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Providence
     

Providence

by Will Campbell
 

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Hailed as Will Campbell's most literary work, Providence chronicles the more than 170-year history of a square mile of plantation land in Holmes County, Mississippi. Shifting between history and autobiography, Campbell illustrates the quest for justice among the Choctaws, African-Americans, and Whites on the parcel of land designated Section 13. From the forcible

Overview


Hailed as Will Campbell's most literary work, Providence chronicles the more than 170-year history of a square mile of plantation land in Holmes County, Mississippi. Shifting between history and autobiography, Campbell illustrates the quest for justice among the Choctaws, African-Americans, and Whites on the parcel of land designated Section 13. From the forcible removal of native Choctaws, to slavery and sharecropping on the Providence Plantation, to an interracial cooperative farm in the 1930s-50s, and finally to the present-day ownership by the Department of the Interior, Providence, according to Campbell, "has seen a lot. In a way its saga is the story of the nation."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

The book that follows addresses the issues of poverty and bigotry in ways that few readers will soon forget and from a Christian perspective that we might all endeavor to emulate. --Frederick Barton, from the introduction

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780918954848
Publisher:
Baylor University Press
Publication date:
03/01/2002
Series:
Literature and the Religious Spirit Series
Pages:
318
Sales rank:
896,711
Product dimensions:
0.71(w) x 9.00(h) x 6.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Providence


By Will D. Campbell
Baylor University Press
Copyright © 2002 Will D. Campbell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-918954-84-8



Chapter One
... and God saw that it was good.

There is something about land. Something magisterial, at once basic and august. With all our technology and scientific know-how we have never been able to invent, manufacture, breed, or graft it. We can only discover, define its borders and its utility, or desecrate. We can never replace it with more of our own making.

This is the story of one parcel of that land, a place called Providence. Emphasis is on one section, a square mile, nucleus of the tract. One square mile. There are almost two hundred million of them on this planet's surface. I suppose that should make a single one seem of no account. But it doesn't. For in one important sense they are all equal, no matter where on Earth they may be.

In one of this nation's earliest documents, all human hierarchy was rejected when it was said that all human beings were created equal and endowed by the creator. I know of no document that establishes a hierarchy of Earth. Even so, we measure with our chains and transits and pretend there is a hierarchy.

I don't know who first started calling pieces of Earth sections, square miles, and acres. Or who began measuring. I know it hasn't always been so. There was a time when the Earth was one. There is a book a lot of us call Holy. It says, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." That's the way the book starts. Then it talks about the land and water being separated, the land being called Earth, the water called Seas. But that's as far as it goes. It doesn't mention sections, miles, acres, townships, ranges. It does say that Earth should bring forth grass, trees, herbs. And Earth has followed that command with exacting fidelity.

The notion that the Earth is simply "The Earth" didn't last long. That it didn't must have been a mistake, for we started fighting over it as soon as names were given to different parts. People of nations, continents, states, countries, hemispheres, counties, even sections and townships fight each other to call pieces their own. What good ever came of it?

We never ask Earth what is best. We have made those decisions. The Book talks about how two folks, Adam and Eve, thought they knew what was best and got in a lot of trouble. Then two of their children quarreled as to how Earth should best be used, for crops or cattle. One of them killed his own blood brother in the dispute.

When we started dividing Earth into pieces, we quit saying Earth. We never say "a section of Earth." It is always "a section of land." Then land came to mean dirt. And when something is dirt it is bad. Evil. Something earthy may be coarse, even vulgar, but not really bad. Dirt is bad. If something is bad, it can be fought over. Killed for. The Earth is the Lord's, the Book says. But we claim the land as our own.

The section that is the subject of this book was parceled and named late in history. It was among the last to be fitted. Alittle over 160 years ago. I suppose it was lucky until then. But it has had its trials since.

Section Thirteen. That's what it was named. Of Township Sixteen, North Range. In Holmes County, Mississippi, United States of America. North American Continent. Western Hemisphere. Planet Earth. One section. At times when I refer to Section Thirteen, it is a metaphor for Providence Plantation. Most of the time, though, it is literally the one square mile the measurers named Thirteen. No more. No less.

It has seen a lot. In a way its saga is the story of the nation. I'll tell it as best I can, based on what I know and what I have been able to find out.

Before beginning, the reason I believe all sections of the Earth are equal is because if one of them should be totally removed, from one layer to the other, all the way through the core of the planet, it would throw Earth off its axis. The planet would crumble into trillions of tiny pieces, spinning off into endless time from whence it came. One day some bright but feverish mind might figure out how to do that. We seem so disposed.

Chapter Two
I saw the place called Providence for the first time in the fall of 1955. It was an expanse of Delta land attached, as if riveted, to abrupt, craggy bluffs, each level a contradiction, each glacial formation easily distinguishable from the other. The man who introduced it to me was, I believe, one of the most gentle men I have ever known.

A. Eugene Cox.

He was done grievous wrongs during the years I was to know him, but I never heard him speak unkindly of anyone. Yet from the beginning I knew there was a toughness about him too. I did not know the source of it then, that he had been hardened by the West Texas winds of economic depression as a child, nurtured in the ways of charity there, then further seasoned by his years at Texas Christian University and the wretched poverty he found in his adopted Mississippi. He had become a blend of strength and gentleness, but on that wet October afternoon in 1955 I knew little more than his name.

I watched him walk hurriedly from a small, neatly painted frame building, approaching the car I had just wrestled up a rutted dirt driveway. A hefty bulge just under his left arm suggested he was armed. I tried to size him up as he came. He struck me as a man prepared to exert himself if the occasion beckoned.

"I'm Gene Cox," he said, stopping before he reached the car. "What can I do for you gentlemen?" He had not offered his hand. My friend with me, G. McLeod Bryan, answered from the opposite side of the car. "Hey, Gene. I'm Mac Bryan. You remember me. And this is Will Campbell. You know. From Ole Miss."

The man moved to the passenger side, stooped as if to get a better look. Suddenly he smiled, opened the door, and gave my friend a vigorous handshake, edging him at the same time underneath some nearby tree branches where they stood wrapped in somber conversation, the stranger occasionally looking back at me. I was uncomfortable and pretended not to notice him. After a few minutes they jostled in playful banter, shook hands again, and moved around to my side of the car.

Gene Cox laughed lightly, as if to apologize. "You boys come on in," he said, greeting me cordially.

I had watched him as they talked. He was a handsome man, of medium build but sturdy looking. I reckoned him to be about fifty years old. I had seen his piercing, inquiring eyes, partly shaded by bushy, uncropped eyebrows. His hair, starting to gray, was thick and well trimmed. It lay in tidy, parallel waves, like the rippling of pond water. He was a long-armed, rawboned fellow, with fair skin that appeared lightly tanned from the sun. He seemed the kind of man I instinctively trusted.

I had never been in Holmes County, Mississippi. I recalled the first 4-H Club in America had been founded there. I couldn't remember when. Around the turn of the century, I thought. I did know Holmes County was not a place notorious for its social radicalism. And the man I had just met, I was soon to learn, was an authentic radical. We followed him inside the building, obviously a medical clinic, which I found out later had once been a dairy barn. The place had an aura of friendliness. Yet somehow sad. I was introduced to Gene Cox's wife, Lindy, and their three children. They ranged in age from nine to fourteen. And to Dr. David Minter, his wife, Sue, and their three children. They were sitting in a circle in the doctor's office, as if in a formal seminar. They seemed subdued.

It was sixteen months after the Supreme Court had ruled that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional. May 17, 1954. A day that would send tidal waves to be felt throughout the South for decades, claiming the attention and energies of the people as nothing had done since the Civil War. Most thinking persons had known the Court would, and must, rule as it did in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. Being under the scrutinizing eyes of emerging nations around the globe, few of them white, and faced with growing unrest within America's black populace, it had little choice. But few realized the stupendous import the decision would have. In its wake was an epoch of moral mischief, indescribable repression, social and political unrest, at times approaching anarchy. A recalcitrant white citizenry, invidious legislation, killings, riots, and vigilante judiciary would leave the body politic in sordid disarray. Words seldom heard before became commonplace: states' rights, interposition, nullification, massive resistance, miscegenation, amalgamation. The groundswell saw the region's most urbane and intelligent legislators and governors passing panic statutes as futile and ludicrous as a scholarly search for the hypotenuse of a circle.

The story we were about to hear from the little band huddled in a country doctor's office was prelude, portentous and dispiriting to a young man trained to bring good news to captives. It told me the South and the nation were moving into an era of domestic psychosis I had not imagined. It reminded me of a conversation three years earlier among a group of us Southerners about to graduate from Yale Divinity School. The major reason most of us went there was to get ready to work on the region's racial problems. As we talked about the case being argued before the Supreme Court, we almost resented the prospect that the matter would be settled by a brief Court decree, leaving us with no purpose back home. "So why don't we just stay here in New England where the summers are more pleasant?" we reasoned. I wondered if the others were now laughing too.

A week earlier I had read newspaper accounts of some trouble at a place called Providence Farm, a cooperative, interracial venture in rural Mississippi that I had never heard of. There had been a meeting of white citizens at the nearby Tchula High School.

Tchula, Choctaw word for red fox, was a town of less than two thousand people, two-thirds of whom were black. The news stories reported the meeting was convened following an incident in which four Negro youths, riding on the flatbed of a farm truck on a brisk fall morning, had frightened a third-grade white girl waiting for the school bus near Providence Farm. She had thought they whistled or hollered at her as they passed.

The alleged incident occurred only one week after Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam had been acquitted in the nearby town of Sumner by an all-male, all-white jury for the kidnapping and murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till. Emmett and his cousin, Curtis Jones, both from Chicago, were visiting relatives in Mississippi. They were staying with Mose Wright, Curtis's grandfather. Emmett reportedly had said, "Bye, baby," to a white woman after buying some candy in her store. He had been taken from Mose Wright's shack late at night, murdered, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. At the trial, freed from fear by grief and anger, the grandfather of Curtis Jones stood in open court and defied what had been instilled in his people for centuries. When asked by the prosecuting attorney if he could identify the men who had come to his door that night and demanded the youth, he stood erect in the witness stand, pointed his long, bony finger at Milam, then at Roy Bryant, and uttered two words that would go down in the annals of courage. "Thar he." Though he soon left the state forever, his doughty stand became an ongoing precept for a generation of black citizens who would be similarly challenged during the long dark night of what we remember as the civil rights movement.

"Thar he." There should be a commemorative medallion with gold lettering. There should be a national holiday. September 20. THAR HE DAY, on the calendar. An old black man, boldly accusing two murderous white men with his entire world watching, the guns of ages pointed at his heart. Yes, there should be a day. For it was a beginning.

The little girl, frightened by the talk she had heard about the Till child's murder and the rumors of Negro reprisals, was crying when the bus arrived. The driver made her tell her teacher what had happened.

The news stories had said the school principal had called the sheriff and that he had promptly arrested the four boys. John Herbers, then a correspondent for United Press, wrote that the Negro youths were questioned for two hours by Sheriff Richard Byrd, County Attorney Pat Barrett, state legislator Ed White, and local businessman William Moses. No legal counsel and no parents were present. According to the newspaper accounts, most of the questions had to do with activities at Providence Farm, where the boys sometimes visited and played. The scared youths gave incriminating responses to leading questions. Things like, "Have you ever seen colored folks in the swimming pool?" When one answered "Yeahsuh," he was not allowed to explain that in the summer there was a day camp for Negro children and the campers went swimming. There were no white campers. The swimming pool, I learned, was nothing more than a dynamited hole below a cold, freshwater spring. According to Mr. Cox, the only "mixed swimming" had been when a Negro nursemaid attending the Cox and Minter children went into the water with them to keep them from drowning.

The mass meeting at Tchula High School was held three nights after the youths were questioned. Newspaper accounts agreed that the White Citizens Council, an organization formed to preserve racial segregation shortly after the May 17, 1954, Supreme Court decision, was responsible for the meeting. W. F. "Bill" Minor, head of the New Orleans Times-Picayune's Mississippi bureau, reported that Moses was head of the county chapter of the Citizens Council, County Attorney Barrett was president of the Lexington (county seat) chapter, and Representative J. P. Love led the Tchula chapter.

A tape recording of the interrogation was played to the approximately five hundred men and a few women present. Mr. Cox and Dr. Minter were questioned by the audience regarding their views and purpose. At the conclusion of what Editor Hodding Carter of the Delta Democrat-Times of Greenville described as a kangaroo court, a vote was taken, and Providence Farm was ordered to disband and the organizing families were ordered to leave the county.

The newspapers reported Providence as a cooperative venture where both whites and Negroes lived and worked together. Interracial. Cooperative. Incendiary words for a people long devoted and committed to what they knew as "the Southern way of life." Both words were sure to pique the passions of those persuaded already by their own history that God was the original segregationist, and reinforced by the years of Senator Joe McCarthy's preachments that a communist conspiracy was behind every effort to destroy ancient customs.

Although I had been on the staff of the University of Mississippi for more than a year, what I had seen in the papers was all I knew about Providence Farm. Dr. G. McLeod Bryan, a professor of philosophy at Mercer University, was on the campus as a visiting lecturer. When he told me he knew the Coxes and Minters, we decided to drive down to see them. Neither of us expected to find a situation of such dimensions.

Finding them at all proved to be a logistical problem. We knew the farm was located several miles off U.S. Highway 49, somewhere between the little towns of Cruger and Tchula. We could not reach them by telephone. The lines, we learned, had been cut following the mass meeting of the White Citizens Council.

"Most of Dr. Minter's patients are Negroes," Mac Bryan said. "When we get in the area, we'll ask a Negro family for directions."

"Things must be different in Georgia," I told him. "Folks here will know of the trouble and send us on a wild goose chase. He's their friend and they'll protect him. It's an old trick to confuse and divert deputies and bill collectors." We discovered after asking a few whites that we would fare no better there. No one would acknowledge that they had ever heard of Dr. Minter, though undoubtedly many of them had been at the mass meeting.

Mac suggested we find a physician in Cruger and ask for directions. "I'll introduce myself as 'Dr. Bryan.' I don't have to tell him I'm a doctor of philosophy. I'll tell him we went to school together, that I'm passing through and want to say hello. That way we won't have to lie."

Mac had told me that Dr. Minter went to the University of Pennsylvania. Mac had not. I told him that wouldn't work. He explained that some years earlier they had been in a seminar together in North Carolina. Something about farm cooperatives in the modern South. He wasn't too sure. So they really had, he insisted, gone to school together.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Providence by Will D. Campbell Copyright © 2002 by Will D. Campbell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author


Will D. Campbell is widely considered one of the nation's most important commentators on race, religion, and community. The only white minister at the creation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Campbell was actively involved in the Civil Rights movement in the South. A graduate of Wakeforest University and Yale Divinity School, Campbell has authored seventeen books. His Brother to a Dragonfly was a finalist fo the National Book Award and was named by Time magazineas one of the ten most notable books of the 1970s. Winner of the Lillian Smith Prize, the Lyndhurst Prize, and the Alex Haley Award, campbell was the subject of a recent PBS documentary entitled "God's Will."

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