We Were Dreamers
WE were dreamers, possibility thinkers…young farmers passionate about education, justice, and independence…hard workers…lovers…producing lots of children, and plenty of drama. There were seven homes on our rural country road alone with 50 children. Some of us lived through the horrific Roanoke River flood in 1940. We have had weddings, boys and girls soft ball teams, annual community day celebrations, school protests, speaking contests, dramatic play productions to raise money for school projects, mass voter registration drives, and dedicated teachers like the late Mrs. C.C. Lassiter. And we cannot forget how difficult it was to rid the land of “wire grass” and “Johnson grass.”
The Tilley Resettlement was an experimental farm project created from three former slave plantations (Devereaux, Tillery and Johnson) and established in 1935 under Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt’s New Deal. There were 113 such projects located across the South, eight of which were designed for blacks. As far as we can tell we are the only resettlement project left in tack.
In Tillery, my personal take is that whites settled thousand and thousands of acres of land…free… had slaves to work the land…free… years after slavery was over the federal government comes back and rescues plantation owners from financial ruin by paying huge sums of money to whites for the land ….only to sell the land back to the descendants of the slaves who worked it “free” in the first place.
But here we were an amazing group of Americans gathered from as far away as Florida…Arkansas…South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia embarking on an exciting social and economic revolution. My family came from Rich Square in Northampton County (NC), and was part of the third wave of resettlers in Tillery. In fact eleven families, all related, from Northampton County settled here. My Mom and Dad, the late Matthew and Florenza Moore Grant arrived with their five young children in January, 1947. Dad, who later became quite an entrepreneur, had left his hometown of Potecasi (NC) after graduation from high school in 1939 to work in the shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. After the war (World War II) and two years of study at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), Hampton, VA, he and Mom decided to return home to farm. Rich Square was only 21 miles away, but what an adventure it was to cross the wood plank boards of the Roanoke River Bridge on a beat up pick-up truck with all our meager belongings.
By the early 1950’s, the community’s strongest structures of influence included the school PTA ; the first chartered NAACP organization in the region; a teenage club; the Coalition for Progress started by the late Dr. Judson King from Franklinton Center, and a viable Home Demonstration Club, led by women like the late Mrs. Christiana Marrow, that sponsored lessons in canning, quilting and bookkeeping. And of course the most powerful structure of influence was the church. Can you imagine that even today there are about eight churches in this area among about 300 people?
My Mom, Florenza Grant was the first woman to be licensed to drive, and was the first black to register to vote, after several failed attempts by the men, under the Jim Crow law of being forced to read and write a portion of the U S Constitution. Whites generally walked in under the “Grandfather Clause” and were automatically registered.
The white power structure did everything possible to keep blacks out of school and to keep us from learning to read and write. Finally, after much spilled blood, tears, and misery, we gain the right to vote, and then Mr. Edward Martin, one of the powerful white men in Tillery, tried to direct how blacks would vote, by issuing a “candidates list. The answer would be “Yes sir, Mr. Martin! Thank you for thinking of us!” Then the list would be taken back to the community meeting to teach black voters who not to vote for.
We had stimulating debates back in the ‘50’s …I mean serious debating teams of parents who for weeks in advance studied, researched, and articulated the issues of the day. Today, they would be debating whether Barak Obama would be an effective president and whether Condoleeza Rice is a sell out.
Other resettlers challenged the complex range of social controls and colloraries, and the established financial arrangements dictated by racism. Tillery was known for its cotton gin and peanut buying facilities. Farmers from the region brought their cotton and peanut harvest to the town of Tillery to sell. Peanuts might be selling for 3 ¾ cents per pound. Black farmers were often cheated out of the ¾ cents if their knowledge of fractions was limited. Mr. Lloyd Smith, always had his pad and pencil and would challenge the cheating white buyer, much to their chagrin.
Mrs. Ruth Johnson boldly volunteered to trade in her Democratic affiliation to register as a Republican back in the 1960s in order that there would be Black representation on the Conoconnara Precinct Committee.
The first black business on the main street of Tillery was operated by B. T. and Ruby Higgs Marrow. The first barber shop on the main street was operated by young Thurman Highsmith and his nephew Arnell Highsmith.
By the late 1950’s, at least 50% of second generation resettlers like Jean and Connie Walden, Doris and Dollis Moore (twins), Evangeline and Joseph Smith, Helen Marrow and many others. Many young people of that time left for the North for better job opportunities. Gary and I were some of the few who chose to return after college. I know there are those who wish we had not come back.
The Tillery Resettlement was never meant to last. Everything possible has been done to retrieve the land and to turn back the clock. For years we witnessed the demise of local black resettlers. But nobody seemed to want to fight or wanted to talk about their troubles. Then federal marshals showed up on our doorstep on three different occasions to evict my aging Mom and Dad from their home, allowing them one half hour to get out fifty years of belongings. Luckily Gar, Richard and I were still around to halt the process. My family did not mind fighting for what was rightfully ours and exposing the wrong doings against us by FmHA We called a meeting with the local, state and regional FmHA officers with every member of the family present in an attempt to work out a payment plan for the money Daddy and Mom owed. FmHA refused any such plan and was extremely insulting to our parents. So we went to Washington, D. C., and called the newspapers. At the time Gary and our youngest sister Gloria were teaching school. My work history includes being the firs black in television production (1969) and at the time I was well connected in the television industry. During one of their visits, I called WRAL-TV in Raleigh (NC), and within the hour a “Sky Five” helicopter was landing in our front yard to cover this brave and mighty move against lowly black farmers by agents of the federal government. Of course, they backed down. They did not want their actions to be recorded and possibly viewed on national television.
WE were laughed at and ridiculed by our neighbors for putting up a fight “we couldn’t possibly win” against the federal government. But our fight led to a federal law suit called “Pigford vs. Glickman, Secretary of the USDA” where black farmers across the South won a settlement worth $2.4 billion. More than 13,000 black farmers were paid. We haven’t gotten paid, but we are still here, and training the next generation. My three year old grandson, Sky Cameron Myers, lives with me much of the time. He is being taught right now to love the land, to be community oriented, and to love justice and education. One of the fallacies black people suffer is that we wait too long to teach our children the beauty of history and heritage.
Okay…somebody’s pulling my coat tail.
Have an exciting day and we love you!