The Yankees came through here and freed my father,” says Bessie Marshall, sitting in a wheelchair in her darkened bedroom. “The colored folks wanted to be turned loose, so they got the Yankees to come through and help.” Bessie lives on the Alabama farm that her father, a former slave, bought in 1900. “A white man sold my father this place,” she says. “He would sell his land to nobody but colored folks. He was nice. Some white people helped the colored people. Some didn’t.”
Bessie is 100 years old. Her eyesight is gone now, and she chills easily, so she keeps the heat up high in her small, white frame house. She wears a wool cap. Memories of childhood flow freely from her. “Cotton. We raised cotton,” Bessie says. “And corn and sweet peas and peaches. We raised whatever we wanted to eat.”
A black landowner was something of an anomaly in the post-Civil War Deep South. Most former slaves worked as sharecroppers: The white landowner allowed them to work the land with his equipment and live there rent free. In exchange for his labor, the sharecropper was supposed to receive a share of the crop’s profits that would go toward buying the land. But in reality, many white landowners kept black workers so deeply in debt that it would take generations for them to pay up.
But Bessie’s father had another source of income. Having served in the Civil War, he received a war pension. It took him four years, but he was eventually able to pay the $100 for 20 acres of land.
As a little girl, she worked a full morning on the family farm, and then went to work on white people’s farms. “My momma would carry us to their place to chop cotton,” she recalls. With a hoe, she and her mother and brother would thin out cotton seedlings, row by row, field after field. “My momma would get one dollar a day,” she recalls, “and me and my brother would get fifty cents.”
She remembers how fancy the white people’s houses were; she liked to sit outside and imagine how pretty the rooms inside might be. “But if you was colored, you couldn’t go inside,” she says. “If the weather was bad, you had to go in where they kept the cows”
Still, as a child, Bessie knew her family was lucky. Most sharecropper kids lived in shacks on the white people’s property. But Bessie’s family had their own home — with two bedrooms. The whole family slept in one room; she shared a bed with her father. “I slept at the foot of the bed,” she recalls, “because my father, he said I kicked.”
The other bedroom was reserved for the preacher who would come to the village twice a month for Sunday service. “None of the colored folks had a company room except us,” she says. “So we could take the preacher. And in that room my momma had a pitcher in a bowl and a big ol’ kettle you could put on the fireplace to heat the water. So he could bathe himself with it.”
Bessie’s parents didn’t know how to read or write, but they knew to get on the good side of people in power. During Prohibition, her mother won favors from the white sheriffs by making wine for them. “She had a stove in the kitchen, and she would put a nice tablecloth on the table,” she recalls. “And they’d come in there and drink and have a big time. Then they would put a quarter or a dime in a glass jar for her, and tell her they’d come back another day for some more.”
Even so, as Bessie grew up, she could see that her parents were easy targets for white carpetbaggers and other opportunists who found ways to legally steal land from the few black landowners. Naive blacks would put an X on the dotted line of documents handed to them, effectively giving away their land. Bessie, who finished seventh grade, could read and write, so she was able to help protect her family’s rights. Plus she had a guardian angel of sorts: a white woman at the courthouse who looked after her family. “She said, `Don’t you sign nothing unless you get me to see it,'” Bessie recalls. “`They can’t make you sign. Bring them up here to me — I’ll fix them.’
“Well, see, she was nice. And that’s how it was. Some white people helped the colored people. Some didn’t.”
When Bessie got married, her husband wanted to move up North to seek his fortune. “White people come down here from Indiana and got colored folks,” she recalls. “They carried you up there and learned you how to make paper. My husband worked in the paper mill while I cleaned trolley cars. You had to pay the white people back for carrying you up there, though. It took a long time.” Disillusioned, Bessie’s husband decided to move them to Philadelphia and try his hand at carpentry.
They had a son, Wiley, whom she sent back to Alabama so her parents could care for him. But as the boy reached school age, her parents needed help. “My mother and father got old with nobody to see about them,” she says. Thieves would convince little Wiley to bring them money that his grandparents had hidden in the house.
Bessie headed home, by now with three other children in tow. “My husband refused to come back,” she says. “I said I would build him a house, but he said no. Like so many of them, he would drink and he would run around.”
So Bessie went back to the farm and raised her children as a single mom, picking cotton and milking cows. “We lived good,” she says. “We had peach trees and pear trees and pomegranate and pecan trees.” She never married again, although she had three more children. She was well-known for her skills as helper to the “baby catcher” — midwife — for anyone who needed the service. And in 1927 she did the unthinkable: She got herself a driver’s license and bought a car.