the question in a summary of the conference:
A strict economic calculus might suggest that the black community, beset as it is by endless needs for capital for its self-development, would be well advised to sell off its idle land and invest the proceeds in more productive activity. Such a calculation is made, however, without due attention being afforded to political, social, and psychological considerations which weigh heavily on the black conscience. Questions must be raised as to whether the stake which the black community feels it has in the U.S. as a nation is likely to be influenced by whether blacks own any significant portion of the national territory or not. How closely are roots in the land related to a feeling of “belonging” or of “security.”
My maternal grandfather had only a fourth-grade education, but he’d been saying what Browne concluded years before those scholars met. As Granddaddy Fred was fond of declaring in his peculiar cadence, “Y’all is got, what folk gon’ need and ain’t got, and that is, land.”
In a fashion, Granddaddy was right. Almost one hundred and fifty years after six Jackson County commissioners signed a deed granting the first parcel of what would become almost three hundred acres to my great-great-grandfather Ephraim Leslie, we still have a decent bit of it. He paid “the sum of Forty Dollars” for that land. Ephraim was an emancipated slave, the son-in-law of Mary and Andrew Hunter, likely brought to Jackson County as chattel. The man who owned them, James McGill Hunter, was listed as a Jackson County voter in Florida’s first national election as a new state in 1845. His precinct was in an area called Brown’s Ferry, near our land. Mary and Andrew were listed as his property in the 1859 estate papers of Hunter and his wife, Margaret Pope Hunter, whose family was among the first to settle in Jackson County. When John Hunter died that year, he left to his wife, Margaret: my great-great-great-grandparents Andrew and Mary; their daughters Millie and Basha; and twenty other enslaved people.
When I was little, how many summer evenings did I hear my aunts and cousins tell their version of how we got the land? Spun out over hands of bid whist and the moans of Al Green on Aunt Queen’s or Aunt Mable’s stereo, the details flourished with each lowball of Chivas Regal or Seagram’s. If I asked Brenda right now to tell it as we drive along, she’d stop eating her apple and launch right in. All about how the nameless enslaver’s daughter had a baby by an enslaved person, but the enslaver decided to “send her away” after the baby was born and he reared his mulatto grandson as his own. (Brenda always says “mulatto,” which rankles me for all the freight that comes with the word and the unspoken but implied suggestion, by inflection, that this particular progeny was somehow better than an African just landed on these shores.) After emancipation, the enslaver supposedly gave the land to the grandson, Andrew “Old Man” Hunter.
But lore rarely squares with fact. I’ve found no record that the McGill Hunters ever had a daughter. Though mine is an oral tradition, Jackson County Court property records say Ephraim bought that land fair and square.
So, how did he get the money to buy the land? While enslaved, was he among the ranks of captives allowed to work outside the plantation for money? Florida laws restricted this, but did his owner turn a blind eye? Or was he, as were some of the enslaved, allowed to raise a few crops of his own—an action also restricted by an 1826 state statute—to sell to buyers in town? In most cases those enslaved people had to sell their harvest back to their owners.
My Uncle Al has told the story, passed down to him, that a plantation mistress taught some of the enslaved people she owned how to read. Not as a benefit to them, Uncle Al said, but so she could send them on errands for the plantation. I want to believe this story. If my ancestors could read, even a little bit, what measure of power must it have given them while they were still in bondage? Did literacy give them the hope and will to endure if not the power to change their situation?
The story is fanciful, all very Roots, like the iconic television miniseries. In the absence of documentation, lore becomes the stand-in to explain my ancestors’ preparedness for the window of opportunity that came at war’s end. All I am sure of is that through land acquisition my forebears saw a path to freedom.
The Confederacy being vanquished, the Florida Legislature passed a law in early 1866 mandating all “persons of color who say they have been living in the relation of husband and wife and they mutually desire to continue in that relation” to be married. Could any of them have guessed how fragile Reconstruction’s promise would be, how bitter and lethal its aftermath?
An old gospel song tells us to “stretch out on your faith.” My great-great-grandfather’s in-laws-to-be, Mary and Andrew Hunter, married on August 19, 1866. Their faith walk had begun. And on this brilliant morning, Brenda and I are returning to its origin.
Both of us have the same portrait of Andrew and Mary’s daughter, Millie, my great-great-grandmother. Her thick, wavy black hair, brushed straight, is parted down the middle. Her skin may have been the same sepia tone as the photograph, perhaps darker. She stares directly at the camera. Across her full lips—is that the start of a smile? I’ve strained to see myself in her. Surely, I must have some of her ways.
The 1850 U.S. Census did not list Millie by name but by her age, three. She was born property. By the 1880 census, she had been married to Ephraim for eleven years. The land had given her new dignity, a new honorific and purpose. She was listed by her married name as a farmer’s wife, a homemaker.
Millie and Ephraim set about raising their three free sons on their newly purchased place. They taught the children to work and buy more land. Their intent lives on in the 1875 volume of the Jackson County land records, page 607, third deed entry down. Ephraim paid $40, the “receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged to give, grant, bargain, sell and convey unto the said Ephraim Leslie and his heirs the following described lands.”
Our thickets and pastures Down on the River. The rest of the amber citation is a command, as though it anticipated this crisp, blue-sky day, when his kin would return for another rite. The acreage is “to have and to hold the same unto the said Ephraim Leslie, his heirs, and assigns to their said use and benefit forever.”
Forever is a blessing. Forever is a burden.
Ephraim left it all to his son, James Addison Leslie, “Papa,” who upon his death, left it to his nine children, including my grandmother. There was no will, only his word that they keep it. One giant communal piece of land.
Grandma’s brother farmed it, but as tractors and herbicides replaced plows and hoes, debt threatened his hold on Ephraim’s purchase. My grandmother and her sisters made a prescient decision to divide the land, legally, and for the most part, equally. Creditors took the farm equipment. Each of Papa’s nine children, including my grandmother, got thirty acres. Each was responsible for paying their own taxes. Each had the “sole and absolute power” to do with their part what they saw fit.
My proof is the county seal on my copy of the 1970 partition agreement. But instead of tightening our grip on the place, time has loosened it.
As my grandmother and her siblings died, several of them passed away without wills. Starting with my mother’s generation, each of those thirty-acre plots has been passed down, respectively, to descendants. And each descendant could claim a proportional sliver of thirty acres derived from Ephraim’s original purchase. Which means just about every bit of it has reverted to heirs’ property.
This is how so many black families lose their land. One person wants to sell and starts an action that can force a sale. And if a developer wants the land, he or she can buy a small interest in the property from an heir and through a series of legal maneuvers, force the sale of the whole lot.
Here’s what happens when you get three or four generations past forever. Few of us live there anymore. None of us farm. As we moved away, neglect and flames erased our physical testimony of what we’d built on the land. My generation may be the last to remember who settled this ground, what it meant, what it still means. I’m certain we’ll be the last generation to keep the taxes up to date. Beyond that?
Before I left my house to pick up Brenda for the funeral, I checked the back door to make sure it was locked. Hanging from the doorknob in a ragged pouch made from a scrap of my grandmother’s old white cotton slip, is soil from her and my paternal grandparents’ place in Tallahassee. Mingled with it is dirt from the Jackson County home-place and from my trip to South Africa to cover the nation’s first multi-racial election, my only visit to the continent. No bigger than a twenty-five-cent gumball, the sack is laced to the throat of the doorknob. It is a mawkish, sentimental, overwrought amulet. And every time I touch it I’m reminded of the stony road that brought me here. It has protected every house I’ve lived in.
Author Tracy Thompson says that as Southerners we make the mistake of conflating our identities with the land. I respectfully beg to differ. She is a white woman and for her that may be true. For the dwindling number of African Americans who still own ancestral land, those acres are our historical ledger. This soil made us Americans. First, we shaped it against our will, then to our will. As a family we held on to it, and we were fortunate enough to have never sharecropped it. It gave us an assuredness I see in the way my female elders carry themselves, a boldness I hear when ninety-three-year-old Uncle Al speaks.
My family has chased dreams down to St. Petersburg and West Palm Beach, up to New Jersey and Massachusetts, over to Wyoming and San Francisco, up to Tacoma and across to Alaska and South Korea. For seventeen years, my outpost in the Leslie family diaspora was the Minnesota tundra. Yet, Jackson is our taproot. We are heirs commanded long ago to be shepherds. It is as much a part of us as breath and bone. Not all of us believe that. Not all of us have honored it, but I feel the weight of forever.
Which is why I’m so worried about the community parcel. A white farmer near the Alabama line rents my great-aunt Julia’s portion and grows peanuts on it. Julia was big-hearted and barren. When she died she left her portion to her remaining siblings, including my maternal grandmother. The family absorbed it, and it became part of the community parcel where Jerry and Barbara Jean set up the double-wide. The remaining original acres that were divided up when I was nine surround that community parcel. The farmer could grow more crops if he had access to them. Two cousins who still live near the land talk about how “white folks” would love to get the acreage for prime deer and quail hunting.
And over the years, slowly but surely, a few cousins have sold their lots.
Even though we know the way to Jackson County, Brenda and I built in an extra hour for travel. This time, we will get to the home-place early.
The state lines shake hands just past Donalsonville, Georgia. We greet the Florida side of the River Road. The stretch starts looking familiar. Open fields to the left, rows broken for peanut seeds to come. Timberland to the right. My girdle is too tight. I’m glad for the extra time so I can run into the fellowship hall when we get there and adjust myself. We are getting close.
In the distance, I make out a row of parked cars. There are too many this early. I speed up. There’s a queue outside the white cinderblock church. The hearse is there. Jerry’s body is already inside.
“Now wait a minute,” Brenda says. “It’s supposed to start at noon, isn’t it?”
Turns out, we are late after all. I park just past the church, in a grassy swale a few yards away from the foot of the graveyard which rises on a soft hill just behind us. Our ancestors rest on the crest. The broad concrete steps of the original sanctuary where Mama and Barbara Jean went to elementary school haunt the edge of the cemetery. The edifice is gone. What remains is this concrete cornerstone, treading upwards toward a cathedral of scrub oaks and ashen pines.
Brenda and I get out of the car. A cool, clean breeze erases the sour-sweet smell of Brenda’s browning apple core. I scan the crowd and do not see my mother. I step gingerly, quickly, in an awkward tiptoe so my heels won’t sink into the sandy earth as I search for her. She’s over eighty now and I always jump to the worst conclusion whenever she’s not where she’s supposed to be: that she has had an accident, that she is dead, and I am left a middle-aged, childless orphan. I forget all about the pinch of my girdle. Her car must be hidden behind one of these mammoth pickup trucks or SUVs. Some of my cousins and a whole bunch of people I don’t know mill about, but I do not see her. Brenda suggests finding the ladies room.
Just before I give in to panic, a sparkly beige Mercedes zips by and pulls onto the grass lot on the other side of the church. Mama gets out, a little frazzled but in one piece. She is frail in a Ruth Bader Ginsburg sort of way. Like the justice, her appearance is deceiving. This wisp of a woman in her black hat and jacquard-knit suit is strong and tough as collard greens left in the field too long. There is visible wear. Stiffness has supplanted supple movement. Her constitution is fibrous and does not completely break down under pressure. Her spirit is nourishing. She is beautiful.
No time for hugs, she heads straight for the mourners’ line. “Mama, I thought you said it started at noon,” I say.
“Yes. Eastern time.” Mama lives in Tallahassee, my hometown, which is a little more than an hour east.
The capital city is on Eastern Standard Time. Jackson County is on Central. I start to point out that it would have made more sense to have cited the right time for the appropriate time zone, but Brenda gives me a look. Not now. Mama’s cousin, Ben, takes her arm. His touch is tender. “Girl, you gettin’ old,” he says, even though he is four years her senior. He moved back to the homestead a few years ago after spending his working life as an airport mechanic in Miami. Ben built his retirement home on the part he inherited.
Brenda and I line up behind them. The guest chorale, the Holy Neck Missionary Baptist Church Choir, is singing the processional. As discreetly as I can, I tug at the clandestine waistband beneath my dress and get no relief. Ushers hand us programs adorned with printed roses and hearts. Tomorrow will be Valentine’s Day.
We march in. Jerry Leslie Jordan is up front waiting for us, blue suit on, casket open.
Every time I walk into this church, we’re burying one of us. Last time, about four years ago, it was my mother’s sister, Mable. Brown skinned, beloved, and also barren, she called me “Dumplin’” and, I’m told, potty-trained me during a single week’s visit because she hated changing diapers. Widowed early, she lived on the farm until she was in her thirties, then built a smart brick rambler on a dirt road outside Marianna, the county seat. She hosted weekend stay-overs that were mini-reunions and taught me how to put up preserves, shell peas, and scale a fish. She kept the family stories and stored away the secrets. Then dementia took them away. In time, at ninety years old, it claimed her too.
After she had graduated from Tuskegee Institute she came back to Jackson County and taught at the original Macedonia church where Mama went to school. Mama, fifteen years her junior, was one of her students. When my mother was little, the windows in the original building had mullions and clear panes. She could see the graveyard and the woods beyond, offering a chance to daydream between singing her addition and multiplication tables. It was rote learning set to an a cappella tune that sounded a lot like an up-tempo hymn. To this day Mama can sing the arithmetic tables, often mimicking a child’s voice as she goes. When she does, I can picture her and her cousins singing in unison, their faces, elbows, and legs all shiny from Blue Seal Vaseline slathered on by their mothers so they wouldn’t be ashy in the Lord’s house.
Some of the songs we’re singing now for Jerry have the pacing of those clever tutorials.
You can’t see the graveyard from the new chapel. The windows are frosted an opaque white. Depending on how hard and long the Holy Ghost hits the pastor during a sermon, they heighten the feeling of entrapment. If I raised one, I could see Aunt Mable’s headstone.
Peoples Funeral Home attendants ran out of hand fans before we could take a seat. Hugs were dispensed instead to the late comers and tissues were pressed into palms to dab away tears.
The pastor is telling us that when Jerry came back to Jackson County, everybody called him “Hollywood,” an acknowledgment of all those years living the fast life in California. When he got back to the land, he’d turned to the Lord and in his later years was an active member of his church. But the devil is busy, as they say, and so is the dope man. Jerry resisted as best he could. For the eulogy, the pastor is preaching a version of Jerry’s favorite sermon, “We All Gotta Die.” The title hits the ear and heart with blunt force. I guess when Jerry first heard it, it must have felt prescient.
When he was a kid in Miami, Jerry sometimes spent summers and Christmases at the home-place, when a handful of relatives still lived there. Even so, his formative years were forged in an urban setting. Miami is often overlooked as a destination in the migration. Tourism was booming. The city needed workers. Mechanization and pesticides, along with Jim Crow, drove folks away from the rural Panhandle, farther south to the bottom of the twenty-seventh state.
How ironic that my relatives didn’t work for white people when they lived on the farm but once they left, some found themselves “in service” to whites in Miami.
Oddly enough, one of the early calls that began the nation’s largest mass exodus out of the rural South originated with a Jackson County native. Timothy Thomas Fortune, born there in slavery, became a newspaper editor in New York and was a fierce advocate for civil rights. In June 1900, he was quoted in the New York Times issuing what scholars Dawn J. Herd-Clark, Tameka Bradley Hobbs, and Daniel R. Weinfeld say was the “clarion call” for the migration.
“I propose to start a crusade to have the negroes of the South leave that section and come north or go elsewhere,” Fortune said. “It is useless to remain in the South and cry Peace! Peace! when there is no peace.”
But he also said this: “If the negro can’t be a man in the South he should leave there, but if he proposes to stay there he should stay as a man and fight his way up.”
For at least two generations after Reconstruction, my family stayed and fought.
Mama’s parents sent her to Tallahassee at fourteen years old to attend an accredited high school—where she met my father—and later to Florida A&M University, where she got a degree in secondary education with certifications to teach math and general science (guess those old arithmetic anthems paid off). In summers, she’d come home and work on the farm. On one of those high school breaks, Mama witnessed something that to this day she can’t get to the bottom of, but she believes to her core that it involved a threat to the land.
Late one afternoon there was a flurry of activity among the Leslie men, including Papa and his brothers. They gathered guns and headed to Buck Hewitt’s place, a white farmer who lived a few miles away.
Later that evening, they returned unharmed and tight lipped. There didn’t seem to be any more trouble from Hewitt’s quarters after that.
“Somebody over there at Buck’s had messed with one of them and they weren’t gonna let it happen again,” Mama said to me years afterward.
When I pressed her for details, Mama reminded me that children back then didn’t openly pry into grown folks’ business like they do now. Instead, they eavesdropped. She can’t remember if she was scared. She only remembers that none of the Leslie men ever wound up shot or with a rope around his neck.
In 1934, the year before my mother was born, a local black man named Claude Neal was accused of raping and murdering a white woman. Once, when I was visiting home from Minnesota, Mama, Aunt Mable, Uncle Al, and I passed the Marianna courthouse on our way to Walmart. The original county building with its white Corinthian columns was replaced by a low-slung, midcentury creation with none of the original’s majesty. Its façade is flanked by two ancient live oaks. Uncle Al and Aunt Mable got into it over which tree the lynch mob hanged Neal from, the left or the right. Uncle Al said the right. Aunt Mable said the left. Or vice versa. But they agreed the entire family stayed on the farm, which was twenty-five miles away from downtown, for days and weeks after. The murderers were busy trading their plunder: Neal’s fingers and toes.
By the time we got to Walmart, we’d changed the subject, but we were still talking about death—how the retail giant had killed the old downtown shopping district and square where Neal met his end.
Mama’s father was known for leveling his rifle at white people who trespassed on his property while they were hunting. How he survived those encounters is proof of the Divine. Or evidence of a tall tale.
I never picked cotton or watched steam rise from the blood of a freshly butchered hog. I never rode a horse bareback (and neither did Brenda, because she was too scared). I was taught a few country ways, though. Turn the porch chairs backwards and lean them against the wall to signal you’d gone to town; sweep the dirt front yard and gingerly back away as you sweep so as not to spoil the pretty patterns. Dried sedge bundled and strapped together with a long strip of a rag makes the best hand broom, but don’t sweep after dark or you’ll sweep away your loved ones. Pierce the earthworm with the fishing hook so it wriggles when you cast out the cane-pole line. Mullet and bream like their food living and if enough are caught there will be an evening fish fry at Aunt Mable’s with music and bid whist and dancing.
At eight years old, all I knew was that these acts meant love and safety, and good behavior guaranteed free Baby Ruth bars from what was left of Papa’s store across River Road.
The store smelled like weathered lumber and snuff. I can still hear the plunk-plunk of footfalls on the floorboards. The porch felt like it wouldn’t support a washtub full of water. The last car to stop there for gas, well, who could remember when that was? When a car did pass by, you ran toward the road and you waved, and waved, a gesture returned by the driver with the wag of his hand or toot-toot of his horn.
The signals swarmed around like gnats, but I couldn’t catch them. Maybe I was just too young. I thought the country life was just slow, if not a little boring. I didn’t understand the farm was dying.
Around us, all over the South, black farms like ours were flickering out. When you can’t make a living where you are, you leave. For the Army, like Uncle Al. For the city, like Jerry and his mother, Barbara Jean. For an education and steady professional work, like my mother who became an administrator at FAMU. Or you sell.
When the land was partitioned in 1970, my grandmother chose thirty acres next to the forty-acre farm she and her husband owned, where Mama, Aunt Mable, and Uncle Al were reared. Decades later, when another cousin failed to keep up the taxes on her thirty-acre portion, Uncle Al bought it. It was also next to my grandparents’ farm. Pretty soon my immediate family had one hundred and forty contiguous, prime acres.
After her parents died, Aunt Mable kept the farm up, sweeping the yard, trimming the weeds back, fishing for perch in the ponds. She’d had a good career as a teacher and was comfortable with a house outside Marianna she built and paid cash for.
But in Tallahassee, with a kid in college, a marriage in tatters, and a respectable but grossly under-paying job that didn’t earn her enough to repair her roof, my mother struggled. Of the three siblings, she was the one who wound up poor. Loans were shackles and she couldn’t abide their weight. Pride was essential but so was cash. Throughout my childhood, we could always depend on Aunt Mable, but not necessarily for money. Her support came in bulk: commodities, paper towels, toilet paper, bars upon bars of Zest soap, anything to make Mama’s grocery bill a little lighter.
So, she struck a deal with Aunt Mable; Mama sold her stake in the farm to her sister. Aunt Mable wrote her a check for $27,000 in April 1984, and with that Mama relinquished any legal tie to the land. She no longer had any right to live there if she’d wanted to. Neither could she rent the land out to farmers. That’s how Mama saw it. Business was business and this was business. At least the place would remain in the family.
New asphalt shingles were tarred to her roof in Tallahassee, paid for by the windfall from the land sale. Mama’s blood pressure went down. I graduated from college. Within two years I moved to Minnesota. There, as a newspaper reporter in Minneapolis in 1987, I sought my own version of black progress.
But in a few years, I’d learn what business is business truly meant.
It started with the sale of timber off some of the land under Aunt Mable and Uncle Al’s care after Mama sold her stake. I have no idea what they got for the trees, but I know many black families who’ve sold their forests to timber companies have been paid only a fraction of the lumber’s true worth.
When Aunt Mable and Mama trudged through the remaining thickets to get to the cleared acreage, Aunt Mable nearly cried. She’d been promised the land would be left in some semblance of order. Instead, it looked like a hurricane had scrambled the earth.
A few years after I got the call that Jerry’s mother had burned down “Papa’s” place, my mother called to tell me to come home. This time her voice was solemn. Aunt Mable was getting tired. Her mind was still sharp, but keeping up two properties, one of them a big farm, was by then too much. She and Uncle Al had decided it was time to sell their portions of great-great-granddaddy Ephraim’s original purchase, as well as their own father’s original forty acres. Many of my other cousins still had their thirty-acre lots, but we were about to join that sorry lot who cashed out.
I don’t remember trying all that hard to stop it. At least not with the only thing that would have mattered, coin. I didn’t have it. I’d just bought my own house in St. Paul, which Mama and Aunt Mable had visited and praised. Only after I hung up did I weep.
We took pictures on my last visit, before the sale went through—me, Mama, and Aunt Mable. There’s a shot of me posing by the log smokehouse, an outbuilding sturdy and stout as if it was still filled with its purpose: Christmas hams and pork belly curing to the perfect state of savory. In another, Aunt Mable in her signature dungarees kneels beneath an oak tree that was probably there before my ancestors knew freedom. Its lush, evergreen canopy cooled us in summer and loomed in the moonlight, its leaves whispering, calling in the wind. The roses my grandmother planted years before still blushed pink. Mama picked up pine cones from the piney woods at the edge of the back yard. Every year thereafter she’d place them in a bowl on her coffee table at Christmastime.
That day, for some reason, I chose to wear a t-shirt promoting a rival newspaper’s promotional scavenger hunt. It read, “Murder on a Stick,” a play on just about every snack worth eating at the Minnesota State Fair. Today, it seems a wildly inappropriate choice. But maybe not. Something did die that day. Even now, the shame won’t let me claim it.
Mama never asked Aunt Mable and Uncle Al how much they got for the sale and never asked them for a dime of the proceeds. When Aunt Mable died in 2011, she left just about everything to my mother. Somewhere in the inheritance is the money from the farm.
When she was going through Aunt Mable’s papers after she died, my mother found a handwritten note from the buyer thanking Aunt Mable for selling such a lovely bit of land. The new owner is white. She may still live there, but I can’t bring myself to check.
As they wheel Jerry’s casket down the center aisle of the church and into the sunlight, I remember them wheeling my grandmother’s casket down this aisle. The same for Granddaddy Fred’s and Aunt Mable’s. They are out there waiting for Jerry.
Not twenty yards from his vault, in a plot surrounded by battered metal rods and splintered oak posts that were once a fence, lie Ephraim and Millie Hunter Leslie. That’s what we believe. Or they could be Andrew and Mary Hunter, the enslaved who started us on this Jackson County journey. The enclosure is too big for just one grave. One concrete headstone remains. The name, date of birth, and date of death were scratched into the still-curing mortar with a primitive print. It’s impossible to make out any characters. The elements have left us to wonder.
In the church, the cortege of the living sing as they step into the aisle and out into the sun. Brenda walks over to Aunt Mable’s and Aunt Queen’s graves with me. There they are, side by side, as they were in life. School teachers, bid-whist champions, the two who never left Jackson County. Brenda wraps an arm around me, wipes my tears at the expense of hers. Her voice breaks when she says she misses them too.
This is why I moved back South. As much as I loved Minnesota, there was something about seeing older black people struggle across a snow bank and navigate an icy sidewalk that struck me as deeply wrong. And when I allowed myself to consider my own death, the thought of a grave digger breaking frozen earth, lowering my casket, then covering it with clumps of dirt and snow—that too felt wrong. Better to be here amid the fire-ant hills and sedge than to be blanketed by snow in a city where I’d done just fine but had none of my blood to share the cold ground with me. Better to be buried here, above the road home, my headstone warmed by the rising sun.
Across the cemetery near the church, Mama and her first cousins Cornelia and Theressa, and Cornelia’s son, Aldric, are talking. Brenda takes a breath; I dry my eyes and we go to join them. This damn girdle.
As we get closer, I hear them talking about the land. Theressa and Aldric, or “Cookie” as we call him, had come up a day early to add his name to land documents at the courthouse. He’s now in charge of collecting rent from the local farmer who leases the family community parcel. The distribution checks are nominal, not quite $100 a year to the remaining legal heirs.
Cookie is a good man. He is also a businessman and owner of a construction company in St. Petersburg. He and I have not talked about the property. So, I am glad when I hear his mother and aunt say plainly what they want after they are gone.
“Because after we older generations are gone then it’s left to the younger generation,” Cornelia is saying, shaking her head. “And it’s very important that you all keep this land because it’s family land. You don’t want that land auctioned off. My grandparents worked so hard for that land. I just don’t want nobody to take over that land. I just don’t, I really don’t.”
Theressa looks out toward the woods past the old church steps and speaks.
“If we’re dead and gone, it’s nothing we can do about it but probably be turnin’ over in our graves.”
They held on to their thirty-acre portion from the original partition. But they are also talking about the six-acre family lot where Jerry and Barbara Jean lived when they came back home to Jackson County and the land rented to the farmer that once belonged to Great-Aunt Julia. Those six acres belong to all of Ephraim and Millie Hunter Leslie’s descendants. If I divided it by every living heir, my slice would probably be the size of a parking spot or dining room table. Still, I’m holding on.
Land tenure experts have told me that we’ll have to form a family trust to ensure that what remains stays in the family. The descendants of people who were once property will have to form a corporation to keep their legacy intact.
We talk so long in the cemetery we miss most of the repast. We hug and kiss each other and tell each other to travel safely. Brenda and I follow Mama in her car heading back to Aunt Mable’s brick rambler. We do not turn south to the homestead.
The last time we walked the community land was on Mama’s eightieth birthday the previous November. My partner, Kristina, came with us and we showed her where the barn and store were. We told her the stories. The mulberry tree stood sentinel,
eavesdropping, watching the old woman who thought there was no candy as sweet as its fruit.
I kicked through the grass near the mulberry tree and my shoe hit something hard. I thought it was a rock. Looking down, it was not a stone but a piece of brick. There were other chunks nearby. I called Mama over. She took one, turning it over in her fingers. Kristina peered over her shoulder. Mama guessed they were remnants from one of the fireplaces or from the pilings of the original house. As she spoke, those dusty, russet lumps became gemstones. I picked up what I could find and put them in the trunk of my car.
Kristina wanted to walk down to the river, along the old moonshine route, but there was no time. We had to go to the cemetery at Macedonia to clean off the graves.
There, the three of us raked and swept until shadows grew long.
Much later, I asked Mama if she felt like Down on the River was still home even though she doesn’t own any property outright anymore.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” she said. “When I go up the River Road I’m going home.”
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