February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
When Ed Brown finally left Abbeville, Georgia, in 1962, he id his wife worked as domestics for Jane Maguire’s family, first in Atlanta and then for thirteen years in New York City. During those years Ms. Maguire became fascinated by Ed’s sharp memories of what life was like for a black farmhand in Georgia, and she persuaded him—he is illiterate—to let her help tell his story. She interviewed him, taking careful notes over a period of about four years, and assembled the interviews into a consecutive reminiscence entitled simply Ed. His direct, unself-pitying, and often heartbreaking story will be published by W. W. Norton later this month, and we are pleased to publish the following excerpt from this unusual memoir.
Mr. Brown is now retired and lives in Brooklyn, New York, where his too daughters by a second marriage are in high school.
COPYRIGHT ©1976 BY JANE MAGUIRE
In 1929 Mr. Addison bought a tractor. He was the first man I ever knowed to have one. Right away he cut the fifteen men on his place down to four hands. It would be a favor to him, he say, if I could get myself another job. That was the turrible year I worked on shares for Mr. Leslie Prince.
To buy food and to take care of the smokin and chewin me and my wife wanted to do while we was makin the crop, Mr. Prince said he’d loan me ten dollars a month. He would put it out, he say, but not all in cash, January through June, with interest at 15 per cent. He was aimin to make me take all the meat and syrup he could from his smokehouse.
Then, on shares, the boss furnish you with the land, mule, seeds, tools, and one half of the fertilizer. I was to put out the other half of the fertilizer and all the labor.
Things went all right for a while. I was the best cotton picker there. Whenever Mr. Prince hire anyone to pick by the hundredweight, he said, “I want you to beat Ed pickin.” The most I ever picked in an hour was a hundred and thirty-five pounds.
But hard work didn’t get me nowhere. Mr. Prince wouldn’t show me the papers the gin and the warehouse give him, so I didn’t know what the crop had brung and what my share should be. He took his share and all of mine and claim I owe him twenty-four dollars in addition.
In panic times ten dollars would buy a horse wagon full of groceries. You could buy ten pounds of sugar for fifty cents, fifteen pounds of bacon for ten or fifteen cents a pound. A gallon of syrup would cost fifty cents, and so would a peck sack of flour.
And usually I had a garden, either for myself or on halves with the boss, such as potatoes, squashes, onions, turnips, collards, cabbage, snap beans, butter beans, peas, Irish potatoes, tomatoes, and okra. Come summer my wife would put up seventy-five or eighty jars of blackberries, plums, watermelon rinds, apple preserves, and jelly. She raised chickens, and I would have a sweet-potato patch and a cane patch.
After the ten-dollars-a-month furnish money was cut off in June, it was best to be with a fellow that knowed you had to live through the winter too. A landlord would most likely want you and your family to have enough to eat if you was stayin on to make another crop. But if you wasn’t, he didn’t care.
My wife want us to work for Mr. Prince because his tenant house had glass windows. When he come by our house, he would smile and wave, wave and smile. She say, “I declare that is a nice man. I believe he would be a good man to work for.”
I thought it would suit me because he said I could make a garden on halves. Before I had gathered much, Mr. Prince acted friendly to some people: “Get anythin out of the garden you want.” They cleaned it out. That made me a little dissatisfied. And my wife kicked because whenever I want to borrow Mr. Prince’s mule to carry her to church on Sunday, he would say, “No, the mule should rest on Sunday.”
Another reason I was dissatisfied was because I was a strong man behind a goin mule. Mr. Prince figure my time worth the same as one of his boys. They was chilien at the time, and quite natural they couldn’t do a man’s work.
Most white chilien went to school. But any landlord who was furnishin money to feed a colored tenant would expect him to take his chilien out of school to do what need doin on the farm.
By walkin over the farm all the time Mr. Prince knowed if you was behind with anythin. After school and on Saturday he had his sons work for me. “Ed, what about takin the chilien over there to soda your cotton?”
The boys would walk over thirty acres of cotton carryin a one-half-gallon bucket of soda in one hand and droppin it with the other. I’d follow along behind plowin the soda under. Whatever time the chilien spent helpin me I’d owe their daddy. I didn’t favor that.
After a year’s hard work and makin a good crop I ask Mr. Prince for a settlement. “I ain’t got the books ready today,” he said. “I want to have a settlement when we get through gatherin everythin.” After I had even my late corn in the crib, I went back and he got out the book.
It didn’t look to me like he could figure worth nothin- ‘bout like me. I had made seven bales of cotton and two horse wagon loads of corn, but Mr. Prince claim I hadn’t made enough to pay off my sixty dollars’ furnish money and that I still owed him twenty-four dollars.
He put the corn in the crib without weighin it. Velvet beans was bringin a dollar a hundred pounds, and he took all of them. And all the sweet potatoes.
“I tell you what I’m goin to do,” he say. “I’ll take your milk cow for the twenty-four dollars.”
Me and my wife had brung the cow and the calf I swapped for my Model T Ford with us from the Addison place. We brung two hogs, and I had give Mr. Prince one to let me fatten the other in the peanut field. He took both of them.
“No, I’m not givin the milk cow, because it don’t belong to me, it belong to my wife.”
“Well, you could just give me a mortgage on the cow and carry her on with you.”
I goes home and tell my wife, “Don’t give no mortgage on the cow. Don’t give nothin on her.”
My wife was more nervy about some things than I was. She put a rope around the cow’s neck and carry her to my brother’s. Then she make another trip there with the two little pigs she got washin and ironin for her boss lady. Mr. Prince took my pig he was lettin me fatten in his peanut field.
I goes back to him. He was settin on the steps to his porch. “Mr. Prince, it don’t look to me I owe you that much, not twenty-four dollars.”
He had give his boy a long knife. “David, bring me the knife,” he say.
I walk on off. After that he just kept a comin to my house late at night, way in the night, and wantin me to go out in the field with him “to talk it over.”
“How come you can’t talk it over here to the house? We ain’t got to go in the field to talk over no settlement. I didn’t come to your house late in the night to get this place.”
“We’ll go out where it cool.”
“It cool enough for me in here.”
I seed there wasn’t no use talkin. If it had been fair as a lily and he’d said it was rainin and I’d said no, he’d said I was disputin his word. And if you had met him, you’d a thought he was the best man in the world. He wouldn’t pass colored or white except he’d speak and smile, speak and smile.
He’d go to the table every mornin and say a long prayer over it, and then he’d come right out of that house and take every bit of bread out of your mouth. And he’d raise more sand than forty lawyers. “Now, I’m goin to the field, boys, and it’ll pay you all to come on.” He’d plow until about eleven and then quit. “You colored can stand the sun.”
When it come a big rain, he’d say, “Boys, let’s get the cross saw and cut stovewood.” I had a pile of stovewood I don’t know how high in the yard. So did the other tenants and Mr. Prince. He’d get his wood cut that a way without payin for it.
One mornin come a rain. “Let’s cut some stovewood.”
I say, “I ain’t cuttin nare nother stick of stovewood for nobody. I’ve got enough stovewood to last me. What I’m worried about is gettin somethin to cook with this I got.”
After that I’d walk about when it was rainin. He talked around. “Well, Ed’s a good hand, but he sure is mean.” I wasn’t mean. I just wasn’t goin to cut no more stovewood. When you got enough of anythin, you don’t need no more.
When I was fixin to leave, Mr. Prince ask me, “Ed, have you found a place to live?”
“Yes, sir, up there with Mr. Motley.”
“Motley at Rochelle?”
I went to Mr. Motley to get his wagon to move. “I think our deal is off, Ed. Mr. Leslie Prince just been here, and he say you’re a good hand but you’re mean and your wife is sick and your little girl is too small to do anythin.”
I didn’t know what to do. I had stayed in my place and lived in my bounds. You had to be mighty sharp then to make it for your folks. Mighty sharp and straight humble. If you wasn’t, it’d make you have ulcers. You could get ‘em from bein humble and from not bein humble enough.
One thing you was workin for was so the white man would say, “He’s a good nigger.” Then the others would let you alone. If one say you steal, whether you steal or not, if somethin is missin you took it.
Things was burdenin me. I walked back from Mr. Motley’s towards Mr. Prince’s. When I come to the black gum tree which was still scarred up from a lynchin that took place when I was a boy, I set down to study this thing out. The trouble was I hadn’t left Mr. Prince when his other two tenants left. They was smarter than me.
When one of them see what our boss was like, him and his wife and two chilien cleared out just before layin-by time, about July 4. Me and Emmett, the other tenant, was in the barn. Mr. Prince come by and say, “That lazy nigger is leavin. If anybody else want to go, they’re at liberty.” The tenant leavin told us he suspicion the boss’s bookkeepin. He went to pickin cotton by the hundredweight and made money.
Emmett stay till the cotton all picked and the corn gathered and we was bailin hay. It was the last of October when him and Mr. Prince fell out. We had finished everythin but strippin cane. “Ed, if you’ll stay,” Mr. Prince say, “I’ll give you what I been aimin to give you and both the others.”
He didn’t give me nothin but plenty of trouble. I reckon that’s what he was goin to give them and he decide he’d give it all to me.
It took me two days to strip the cane and take it to the mill. All one day I chopped the wood for cookin it. So that was three days’ work. Mr. Prince wasn’t promisin me money for helpin with the cane, but I was supposed to get half the syrup.
I was just beginnin the fourth day’s work when a colored gentleman, a butcher, come out from Rochelle and bought a cow. He had got old. If I help him butcher this cow, he’ll give me the tripe, the head, the tail, and the feets. So I goes to Mr. Prince. It was early in the mornin, and he was at the table pray in. I had to wait the longest for him to get through; then I ask him could I help butcher the cow. “Go if you want to.”
After we butcher the cow, I jump over the fence and taken what meat the butcher give me to my wife. We was glad to get it. Then I goes right back to the sugar mill and ask Mr. Prince what do he want me to do. “Nothin, you quit and went to helpin somebody else.”
He had promised to pay me in syrup. Now he didn’t want me to have any. So I ask him to pay me in money. He turnt me off. I ask him to let me cut him a cord of wood for an overall jacket to wear the comin winter. “No. I don’t need no wood cut. I can tie a string around my plantation, and me and my boys can live in it for twelve months.”
The way I look at it, all our work—mine and the other tenants’—was piled up around him.
Soon after that we left there. My wife was singin and bouncin Lottie on her knees.
Ought’s a ought, All for the white man None for the nigger.
Durin the worst of the panic people was walkin to and fro, up and down the highway. Men would come into the settlement and go from house to house beggin for somethin, anythin to do. The white people could get a yard cut for thirty cents and hedges clipped for twenty-five cents.
In 1930 I sold my cotton for five cents a pound. My share of that was two and a half cents. A man who didn’t have no regular way of gettin food had to steal or starve.
Bob Abbott couldn’t get a farm. Him and his wife and chilien—five or six—didn’t have enough to eat. I come acrost him one day settin on the railroad.
“How is your people?”
“Down with the measles.”
“What you settin here for?”
“I’m scared of the measles.”
But he caught them and died. While he was livin him and his people went hungry. But the day he died I went by the leakin, broken-down house he was livin in, and you couldn’t hardly get in his yard for the people bringin ham, shoulders, flour, meal. It was all stacked up.
Just about the time of the panic the tractor come in strong. At first it didn’t have rubber tires, just cleats that would catch in the ground. The driver would only work in the middle of the field, and men with mules went in the corners and along the fences, where you couldn’t turn a tractor around.
In just a few years the tractor improved so much it put the mule out of business. The landowner was quick to take a likin to the tractor. With it he would have no people to feed, no doctors’ bills or houses to repair, and no mules to feed. He could buy fertilizer with the money he used to pay hands.
Men started walkin the roads lookin for a farm, for a dry place to sleep, and a place to raise somethin to eat. Mr. So and So, they’d tell me, has got a tractor and I got to move. Some would walk weeks lookin for a farm.
One day my granddaughter answer a knock at the back door. “It’s a white man out there!” She run to me when she seed him.
I goes to find what do he want. Together with him bein white, what scared my granddaughter, I think, is that he was bearded and had a long, poor face. Do we have any food to give him? “How many eggs can he eat?” my wife ask.
She cook them and fry him some bacon and make him some hot biscuits and a pot of coffee. I put a quart of buttermilk in front of him. There was syrup and butter on the table. He finished every bit of it. Then he come and set down in the front room. “If I had a place to lay down now and go to sleep, I’d be all right.”
I was afraid to keep him.
We was havin a dry spell and I had been haulin water from Abbeville, where he come from. I decided to haul water from Rochelle because if I carry him there, he wouldn’t be passin by my house again.
An old, old gentleman come one cold winter night. He was raggedty and patched every which a way. After he got thawed out by the fire, he was settin there talkin. I ask him where was he travelin to.
“Why you walkin way to Florida?”
“The one I love is down there and I’m goin to get married.”
“Well, I believe if I had got as old as you is, I wouldn’t take a wife.”
“Yeah, all of diem tell me that. But they just like you.”
“They’re settin up side of theirs.”
One day in Hoover times comin home from Kramer along the railway track, I walk up on a fellow sittin in a dugout.
He was travelin to Savannah, and I say, “I’m goin on down about a mile. We can walk along together.” He was carryin a bundle of clothes tied up in a bed sheet. When we got nearly to the turnoff for my place, we come on a dead rabbit the train had run over. The man grabbed this rabbit just like it had been alive and was goin to run.
I tell him to my knowin the dead rabbit had been there for three days, if not longer.
He belt it up and smelt it. “That ain’t nothin,” he say. “It ain’t ruint. It will help me travel.”
When he got to the railway trestle, he stop and wash the rabbit, and I reckon he eat it, because when I left he was buildin a fire.
One Saturday about ten or twelve men, white and colored, was workin on my place with the peanut picker. We didn’t get through until near sundown. I had about four tons of hay to haul in before the rain come. “Who will help me haul in my hay?”
All of them holler, “Not me, not me.”
A white man named George spoke. “I will,” he say. The next mornin before day he come back with a truck and woke me up. “I’m ready to help you.” By eight o’clock that mornin we had it all in. I paid him five dollars.
Him and his wife busted up, and he leave and stay off one or two years. Then one night about twelve o’clock someone knock and call my name.
“Who is it?” I ask.
“George. Don’t you know I help you haul in your hay that Sunday mornin?”
I open the door.
He told me to get up and make a fire. Me and him set and talk. He told about drivin a big transfer truck haulin produce from Florida to Atlanta and how he was goin to bring me some beans. I was settin up there believin him. Once I ask did he want to take off the overcoat he was wear in, and he say no.
“Ed, would you give me a quilt and let me stretch out here in front of the fire?” I didn’t hurry about answerin, and he brung up the hay again. “You know I did you a favor.”
The colored didn’t go to the white and the white didn’t go to the colored to spend the night. I ask myself why he doin it. I give him the quilt.
My wife say, “If you go to sleep, I’ll stay woke.”
We both go to sleep. When we knowed any thin it was day. I built another fire. Soon as he woke, George say, “Let’s go down to the barn.” We walk out there. “Ed, I been tellin you a bunch of stories. The reason I had to tell you that, I didn’t want your family to be scared. I want you to do me a favor.”
“What is it?” I ask.
“I want you to pull off your clothes and give them to me. This is a right new suit I got on. If you can get the letters out of it, you can wear it; if you can’t, burn it up and get shut of it.”
He pull off his coat. He was wearin a gray khaki chaingang suit.
“I’ll try to find you some.” So I goes to the house and get my one white shirt and my one pair of Sunday pants. I tell him, “Put this on.” He change into my clothes and come back to the house to wash his face and comb his hair. He look nice.
“In two weeks’ time you’ll hear from me.” I never have.
Helpin your neighbors was different. One lady thank me still. Her husband runned away and lef her with three chilien. Out in the country sometimes it was hard for a lady to get a job. A lot of the white people cook for theyselves.
The last time I seed this lady, she grab me and hug me and told some of ‘em at the Piney Grove church homecomin, “This man helped me when I couldn’t help myself. He let me have food out of his garden and out of his kitchen to feed my chilien, and I love him for it.”
In panic times if you couldn’t get a job and make enough to feed yourself and them in your family not able to work, you’d have to figure another way to live.
McLeod was a born burglar. He would steal the sweetnin out of a ginger cake or a thing so minor you wouldn’t miss it, but as he got it he’d carry it across the road and give it to someone there.
If there was somethin particular you didn’t want him to take, it was best to say so.
We had about seventy-five chickens my wife had raised that bunched theyselves up on the east side of the house in the shade. One time me and my wife come back from town and driv up in our yard, and there was McLeod settin on the porch lookin at the chickens.
Since Mac was a known chicken thief, I walk right straight ta him. “Don’t bother my wife’s chickens.”
“Well, I’m glad you told me not to get them, because I was just thinkin about sackin them up.”
“I’ll help you out any way I can if you don’t bother them.”
That night he went to his mother-in-law’s chicken house and help hisself to as many as he could get in two big sacks without smotherin them. Some of them was stickin they heads out of the holes he had cut in the sacks.
The next mornin he come to my house and ‘minded me I say I’d help him. I took him in my wagon to Rochelle, where he try to sell them chickens on the street. Some he took ten, fifteen, or twenty cents apiece for.
How come he to sell them so cheap was because they was frizzly chickens—with feathers curly like a curlyheaded man. When they young, they look very pretty with curly feathers all over, but they molt and get to look near about half naked.
They scratch a lot. I always said they was scratchin for a livin. But many folks claim they was very good for scratchin up a conjuration somebody had put down in your yard.
Frizzly chickens is no different from any other chickens once you get the feathers off. But people don’t like to eat them. Even at such a cheap price Mac was told, “I don’t want them buzzards.”
Mac come to spend two or three days with his sister so he could see what his brother-in-law, Rogers Hollis, had. The main thing was one milk cow. Mac got some men’s shoes and ties them on the cow’s feet so Rogers won’t be able to follow her tracks. After Mac lead the cow to the railway tracks, he take off the shoes and walk her from Burnham’s Bay to Vienna, Georgia, about twenty miles.
He goes to the hands on a big farm. They was goin to buy the cow for seven dollars and butcher it and divide the beef amongst them. But before they could make up the money, the law come and arrest McLeod. The judge sentence him to twelve months. If he didn’t steal somethin from jail, I would be surprised.
After Mac was in jail awhile, Mr. Hyatt Wilcox paid his fine and got him out. Mr. Wilcox would not pay him in cash but let him take up his wages in groceries at the store.
Saturday night Mac was in the habit of takin up enough groceries for two or three people. Then he’d go right out behind the store and sell what he’d got for cash. If he had took up one dollar’s worth of groceries, he’d sell them for fifty cents or even twenty-five. After pilin up a big debt at the store he runned away.
The first I knowed McLeod was back, my brother driv up to my house and call, “Hey, Ed, here Mac! He want me to carry him over to Miss Estelle’s.” That was his mother-in-law. “You want to go with us?” I was settin in the bathtub and told them no. It was Saturday evenin, and he had slipped back on the Seaboard train that run through there then to see his wife.
Somehow the white folks got in the winds of McLeod bein back. I was livin on Mr. Addison’s place in Kramer in a house that white people had once lived in. It had glass windows and a narrow porch with a rail that run acrost the front of it.
About midnight there was a knock at the door. Whoever was there had come up quiet. I look out the front window. There was two men settin on the rail. I walk into the dinin room, where my two sisters was settin up in bed. “What is you done?”
“Nothin,” they both say. I look out the dinin room window and there was men in the yard.
I want to tell you the honest truth; that’s a turrible feelin to be surrounded like that. There was one or two men at every crack that open out my house. In them days the whites would come and take people out and try to whup ‘em, beat ‘em to death, kill ‘em. I didn’t want that to happen. I had always said if the whites ever come there at me, I’m goin to make them kill me right there in front of my folks and not way off somewhere. Now I couldn’t figure what to do.
I walk into my bedroom. “What is you done?” My wife was drawed up under the covers cryin and prayin.
“I ain’t done nothin.” When I look out the bedroom window, I saw more men. I hadn’t done anythin. And my little girl was too small.
I seen a Chevrolet settin out on the road.
Just walkin, walkin every which a way in my house, I didn’t know what in the world to do.
“Lord have mercy,” my wife cry. “Turn to the Lord.”
They sure scared a fit on me. I wasn’t thinkin about prayin.
They kept a callin, “Ed, come on out.”
“I ain’t comin out there. Who is it?”
I thought I heard “The Law.” I ask him, “Who did you say that is?” My sisters both stand straight up in their double bed.
“Josh Lawson.” He a bailiff. I knowed him.
“Light you a lamp.”
“No, I don’t need no light.”
“Come on out here.”
“Put your shoes on.”
“All right.” I set there and put my shoes on. That give me a little time to study. I had a .38 pistol and a good shotgun, but I didn’t have nare cartridge and nare shell.
“Open the door.”
I was shakin so bad. I crack open the door. There was a man standin with his back to the wall right next to the door. I look out right into his face. I shot the door back.
Now Josh Lawson seed I wasn’t comin out unless he drug me out. “I’m lookin for McLeod,” he say. “You seen McLeod?”
“Yeah, I seed him. He come by here this evenin with my brother.”
“I’m comin in to search for him.”
I open the door, and he come on in. I had one closet. He jump backwards up in that closet. He make a show of lookin around.
“Ed, you got any good drinkin liquor?”
“No, I don’t drink liquor.”
They run for the car because they knowed there was too many of them for the inside of Mr. Lawson’s Chevrolet. Some could hang on to the runnin boards, and the last one or two would have to stick on the hood. OfF they went to search the other colored people’s houses.
After they left, I went to my brother’s house. I want him and the other colored families to know the bailiff was comin.
They had done got at Homer before they come to my house. “I was so scared I butted my head against the wall tryin to kill myself,” he say.
And they had been to my brother-in-law Tommy’s house. He swore he wasn’t scared. “Shoot, no!” But I know he was.
McLeod’s mother-in-law had a bunch of cows in the barn, and he just went in there and lay down amongst them. He sneaked off, and I haven’t seen him since.
Me and none of my people did anythin the next day. We just laid around.
I had got to missin my Model T, so in 1932 I followed the style and made me a Hoover buggy. To do that you took the front axle of a Model T Ford and the two front wheels, and a lot of folks use the front seat with springs out of the car. It was drawn by a horse or mule and rode good with rubber tires.
Ours come in handy that summer, when Highway 280 was paved. We would go to town and buy groceries and my wife cooked them and I went up and down the highway in our buggy askin the workers which want to order a plate for noontime. We didn’t earn much money, but we sure ate good.
Later I got to work on 280 with the PWA. If you had even a bank of taters and they knowed it or if a boss man said he could take care of you, you couldn’t get on.
I’ve seen a lot of work on Highway 280. When I was a boy, one of the houses we lived in was high on a hill near an old wagon road. Me and my sister Rose would set in the yard and watch the convicts gradin it with picks and shovels and mattockses and grubbin hoes. They wasn’t suppose to talk with nobody, but they was good at sidlin alongside someone. “Don’t never come to the chain gang, boy.” I didn’t want to go there. When the men was whipped down in the swamp, we could hear them hollerin clean back to our house.
To grade the road men took the hills down by shovels. Standin in two lines, the convicts would face each other, every man with a shovel. A mule and wagon would be driv between them lines. When the wagons got to the bottom, they would be loaded.
Say there was a hole the chain-gang captain want to fill up. He’d put his foot in the hole. “Put that dirt on my foot.” The men wouldn’t pick up a shovelful like they did when they was throwin dirt on the wagon, just a thin layer. They could throw that much a pretty good ways.
Shovelin and throwin and singin:
Cap’n, Cap’n, has the money come? None of your business, I don’t owe you none.
They’d soon get the hole filled.
Then most of the colored couldn’t look at a sheet of music and sing by notes. But the colored man had his own music in his mouth. If you can get up the spirit in a big group, it will make you feel good. The burden will lift.
In July, 1932, I got me one of the first eight-hour jobs that ever come to Abbeville in Mr. Julian Graham’s sawmill. They was payin five dollars a day wages. Mr. Graham got to be the mayor of Abbeville.
The biggest thing about that sawmill was the whistle. People on the farm had always worked from sunup to dark. At the mill they’d blow the whistle for lunch and for knockin off in the evenin. The people livin in town heard the whistle all the time. It got so when they went out to do farm jobs, they just didn’t want to work after that whistle blow.
At first everybody who could got them a job at that mill. There was the whistle. And there was another reason. Mr. Graham didn’t want his hands locked up where they couldn’t work. Anybody else’s hands he was glad to be hard on when they come to town and done somethin called wrong. But he want his’n to get off light.
The trouble was the work at the mill was so hard you couldn’t hardly make an eight-hour day. I pulled a cross saw there before the pugwood saw run by a little motor come out. Pullin that saw all day long, you had to be a man young and strong to stand it. The mosquitoes and red bugs and ticks in that swamp will eat you up.
One day when we quit for lunch, I was so tired till I couldn’t hardly stand up. The boss man told me, “Uncle Ed, don’t set down here. Take your lunch and eat it at the well. Carry a jug and bring the rest of us back some water.”
The well was about a mile and a half away. The others was restin. I went on to the well, finish the day’s work, and never went back.
The boss told another guy workin there to tell me not to ask for a job again, ‘cause he wasn’t goin to give me one since I had quit him.
“He can wait till I ask him for one,” I say.
Finally I got back on shares with Mr. Addison. “We jot shut of you on account of the tractor,” he told me. “And I think we got rid of the wrong man.”
Other people had got to poisonin with BHC once every eight days. Mr. Addison didn’t like BHC. He want to mix arsenic with molasses and mop it on the leaves, all over the cotton. If hands don’t really want to, they ain’t goin to do the job the way the boss wants. By the barrel he had that stuff mixed. Some of the hands would use it, and some of them wouldn’t. It was a tedious job, and none of them thought it did much good.
This aggravate Mr. Addison. He call us together. “The boll weevil ain’t just after the white man. He’s after you colored too. Now I could have you usin BHC. But if I do that, it will burn you in the nose and in the throat, and some of you it will make plumb sick.
“I ain’t thinkin just of myself. I don’t ever come out here huntin and fishin on my land. But you do. And BHC poison the land and unfits it for anythin but cotton. After you use BHC, you can’t plant sweet potatoes or any other root crops behind cotton. The wind blow that stuff everywhere. It ruin the land for your vegetable gardens.
“The birds will eat the insects that got BHC, and they’ll die. Come a big rain and the water will run off the fields into the fishponds and kill the fish.
“People have different ways to dodge the boll weevils. This is the way I want to do it. I want you to help me.”
After that some of them did a little better, but not much.
That year I was the only hand Mr. Addison had to come out of debt and make money. I did it by usin my idea as to what to do and not the idea of Mr. Huey Lindley, the new overseer, who claim the only way to make a crop was to go ahead and plow, wet or dry. The cotton come up good, but in June it rain almost every day and kept the ground boggy wet.
The other hands was workin for wages. Mr. Lindley had them sloshin around in the wet. He come to me. “Go ahead. The others are plowin.”
I knowed not to work in the mud, ‘cause if you do, your land will get hard and clodded and your crop won’t grow. So I went rabbit huntin and fishin, waitin for my farm to dry off. Whenever I seed Mr. Lindley peepin around my place, I’d get me somethin to do. Maybe I’d hoe a few bushes, or I’d take me my Dixie turnin plow and bar off some corn comin up in the Bermuda grass, or fool around with the plow like I was repairin it.
Mr. Lindley was in the habit of comin around about once a week. One time I was settin under a tree. “You still layin around the house?” The next time he brung a man with him. “Ed, if you ain’t goin to work your crop, I got another man that will.”
“I’ll work it,” I told him. I wait two more days; my crop good and dry. Then I get out early with a scrape and scooter and stayed late. I really got my crop cleaned out.
The best part was that on fifteen acres I made eleven bales of cotton behind one mule. I come clean out of debt and cleared one hundred and sixty dollars. Mr. Lindley didn’t do so good. Sun and drought come and made the ground hard and scald the crop. Most of the men under Mr. Lindley that year made one or two bales of cotton. Three was the limit. And on Mr. Addison’s hundred-acre farm Mr. Lindley made fifteen bales of cotton.
Mr. Addison turnt him off. “Ed, I’m proud to know you. If Mr. Lindley had done as good as you, I’d be a lot better off.”
“Yes, sir,” I say, “you really need a good overseer.” Mr. Lindley wasn’t no count. I was a good farmer, and I knowed how to get other people to really put out. I would have made a better overseer than Mr. Addison ever had.
He called hisself a good man. And other people, colored and white, called Colonel Addison a good man. But bein white, he was handicapped to where he couldn’t see the overseer in me.
I could really farm, and Mr. Addison knowed it. By rights I was due to make somethin. “Mr. Addison,” I say, “I want to farm on standin rent.” That’s the deal a tenant makes to pay so much rent an acre for the use of the land. The owner don’t get nothin else. But rentin can be tough too. If you have a family, they mouths never close except over food. Until you make the crop, you’ll more than likely need furnish money. The boss will get his 10 per cent interest.
If you don’t pay your rent, the landlord can level on you and take your stock up to what you owe him. He can sell anythin you got.
Several ways to farm have been figured out to be justice if the boss and the tenant both do right. There’s sharecroppin, or rentin, or thirds, or fourths. But it’s hard to find a boss or a tenant who really want to be fair to the other.
“Well, go to it, Ed,” Mr. Addison tell me when I ask about standin rent.
Mr. Addison was a sure enough lawyer. I’ve heard it said that if he was on the other side, you was a goner. But he didn’t know nothin about farmin. He let us pay him five dollars an acre rent on land we planted in cotton and three dollars an acre for land in corn and velvet beans. That was a little too cheap.
I made an extra good crop that year and bought me a Model T Ford for seventy-five dollars cash. Mr. Addison told me I had got the big end of the stick and that for the next crop we was goin to be on shares.
Me and my brother-in-law, Tom Sparrow, figure the real reason Mr. Addison change our standin rent deal back to shares was that we sold our cotton in Rochelle for the market price. When you rentin, you supposed to get the privilege to sell to anyone you want and to gin your cotton anywhere you can get the best deal.
But Mr. Addison didn’t like it that way. He want to buy cotton from his renters under the market price and to sell it in Savannah, Georgia. That way he got his lick at it. “I was expectin you to bring cotton to me. You and Sparrow took it to Rochelle.”
So my rentin come to an end after just one year. If I had had my rathers, I would have been on standin rent. But I couldn’t complain. I was back on shares, and I did get half. Mr. Addison had a divided crib to put the corn in, my half on one side and his half on the other. All around me there were tenants that didn’t fare as good as me.