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Keeping the Farm

The 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer was honored recently at Tougaloo College outside Jackson, Mississippi.  There was a conference and certainly fond and bittersweet memories and lessons learned were shared.  Freedom Summer was organized by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”) to bring a 1,000 mostly white idealist volunteers in 1964 to Mississippi to register black voters and strike a decisive blow against segregation.

Freedom Summer drawingDrawing by Tracy Sugarman, WWII vet, and Freedom Summer organizer

To say such an undertaking was pregnant with potential violent white backlash would be an understatement.  That June as the campaign began, three civil rights workers, two who were white and one African American, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were arrested, released and followed, then they disappeared, their car torched and found in a swamp in Neshoba County.  The perpetrators were the local Klan and the law.  In fact the KKK had vowed to stand against the “nigger communist invasion” of Freedom Summer.  The bodies of the murdered young men were found in a makeshift grave that August.

In 1975, when I was 16, I was aware of that incident and race relations in general in the so-called Magnolia state.  It wasn’t long-ago history, it was reasonably fresh living history to me.  That summer me and my dad Dikes were on our way to the Mississippi Delta to see a relative, Aunt Jo. Josephine Hutton was the sister of my mother’s father, Oscar Douglas Hutton, Professor O.D. Hutton.  Aunt Jo was out of another era.  She’d never been married and lived on the family farm in Shelby, at the time about a 120 acre concern. The town had been founded by freed blacks after slavery.

Welcome to Shelby

Aunt Jo cooked her meals on a wood burning stove, had a standalone freezer stocked with venison and rabbit, had skinned squirrels for their stringy meat, and kept a double-barreled shotgun she knew how to use.  Each Christmas she’d send me a big box of pecans from the stand of pecan trees on her property.  The land was rented out to the Mangialardi brothers, Johnny and Flowers.  Soy beans were grown.

Shelby house, mid-80s
Shelby farm-house, mid 1980s

We flew to Oklahoma to pick up grandpa in Taft, a small township next door to Muskogee.  Pop drove us in Grandpa Hutton’s car, a gas guzzling but smooth riding sled, a Pontiac Catalina, down to the Delta.  We didn’t get run off the road by the Klan and no crosses were burned in front of Aunt Jo’s house.  Then again, we mostly hung around the farm – I slopped the hogs and contended with her noisy geese – or visited the surrounding black parts of nearby Clarksdale and environs to see old cronies of grandpa . Maybe the adults talked about the state of race in Mississippi over beers at night — but not within my earshot and not directly with me.  I mostly remember how good venison tasted, as that was the first time I’d had any, and being eaten alive by mosquitoes the size of brass bolts.

Several years later in my twenties, when Aunt Jo passed, and this was after grandpa had gone, I inherited the family farm.  The circumstances of my aunt’s death raised a few suspicions.  She had cataracts and refused to get them operated on to repair her eyes.  Getting up there in age and not seeing to well, she was less using her wood burning stove and more a hotplate.  This thing caught on fire one night and burned her and the farm house up.  As you might imagine, there were rumors of shady white folk who killed her to get the land.  But no fake will was filed and no “long lost cousin” stepped forward..  My pop, Dikes, who couldn’t wait to get away from his little family farm in Seguin, Texas when he was a kid in the 1920s, went back to Mississippi to see about matters.

After the fire
After the fire. Dikes is in the background.

Getting ahead of some sort of historical preservation act about to go into effect, he rented a bulldozer, driver and his heavy chains and had those old pecan trees uprooted.  Pop sent home picture of the barren land that could eventually be planted   I know, quite un-PC.  Yet by then I’d become a community activist around police abuse issues, and was reading various socio-political books.  I knew about the plight of black farmers who too often had been cheated out of their land through legal chicanery.  Not that I had any notions of becoming a gentleman farmer in Shelby like some B-Boy version of Green Acres. I like the city too much. But it seemed like a good thing to keep the land in the family.  It wasn’t what Freedom Summer was about directly, but indirectly it was making a small statement about legacy.

Today the land is rented out and farmed by Johnny’s son, Greg.   Though I’ve entertained selling off the land a time or two, the land still remains in my name. I‘ve been back to Shelby a few times since that summer of ’75, and set one of my Ivan Monk mystery novel in and around there, Only the Wicked.  Gilda and I look to get down there for a day or two this coming January after a stop at a writers conference in Memphis.  We’re not contemplating retiring there, but you never know.  When you have a plot of land, land that your ancestors sacrificed to acquire and maintain, well, like the import of remembering Freedom Summer, that’s something you just can’t ignore.

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