- A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland by Sydney Nathans
Some forty years in the making, Sydney Nathans's new book tells a remarkable story and is a monumental achievement. It delineates the experiences, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, of a group of 114 enslaved persons and their descendants. The slaves belonged to Duncan Cameron, one of the largest slaveholders of the North Carolina piedmont, whose son Paul managed his vast agricultural operations. In 1844, Paul Cameron purchased a 1,600-acre plantation near Greensboro, Alabama, and convinced his father to allow him to remove the 114 slaves, mostly in family units, to it. The story also includes 82 slaves whom Paul Cameron later sent to another plantation at Tunica, Mississippi. (After Duncan Cameron's death in 1853, Paul Cameron remained in North Carolina as an absentee owner.) Slaves were shuttled between Cameron's two western estates before and during the Civil War. Late in the war, as Union troops threatened western Alabama, most of the Greensboro slaves were returned to North Carolina, where they gained their freedom after Confederate forces surrendered in late April 1865, at nearby Raleigh.
Many of the slaves sent to Alabama, despite the trauma of the move, had come to see it as home, as did those born and raised there. After emancipation, a number of them eventually made their way back. Almost from the moment he laid eyes on the Alabama estate back in 1844, Paul Cameron realized he had made a bad deal. He came to loathe the place and saw it as [End Page 329] an albatross, from which he was unable to free himself. After trying during the immediate postwar period to turn the estate around financially, enduring all of the familiar difficulties that former slaveholders throughout the South experienced with emancipation, Cameron eventually gave up on finding a white buyer and decided in the early 1870s to begin selling it off—in small parcels, entirely on credit, and with no down payments—to a number of the former slaves (and other black people) who resided there. In essence, Cameron's Alabama plantation became one of the several black, independent communities that sprouted up in the postemancipation South. The second half of the book traces the many difficulties and challenges—including internal conflicts—that these black landowners and their descendants faced in defending their community and holding onto the land: from Reconstruction, through the Jim Crow era and civil rights movement, up to the present. For instance, one of the community's descendants, David Hargress, was a career Navy man who secured the plum assignment of cook at Camp David under President Barack Obama.
In telling the story of this community, Nathans focuses on a select number of families and individuals. The account centers on the slave Paul Hargis (he changed the name to Hargress after emancipation) and his family and heirs. A child when Duncan Cameron acquired him and his parents, Hargress grew up to become a trusted slave and confidante to Paul Cameron, and he and other family members (though not all) were among the slaves first removed to Alabama. Hargress was also among the slaves sent to North Carolina near the end of the war but who returned to Alabama as a free man, along with his wife, Dicey, and later acquired Cameron land. One of the Hargress descendants, through marriage, was Alice Sledge Hargress. Born in 1914, she died just shy of her one hundredth birthday (and was the grandmother of the aforementioned David Hargress). She provides much of the backbone of the twentieth-century story and insisted on the former Cameron lands being held as "heir land"—property to be held communally and for the benefit of all, not to be broken up and sold. Other important individuals include Sandy Cameron, a carpenter and the most trusted slave of the original 114; and, later, Louie Rainey, the community's "oral historian" (247); James Lyles, a minister and visionary who played a key role in...