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The Narrative ofJohn Henry Martin Sherman A. James Preface I first met John Henry Martin in the summer of 1978, five years after I had joined the faculty in the School of Public Health of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Our meeting was arranged by a mutual acquaintance, a perceptive public health nurse at a local Neighborhood Health Center. After hearing me describe a research project tentatively entitled "Black Men: Their Lives and Their Health" that I was planning to conduct in the eastern part of the state, she thought that a "Mr. John Martin" (she did not mention his middle name), a retired farmer in a nearby community, might provide some interesting background material for my project. She agreed to contact him and to arrange an interview. When I pulled into his driveway on the day of our prearranged meeting, Mr. Martin was seated in one of several rocking chairs that formed a loose semicircle in his backyard. To shield himself from the sun, his chair was strategically placed under the leafy branches of a large white oak that dominated the yard. A walking cane rested gently on his lap. He smiled warmly as I introduced myself, then introduced himself, in turn, as "John Martin" and invited me to sit in the shaded rocker next to him. The conversation moved effortlessly from the sticky July weather to the burgeoning tobacco fields that accented the route between Chapel Hill and his farm to, finally, the reason for my visit. I explained the project I was preparing to conduct and asked if he would be willing to tell me about his own life. For the next two hours I sat, spellbound (and, haplessly, without a tape recorder), as he recounted how he—an uneducated and initially unskilled black man—had struggled against great odds to raise himself from the lowly status of a landless, exploited sharecropper to that of a "man of property," one capable of directing his own economic affairs. While Mr. Martin was justifiably proud of his economic and social achievements , he was also keenly aware of the price he had paid for his success. For example, he attributed his debilitating arthritis to having "pushed (himself] too hard in the fields" in an attempt to pay off the mortgage on his farm as quickly as 84Southern Cultures possible. As the conversation wound down, his wife—whom I had neither seen nor heard up to that point—appeared at the back door of the house and said, "John Henry, it's time for lunch, and bring your guest with you." "Your name is 'John Henry' ?" I asked, astonished. "Yep, John Henry Martin ," he replied as he braced his walking cane on the ground and painfully raised his large frame from the chair. "What a wonderful coincidence," I thought, "John Henry, as in the 'steel-driving man.' " Mr. Martin and I made our way slowly to the steps of the house and into the kitchen where he, his wife, and I engaged in pleasant conversation over lunch for another hour or so. During the weeks and months that followed, the larger implications of the life story I had been privileged to hear in abbreviated form that July afternoon gradually took shape in my mind. In terms both concrete and deeply symbolic, John Henry Martin's life story is an example, par excellence, of the long and arduous struggle black southerners have had to wage in order to fashion a decent life for themselves in the region of their birth. As my larger project in the eastern part of the state neared completion, I resolved to visit John Henry Martin again, this time to record his remarkable life story. The narrative that follows is a quintessential American story. The recurring themes of freedom, self-reliance, hard work, and determination will be familiar to students of American culture. This is also, however, very much a story about the American South, about the complex interplay between economic and social factors that shaped race relations in the South from the years immediately following the Civil War to the middle decades of the present century. And it is the story of a proud...


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pp. 83-106
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