African-Americans in Quitman County

Louis Cotton Loop

With the negro population of Quitman County standing three to one white person, it would naturally follow that this race would play an important
part in the development of the county’s resources.

Backed by such leaders as Ben Boothe, lately deceased, and Will Benson, prominent educator, the negroes have held up their heads fortuitously. In the early days they labored side by side with the white man to develop things industrially. They worked wherever needed in the homes or on the farms. Most of the cotton gins were run by negroes, supervised by white managers, as were numerous saw mills and a barrel-stave factory.

There were started small, one-teacher schools under guidance of the Department of Education. There were no attempts to master any of the fine arts, but they were taught a rudimentary knowledge of arithmetic, geography, history, and grammar. They were also assisted industrially, such as raising chickens and hogs, and curing meats for home use. Bees which they looked after furnished honey for Sunday morning waffles.1

Progress of the Race

What our negroes have done is one thing; but what they are now doing, is altogether a different story. Where they once had a few hens to set and bring forth a brood of chickens, they now have hatcheries, using incubators and all other equipment necessary to raise chickens successfully; and while they do not own or operate a meat curing plant, they have advanced enough to be glad of the privilege of preserving their meat through the above named method.

Where they once had one-teacher schools, they now have several schools with a superintendent, and from three to six teachers. There is also being taught physical culture, music, public speaking, and manual training.

Individual Achievements

Cornelia Richards has served as demonstration agent to them for the past several years and they are now growing flowers and various rare vegetables, such as endive, salsify, and asparagus. They can all these; also beeves and chickens. Hitherto, there has been practically no interest in literature, but here we find a young woman writing poetry and short stories, and there a boy drawing posters and painting signs, illustrative of cultural things.

Bo Peep–porter in Brown’s grocery store, paints almost all signs used by the town of Marks and surrounding territory. Some of them are illustrated with apt drawings. This same boy has a good voice, and has commercialized his talent singing over the radio and at conventions; Senie Barham at Lambert paints posters and signs, as well as doing some canvas work; Annie Mae Swan, teacher at Darling, writes poems and music, and has exhibited her needle work and basketry in several fairs, winning many prizes; Ora Lee Porter, a talented teacher in Marks High School, sings and plays the piano, as well as teaching and supervising music. Twice within the past few months she has been called upon to bring her “chanters” to take part in the burial services of two of our most prominent citizens, Mrs. Annie Turner and Judge M. E. Denton.

Among land owners, Silas and Cicero Kelly have a prominent place because of their large possessions, and also of their interest and influence in the county. They always can be depended upon for help in promoting things which are helpful and cultural.

Jesse Butts, Sr., known throughout the Delta as a prominent layman of the Baptist church, owns his home and also two hundred acres of land in the northern part of this county.2

Educational Leaders

There are moral, civic, educational, and religious leaders found among the race, and schools are established throughout the county. These are now in operation all over the county, or will be in the near future. In general, the negroes have taken advantage of the progressive plans which have given them better school buildings and equipment, far excelling those existing only a few years ago. The preparation of teachers has been bettered almost immeasurably and there is an abiding desire for knowledge which they may impart under favorable conditions, such as are now here.

Waddell Thompson, age sixty-nine, was born and reared in Okolona, and received his first education in the primary school. While still a young man he came to Quitman County and engaged in farm work, principally. However, for the past forty-five years he has taught school, and at the present location, “Woodland”, since 1925. Forty pupils attend the school now.

Since Waddell attended Jackson College, his education has been furthered through summer normals both in Quitman and Panola counties. In 1900 he was general manager of the Falcon Progressive Land Company; during the time Waddell has been in the county he has owned 153 acres of land, but at the present, he has only forty acres near Lambert. Waddell has risen to leadership in both religious and political affairs, and in 1929, was selected to the National Baptist Convention as a delegate in Neward, New Jersey. Since 1916, he has been president of the Sunday School Convention of the county and secretary of the Baptist Association. For the past sixteen years he has been chairman of the Republican Executive Committee of Quitman County and secretary of the Republican Committee of the Third Congressional District; gifted by a great power of oratory, he was selected as campaign speaker for each. Ten years prior to this, Waddell was appointed secretary of the Republican Executive Committee of the county, and served on petit and grand jury for both State and Federal Courts of Quitman and Coahoma Counties.3

In 1906, Randall Ross, who had come to this county in 1888, made a resolute endeavor to get the people’s opinion in his community (Sabino) up to the point of establishing a school. A petition was signed by all the inhabitants of the community and carried before the superintendent of education and board of supervisors. Six hundred dollars being provided, it was agreed that there would be a school established and named Friendship; the teacher at that time was F. D. Hunter, Jr., and Randall served as one of the trustees. For many years, Randall helped manage the King and Anderson place, and received his early education in the grammar school at Okolona.

Jesse Eddison Hill, principal of the Jennings Negro School, came to this county in 1933 from Sunflower, and upon coming here he accepted a call as pastor of Peniel Chapel, A. M. E. Church at Lambert, and Allen Chapel, A. M. E. of Marks, where he served through the years 1934-35. With the beginning of the scholastic year 1935-36 he was elected principal of the Jennings School near Lambert, where he was an efficient teacher, and was re-elected as principal for the term 1936-37. His wife also teaches. Jesse, fifty years of age, received his education at Morris-Brown University at Atlanta, Georgia, obtaining a B. A. degree; he also attended the Turner Seminary of Theology at Atlanta for three years, and there received his D. D. degree. For one year he was trained for an International Sunday School teacher at the Morris-Brown University; in addition, Jesse has had teacher-training, which consists of two summer normals in Quitman and one in Panola County.

Phil Coleman, age sixty-five, received his early education in DeSoto County, attending school at Holly Springs for two years, and has taught day school in this county for the past forty years; at present he is principal for a little school called Elliot, with an average of fifty pupils, and he has one assistant, Mattie Jones. Along with his teaching, Phil also does day labor.

William Fair, who teaches in Crowder, has written several text books on school subjects, which are of great advantage in his class room, and he has had quite a number of papers published.

Sam Tate is principal of Marks School, which carries one year of high school work. This is a separate school district and has a nice modern brick building, with necessary equipment.

Archie G. Reems, born in Pecan Point, Arkansas, in July, 1874, secured his education through experiences and contact with such white business men as Charley Craig, of the First National Bank in Memphis, where Reems worked three years, and other business men who were good friends of the negro. He later finished an Extension Course in Bookkeeping from LaSalle University, Chicago, had the reputation of being the best negro bookkeeper in Memphis, and is now a certified accountant. Later, he graduated as an embalmer, and it was in this capacity that he came to Marks in 1928. He thinks that he is the oldest embalmer in Mississippi in point of age and service. He organized the Marks Burial Association, of which he is secretary.

D. M. Gates, graduate of the Greenwood High School, and having two years of college work in Holly Springs, is principal of the Posey Mound colored school, having resided here for twenty years. He is now thirty-seven years of age, and his wife, a high school graduate, teaches with him.

Hardly a white citizen lives here who does not appreciate Will Benson, (previously mentioned) as a negro of rare intellect and all characteristics which go to make up a real man, whether black or white. Will has truly been a benefactor to his race, leading, teaching, and working with them and for them in every way possible. In a few cases where some vital point was to be decided which would affect the progress of the county, Will has been the medium through which his people would move. He has held many meetings trying to make clear to them certain things by making addresses both practical and eloquent; now crippled, he has been inactive three years, but still his white friends talk over times when he was a figure in the development of things. He has several children, three of them being college graduates and teachers, with an ambition not found so often in his race. He died recently.2

Joseph Peterson, pastor of Silent Grove Baptist Church, is an intelligent expounder of the gospel. His people revere him, and his influence is conducive to co-operation with the white friends of the county.

One old couple, Turner Fox and his wife [Hannah], have been married sixty-six years and have built and kept a home together all this time. He is deaf and she is blind, but it is a delight to see and talk to them. When we asked how they felt, she said, “Tolerable well, thank you ma’m.” Their son is sixty-five years old.

To conclude this narrative without paying respect to Ben Boothe, lately deceased, would be unpardonable, he being the most prominent negro Republican ever to live here, but information regarding his life and activities are meager. Suffice it to say that he was held in high esteem by both the white people and those of his own color.

Progress in Industry

Industrially, the negroes of Quitman County have shown an aggressive spirit, and at the present time own 180 farms, averaging forty acres each. One hundred and twenty-eight renters and seven hundred share-croppers are negroes.

Three general stores, three meat markets, six cafes, two shoe shops, two barber shops, and two undertaking establishments are owned and operated by them. Among the large land owners is Walter W. Wells, who is recognized as a business and civic leader of the race; he has three hundred acres of land near Darling, where he operated a public gin; he is also president of a loan association, and his family live in their nice, brick residence in Clarksdale.

A. Peterson owns large farming interests in the county, and his own home besides having considerable stock in a burial association.3

Status of Negro at Time of Emancipation

A proper appreciation of the status of Mississippi negroes at the time of their emancipation must take into account certain gains that had come to them in slavery. They had been closely associated with the family of their master in most cases. In 1850, there were in Mississippi 309,878 slaves, and 25,116 families owning slaves, making an average of 12.3 slaves to a family; the number of slaves increased somewhat by 1860. From this association, the negro slaves had secured at least the beginning of a social order, under the influence of the master’s example and tutelage.

In the field of industry, Mississippi negroes had secured in slavery a training of high importance. During that period, Mississippi was preeminently to the cultivation of cotton. The necessary tools and the methods of cultivation were all simple and easily employed, and negroes had been well trained in this work; plantations were nearly independent economic units–foodstuffs being raised on them; crude furniture in the Negro Quarters was mostly of home construction; plantation blacksmiths and carpenters made most of the farm tools.

Thus, without design on the part of the slaves or their masters, the negro had been carried through a long course of industrial training.

In spite of these advantages, when the negro became free, they were poor indeed. They had cultivated the soil, but they owned not an acre; they were surrounded by a populace of landowners, and with these, the negro must enter the struggle for bread. They had cultivated the soil, but they had no experience in purchasing or securing land for themselves.

Again, in 1865, Mississippi negroes were without capital. The country had been stripped of much of the capital; the negroes possessed least of all, and were ignorant of all means of securing it. They had no business past, and hence no credit to take the place of capital; furthermore, they knew no wage system, and worse yet, they had no experience in self-direction; for the cultivation, the gathering, the storing, and the marketing of crops had been under express direction. So the freed negroes had to build up for themselves whatever independent action their circumstances might demand.

Educationally, negroes were on the lowest plane, having almost no learning and no educational ideals; education had almost wholly been denied them.

The religious condition of the negroes was somewhat better than their educational condition, for they had been allowed to hold membership in the churches of the whites and go to worship with their masters. Thus, they had learned the fundamentals of Christianity.

It is well to emphasize that the economic status finally attained by the negroes was secured by their own efforts. We do not mean that they had no aid in gaining their present economic status, but they gave value received for this aid. Neither can it be said that the native whites were hostile to the negroes or eminently unfair to them in the economic field, for they knew that the state could not be rehabilitated except by the aid of negro labor. They were ready to use the negroes, and stood ready to pay for their aid.

Booker T. Washington, looking back over a period of forty years said: “The negro had to learn to till the soil intelligently, to plan and build beautiful homes, to erect schoolhouses, and extend terms; to experiment in methods of instruction and adapt these to the needs of the negroes; to organize churches, and prepare ministers.” They also had to learn to co-operate with one another in general social movements; their marriage relations had to be placed upon a basis both wholesome and enduring; principles of public sanitation and public health had to be learned and applied; principles of public morality had to be brought into public esteem; systems of charity had to be developed and made to function; criminality had to be suppressed, and illiteracy had to be removed. B. T. Washington drew a striking contrast of the negroes of their early freedom and that of forty years later.

“Then they felt that work was a degradation, but now negro schools are teaching them work. They had no capital, but now they are landowners, bankers, and business men. They then thought the government would support and protect them; now they have settled down to build their own fortunes.” “It may be added,” says Jesse Thomas Wallace, “that they were then without churches, without schools, without benevolent and charitable institutions, without settled definite convictions upon moral questions, without self-direct public opinions as a means of social control, while now they possess all these things.”

Says Mr. Wallace: “The home life of the negroes while they were slaves had not been conducive to the formation of a higher order of character and conduct. Still, this negro home life was far more superior to that of their ancestors in Africa. Negroes learned much in this respect and developed greatly under the slavery regime.” With the coming of freedom, added responsibility and added importance came to the negro homes. Both the foundation and super-structure of home life must now be strengthened. The husband and wife must now live together in peace and must work together for the common good of the family. The children must be taught and trained. This rested to a large degree, upon the home life. To a commendable degree, therefore, Mississippi negroes legitimated their marriages, gathered their children about them, and gave themselves to a self-directed family life.4

1 Mrs. Blanchard Ingram, Marks, Mississippi
2 Mrs. Blanche Denton, Jackson, Mississippi
3 Louise Yeager, Belen, Mississippi
4 Largely compiled from a HISTORY OF NEGROES IN MISSISSIPPI, by Jesse Thomas Wallace. (arranged by W. M. Kurrelmeyer, Jackson, Miss.).

Works Progress Administration for Mississippi, Source Material for Mississippi History, Quitman County, Vol. LX, Compiled by State-Wide Historical Research Project, Susie V. Powell, State Supervisor, Illustrated 1936-38, Chapter IX, pages 89-95

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