Chapter OneLand, Farm, and Place
If you leave Savannah on the coast and travel on the only U.S. highway that goes almost straight westward across the state of Georgia, you will cross the Ogeechee, Oconee, and Ocmulgee rivers, all of which flow to the south and east and empty into the Atlantic Ocean. After about three hours you'll cross the Flint River, the first stream that runs in a different direction, and eventually its often muddy waters empty into the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains, our "divide" is not noticeable, because the land was all part of the relatively flat bottom of the sea in the not-too-distant geological past. It is still rich and productive, thanks to the early ocean sediments and the nutrients it has accumulated from plants and animals since that time.
If you keep on for another thirty miles, still heading toward Columbus, Georgia; Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama; and points beyond, you'll come to Plains, a small town on land as level as any you will ever see. As people have always said, "When it rains, the water don't know which way to run." Its original name was "Plains of Dura," derived from the place in the Bible where King Nebuchadnezzar set up his great image of gold (Daniel 3:1). Although the land was flat and rich, no one knows why the earliest settlers wanted to commemorate the worship of a false god. It may have been to honor Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who refused to bow down to the idol, and escaped the fiery furnace because of God's protection.
Just beyond the town there is a place called Archery, where the topography begins to change for the first time since Savannah, from flat plains to rolling hills and poorer soils that extend on to the Chattahoochee River, which divides Georgia from Alabama. Archery is no longer there, except on the old maps, but it's where I grew up and lived from when I was four years old in 1928 until the very end of the Great Depression, when I left for college and the United States Navy in 1941.
In addition to being 190 miles west of Savannah, Plains is located exactly 120 miles due south of Atlanta, and the seat of the county - Sumter - lies nine miles to the east. It is named Americus, the Latinized first name of Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian navigator and explorer who claimed to be the first European to land on the North American continent and, as a mapmaker, also gave it his name. The coming of automobiles and tractors has caused most of the small towns in Southwest Georgia to wither away, but Plains is an exception. It is surrounded by productive farms, and seems to have citizens who are exceptionally inclined to resist moving away to distant places.
Archery, on the other hand, was never quite a real town. At the heart of it, a little more than a half-mile west of our farmhouse, were the homes of the Seaboard Airline Railroad section foreman and the six black employees who kept the rail bed in good repair. A half-mile farther west was a strong African Methodist Episcopal church congregation, across the road from the most notable landmark, a small store by the railroad tracks that was sheathed completely in flattened Prince Albert tobacco cans. Except for the church, which is still vibrant and active, all the rest is gone.
Our own farm, just to the east, occupied the last of the good land; otherwise, around Archery the soil was marginally fertile and somewhat hilly, and the surrounding sandy fields were some of the first to be planted in pine-tree seedlings, which now compose an almost monocultural forest, approaching maturity. Back in the 1930s, however, Archery was substantial enough to be the center of my world.
My most persistent impression as a farm boy was of the earth. There was a closeness, almost an immersion, in the sand, loam, and red clay that seemed natural, and constant. The soil caressed my bare feet, and the dust was always boiling up from the dirt road that passed fifty feet from our front door, so that inside our clapboard house the red clay particles, ranging in size from face powder to grits, were ever present, particularly in the summertime, when the wooden doors were kept open and the screens just stopped the trash and some of the less adventurous flies. Until 1938, when a paved highway was cut through the woods a mile north of our house, we were proud that our small crooked dirt road was the official United States Route 280! For those days, it was heavily traveled by automobiles, trucks, and buses, but with few exceptions the local people passing in front of our house walked or rode on mule-drawn wagons. The railroad ran just a few feet on the other side of the dirt road, and we never failed to wave at the conductors, engineers, and passengers, who seemed as remote as travelers from another planet.
It didn't seem that we watched outside all the time, but someone in the house was always aware if a nonstranger was passing by, and we knew a lot about the people and their vehicles. We recognized the make of cars and pickup trucks as far as we could see them and could identify most of the local vehicles by the sound of their engines and rattles. One difference between then and now, I guess, was that there was usually someone out in the yard, the store, the garden, or a nearby field who was watching the passing scene. Really old people, those who were not feeling well, and able-bodied folks on rainy days or on Sundays were most often sitting on their front porches. When we passed someone's house, we felt somewhat uncomfortable if we didn't see anyone there with whom we could exchange a wave or a hello.
Very few farm homes had a telephone, but there was one in our house. It was number 23, and we answered two rings. On the same party line, the Bacons had one ring and the Watsons picked up on three. (In fact, there were usually two other listeners to all our calls.) We seemed to have an omniscient operator in Plains. If we placed a call to Mr. Roy Brannen, Miss Gladys would say, "He left for Americus this morning at about nine-thirty, but he plans to be back before dinner. He'll probably stop by the stable, and I'll try to catch him there." She also had the latest news on any sickness in the community, plus a lot more information that indicated there were maybe three listeners on most calls.
I've often wondered why we were so infatuated with the land, and I think there is a strong tie to the Civil War, or, as we called it, the War Between the States. Although I was born more than half a century after the war was over, it was a living reality in my life. I grew up in one of the families whose people could not forget that we had been conquered, while most of our neighbors were black people whose grandparents had been liberated in the same conflict. Our two races, although inseparable in our daily lives, were kept apart by social custom, misinterpretation of Holy Scriptures, and the unchallenged law of the land as mandated by the United States Supreme Court.
It seemed natural for white folks to cherish our Southern heritage and cling to our way of life, partially because the close ties among many of our local families went back another hundred years before the war, when our Scotch-Irish ancestors had come to Georgia from the British Isles or moved south and west, mostly from Virginia and the Carolinas. We were bound together by blood kinship as well as by lingering resentment against those who had defeated us. A frequent subject of discussion around my grandparents' homes was the damage the "damn Yankees" had done to the South during Reconstruction years.
Many older Georgians still remembered vividly the anger and embarrassment of their parents, who had to live under the domination of carpetbaggers and their Southern allies, who were known as scalawags. My grandfather Gordy was thirteen years old when what he saw as the Northern oppressors finally relinquished political and economic control of the state in 1876, eleven years after the conflict ended. My mother was the only one in her family who ever spoke up to defend Abraham Lincoln. I don't remember ever hearing slavery mentioned, only the unwarranted violation of states' rights and the intrusion of the federal government in the private lives of citizens. Folks never considered that the real tragedy of Reconstruction was its failure to establish social justice for the former slaves. The intense bitterness was mostly confined to our older relatives, who couldn't understand the desire of some of us younger ones to look more into the future - or at least the present - instead of just the past.
Georgia had begun its early colonial existence in 1733 by rejecting fervently the concept of slavery, but this ideal yielded twenty years later to the influence of large landowners along the Atlantic coast who saw their neighbors in the Carolinas getting rich from rice, silk, indigo, and cotton produced by the slave labor they imported from Africa. Within a few decades after being legalized, slaves made up two-thirds of a plantation family's total wealth, with about one-half the remainder coming from the land they worked.
My great-great-grandfather Wiley Carter is an example. He died during the war, in 1864, and in his will he left to his twelve children forty-three slaves, 2,212 acres of land, and other property and cash, or $22,000 for each. Neither he nor his heirs realized at the time that the slaves would soon be free, and that the Confederate money would be worthless. His children ended up with small farms, and they and their descendants retained a deep-seated belief that only the land had any real and lasting value.
Another legacy of the war was the refusal of white people to accept the children of liberated slaves as legal or social equals. Having been effectively disenfranchised themselves if they had been loyal to the Southern side, white leaders considered themselves justified in using every means to control the political system when Northern domination finally ended. Elections quickly came to be decided solely by the Democratic Party primary, from which black citizens were carefully excluded, and rural dominance was guaranteed by basing election results on counties (regardless of their size) instead of on the votes of individual citizens. For more than a century after the war, and even when I first ran for public office in 1962, each vote in some of the smaller counties of Georgia was worth a hundred votes in Atlanta.
Someone had to be blamed when the ravages of the Depression years struck, and many of the smoldering resentments against Yankees and the federal government were given new life in my childhood. Yet, with the racially segregated social system practically unchallenged, it seemed that blacks and whites accepted each other as partners in their shared poverty. So there were negative and positive aspects of our white Southern heritage. Our white families were generally close-knit, relaxed in dealing with black neighbors, deeply wedded to the land, and penurious with our cash holdings, especially as we saw them dwindling away during the hard years of the 1930s.
Despite the legal and social mandate of racial segregation, the personal relationships among black and white families were quite different from those of today, at least in many aspects of life on our farm, because our daily existence was almost totally intertwined. At the same time, throughout the years of my boyhood and youth the political and social dominance of whites was an accepted fact, never challenged or even debated, so far as I knew, by white liberals or black protesters. I recall a few instances when disreputable whites had to appeal to the larger community to confirm their racial superiority by siding with them in a dispute, but their very need to do so confirmed their own low social status. For those who were lazy or dishonest, or had repulsive personal habits, "white trash" was a greater insult than any epithet based on race.
In fact, the final judgment of people I knew was based on their own character and achievements, and not on their race. There is no doubt that black families had to overcome severe and unfair obstacles, but those who were considered to be honest, hardworking, and thrifty had at least a chance to succeed financially and to enjoy general respect, despite the unalterable social distinctions. This was true even though they still came to the back door of a white family's home, rode in a separate part of the passenger train, sat upstairs in the Americus movie theater and in the county courthouse, and attended their separate schools and churches. They were not allowed to vote, serve on juries, or participate in any political affairs. Their spokespersons could make appeals to the local school board, the city council, or in various ways to the system of justice, but they could not participate in the final decisions made, and their appeals were often ignored if they were contending with prominent whites.
All white children around the Plains community, including Archery, attended Plains High School, from the first grade through the eleventh. Black children in our part of the county had classes in more than a dozen churches or private homes, often with all grades crowded into a single room. They were usually furnished with chairs of various sizes, a blackboard, and textbooks considered too dilapidated for use by white students. The County School Board was strict on mandatory attendance for white children, but quite flexible for blacks, assuming that their education above an elementary level was not important. This division of the two races was supposed to meet the U.S. Supreme Court's mandate of "separate but equal."
In Archery, a black man enjoyed the highest social and, our community believed, financial status. He was African Methodist Episcopal Bishop William Decker Johnson, whose primary religious responsibilities encompassed five Midwestern states. His home base was a combination private school, insurance company, and publishing company located across the railroad from St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church. The entire Plains community knew when Bishop Johnson was at home, and about once a year he invited our family and perhaps the Watsons to come to the worship service at St. Mark AME Church. In honor of his presence, a choir from Spelman College, or one of the other black institutions in Atlanta, would come down to sing, and the bishop would preach.
In addition to St. Mark AME Church and one still-occupied tenant house, the most important landmark in Archery now is
one of the few historical markers erected in Georgia to commemorate important events or the lives of outstanding
citizens. This one, in a couple of hundred words, recounts the notable contributions of a famous son, William Decker
Johnson. (In one phrase, it also mentions that the thirty-ninth president of the United States was his neighbor.)