This big book is the autobiography of an illiterate man. It is the story of a black tenant farmer from east-central Alabama who grew up in the society of former slaves and slaveholders and reached maturity during the advent of segregation law. For years he labored "under many rulins, just like the other Negro, that I knowed was injurious to man and displeasin to God and still I had to fall back." One morning in December, 1932, Nate Shaw faced a crowd of deputy sheriffs sent to confiscate a neighbor's livestock. He knew they would be after his, next. Burdened by the indignities he had suffered in the past and awed by the prospect of overturning "this southern way of life," Shaw stood his ground.
I met Nate Shaw in January, 1969. He had just turned eighty-four years old. I had come to Tukabahchee County with a friend who was investigating a defunct organization called the Alabama Sharecroppers Union. We had learned that a survivor was living near Pottstown, some twenty miles south of the county seat, where we'd been sifting through trial dossiers and newspaper files in the courthouse basement. One icy morning we set out to find him.
The road from Beaufort to Pottstown rolls and winds through piney woods country. Nate Shaw lives just below the foothills where the lowlands begin. We hunted for his house along the asphalt byroads until we came across a mailbox with the name Shaw in bold letters. A woman stepped out onto the porch of a tin-roofed cabin and, seeing us hesitate, called us to come in.
Her name is Winnie Shaw and she is the wife of Nate's half-brother TJ. She is a spare-built, walnut-colored woman with wideset eyes and a girlish face. She said she was seventy-three years old but she looked much younger. We were already into the front room of her house before we introduced ourselves. We explained that we were students from Massachusetts and that we'd come to Alabama to study this union. TJ walked in. He had been overhauling one of his machines—winter work—when he heard our car drive up in his yard. Winnie told him, "They want to see Nate."
TJ walked out again and across the road to Nate's house. TJ completely filled the doorway walking in and out. He is six and a half feet tall when he stands straight. But sixty-five seasons of picking cotton have given him a stoop from the hips, so that standing still he resembles a man leaning on a long-handled hoe.
He came back with Nate, who had been feeding his mule—one of the last mules in the settlement. Nate is six inches shorter than TJ and a shade lighter, though both are dark men. He is trim and square-shouldered; he has a small, fine head and high Indian cheekbones and brow. We shook hands and he announced that he was always glad to welcome "his people." He knew why we had come by our appearance: young, white, polite, frightened, northern. People who looked like us had worked on voter registration drives, marched in Selma and Montgomery, rode those freedom buses across the Mason-Dixon line. He had seen "us" on television and it didn't surprise him to see us now because this was his movement and he knew a lot about it; he had been active in it before we were born. Raising his right hand to God, he swore there was no "get-back" in him: he was standing where he stood in '32.
Nate took off his hat and sat down with us by the fireplace. We asked him right off why he joined the union. He didn't respond directly; rather, he "interpreted" the question and began, "I was haulin a load of hay out of Apafalya one day—" and continued uninterrupted for eight hours. He recounted dealings with landlords, bankers, fertilizer agents, mule traders, gin operators, sheriffs, and judges—stories of the social relations of the cotton system. By evening, the fire had risen and died and risen again and our question was answered.
TJ turned on the electric light, a single high-watt bulb suspended in the center of the room. We talked some more with the Shaws about how we planned to use the information Nate had just given us. They were glad to help us, they said, and if our "report" reached other people who found their lives instructive, they would be gratified. We thanked them for being so kind and for taking us into their confidence and, promising to return, we left.
Driving north, we felt something slipping out of our grasp. We could remember the details of Nate's stories but no reconstruction could capture the power of his performance. His stories built upon one another so that the sequence expressed the sense of a man "becoming." Although Nate Shaw and the Sharecroppers Union had intersected only for a moment, everything that came before had prepared him for it. Nate had apparently put his whole life into stories and what he told us was just one chapter.
We had come to study a union, and we had stumbled on a storyteller. Nate must have told his stories—at least the ones we heard—many times before. TJ and Winnie, who listened as closely as we did, would stir whenever he digressed and remind him where his story was going. Nate would roll his tongue over the lone yellow spearlike tooth at the corner of his mouth and say, "I'm comin to that, I just have to tell this first."
OVER the next two years I visited the Shaws twice. Each time I met other members of the family who, if more wary of my intentions, were no less hospitable. In particular, I struck up a friendship with Vernon Shaw, Nate's second son. Vernon is the last of nine brothers and sisters still farming. He has a sixty-acre place of his own on which he raises beef cattle and corn to feed his hogs. In addition, he farms a big crop of cotton on rented land. It was he who stepped into his father's shoes when Nate went to prison and stuck by his mother and the younger children for twelve years until Nate returned. His brothers and sisters look to him as the immediate link with the old family and the soil.
Four of Nate's children live in Alabama, three within shouting distance—Rachel, the second child and oldest girl, called "Sister"; Garvan, the eighth child and youngest boy; and Vernon. Calvin Thomas , the first child and oldest son, lives about twenty miles away. Five children live out of state—Francis , the third son, in Philadelphia; Mattie Jane, the second daughter, in Brooklyn, New York; Eugene, the fourth son, in Middletown, Ohio; Leah Ann, the third daughter, and Rosa Louise, the fourth daughter and youngest child, both in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Each time I visited Nate Shaw, he told me a little more about them: how they support themselves, how they hold their heads up in the world. Shaw prides himself on the social standing of his children. They are upright and industrious, following the education they received in his home. But his chief fascination is with their deeper "natures," for which he doesn't hold himself accountable. "There's my Vernon," he would say, or "There's my Francis," and leap into some childhood incident that showed their natures to him and distinguished them from their brothers and sisters.
Shaw revealed less about his first wife, Hannah. He praised her for her strengths and virtues and chided himself for not having acknowledged her sufficiently during her life. His remarks were brief and I had no cause to press him at the time. Later I learned from him and his children what a great-hearted woman she was.
Nothing so aroused Shaw as his recollections of his father. Shaw is still in conflict with a man who was a boy during President Lincoln's administration. While it is not unusual for a child to have unresolved feelings about a parent, it is disarming to see a struggle so open and honest. Shaw demonstrates that a person is, at every moment, everything he always was ; his current role can eclipse his past but not deny it. Shaw remains his father's child though he is in his eighties and his father has been dead over forty years.
IN March, 1971, I went back to Alabama with a proposal to record Shaw's life. He agreed that the experience would be good for both of us and the results might prove useful to people interested in the history of his region, class, and race. To appreciate his part in that history it is helpful to know something about his setting.
East of the Black Belt and south of the Appalachians the Alabama countryside descends slowly to a plain. Young piney woods stretch methodically between pastures and farms. Off both sides of the roads derelict chimneys stand like watchkeepers on the sites of tenant farmer shacks. These are the tangible signs of the tenant system's collapse.
Upland, the population is predominantly white and poor. Lumber camps and textile mills offer the steadiest employment in the region. Some small farms produce cotton for the mills, and fruit—mostly peaches—for roadside and out-of-state markets. But the soil is not particularly suited to cotton and the fruit is vulnerable to the great rains and late frosts that distress hill country agriculture.
The people of the lowlands still grow cotton, along with corn, sugar cane, peanuts, watermelons, and other table foods. The land is smooth and fit for extensive cultivation. This was plantation country and the population today is largely black. After the Civil War, owners of the plantations divided their lands into tenant plots. To their surprise and uneasiness, poor whites came down from the hills to compete with the freed slaves for land. For about twenty-five years, or until the 1890's, whites and blacks worked adjacent farms as sharecroppers and tenants. Then, hoping to counter falling cotton prices by exploiting a more submissive class, landlords pushed the poor whites back into the hills and filled their places with blacks.
Cotton prices reached new highs during the First World War, but farmers at the bottom of the tenant system shared little in the profits; for the system that encumbered them with mandatory debts also deprived them of authority to sell their crops. Thus, poor black farmers lived under the twin yoke of race oppression and economic peonage. Taking advantage of new openings in wartime industry, many fled to the cities. This great movement north intensified during the early years of the boll weevil's devastation through about 1920, and again during the Great Depression and the Second World War. The migration continues at a regular pace today.
Nate Shaw stayed in Alabama because he believed his labor gave him a claim to the land. He watched his neighbors pick up and leave but "that never come in my mind." Though he loathed his situation, he thought, "Somehow, some way, I'd overcome it. . . . I was determined to try."
Copyright © 1974 by Theodore Rosengarten and the Estate of Ned Cobb. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.