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.