Say My Name

An African-American Family History

Ole Miss

     “The door of hope might have remained closed as far as the progress the Negro was to make for himself was concerned. He has never created for himself any civilization. He has never risen above the government of club. He has never written a language. His achievements in architecture are limited to the thatched roof hut or hole in the ground. No monuments have been builded by him to body forth and perpetuate in the memory posterity the virtues of his ancestors. For countless ages he has looked upon the rolling sea and never dreamed of a sail. In truth, he has never progressed, save and except when under the influence and absolute control of a superior race.”                             `--U.S. Sen., Mississippi, James K. Vardaman 1910.

      When I was younger, Mississippi epitomized all the hatred and prejudice many White Americans had toward Blacks. To me, Mississippi was synonymous with bigotry, illiteracy, and poverty. It conjured visions of white hooded, cross-burning, Ku Klux Klansmen. Violence there played prominently weekly on the TV news during the 60’s.  For me, it was a never-never land, a black hole where people like me disappeared or worse. 

      The quotation above is an example of how many of its citizens felt for ages and probably how many still feel. Knowing that my paternal grandparents spent their formative years in Mississippi gave me a whole new respect for them, especially for my grandfather was a very wise and tolerant man.

Slavery Mississippi Style

      Slavery in Tennessee appeared downright benign in comparison to its practice in Mississippi. The law that first created the Mississippi Territory as a part of the U.S. in 1798 specifically allowed for slavery. Slavery had been introduced there earlier in 1720 by the French. It continued under the English and Spanish settlers. When it became a U.S. Territory, slavery was an acceptable economical and agricultural system. It was already ingrained into the culture.

      In 1798, the territory contained about 5,000 Whites and 3,500 slaves. A steady flow of settlers migrated to the territory mainly from Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Those who arrived with sufficient capital quickly took possession the better dark soil lands. They established large plantations and an hierarchy and left the cheaper uplands for those with lesser financial means and lower status.

      Cotton became the chief money crop of Mississippi and it made the large plantations owners very rich. If the slave owners ever had any leanings toward freeing the slaves and themselves from this labor system, prosperity earned from the slave-grown cotton caused them to lean the other way. In Mississippi, the White citizenry considered slavery one of positive good not one of necessary evil. Slavery was more than a labor system. It was the mechanism that allowed slave owners, who were never more than 25% of Mississippi's population, to maintain control over the growing majority Black population.

      By 1817, when Mississippi entered the union, the state had a population of about 40,000 Whites and 30,000 Blacks. The Black population was concentrated in the sections where the agricultural plantations were most prevalent. During the last years of slavery, Blacks in Mississippi, numbered 437,303 compared to 353,901 Whites. Blacks were owned by 30,943 slave owners who possessed an average of 14 slaves each. The great mass of slaves of working age were field hands. Relatively small numbers had special training as artisans or house servants.

      In the 1830’s, abolitionist attacks on slavery caused White Mississippians to become defensive and to think of themselves as a “conscious minority” in the Union. Popular state politician Sergeant S. Prentiss claimed in 1836 that “the people of the state of Mississippi looked upon domestic slavery as it existed among them, not as a curse, but as a blessing, as the legitimate condition of the African race, authorized both by the laws of God and the dictates of reason and philantrophy.” He added that his generation would “transmit this situation to their posterity, as the best part of their inheritance.” Lastly he said there would be “no further discussion upon this subject (because) we will allow no present change, or hope of future alteration of this matter.”

      Abolitionists were branded as radical troublemakers. White Mississippians became paranoid and suspicious of all outsiders. A political and ideological orthodoxy developed to which all Mississippians had to subscribe. Dissenters of the rationale that slavery was a just institution were silenced or forced to leave the state. Mississippi became a closed society, isolated from the rest of the United States. A direct byproduct of that closed society was closed minds.

      Mississippi was more than ready to secede from a union of which it did not feel a part. It did so on January 9, 1861. During the Civil War, a fourth of all the White male population who went to war were killed. My husband’s ancestor, Cicero Gatlin, was one. Thousands returned home after the war missing limbs.  A fifth of the state budget in 1866 went to provide artificial limbs to Confederate veterans. The economy of the state was devastated. Mississippi fell from her ante-bellum position of fifth in the nation in per capita wealth to that of last where it has remained to this day. Black people were easy scapegoats for all the financial problems of Mississippi. This only exacerbated the racial polarity in the state.

Reconstruction Destruction

After the war, former slaves and former owners and thousands of Whites who owned no slaves grappled with the political, social and economic consequences of emancipation. Southern Whites could not or would not accept a biracial society based on equality of opportunity. They were afraid their state would become “africanized.” They feared the majority Black population would retaliate for past injustices against them. The state blindly promoted an inefficient system of agricultural production that resisted reform It also forwarded an antiquated credit system that forced the overproduction of cotton and prevented diversification. This brought grinding poverty to both Blacks and White and a stagnant economy to the entire section.

      The legacy of slavery left Blacks with few marketable skills and a 90% illiteracy rate. A decent education and advancement in society were closed to them. The only alternative was sharecropping with its repetitive, never ending cycle of poverty. Many of the hill country whites also became sharecroppers. The only people they could look down upon were the Blacks with furthered the climate of racial bigotry.

      Although slavery was abolished, African Americans living in Mississippi and throughout the south were ruled “Jim Crow” codes that institutionalized segregation and racial prejudice. The birth of the Ku Klux Klan began a reign of terror against Blacks. Segregation replaced slavery. All these tools were used to keep Blacks “in their place” and control its large population. The negative attitude and hatred drove many southern Blacks north to cities like Chicago, New York City and Detroit in search of employment and a better way of life. This is the route my grandfather took, going first to Ohio and then to the steel mills in Indiana.

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