A dominant narrative of black life in the twentieth century is the Great Migration, the response to oppression and dispossession in the rural South that propelled millions of African Americans to leave the land. In A Mind to Stay, though, historian Syd Nathans focuses on those who remained in the South and fought to hold on, not just for themselves but also for those who might someday return. The book is the story of a single plantation that became a homeland to formerly enslaved people, and by focusing on one place and the black families that dwelt there, Nathans illuminates the changing meaning of land and landowning to successive generations of rural African Americans. In the brief excerpt below, Nathans recalls his early hopes of uncovering an oral tradition telling this history, and recalls a first fateful trip to Alabama in the summer of 1978.
I had trained as a nineteenth-century political historian. I knew how to use archives, to quote from letters and newspapers, to test claims, to confirm or question “facts.” I’d done a biography. However, I had no formal training in doing interviews; I didn’t own a tape recorder. I was learning oral history by osmosis, excited and envious as colleagues used the approach to capture the story of under-chronicled Americans. In the mid-1970s, oral history had found a great popularizer and exponent in Alex Haley, whose epic account of his family history from Africa to Tennessee to freedom and into the twentieth century had become a runaway bestseller and record-breaking television series. Roots inspired extraordinary possibilities for oral history and for the recovery of the African American past. Could an archival historian be part of that?
Coincidences opened the way. I got invited to be an advisor to the opening of a new historic site just outside of my hometown, Durham, North Carolina. The state had acquired a plantation founded in the eighteenth century. Called Stagville, the plantation’s buildings had remained in use from the 1780s to the 1930s. The 1787 “big house” had survived—unusual, but hardly unique. The surviving 1850s slave quarters were definitely unusual, a startling row of two-story wooden dwellings, four of them. Truly exceptional was the presence in the area of people who had dwelt in those buildings as tenants in the early twentieth century, who could tell about their lives there and share tales of their forebears. A young historian was on the case, modeling the marriage of oral and archival investigation to map the genealogy and uncover the stories of black families in bondage and freedom.
A second coincidence furthered and focused my quest. The same year that Alex Haley published Roots, historian Herbert Gutman published a book that addressed the issue of the impact of bondage on the black family. In The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, Gutman challenged the prevailing view that forced sale, forced migration, and forced sex had subverted the attachment to family on the part of enslaved men and women. Not oral history but the records of the planters themselves provided the sources for his study. Brilliantly he used the planters’ annual lists of enslaved people—inventories made for tax purposes and internal censuses—to discern that clusters of names persisted year in and year out. They were family groups. Not only that, but enslaved blacks named children after parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles. The naming patterns and the maintenance of family clusters over the years suggested that attachment to family endured despite bondage. Among the records he relied on most heavily were hundreds of lists of people belonging to the owners of Stagville—the Bennehan and Cameron families of North Carolina’s Piedmont region.
Like many owners of large-scale plantations, the Bennehans and Camerons preferred the benefit of keeping families together to the disruptions that came—to white owners and enslaved blacks alike—in the wake of separation or sale. But on this eastern plantation as on others, there was a powerful disruptive force that had nothing to do with sale or sex or with a slave owner’s death and the division of human property that came with inheritance. The force was the opening of rich lands to the west. Land in the Deep South—Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi—was richer, blacker, and more fertile than land in the eastern states. Far more than soil in the East, western lands supported the crop that was the white gold of the nineteenth century—cotton. The West beckoned the son who stood to inherit Stagville and the plantation lands around it, enlarged to thousands of acres over the course of a half century by the son’s grandfather, uncle, and father.
In 1844, with his father’s money, thirty-six-year-old Paul Cameron purchased a western plantation near Greensboro, Alabama, in the heart of what was called the Black Belt, and sent out 114 enslaved people to work it. He was to be an absentee owner. His overseer reported to him monthly or more; the young owner came out once a year to check up on his plantation and his people. Most important, following a long-standing white family tradition, he made a gesture toward transplanting workers in family groups when he put together the list of “Negroes to Go South” in November 1844. But could he send people off and yet sustain families and the implicit plantation “pact”? In almost all narratives about slavery, being “sold down the river” brought separation, severance of families forever, a more feared and brutal bondage, and, above all, loss. What was the outcome of the young heir’s attempt to stave off the worst? Many a western plantation was, like the Cameron’s, owned absentee. Was there any difference whatsoever between being “sold down the river” and being “sent down the river”?
I knew that archives could tell me what the planter and his overseers did and thought. The Cameron family papers, housed at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were among its largest cache of letters and documents. Those papers would hold answers about why Paul Cameron wanted a western plantation, why he chose a place in Alabama, and what he observed on his visits west. As important were overseers’ reports, which spanned more than twenty-five years. There was a rich archival record.
Could I find an oral tradition—despite the lapse of 134 years—to shed light on the black perception of separation from home, the forced migration, and removal to a distant plantation? To say the very least, it was a long shot. I knew where the plantation was located. Beyond that, what I had to start with was a list of people with the names of those 114 “Negroes to Go South.” The names on that 1844 list, as with almost all slave inventories, were first names only—with one exception. One of the 114 people, Jim, was listed with a last name: Hargis. If I could find that name after emancipation—in overseers’ reports, in census returns, in Alabama in 1978—I could hope for a lifeline from the past to the present and, potentially, a source to guide me from the present to the past.
As I drove out to Alabama in August 1978, there were many ifs. Could I find descendants? If so, would they have an oral tradition about the migration of 1844 and its consequences? If so, would they share what they knew with me, a white professor, an utter stranger? All the imponderables boiled down to one: I’d need to be lucky. If I got lucky, I had much to ask.
I checked into The Inn, which looked to be the only motel in Greensboro, Alabama, and settled myself down. I took out my 1844 list of names and my printouts of census pages from 1870, 1880, 1900, and 1910. On all I’d found variations of the name Hargis, with many of those people still living in the vicinity of the old Cameron plantation. Sometime in the late nineteenth century, Hargis had migrated to Hargress. If there was anyone still left in Greensboro by that name in August 1978, that might be my tie into the story. I found the current Greensboro telephone directory, no thicker than my pinkie, and opened it to the H’s. There was the name: Alice Hargress. I took a deep breath, reached for the phone, and dialed her number. When she answered, I introduced myself the way I’d rehearsed it many times in my mind: “I’m Syd Nathans, a historian from Duke University in North Carolina. I’m doing research on black people brought out from North Carolina to Alabama in 1844 by a man named Paul Cameron.”
“That’s right,” she said.
My heart skipped a beat. I went on, “He went back to North Carolina, but left the people, and after freedom came, it looks like many of them stayed.”
Again Alice Hargress said, “That’s right.”
Those two words, repeated twice, told me that there was an oral tradition about the story I was looking for. I asked if I could come out and talk with her the next morning. There was no hesitation in her voice: “Come on.”