My Grandma was a sharecropper. I’ve been researching my family history since I was ten years old and every time I interviewed her she only gave me bits. Two weeks ago, I asked her what she did for a living in Alabama before moving to Ohio where I was raised. “I was a sharecropper”, she said in her sweet southern drawl that she never quite lost, “everyone was”. Everyone was. I shouldn’t have been as shocked as I was. She was born in 1941 in Hale County, Alabama. She was a part of the second Great Migration, when Southern Blacks migrated to Northern cities between the 40’s-70’s for opportunity, to survive. But for me, sharecropping, according to my history books in school, was a post-Civil War, Reconstruction era way of life for African Americans.
Sharecropping in the American South began after slavery. The South was in complete ruin, plantations were seized by the Federal government. Everyone was poor and struggling. Especially recently freed slaves who had very little education (because it was illegal while they were enslaved) and not many skills outside of what they had been trained as slaves to do. General Sherman announced every ex-slave would get 40 acres and a mule. It was a way to apologize for the brutal way slaves were treated before and during the War. It also gave opportunity to a massive population who didn’t know where to go or how to start a life after bondage. They didn’t have the same tools to build a new life the way the rest of America was equipped to do as free citizens before War. President Johnson scrapped that field order by Sherman and instead gave the Plantation owners their land back. With their land returned to the same families who had owned slaves, someone had to do the field work the slaves used to do.
Former enslavers and landowners now hired the freedmen in a system called sharecropping. The landowner supplies tools and seed, the worker does the actual farming for a 1/3 of the crop. The problem was there was no regulation. The landowner could, and DID, buy back the portion of their crop from workers and for a much lower cost, exploiting the worker. Not only that, workers were kept in a constant state of debt for the cost of the tools, seed, rent, etc. If they abandoned these debts they were taken to court and eventually jailed or sent to work camps. They lived in a culture that now felt they had to control Black people with violence and fear much more so than when they legally owned them. My Grandma recalled, “we just couldn’t really go out at night..” People had to stay where they were to avoid trouble. When asked about the law she said, “we had no law, the law was for them, not us”. So they were trapped in this system where they could not make a better life for themselves or their children. It was slavery with a new face.
Sharecropping felt so distant. It felt like history. My Grandma Harper, who cooked so well “she could make dirt taste good”, the women who worked for thirty years as a nurse in a mental institution was removed from that way of life. But, no, she picked cotton in fields just like her Slave grandparents had and in exactly the same community. She was nine years old when she first went out in those cotton fields. Other American children had summer camps with friends and vacations with their families. She worked. She hated the brutal Southern heat. The thorns of the cotton pricked her fingers. The days were long and exhausting. She conspired a way to ease her days. Her mother is the one who taught her to be an excellent cook at an early age. My Grandmother used this skill to help in the kitchen of the landowner. So she picked cotton until noon and then headed to the kitchen. She smiled as she told me she was done with her work for the day and home long before the others working outside.
She married and had her first born with my Grandfather by 17. When she was ready to have the baby her contractions started at home. There with her was my grandpa, his mother, Big Mama and his stepfather. They asked Grandpa to go get the doctor. My grandfather sat on the front porch of the house while my grandmother screamed, staring into the night, paralyzed. He could see the light of the doctor’s house, a quarter mile away. But he was afraid of the dark. His Step-father came out and, jokingly, said, “Boy if you don’t go out and get that doctor for your wife I’ll shoot ya”. My grandpa braved the night towards the doctor’s house. In my Grandpa’s panic, he expressed my Grandmother was sick, not exactly that she was giving birth. The Doctor arrived with my Grandpa back at the house but apparently was completely unprepared to deliver a baby. Big Mama ended up continuing to be the midwife and delivered my Uncle. My Grandma had two more children at home, the last three in hospitals. My Dad, the fifth, was the last one born in Alabama. A month later, the family headed up to Ohio for a better life. My Grandma worked as a nurse in a State run mental institution for over 30 years before retiring. She cooked every meal for her family of eight and she is still going. It’s incredible.
My Grandmother was a sharecropper, yes. But not only did she refuse to let that define her, she couldn’t allow it to continue with her progeny. It stopped with her. Black Americans are still suffering with the ripples of slavery. I feel it and see it everyday. I hear “Slavery ended 154 years ago” as if that was SO long ago. It isn’t long enough to recover from 400 years of humiliation, rape and forced labor. We don’t even know half of what the ancestors experienced on a case by case basis. However, slavery has been masked in different ways since it “ended”. Sharecropping was only one. America, we need to have a conversation we’ve never been able to have before. We have to look at the grossness of our history, not just the pretty stuff. We have to get dirty, we have to feel bad, we have to be so uncomfortable we can’t sleep at night. And then we can do the good work of fixing and being a positive example to the World. Until we face the reality of the past we will never be able to stitch these wounds, let alone allow them to heal.
(Part 1): My DNA maternal haplogroup is straight out of Africa. That means my mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, (etc) was born in West Africa and sold to Portugese or Spanish Slave traders as a young girl or woman. She may have been on that ship in August, 1619 that arrived in Hampton, Virginia with “20 and odd negroes”, the first Africans to arrive to America and be enslaved immediately. I may never know her identity, but she was born sometime between 1600-1780 and she had an American daughter that only knew this place and only whispers of the Old World, if at all. She knew only crops of tobacco and corn. She knew what long days felt like in blistering summer heat. She knew short cold nights of hard sleep awaken by the morning call to work.
(Part 2): In 1797 My 5x Great Grandmother, Jane Tuck, was born in the Shenandoah Valley in far western Virginia. The county she was born in was known for breeding slaves. There were very few slaves needed in the community(usually seven slaves for very large farms), most residents didn’t own any. To make extra money, slaves were “bred”, like horses. Usually, the “products of breeding” would be sold further East, where the rich tobacco plantations were. Jane was owned by The Kennedys, a prominent Scotch Irish Family in the County. They were probably the So called breeders, who kept her in the family for themselves.
(Part 3): By, 1816, at 19 years old, she had a Black child named Sampson. His father is unknown. Four years later, Anthony Tuck, 55 year old white farmer in the neighborhood saw Jane and had to have her. He had never owned slaves before and didn’t have the money to buy her. The opportunity presented itself when his common law wife, Susan’s, grandmother died and left her an inheritance in an Eastern Virginia County. He offered to pick it up for her, acquired the funds and used them to buy Jane and her baby for $300 and a few barrels of whiskey.
(Part 4): A year after he purchased her, Jane was pregnant with his child. He continued to have four more children with her over the next eighteen years. Susan, Anthony’s common law wife, threatened to leave him if he didn’t “put that Black Woman out!” He did for a time being, she stayed with white friends in town. Eventually he brought her home again and Susan moved out. Everyone in town knew and rumored about this scandal. Despite it being a deeply religious community, they all knew Jane and the children as Anthony’s “Black Family”.
(Part 5): In 1837, Anthony died. Anthony drafted several wills that strategically cut out all of his White family and freed his Black Family. He willed all his real and personal property to Jane and their children to finance their move to a Free State. Susan took Jane and the executor of his will to court. She claimed she was Anthony’s legal wife and deserved everything. She wanted Jane and the children sold and all the money from the sale. It was disclosed Anthony was an alcoholic that beat Susan. He was actually born Anthony Seals, not Tuck, in a “far eastern county” and shortly before intending to marry Susan, they ran off for some reason to the western community they lived in at the time of his acquisition of Jane. His parents and siblings followed later and testified this in court. Susan couldn’t prove a marriage and lost.
(Part 6):Jane and the children moved to Ohio by 1850 living on a farm she owned and operated near the Ohio River. By the time of the Civil War, Jane’s three oldest sons were U.S. Colored Troops in the Union Army. Her only daughter, my descendant, married the son of a popular Underground Railroad conductor of Southern Ohio and was a socialite, home owner, operatic singer and florist . Her granddaughter, my 3x Great Grandmother, was one of the first Black school teachers of Portsmouth, Ohio. In order to make this the great nation it deserves to be, we must deal with the horrors of enslavement of Black Americans.
(Part 7): Acknowledging slavery is not about shaming White Americans. It is about being honest that these are the roots of our nation. America, like many nations, was built on the broken backs of its Black citizen’s ancestors. It’s just a fact. No longer can we softly gloss over history and handpick the parts that are aesthetically pleasing. That supports a national lie and, frankly, makes me feel unequal and unjustly so. Especially when those before me have so much of the privileges we, as Americans, enjoy TODAY. Jane suffered greatly, this is not a love story, and then she was PAID OFF with freedom. And she was lucky. Think about how many other enslaved women were surviving the same horrors across America and were not freed, who died hoping their daughters wouldn’t suffer that same fate. America we must deal with the truth behind who and what we were and ARE!
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(Part 1, of 6) Our nameless Ancestors seem to come up from the earth as full grown adults, their roots lost or erased from written record. Like the First Africans to arrive in Virginia, the “20 and odd negroes”, mostly nameless, ageless, sexless. No identity. One such man in my own family line is, Richard Nukes.
(Part2, of 6) Richard Nukes was born about 1777. He first appears in 1820 in Ohio. And then, again, in a Fayette County, Ohio personal tax list in 1826, with a note by his name : “Blackman”. He is not living in a Black community. He is not taxed for the years before and mysteriously not after either. From out of thin air. For one brief moment he owned just enough to be counted, 2 horses and 2 cows. In 1830, Richard and was living near some of the first settlers of the county, Quakers. Then he disappears again. I know from his sons that Richard was born in Virginia. How did Richard gain freedom? Did he runaway? Was he freed by a will? After careful search of manumissions, bills of sale and court cases, I found a clue. It is likely Richard Nukes was a descendant of Tom Nokes, George Washington’s carpenter at his Mount Vernon Plantation.
(Part 3, of 6) Slaves did not have surnames. They were chattel property like livestock on a farm. When slaves retained surnames, especially in Virginian records, they were likely owned by multiple different families and retained their heritage and legacy for generations. There were several reasons for this and it usually meant they were connected to the original owner of the slave family’s patriarch or matriarch by blood or valued for a special skill. For example, Thomas Jefferson’s Hemings slave family, who were not only his in-laws through his wife, but also his blood kin when he fathered children with through Sally Hemings.
(Part 4, of 6) George Washington’s house servant, Tom Nokes, was very old when Washington died and freed all of his slaves. But Tom Nokes was not likely freed by Washington’s act from guilt. He was a Dowery Slave, meaning he didn’t belong to George Washington, he belonged to Washington’s wife, Martha. She received Tom from her first husband’s estate when he died, therefore, legally, Tom couldn’t be freed by the will of George Washington. Interestingly, different Slaves with the surname Nokes/Nukes/Nooks that were Martha Washington’s “Dower Slaves” are free and living in the Washington, DC and Northern Virginia neighborhoods near the city. It seems there was a movement, especially by Quakers in the early 1800’s, to buy the Washington Dower Slaves from her heirs when she died and free them in an abolitionist act. Many of the free Nokes family disappear from records after they achieve freedom and cannot be found at this time. It is likely, my Richard Nukes/ Nokes was born on Mount Vernon and came from one of these freed Nokes Families that descend from Tom Nokes, the carpenter. But it isn’t and may never be proven.
(Part 5, of 6) When dealing with enslaved ancestors it’s hard to understand that they were merely property. They had no identity. Richard appeared in Ohio with a surname and, probably, working for a Quaker family that settled frontier Ohio. He had no wife by 1820 and was a single father of four boys and one daughter. One of these boys was my ancestor, Noah Nooks. Noah, was born in 1806, he moved from his father’s farm and started a Free Black community in the hills of Jackson County, Ohio by 1830. Noah became THE leading Underground Railroad conductor of Jackson County. Runaway slaves from Kentucky crossed the Ohio River and were picked up by Noah and taken to his farm. After hiding them for a while he drove them to Fayette County, where his father, Richard, had first settle from Virginia at least 30 years before. Full circle. He had help from the Woodson Family, his neighbors and in-laws, who were slaves of Thomas Jefferson and claimed to be Jefferson’s descendants for 200 years until it was disproved by DNA testing.
(Part 6, of 6) See a trend? The story we learned in our history books as children was only half the story. George Washington, owned slaves, freed as many as he legally could and the American people,Black and White helped free those left behind. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, his own family, his wife’s family and other slaves who claimed to be his children. Our forefathers had secrets. And these “Secrets” became free and contributed to telling America’s whole truth. They freed countless runaways, created communities, owned large farms and were loud activists and advocates for change. We are the product of this. We are the children of Great men and women who resisted what was wrong and inhumane. This is our BLOOD. It always has been. This is American History. It’s older than you thought and We are all a apart of the story.
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