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  • A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland by Sydney Nathans
  • Adam Arenson
A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland. By Sydney Nathans (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. x plus 344. Pp. $29.95).

In 1844, Paul Cameron forcibly moved 114 enslaved people from his wheat plantations in North Carolina to a newly purchased cotton plantation in western Alabama. In 1978, Sydney Nathans, a young historian at Duke University, traveled there with a question: "Could I find a black oral tradition—despite the lapse of 134 years—to shed light on the black perception of separation from home?" (6). To his surprise, Nathans found one origin story about the migration among descendants who still lived on the land, and heard other stories of Civil War generals, Reconstruction political meetings, the coming of the railroad, Jim Crow restrictions, activism in the modern civil rights movement, and halting efforts at cooperative agriculture and mutual improvement, all woven into the local lore. Connecting with Alice Sledge Hargress, the community matriarch, and Louie Rainey, its oral historian, Nathans began a decades-long effort to match local tales and documented records. As if this project was not ambitious enough, for twenty of those years, Nathans also engaged a side project about a personal servant to the Cameron daughters -the result was his award-winning To Free a Family: The Journey of Mary Walker (Harvard, 2013).

Nathans wrote the present book as "an account of the meaning of land to those who lived on it, and of how the land's role and meaning changed over time" (14). Though the ultimate volume covers events over 200 years, Nathans began by tracking the western experiences of two Pauls: Paul Cameron, the family scion who invested in this Alabama plantation and then another in Mississippi; and Paul Hargis, who was sold as a boy to the Camerons in 1829, sent to Alabama in 1844, evacuated back to North Carolina in 1864 to avoid Union incursions, and who returned voluntarily to Alabama in 1866-1867, reconnecting with family and his former overseer.

A Mind to Stay is a narrative microhistory of an Alabama cotton community from when an unsuspecting Cameron bought the land through the post-civil rights frustrations of community elders, still working in the 1980s to keep their land. What happened in 1875 makes it unusual: after decades of frustration with the bad soil and low yields, Cameron agreed to divide and sell the land to former slaves from the plantation. Paul Hargis and his brother Jim were among those who bought the land on credit arranged with the former owner. Nathans argues that these ex-slaves thought of the land as their liberation: sold to "all black, no [End Page 951] white" (8), Cameron had effectively "homesteaded" them (143), the stories said, so they could make a sanctuary, a "land for all the heirs" (219) that is maintained, in part, until today.

Nathans begins with Cameron's forbears' first plantation in North Carolina in 1776, arguing that Cameron's efforts to keep enslaved family groups together led to a milder form of slavery. (Native Americans are only mentioned once, through their "periodic return" [177] to a place in Alabama "locals called Indian Camp." [178]) The first ninety pages, which cover the years before 1865, give primacy to Paul Cameron's perspective, drawn from the letters now archived in the voluminous Cameron Family Papers, at UNC's Southern Historical Collection.

For the remainder of the book, the far more interesting efforts of the former enslaved to gain title to land and to make that land the instrument of their freedom take center stage. Drawing on dozens of interviews conducted with a handful of the descendants, Nathans punctuates the history with evaluations of whether one community leader was really the mixed-race son of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, how the June 1865 speech of Freedmen's Bureau agent Henry Crydenwise was still retold as the "speakin'" of "Cryden White" (12) more than a century later, and why a local leader with religious visions urged communal land purchases and cooperative action as the way to survive. In 1912, a disabled, widowed, and childless Paul...


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