In A Mind to Stay Sydney Nathans tells the remarkable story of an Alabama plantation owned by Paul Cameron (a North Carolina grandee and absentee planter) and later purchased by the freedmen who had been enslaved there. The land is still held by their heirs. Drawing from a wealth of archival material and oral testimonies, this is more than just the “story of 1,600 acres of land in western Alabama and of the black people who dwelt on it for 170 years” (p. 14). Through the lens of a single plantation, Nathans not only unravels the story of generations of African Americans from slavery through freedom but also presents a gripping tale of black self-empowerment in the face of tremendous obstacles. A Mind to Stay focuses in particular on the Hargess family, whose patriarch, Paul Hargis (the surname spelling was later changed), was a favored slave of Cameron and later became a leading figure on the Alabama plantation. The book starts with an examination of the slavery period and tells the story of an insecure but ambitious young North Carolina planter who, in 1844, purchased large tracts of land for cotton production in Alabama and subsequently dispatched over one hundred of his slaves to go south. This group included seventeen-year-old Hargis, who, along with his brother and two sisters, was separated from his aging parents. Nathans reveals the difficult experiences of these forced migrants and how Hargis came to work his way up in the plantation hierarchy to become a trusted foreman, saving himself and his immediate family from harsher fates. With emancipation, Hargis and most of the others continued to work the land under difficult conditions as free laborers, but when financial ruin caused Cameron to seriously consider selling the plantation to whites and evicting the freedmen, the Hargis family and others made clear that they were finished with forced removals and that they meant to stay. Knowing that only land ownership could safeguard them from potential evictions and unscrupulous exploitation, the freedmen purchased the plantation in 1875. The goal of Hargis and his neighbors was simple: “hold on to the soil, and sustain family members on it” (p. 149). And held on to it they did. The land became a safe haven for subsequent generations who lived through the worst of Jim Crow segregation, and when scores of young people left in the Great Migration, their parents, aunts, and uncles who stayed behind became prominent activists in the Greensboro civil rights movement, claiming as their motivation that they wanted to create a place that their migrant children would want to come back to. Many migrants have indeed returned, and the land remains a sanctuary for the heirs. A Mind to Stay is beautifully written and is a must-read for historians and students who want to understand how slavery and emancipation was experienced by real people. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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