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Eastman, GA. 2022

A search for a Southern past

Issue 118, Fall 2022

"Sally Looks for the Promise of Spring, 2021." Collage by Georgette Baker. Courtesy the artist and Zucot Gallery, Atlanta

“That’s the sky Mama saw,” I say aloud.

It is raining and my husband, Obery, and I are driving an hour south on Route 23 from Warner Robins, Georgia, to Eastman. He turns the windshield wipers off so that I can take a photograph. It is a dramatic sky, full of majestic, gray, rolling clouds. I have come here, to Middle Georgia, to Dodge County specifically, to see and feel the land my grandmother knew: the land of her birth and rearing. The land from which she migrated at age nineteen with her parents and four younger siblings—a sister and three brothers. The land to which she never returned. 

Mama, my grandmother, didn’t talk much about the South, not in any real detail. I knew her father, Papa Henry, had been a sharecropper before bringing his family to Philadelphia. Those of us she loved and helped to raise, my cousins and I, all remember the same stories: a billy goat that followed her to school and ate her straw hat. How she learned to shoot and how she learned to kill a chicken. And, the one that prompts my sky observation, the time she saw a tornado in the distance, gathered her siblings, and ran to safety. To my mind these stories, meant to entertain her young grandchildren, were full of exotic farm animals (there were no goats in South Philadelphia, though some folk did have a chicken or two), and dramatic weather. At their center sat the adventurous girl she had been.

But she didn’t bother to name the town or county where they lived. We grew up knowing she was from Georgia, and the state therefore held a special place in our hearts. Her siblings and some of their children returned for family reunions and the like, but not Mama. And unlike many of the children of my generation, who went south for summer vacation, or to attend a grandparent’s funeral, my first cousins and I never visited “home.” It’s not that Mama didn’t travel— twice before I started kindergarten she took me on my first train trips to visit family in Florida, and we drove for hours with one of her sons-in-law to see his family in Kinston, North Carolina. She went to Detroit and Oklahoma where she had relatives I’d never met. Unlike neighborhood friends and classmates, many of whom were the children of migrants from the Second Great Migration, my maternal and paternal grandparents were part of the First Great Migration, which started as early as 1910 and ended around 1940 and saw approximately 1.5 million people leave the rural South for cities in the Midwest and Northeast. Between 1940 and 1970, almost five times as many Black Southerners, many of whom already lived in Southern cities, relocated to urban centers in Western, Midwestern, and Northeastern states. Mama and her parents and siblings came in 1923. Both of my parents were Philadelphia-born. So I am two generations removed from the South. 

I always envied those with closer ties. One of the many things I love about the family I married into is the closeness between the New Jersey and the Virginia branches, who still travel regularly back and forth. My husband has such fond memories of what feels to me like a family homestead. He and his sister Linda and their first cousins have a sense of grounding in their shared memories of summers in Charlotte County that seem to bond them. Recently I accompanied him to Farmville where he eulogized his Aunt Kate. The funeral provided yet another opportunity for his family to gather. Afterward, we joined the cousins and their spouses at one of their spacious homes, and we laughed and talked and I watched with admiration as they reminisced and lovingly teased each other.

As Obery and I drive through Eastman and the surrounding area, I look at a lanky teen boy with dreadlocks and wonder if he might be related to me by some shared ancestor. Would my grandmother recognize a street we pass? Turn right and it’s named Congo Lane; make a left and it is Indian Drive. What history might those names hold? Would she have been able to tell me? I imagine if I’d had a different relationship to this place I would have enjoyed sharing the story of those road names with my husband. I have no such connection to or memory of this town or its history.

In the absence of a specific place, the South to me was embodied in the very being of my grandmother. A soft-spoken, physically beautiful woman the color of cinnamon with high cheekbones and large expressive eyes that seemed to hold untold stories, Willie Lee (Turner) Carson was neither vain nor self-centered. In fact, she was selfless to a fault. My favorite phrase of hers was “let that baby be,” which she used whenever another adult chided a child for being too dreamy, or too sensitive, or some other perceived weakness. She loved deeply. Never suffocating, her love was instead protective and freeing. At the end of my first semester in college, my boyfriend’s family invited me to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day in New York. I was so excited about the trip, but my grandmother had been hospitalized so my mother and I decided it best that I not go. Visiting her in the hospital on Christmas night, I bent down to kiss her and she whispered to me, “You go to New York.” I did and within two days I received the call to return home because my grandmother had passed away.

Although I barely remember the sound of her voice, I remember the way she said certain words: For instance, I recall ouvah for our. I don’t hear her voice, but I still feel it like an embrace. She was a remarkable cook, and we all associated her food with an extension of her love for us and the care and attention given it with her Southern upbringing. Good food was not only delicious, but also nourishing, feeding our spirits as well as our bodies. I recall feeling sorry for children who seemed reared on fast food and sandwiches from the corner store. The memory of her homemade donuts delights me even now. And I sometimes crave her lamb chops even though I no longer eat red meat. I was well into adulthood before realizing it was her tangy and sweet marinade I liked more than the actual cut of meat. She took that recipe to her grave. A few years ago I called a cousin and said, “I’m trying to make Mama’s lemonade.” He responded, “Then you are trying to make a cup of love.” Later in the conversation he said, “I’ve been chasing her flavors my entire adult life.” In our own way, all of us have been trying to hold tight to something she gave us. 

Mama seemed happiest when her children and grandchildren were all gathered together. A satisfied smile came across her face and she’d quietly laugh at our antics. Just before I started middle school she came to live with my mother and me and became a central part of my rearing, as she had been for my other cousins. To this day, we all say the same blessing over our food because Mama taught us: “Our Father, thank you for this food that we are about to receive for the nourishment of our bodies, Amen.” It warms my heart to hear my street-smart, tough male cousins whisper this over each meal. Such a simple prayer of gratitude, for food, for life: a prayer that weaves us together and lives in us as part of the grandmother who we revered and who in some way continues to guide us, still. We all, in our own way, aspire to be like her, to cook like her, to love children the way she loved us, to be as fair minded as she was. The biggest compliment you can pay to a woman in my immediate family is to tell her she looks like Mama. (I am convinced it is why some of us forgo coloring our hair. We hope the gray will come in as soft and glistening as hers.) The South, embodied in my grandmother, held us together. It gave us a sense of our worth and an ethical sensibility, something culinary and spiritual—a set of values rather than a place.

And yet, we, the progeny of Willie Lee, were the wayward branch in more ways than one. Bound by a fierce loyalty to each other and steadfast in our devotion to the woman we variously called Mother, Mama Carson, or Mama, we were nonetheless unchurched. In this way we were distinct from the children of some of her siblings. I was introduced to Christianity by my middle- and high-school classmates, some of whom were quite fundamentalist. My grandmother did not attend church, nor did she require her children and grandchildren to do so. Why? Also, though my grandmother married David Carson shortly after her arrival in Philadelphia and later gave birth to their three daughters— Eunice, Eartha, and Wilhelmena—she raised them as a single mother after separating from him. In later generations, we contained our share of teenaged mothers. And, significantly, we never went back to Georgia. Perhaps these things are related. I don’t know. 

Photograph of vintage postcard by Carter/Reddy

In 1995, I published my first book, Who Set You Flowin’: The African American Migration Narrative, an interdisciplinary study identifying the “migration narrative” as a primary form of twentieth-century African American cultural production. An outgrowth of my dissertation, the book is dedicated to “My Grandmother, Willie Lee Carson (1904–1981), who migrated from Eastman, Georgia, to Philadelphia in February 1923, and her three Philadelphia-born Daughters.” Until I wrote that dedication I had no idea from where or when Mama migrated, but the fact that she had is, in part, the origin of my efforts to write about the impact of this mass movement on Black history and culture. I called her younger sister, my Aunt Fannie, who gave me the when and where, but I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask the why of their leaving. I often sought out information about Eastman and planned someday to visit, but it would have to be a purposeful trip. There was nothing to take me there. Eastman is in the middle of the state. It sits at least two hours from anywhere, Savannah to the east and Atlanta to the north. Macon is about an hour away. I’ve visited Savannah and Atlanta many times in my adult life, taken there largely for work or research, or simply to visit cities I like and see people I enjoy spending time with. Trips for work and leisure have taken me elsewhere throughout the South: Louisiana, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and most recently to Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama.

On that trip, I went with friends to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, where founder Bryan Stevenson explained that each pillar with a number of names listed in the same year symbolizes a massacre. I found myself unconsciously looking for such groupings of names and one stood out to me: Dodge County, Georgia. Later that day I looked up Eastman to see if it is located in Dodge County. It is.

At least nine lynchings are reported to have occurred in Dodge County from 1882 to 1919. In 1882, four Black men and one woman were legally hanged following the “Eastman Riot.” The New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution blamed drunken Blacks who attended a “Negro camp meeting” in Eastman, began fighting amongst themselves, and eventually assaulted innocent whites. These accounts celebrate the fact that it was a legal execution instead of mob rule. There is something deeply troubling, however, about this rendering of the story. In July 1903 an Eastman mob in search of a man named Ed Claus, accused of assaulting a white woman, lynched the wrong man. In 1919 a gang of white men abducted and killed Eli Cooper, who had been trying to organize Black sharecroppers. They set a Black church on fire, believing it to be a meeting place for planning what whites feared would be an “uprising.” Cooper’s corpse was thrown into the fire. Several other Black churches and lodges were burned as well. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Cooper had been accused of “talking considerably of late in a manner offensive to the white people.” Cooper’s talk of racial equality and white fears of the rumored Black uprising led to an atmosphere of racial terror for Eastman’s Black residents. 

In The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, Donald Lee Grant writes that Cooper, “an elderly Black working on the plantation of A. P. Petway near Eastman, was burned to death for organizing Black field workers and for saying that the ‘Negro had been run over for fifty years, but it must stop now, and that pistols and shotguns were the only way to stop a mob.’” The Chicago Defender carried news of the lynching with the headline, “Church Burnings Follow Negro Agitator’s Lynching.” That same year, sixty-five-year-old Berry Washington was murdered by a mob because he “shot in defense of his daughter’s honor” after she was assaulted by a white man. The lynchings of Cooper and Washington took place during the infamous Red Summer of 1919, when hundreds of Black people were murdered at the hands of vigilante mobs and in race massacres throughout the nation. I am especially struck by Cooper’s defiance, but it is Washington’s attempted defense of his daughter from sexual assault that really sticks with me. I am a scholar of the Great Migration. I know and have identified the conditions that many Black people fled, but these Eastman incidents strike me in a deeply personal place and provoke a bevy of new questions for me.

Wanting to know more about Eastman and our family’s ties there and contemplating a visit, I reach out to a cousin, Paul, the youngest child of one of my grandmother’s brothers. He shares my interest in family history and in African American history in general. Like my mother and me, he also grew up in Philadelphia and continues to live just outside of the city. Paul recalled finding mention of the Cooper lynching and church burnings in the book 100 Years of Lynching by Ralph Ginzburg and asking his father, my great-uncle Ernest, about it. Uncle Ernest was a little boy when the family migrated and had no recollection of why they left. He didn’t remember hearing stories about lynching, but he did relate the difficulty Papa Henry had negotiating with landowners. In recent months my mother, now ninety-four years old, has shared a story about Papa Henry killing a white man’s cow in order to feed his children, and told me he had to leave Eastman because of this transgression.

I have no evidence that my grandmother’s family left Eastman because of racial violence, though clearly this was part of the atmosphere in which she lived. Apparently following the rash of violence and church burnings, many Blacks left the area. My grandmother’s nuclear family left within four years; I think one of her brothers, my Uncle Joe, given name William, left for Philadelphia first. While my great-grandfather and another of his siblings migrated to Philadelphia and Connecticut, respectively, other family members stayed and not only survived but thrived in Middle Georgia. Some of those who stayed acquired land, prospered, educated their children, and helped to build a strong and rich Black community of churches, schools, and civic organizations. 

I find my great-grandfather in the 1910 and 1920 censuses. He is listed as head of household with his wife, my great-grandmother Lula (whom I remember as Mama Lula), my grandmother, and first two, then later four of her siblings. In 1910, my great-grandmother is listed as mulatto, as are her three children. By 1920, the entire family is Black. I recall each of my grandmother’s siblings with warmth and fondness. My great-uncles often visited their big sister, especially on Saturday or Sunday mornings, and they called her Lee. Uncle Joe would pour coffee with cream and sugar from his cup onto a saucer, allow it to cool, and give me a sip. Uncle Ernest and his wife Aunt Anna (Paul’s parents) often rewarded me with gifts for good grades. I especially remember a prized white transistor radio. And, the youngest, Uncle George, lived just around the corner from my childhood home. We were closest to him, and my mother and I visited him frequently. Uncle George worked for the sanitation department and would honk the horn loudly when passing us on the street. I don’t remember Aunt Fannie visiting my grandmother, but we went to see her. An elegant, shapely woman with shoulder-length black hair, an expert seamstress, confident of her physical attractiveness, she was always ready and generous with advice, especially about romantic relationships: “Jazzy, always marry a man who loves you more than you love him.” 

When I began to prepare for my trip, Paul, who has attended family reunions and keeps in touch with relatives, generously puts me in touch with more family members, including those who are still in Georgia—some in Eastman and others in Atlanta. My husband joins me on the sojourn, a pilgrimage of sorts as much informed by Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon as by any of the historical research I’ve done. I seek out the roads mentioned in the census records, but they seem no longer to be in existence. Two kind and curious librarians at the local library explain that they were probably old country roads, non-existent on current maps. They each go out of their way to help me track down gravesites and other information. Together they join a long list of librarians I have known and for whom I’ve been grateful throughout my life.

Modern-day Eastman is a small, friendly town of just over five thousand residents. I am struck by a number of mixed-race children. Not that many really, but enough to stand out to me, and I think of the “mulatto” designation for my great-grandmother and her children and all that it connoted historically: the sexual exploitation and violence of slavery. “Times have changed,” I think. The children I see are parts of large, loving white families, out for a meal or in the nearby Target. There are colorful banners hanging from poles—a beautiful mandala with “Welcome to Eastman” on one and another with multicolored painted hands pronouncing “Eastman United.” They wave softly in the breeze. Outside of Eastman, on our way to lunch in nearby Warner Robins (with its young African American woman mayor, LaRhonda Patrick), I see bumper stickers and lawn signs denigrating Democrats, but I see no such partisan signage in Eastman proper. Against our will, Obery and I become immediately addicted to both the service and the fried food at Sharks Fish & Chicken Chicago Style, and near the end of our time in Eastman we find a spacious, sun-lit coffee shop, The Frozen Bean, which we wish we’d discovered earlier in our trip, as it would have become a daily stop for us.

One day we visit a churchyard that contains a cemetery. Two generations of my grandmother’s family are buried there. I am moved to see both the family name, but also the given names as they appear and reappear throughout the generations. It seems my grandmother may have been named for one of her paternal uncles, Willie Lee. I find the well-kept grave of the only paternal (first) cousin whose name my mother recalls hearing. She says my grandmother spoke of him with great affection.

On my last day, I make it to one of his daughter’s homes, which she shares with her delightful husband. She is dressed beautifully in a flowing caftan with matching satin slippers. They both greet me with warm embraces: “You are Fannie John’s granddaughter,” she says. “No, Fannie John was my great-aunt; her sister, Willie Lee, was my grandmother.” She has not heard of Mama but welcomes me anyway. She and I talk about her health, and she shares what she knows of family history. She’s met Fannie John and knew my grandmother’s brother Ernest well. She later came to know Paul and they keep in touch. The well-kept home she shares with her husband is full of family photographs and surrounded by family land. She has her husband identify each photograph. They explain that theirs is the home where everyone gathers for holidays and reunions. As we leave she tells me how happy she is to have connected with a new cousin and then she relates that her eldest sister, the true family historian, has since passed away, but her youngest, who lives in Atlanta, will know more and encourages me to reach out to her. I do as soon as Obery and I arrive in Atlanta later that evening.

A few days later we find ourselves in another home, greeted by two more of my grandmother’s cousins (I am still learning the language of kinship—they’re her first cousins, once removed). They are pretty, stylish, grayhaired women, both younger than my own mother. The younger of the two has the same coloring and joyful smile as Aunt Eartha, my mother’s middle sister. One of their daughters, who has taken over the family genealogy project, is there as well. Once again, they are kind and welcoming, interested and more than willing to share what they know. In response to their query I explain that, no, I am not Fannie John’s granddaughter. Fannie John had three husbands, but no children. I am Willie Lee’s granddaughter. They show me family trees and other documents related to land ownership. The family tree is detailed. At the top, our common ancestor, not a Morrisonian Flying African, but a very fair-skinned railroad man named Moses. Beneath him and his wife, Lucinda, there are four sons, one of whom is my great-grandfather, Henry, married to Lula. There they are on the tree, and under them my grandmother’s four siblings: Joe, Fannie John, Ernest, and George. But, there is no Willie Lee. I feel an urge to establish her legitimacy. She is listed on the census, I tell them, and pull up grainy photos of the documents I’ve found. There she is, see? She is the oldest child; she has the same last name. Her name was Willie Lee, like your uncle, but her siblings called her Lee, and friends who knew her when she was young sometimes called her Billie. This tumble of words rushes out of me. I say it longing for a bit of recognition for her. I will later send photographic evidence of her existence and, yes, I admit, evidence of her beauty. 

Among many photographs there is one on the wall, not far from the framed family tree, from one of the family reunions, in front of the church that Obery and I visited. From the dress, I surmise it was taken sometime in the 1970s or 1980s and there, front and center, is my grandmother’s sister, Fannie John. “That looks like my Aunt Fannie,” I say. “My grandmother’s sister. They favor each other.” One of my newly found cousins says, “Yes, that is your Aunt Fannie John. She’s standing next to my Aunt Fannie Mae.” I silently wonder, “Why didn’t Fannie John tell them about Mama, her sister?”

“We will have to correct the family tree,” says the youngest of my new cousins. I am filled with gratitude that Mama may be reunited with and embraced by her family. We chat some more: They share stories of their family farm, tell of their pride in the accomplishment of their father, and let me know about an upcoming Zoom reunion. We are shocked to learn that Obery knows one of their in-laws, an activist minister in North Carolina. We call him and all laugh and find comfort in the fact that the world, our world, is so small.

I leave Georgia the next day. I leave with more questions than answers. Why didn’t Mama talk about her birthplace? Why isn’t she on the family tree? How is it that her siblings are known to this branch of the family, but she is not? Was she disappeared, or is her absence of her own making? Did she prefer it this way? With the exception of the abundant pine and magnolia trees, and the drama of a magnificent sky, I still know little of the South my grandmother left. I don’t know why she never returned. If she wants me to know the answers, I have no doubt she will steer me toward them as she continues, even after death, to guide so much of who I am and what I do.

Farah Jasmine Griffin

Farah Jasmine Griffin is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, where she also served as the inaugural chair of African American and African Diaspora Studies. Griffin received her BA in history and literature from Harvard and her PhD in American studies from Yale. She is the author or editor of eight books, including Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature (W.W. Norton Press, 2021).