Luke Boyd’s New BookPosted: December 14, 2008
Yesterday at noon I went to a booksigning at Landmark Booksellers in downtown Franklin. It wasn’t the only event going on. Yesterday was also Dickens of a Christmas, a street festival featuring more than 200 costumed characters re-enacting scenes from A Christmas Carol and other stories by Charles Dickens.
Luke’s childhood came along three decades after the Victorian Period.
Most people in Williamson County know Dr. Lucas G. Boyd [the Ph. D. kind of doctor] as the former principal of Battle Ground Academy, with a tenure of nineteen years at the elite private school in Franklin. I have an interest in him because he comes from the same neck of the woods — or should I say flatland — as I do: the Mississippi Delta. His book is titled Coon Dogs and Outhouses Volume 2: Tall Tales from the Mississippi Delta, and many of the stories therein are based on real people and true happenings from his early years, tales he heard his daddy relate as they sat on the front porch or around the dinner table.
Luke was born in a three-room shotgun house on Jabe Dunaway’s place near Anguilla, Mississippi, during the depths of the Depression. His father had attended two years at Mississippi A&M [Mississippi State University], quit to manage one of the school’s experimental farms, then took a job with the Wrought Iron Range Company, and lost everything when the Depression hit. He was forced to return to the land to provide for his family and started out as a sharecropper before he managed a plantation. The plantation culture left an indelible mark on Luke, who grew up immersed in it in the 1930s, south of Hollandale [Anguilla, Percy, Panther Burn], which is southeast of Greenville.
In fact, there’s a story in the book titled “Plantation.” I started reading it about five thirty this morning. I grew up an hour’s drive north [Cleveland] from where Luke did, but my daddy owned a barber shop, and I was a town girl. However, I had an innate understanding of the mystery and pull of the land — all of us did who grew up in the Delta — even though I didn’t live directly in the cotton and work it. I knew enough about the life of planters and plantations, but found it really interesting to read a firsthand account. As Luke points out, these were not farms and farmers. They were plantations and planters. My granddaddy was a farmer on an 80-farm in the Mississippi Hill Country, but these were all just poor, hick, redneck dirt farmers. The Delta had the cream of the crop with rich planters owning a couple thousand acres. I somehow just knew this as a child. I didn’t have to read it anywhere or hear it from anybody. I also knew there was sort of a caste system, and Luke describes it in his story. I don’t think things had changed much by the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up close by.
“The land was cultivated by black labor using hoes and mule-drawn plows. There were two tractors which were used primarily to work the large block of the plantation reserved for the owners — the medieval demesne. Because of the plantation’s dependence upon the labor of the black tenants, a good manager had to be able to attract and keep good workers. That’s probably why my brother and I were instructed never to call one of the tenants “nigger” to his face. … In December and January after the crops had been sold and farm work was minimal, my father began to “trade” with the tenants for the next crop year. On the designated days, they would gather in the back yard, come in the back door (never the front) one by one, and stand with hats in hand before my father who sat at the kitchen table with the account book. It was the day of economic reckoning. They were told what they had been “furnished” (advanced in money and goods against their crop) and what their crop (always cotton) had sold for. They were paid any profit in cash. A negative balance meant that they started the next year in the hole — if my father decided to “trade” with them for another year. If not or if they wanted to go to another plantation, the debt had to be paid by the other plantation before they could leave. The sheriff was sent after those who left with debts on the books. Also, there were few managers who would take a tenant without checking out his status with his previous manager. This union of the law and the dominant economic class kept the black laborers in a state of peonage. It was not legal or right but it was the way the system worked. … A plantation manager, with the backing of local authorities, had a great deal of power over his tenants.”
These tenants, the black laborers, put the crop in and picked it in the fall. They were the backbone of the Delta economy. Without them, the whole system would fall, and there would be nothing. This is the system that fed the fight against civil rights in the Sixties. When people from other places try to write about and make movies about Mississippi during this era, they don’t see the whole picture; they don’t have the foundation for understanding a People and a Place. They paint a picture of dumb people with a backward mentality [which in some cases…], when in reality, these landowners knew exactly what they were doing — they were trying to hold on to their way of life that had existed forever in this Place, and that meant keeping the majority “in their place” while preserving the power of a few and pulling along by fear the middle class. [I could comment here, but won’t.] This is not a justification; it is just the way it was. Without the black farm laborers, there would have been no “Cotton is King” and wealth and power for the few rich landowners. In fact, one hundred years earlier, without slaves, there would have been no Delta. It was the slaves sent by rich landowners to occupy Delta jungleland, to cut the virgin forests, to drain the swamps, to endure mosquitoes and malaria, to plant a cotton crop, who developed this land and who are responsible for its existence. It is a rich legacy for them, and they endured much before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1965 … and much after that.
That ended the Delta I knew growing up. When I was a little girl, making the three-hour drive up Highway 61 to Memphis was like skiing on thin tracks on a flat slope, only it wasn’t snow and cold, it was cotton and hot. Cotton fields came almost right up to the concrete of 61 and went to the horizon on both sides of the road. As far as you could see. But it all changed. The system and the crop.
In “Plantation” Luke alludes to this. “During the time I lived on plantations, ‘cotton was king.’ Of course, my father had to raise enough corn, oats and hay to feed the livestock but the owner always wanted every other acre planted in cotton. My father wanted to diversify, especially with soybeans. He argued that soybean prices were always good and could help with the profit margin in years when cotton prices were down as they generally were in the 30s. It was a hard sell. The owners had grown up with cotton, their fathers and grandfathers had built both their plantations and social position on cotton. No need to change a good horse. However, he did manage to get some soybean acreage — until cotton prices began to rise. He, and those few like him, were voices of the future for now soybean acreage in the Delta probably outstrips that of cotton. And diversification has gone to the absurd with catfish farms and gambling casinos.”
I married in 1970, moved to Texas, and then returned three years later. I had a friend whose husband was a landowner, and she talked about him being busy “cuttin’ beans” and I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. Come to find out it was harvesting soybeans. Soybeans had become a strong crop.
For anyone who wants to write about Mississippi and learn what it was really like in the early and mid-1900s, Luke’s book would be a good reference. Landmark Booksellers can get you a copy of it. For those who have already written about it and didn’t get it right, PLEASE BUY THE BOOK!
During Luke’s booksigning, Dave and Sharon Stewart came by, dressed in their Victorian costumes. They were Dickens characters. Dave is the vice-president of the Council for the Written Word, and Sharon knows Luke from Rotary. Both heard him read one of his stories at a Tennessee-Read-Around, sponsored by the Tennessee Writers Alliance. Both — as rings true for the rest of us locals — are fascinated by Luke’s storytelling ability. Luke’s book is not just a good reference … it’s good entertainment.
And I might add, it was just as entertaining to watch how he interacted with all his friends who stopped by Landmark to get a signed book. I could picture them all telling tales early mornings with cups of coffee over a red-checkered tablecloth at Merridees.