Ain’t My Land, Ain’t Your Land

The old woman rocked slowly in the dwindling summer evening. She gazed out over the cotton fields and listened to the midsummer evening crickets and the creaking wood of the rickety porch. Her husband, brother, son, and daughter were all out there in the distance, shades in the sun, stooping and rising, swinging hoes, and moving along the rows of plants. Cattle from behind the house moaned now and again.

She ought to be out there with them, but her back and joints were worn down and her daughter had told her many times to ease up in the afternoons, get out of the heat of the day. She had a pile of knitting in her lap but hadn’t touched it since sitting down. One of the figures was moving across the fields toward her, and she knew the rest would follow shortly. She could tell by his gait that it was her oldest, Charles Hays. He was tall and strong, striding with command and ease. Lord, keep that boy safe and away from the night riders. He don’t know better than to shoot off his mouth and try to show his strength.

It wasn’t a couple minutes before he made it to the porch and settled on the edge of it, his feet in the dimming sun, the rest of his dark, muscled body in the shade.

“What it is, Mama,” he said.

“Crop lookin good,” she said while watching the others.

“Mmm hmm,” he murmured. “Same as yesterday.”

She shook her head. “Ain’t the same as yesterday. Wouldn’t grow none if it didn’t change each day.”

The young man removed his straw hat and used a handkerchief to wipe his face. “Spose you’d know better than me.”

“Mmm hmm,” she said. “You always too in a hurry, boy. Ain’t payin enough attention to the small things.”

Charles shook his head. “Why you always on me, Mama?”

“Who else gonna be on you, boy? You wanna live in this world, you best listen to yo mama.”

“Now that’s the thing, Mama.” He motioned with the toward the field. “I come in early to talk to you about it. This yo world. This ain’t my world.”

“That a fact?” She ran her hand over the knitting in her lap.

He turned and looked at her. He had that same edge, that same defiance his father used to have. “Imma help bring in this crop in the fall. Then, Imma head north.”

She stopped her rocking. “North, huh?”

“Yeah, north.”

She looked down at the knitting. “Where north?”

“Philly, maybe. Chicago. Maybe New York City.”

“New York City,” she murmured.

“Maybe so, Mama.”

She gazed at the figures in the field. They hadn’t started back yet. “And whachu gonna do in Philly or New York City? You think you can just drag yo country ass up north and show up in New York City and everything gonna be good?”

The boy spit and shook his head. “You see, I knew you was gonna ack like this. But I’m a man and I done tole Dad and you cain’t stop me.”

She leaned forward. “You didn’t answer the question, boy.”

“Ma, they’s more people like us. They got city jobs. They ain’t got them white hooded devils. A man can make something of hisself. He don’t gotta grub in the dirt his whole life like . . . like . . .”

“Like me and yo daddy?” she said.

He turned back to the field. “This here life, Mama, this ain’t fo me.”

She went back to rocking and fell into silence. Of course, she had wondered about things like this over the years. She didn’t know her birthday, but they told her she had been born on the Little plantation the year before the War. Edie, they called her, though her mother once told her to say her name properly to white folk: Edith Little. She never knew Massa Little, though she saw him once at the Post Office in Livingston when she was about ten. He was a state senator then, and he had spoken for a few minutes to her daddy, Ben. She remembered it mostly cuz the white folks mostly didn’t talk to them. “Don’t you never make eye contact with them,” her mother had told her, “exceptin if they aks you to look at them. And don’t you give em none of that lip you give round the house. You do that and them white ghosts may just come take you in the middle of the night without no one knowin it.”

The white ghosts. The midnight riders. They were everywhere in those days. One family she knew had their home burn down one night. No one said nothing about how it happened. When she was a teen, one of her older cousins told her she didn’t think she’d ever get a man. Edie had asked another cousin about it and that cousin had said, “Don’t you pay no mind about Nellie. You just pray them white devils never come for you in the night.” And so she had prayed every night that the white devils wouldn’t come for her. Sometimes, when they worked the fields, the older kids would whisper tales about Uncle Clay. She had seen Uncle Clay maybe a couple of times when she was young. And then he was gone. But the kids used to say not to go thinkin you had big ideas, that you was gonna be senator or mayor some day or you’d end up like Uncle Clay. She had said to Robert, “What they mean about endin up like Uncle Clay?” And cousin Robert had said, “Aks yo daddy. He the one who cut him down.” It would be another couple of years before she saw a man hanging in Livingston and then knew what had happened to Uncle Clay.

Edie picked up her knitting. “This our land right here, boy,” she said.

“No, Mama,” he said. “This ain’t our land. We don’t own nothin. Not this house. Not this land. Not them crops.”

“Them crops been feedin us yo whole life.”

“Still don’t own em, Mama. In Chicago, black folk got they own houses.”

Edie sighed. “You think white folk is different up north? You ever meet northern white folk?”

“It’s different, Mama.”

“Boy, you don’t know nothin about nothin. Ain’t no white man own this land. Ain’t no black man neither. Or red man or no man. You cain’t run from the white man and he cain’t get away from black folk.”

“Ain’t makin no sense, Mama.”

“You get what the Good Lord say you get, no mo or less than that. And if’n the Good Lord decide He gonna fix the white folk, He will. And if He gonna give you a house and land to live in, He gonna do it. And if’n He ain’t, He ain’t. But one thing’s fo sho, we ain’t livin fo nothin in this world.”

Charles shook his head. “Just don’t make no sense, Mama. What you mean? If it don’t matter what I do, God just gonna do what He do, then why I gotta go work them fields? Jesus can just grow hisself the white folk cotton.”

Edie set her knitting down. “You tell yo daddy that you and I’s goin to Livingston Saturday. We gonna stay with Aunt Sophie, and I’m gonna learn you a thing or two. And after that, you can go where you want.”

The boy shrugged. “All right then. A trip to town.”

***

Sophie and Roy had a small general store on the edge of town. They had two rooms above it where they lived with four kids. Edie and Charles arrived in the late afternoon. When Sophie and Roy closed up shop, they cooked up some sweet potatoes and brought out day-old biscuits. They sat out back of the store and told stories of old times, talked of relatives Charles never knew. Night fell, and they sat out in the darkness, swatting away mosquitoes, listening to the crickets, and feeling the cool of the evening. Edie knew the boy didn’t understand, was frustrated and perplexed.

Some time after 11 pm, Edie finally said, “We best be gettin on down to the river.”

“The river?” Charles asked.

“He don’t know, do he?” said Roy.

Edie shook her head.

“Woo weee,” said Roy. “You gonna grow up tonight, son.”

Sophie glanced at Roy. “They ridin tonight? You hear anything at the store?”

Roy smiled. “The devil’s angels don’t do nothin when the devil himself is out.”

“Spose you right,” said Sophie.

Edie looked at Charles. “Up, boy.”

“Where we goin?” Charles said.

“To see the justice of the Lord.”

Charles shook his head. “Ole Jesus could just come down here and work it all out if He feel like it.”

“Don’t you blaspheme, boy,” said Edie, rising.

Minutes later, they were out on the dusty street, clouds passing over the moon and blanketing the street in darkness. Edie had them move when the moon was covered. The riders probably weren’t out, but better to be safe. It took twenty minutes of moving through darkness and shadow before they were outside the town, and then they moved quicker, Edie knowing the route without having to see.

At last, they came to the Sucarnochee River. Clouds drifted past, and the dirty brown river was suddenly lit by the half moon.

“Up against yonder tree,” said Edie, indicating a chinaberry tree with huge limbs, twisting and crooked like veins, extending toward the bank. They moved over to it, and Edie said, “Help me down, boy.”

He supported her arm as she lowered herself to the base of the trunk and leaned back. Charles settled next to her. They sat in silence for several minutes until Charles whispered, “What are we watchin for?”

“Shhh, boy,” said Edie. She closed her eyes. “You’ll know when you see it.”

Her breathing slowed and she listened quietly. Crickets and annual cicadas hummed all around them, and the water, running low in the mid-summer, whispered along its path. She strained to hear horse hoofs, but Roy was right–they weren’t riding tonight. The breeze died off, and all but the night sounds were still. With her eyes closed and the humming around her, she felt as though she were floating and no longer connected to this land she had known since birth.

“There’s a light,” Charles whispered sharply.

Edie cracked her eyes. The moon was behind the clouds again, the sky mostly dark, but a green light had appeared in the clouds and was expanding.

“Mmm hmm,” said Edie. “This part is important. No matter what happens, no matter what you see, no matter how you feel, you don’t make no sound. You hear me, son?”

“I hear you, Mama,” he whispered back.

The green light expanded and grew brighter until a figure appeared at the middle of it. At first, they couldn’t make out what it was, but it was moving quickly, closer and closer, descending.

It was a pale horse descending from the sky. Atop it was a tall, large man with flowing white robes. The rider and horse descended until the horse stood on the river bank. The river began to churn, spinning up a whirlpool with frothy white tips at the outer rims. The rider directed the horse toward the tree where they sat. Charles grasped Edie’s arm. She patted his hand and breathed deeply. The chinaberry leaves now seemed alive, rustling and crackling, though no wind blew.

The rider and the horse came within ten yards, eight yards, six yards, two yards. Charles’s grip tightened and his breathing was shallow. Edie just patted his hand.

The rider stopped and hovered over them. The man’s eyes were hollow. He turned and looked at the river, then back toward the town. Suddenly, the figure on the horse faded, and above them, hanging from a noose, was a shadow.

Charles jolted, but Edie gripped his hand and rubbed his knuckles.

The shadow swayed above them for several long moments, maybe as much as a minute or two. The branch above them creaked, and the leaves rustled.

Finally, the shadow disappeared, and the rider reappeared. He pulled on the reins and moved the horse back toward bank. As they rode, they gradually lifted off and ascended toward the green-lit sky. They shrank gradually, and the light faded until rider, horse, and light were gone and the night was dark and still.

***

It was close to dawn when they neared their house. They had not spoken the entire walk home, making sure they made as little sound as possible. But now, they were on familiar land, what they knew as home.

“What did I see?” Charles asked. “You saw it, too, right? That’s why you brought me, right?”

“Mmm hmm,” Edie murmured.

“So who was that? What was that?”

“Sheriff Stephen Renfroe,” said Edie.

“Sheriff? He done flew down from the sky.”

Edie took Charles’s arm. “He was sheriff of this county when I was yo age. Used to ride through the streets of Livingston like he be God on earth. People stopped what they was doin just to watch him.”

“He coulda killed us,” said Charles.

Edie shook her head. “Not now. He cain’t do nothin now. But in his day, he done kill many men. Women too.”

“As sheriff?”

“His whole life. He nothin but bad through and through. Killed wives. Killed his brother in law. Was a leader of them white-robed devils, the Ku Klux.”

“So what happened to him?” said Charles.

Edie took a deep breath. “That’s what I wanted you to know, boy. The Lord punish the wicked with the wicked. Ole Renfroe done crossed too many men. Got hisself arrested. Then a mob came and took him, rode him out to that tree we was sitting at, and strung him up. And now, on the anniversary of his hanging, he come back and he try to get out of it and he try to get hisself to Heaven, but the Lord ain’t havin it.”

Charles was quiet.

“This here land . . . taint my land, yo land, yo daddy’s land. Taint no massa’s land. Before white folk, they was Choctaw. White folk took they land and brought our people here. But then the white folk of the North and of the South, well, kinda like ole Sheriff Renfroe. They done kill each other for years over what they do to black folk. This keep on happenin and happenin, boy.”

“What’s that gotta do with me goin north?”

“You go on north if you must, boy. They’s plenty of white folk there that’s same as here. They don’t wear no robes but they ain’t no different. They want what they want and they don’t want you to have none of it.”

“What am I supposed to do then?” he said. “Just sit here and wait for all the white folk to kill theyselves?”

Edie shrugged. “It’s all in God’s hands. He brung us out of slavery. When He ready, He raise us up.”

They were close to the house, and a soft pink light shone in the east. Charles took a deep breath. “Ain’t gonna work for me, Mama.”

“What’s that?”

“Just sitting here waitin for Jesus to fix it . . . ain’t gonna work for me. I gots to do somethin. Maybe it don’t make no difference. Maybe I wind up poor as ever. But I cain’t stay here. I gots to try.”

Edie nodded. “A man’s gotta make his own way, learn it all fo himself. Just remember ole Renfroe. The Lord punish the wicked with the wicked. The righteous gotta wait on Him.”

Charles shook his head. “I know I seen it, but I just don’t see it the same.”

Edie took a deep breath as they reached the porch. “You write yo mama now and again.”

***

Early in her time at Corinth, Kate met Dr. William G. Little. Little commented that he had left behind his wife, an overseer, and more than one hundred enslaved persons. He told Kate that he had said that all the enslaved people could leave if they wanted to, but he doubted that they would.

The closest match to Dr. Little I can find is a lawyer from Warsaw, Sumter County, Alabama. I’m not certain if this is the exact person since this man is a lawyer as opposed to a doctor. To have more than one hundred enslaved persons, though, was to be a member of the planter class. William Gray Little was certainly that: in 1860, his personal estate was valued at more than $12,000. The thought that most might not leave also seems to match up. Former enslaved persons often took the surnames of their former masters, and in the Black Belt, they often stayed close to their former homes as sharecroppers. In 1870, several black Little families can be found in Warsaw.

William Gray Little went on to serve as an Alabama State Senator, becoming president of the state senate until his death in 1879. Little’s suggestion to Kate that few would leave seemed to be based on his belief that he had been a “good master,” which is part of the rhetoric that came from the South at the time. While it may be that many stayed, the outcomes were not positive.

The previous story is very loosely based on Edith Little, daughter of Ben and Ritta Little. After the War, Sumter county became a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity. The most notorious figure in that odious time was Sheriff Stephen Renfroe, both a lawman and a murderer who is mythologized in a ghost story, as well.

Edith went on to marry Charles Jones of Warsaw, Sumter, Alabama. Together, they had at least one child, Charles Hays Jones in 1898. It’s hard to say if he’s the same man, but a Charles Jones from Alabama turns up in Philadelphia as a boarder years later. Edith and Charles’s son? Who knows, but I’ve taken the liberty of suggesting in this story that maybe it is, that maybe he fled in the 1920s as Klan activity picked up again.

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