Wilcox County–A Day in Wilcox County: 1967
By Floyd Hunter
Vol. 1, No. 6, 1979, pp. 13-14
Editor’s Note: As part of a report by the National Education Association regarding conditions of teaching and learning in Wilcox County, Alabama, Floyd Hunter wrote that “Life in Wilcox County slays the same in spite of a lot of talk about ‘progress’ and ‘change.’ Substantively the Negro, as least common denominator in the social scale, stays put. Until there is an emerging newness in relation to his lot, no basic social change can actually be noted in Wilcox County.”
That was eleven years ago. Today, with the recent election of two Blacks to important public offices, the “emerging newness” that Hunter talks about has been ushered in. Harriet Swift reports on that event in this issue. In the following pages, we offer you as companion pieces Hunter’s analysis of Wilcox County in 1967 and Swift’s account of a new day in Wilcox in 1978.
Life in Wilcox County stays the same in spite of a lot of talk about “progress” and “change”. The old ways take on new names, and the shift in nomenclature is called change. The basic ownership patterns have not changed.
Such social movements as may have occurred in Wilcox County in the past two decades are actually adaptations to shifting agricultural conditions and to the changing requirements of the national industrial production machine, a part of which now requires increased acreages of wood pulp-producing lands.
Substantively the Negro, as least common denominator in the social scale, stays put. Until there is an emerging newness in relation to his lot, no basic social change can actually be noted in Wilcox County.
In order to gain some empirical, firsthand impressions of Wilcox County, I began a series of chain-referral interviews with five separate roadside storekeepers and restaurant operators upon entry into the County (as will be described later, I also interviewed four families in the land ownership establishment and three Negro families). These lower middle class, socially marginal men and women, well described by Faulkner, are good informants about power personnel superior to them and about the social and economic conditions generally. Their place and fortune are dependent upon the stability and/or shifts of the whole social system. They are upwardly mobile and have their eye out for the main chance, and they so instruct their children. The opinions of the storekeepers were in some instances reinforced by sideline opinions of the hot-stove league loafing about.
There was general agreement that plantation farming is still the base of the establishment. A half-dozen family names were immediately given to me as being those of the landed establishment. Of these, in the time at my disposal, I was able to interview four. There were obviously a couple of dozen more families who could have served equally well as respondents.
My general, immediate impression from these interviews is that the squirearchy is firmly in command, but recognizes that it is being challenged by the Negro people. It considers the lower middle class an ally in keeping things as they are and wrongly does not consider these people a threat to plantation power. The older members of the ownership establishment are being replaced by those younger members who have been well indoctrinated for their positions; their indoctrination includes liberal doses of race superiority propaganda laced with the notions that rights of property, recognition, and privilege should be reserved for a few.
Attitudes toward race are often humorously put, e.g., “The old school Negro principal I knew well was a little different than the present ones. The old man was well educated, a graduate from Princeton, and he wrote poetry! His interests were more intellectual and not so active, if you get my meaning” (laughing roghishly) or “an awful lot of them [the Negroes] have got into the schools! Why, I think there’s three of them in Camden High right now!” There are the tired old references to the poverty and struggle of the grandfathers who returned from the “War” to “parched corn and chicory coffee and chick-pea flour for bread,” but no reference to the miserable poverty of the rural Negro ghetto today. There is considerable reference to the Selma March in disapproving tones and terms, applause for the freeing of those who have been charged with murdering Negroes, and concern that the “unfavorable publicity” over “recent events” might impede the industrial and agricultural “progress” that seems so evident on every hand to the “haves.”
There was the street along the state route on the west side of town – externally undifferentiated from a thousand such streets in smalltown America – along which the “retired” plantation owners (people who plant crops) and their retainers (lawyers, schoolteachers, and ranking commercial suppliers) live. Those who live apart – away from this charmed ecological inner-ground – apologize for their lack of status; a bailiffs wife, for example, who lives in the woods in the hills on the “wrong side” of town. Her husband, a self-made man, serves the requirements of the establishment.
There are the sly jokes about race that run around a circle of men at the restaurants which turn seriously into political questions observed in the headlines of the morn-
There are the suspicious looks t a stranger who may enter a restaurant from a federal highway and who may dress slightly differently from those on the scene.
There are the subtle questions about where you are from and what your business might be. “How come you’re riding in a ‘rent car’?” They have observed the license number and are letting you know that they have.
There is the sad country music with interspersed conservative philosophy in the television commercials and narrow-minded pulpit orations.
There are the many, many Negroes in uniform, hardly seen by those around them, going to Vietnam.
There are the half-ton trucks with racks for hunting rifles and shotguns within easy reach over the driver’s seat.
One physically feels the relatively open, churlish hostility of some of the gas station attendants and their crony circles. There is sorrowful reference to the fact that a nearby plantation which once had 47 Negro family tenants now has but two families (living, as I noted, in tin-roofed shacks). The sadness, on the part of those who flatten and elongate their vowels, was over the loss of a “way of life,” a loss that I was at a loss to understand – for the way of life (again) seemed unchanged to me over any number of years that I can remember.
No, the establishment is in its Georgian-architecture squirehouses, the little fellows tending the store, and the Negro in his place, hanging seemingly vacantly around the stores but watching too. Only the seasons seem to change; yet there is a quarrelsome restlessness apparent among the secure ones, an inability to talk long without speaking of race.
Late in the afternoon, in trying to locate the school principal of the predominantly Negro community of Pine Gully, I had the opportunity of looking through the windows of several padlocked buildings which are called schools, but which more fittingly should be called prison houses for the very young. At this point, I shall leave a fuller description of these barren detention places – places without visible amenities for living or learning – to the judgment of the NEA Investigation Committee. One cannot help wondering, however, at the horror of boredom and frustrated purpose that such buildings engender in pupils and teachers alike.
Pine Gully itself is a Negro community of 200 or 300 families, as large as the White community, Pine Hill. Pine Hill appears on a local map; Pine Gully does not.
I spoke with only three people in Pine Gully, two of whom are related to the obviously inferior Negro “academy” (Negro high school).Academy is a euphemism applied to Negro high schools originally designed by the whites to make Negroes think they were getting halls of higher learning for their children rather than cesspools of educational despair. The cynical term is in the same category of white regard as the term professor applied to a lowly school principal. All repeatedly emphasized the “sorry,” tragic plight of the segregated, Negro schools. One man spoke at some length about the insignificant political position of the Negro in the local power structure. The other informants underscored what he had to say. This man was calculatedly “reserved” with me in the early moments of our interview, but warmed up to considerable militancy later.
Strangely enough, I saw this informant, even if a very minor figure, as a part of the existing power structure of Wilcox County. While he still is effectively barred from the upper reaches of the existing power structure, he is a part of the active, “in the wings” opposition that it wishes to placate and buy off. He is a man who, with a few votes, could be a real figure in the elective power apparatus of the County. He is not there yet, but he has a modicum of recognition and he is striving for more. He has learned to survive, and he is on the move. The ratio of power, however, in the Negro’s case in point is still 4,000 acres to 40. He owns approximately 40 acres of land and his house. He is an administrative employee at the high school – a position that is a slight nod of recognition by the general power-structure to a Negro they feel that they can or must trust. To him, there has been some progress. He says as much.
Yet this man, too, is caught in ambivalence. He refuses to be too critical of the establishment, because he, too, owns land. He is “officially” connected with those who educate the young. He says, however, “in case of trouble, if they come after me, they’ll have to come on my land, and I’ve got guns in my house and a light out front. I can see them, and they can’t see me. Or if I have to run to my car, to get out the back way, I got guns in it, too, and bullets aplenty.”
The informant finally summed up the power position of his race in this way:
“I asked the sheriff, How come you let the white folks get by with making all kinds of traffic violations while you catch the Negro for even thinking about making a traffic mistake?’ The officer replied, ‘When you niggers pay my salary and can hire and fire me, I’ll start treating you just like everybody else, and not before!’
Excerpted from Wilcox County, Alabama: A Study of Social. Economic, and Educational Bankruptcy, National Education Association, Commission on Professional Rights and Responsibilities, June 1967.