Slow lane

 

Shifting to the slow lane is the best thing about Fall gardening. I’m no longer on a schedule generated by Spring and Summer’s pace – prep seeds, soil, and containers.  Now that it’s September, the harvest is mostly done, and the growing season is winding down. So let’s stop and smell the flowers and herbs and eat the bounty. It’s time to open our hearts and shift our vibrations to rest. Enjoy the plants that grew and the ones that are still growing.

 

 

 

 

Slow lane lessons

A slow lane lesson learned while living in quarantine: Every garden, whether big- a backyard or small – a window sill, patio, or roof deck- is a learning space full of mystery. There’s more to plants than you see. They are not silent, unaware beings sitting around making oxygen. Plants are like people. They have secret lives. They are sensitive and make decisions and respond to their environments. Some plants don’t like each other. As a container gardener, I had to learn about plant companionships. Yes, there are a few odd couples and happy accidents growing here.

 

Musical plants

September’s slow lane groove is definitely here. But there’s jazz up here on my re-claimed roof deck teaming with plant-filled containers.  Sometimes I hear John Coltrane’s rendition of ‘My Favorite Things’ playing in my head as I happily improvise and play in the dirt. Did you know that plants make music? On that note, this NPR article may interest you  – https://www.npr.org/2020/02/21/807821340/the-lessons-to-be-learned-from-forcing-plants-to-play-music

“The music sounds, at first, like it belongs in a power yoga studio: electronic and rhythmic, rising and falling like breaths. But then a higher pitch juts into the mix, and the strains of sound diverge, becoming faster-paced and a bit more like electronic dance music. The rise and swell fluctuate, not entirely predictable. The artists at work are, ostensibly, plants. Plant music is coming to you, or rather, it’s there if you seek it out — and there are plenty of musicians these days waiting to be discovered.” 

 Plant Art

Sometimes I see people in my flowers, vegetables, and weeds. Do you ever imagine your garden as an art supply store or an art studio? I do—a table and a mat function as my canvas. Various plant stems make a fun face outline. Asparagus ferns can add to a hairstyle. Dried and fresh flowers, berries, or beans can reveal interesting characters. I created a ‘Plant People’ art series from found items in the garden. I hope to self-publish a photo calendar one day.

Every garden is a creative space. Whenever I travel, the first thing I do is visit local gardens. I believe that we’re all born artists and that all gardeners are courageous artists. Planting a garden means that you have hope. Gardens help us reclaim our artist souls. Our hearts seek art, and art speaks to our hearts.

 

Pisces gardening

I learned how to ‘see and feel’ art from art teachers at the Brooklyn Museum. But being a Pisces person, it was always easy for me to understand how to ‘feel and see beyond’ music, art, and gardens. As a musician (piano and viola), I instinctively knew that plants were musical. Pisces is a water sign, and being the last sign in the zodiac, it combines all the astrology signs. So, naturally, a Piscean approach to everything is creative. Pisces’ water element and nurturing ways help plants to grow. But, of course, the Earth signs – Capricorn, Taurus, and Virgo – are supposed to be the best farmers and gardeners because their zodiacs are ruled by planet earth! And Fire and Air signs bring a lot to the garden party too. My Sagittarius father and Cancerian mother taught me gardening!  We will get to more astrological gardening in future posts.

So, considering this water-earth sign zodiac connection, I was hoping you could take a listen to my favorite Stevie Wonder (a Taurus) cult classic, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.

Click herehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2dDCUuJkPE

You will enjoy this swim inside Wonder’s songs, especially the title song, The Secret Life of Plants, Send One Your Love, and Power Flower.

Called a “psychedelic botanical masterpiece,” this mostly instrumental album was the soundtrack to the documentary film The Secret Life of Plants, directed by Walon Green, based on the book of the same name by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.

Climate change grief

Like the rest of the world, climate change affected my New York City roof garden this year. It was devastating. The crazy rainstorms and extreme heat took a toll on my baby plants. They were started from seed. A plant box nozzle got stuck and the box filled with rainwater overnight. Most of the plants drowned by the time I returned after the storm. I experienced true grief. A white-grey powder-like substance spread from the plant leaves stems to the buds and flowers. What was that? I moved the planter to an emergency zone. I needed to fix and adjust my plants and the soil a lot. It took all summer to remedy various minor and serious conditions. It’s all good now. But it was a rough summer.

What’s still growing

Lots of things are still growing in the garden. I feel gratitude. I see bees, butterflies, and birds. My husband Byron and I are well, safe and happy. We see Sunflowers, Marigolds, Echinacea (Coneflower), Black-Eyed Susans, Mandevillas, blueberries, okra, tomatoes, peppers, alliums, shrubs, and trees. The herb garden seems invincible with thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, and marjoram.

 

Purple food

My best achievement this summer was growing Peruvian purple-blue potatoes in cloth bags. It’s true what they say about home-grown veggies. Those purple potatoes were so tasty. I roasted them with fresh thyme, rosemary herbs, seasonings, olive oil with purple cauliflower, radish, red onion, and peppers. I like to play Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ in the background while preparing my purple food platters!  Do you like purple foods too? I usually post photos of my cooking and garden scenes on my Instagram, silvera88, with hashtags #blackgirlgardening, #roofgarden, #growsomething, and #purpleveggies.

Here’s the link to Prince’s ‘Purple Rain.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryT-ltTDCko

Being flexitarian

Gardens teach many life lessons. Being flexible is an important lesson. Living a plant-based ‘flexitarian’ lifestyle truly motivated me to grow food. I re-activated my ancestral farming genes. My grandparents in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, ran a dairy and truck farm. Actually, my husband Byon started it when he designed the roof. It used to be so windy and hot up there. I avoided the space. He had no plans for a ‘garden’ per see. His architects fortified the roof with a steel beam platform to create an urban roof deck. The platform gave us more flexibility and protection regarding roof weight restrictions. I think a whole new building could be built on those beams. He hired a gardener to plant hardy evergreen trees. Besides year-round color, the trees provide wind protection. After a while, I felt the call of my ancestors to do more. Stretch out. Be flexible. There are so many possibilities, no matter what your garden space may be. I started easy by adding flower bulbs, shrubs, herbs, and vegetables. Then I began searching for new containers and plants to put in them. Before I knew it, I was obsessed!

Gardening addiction

Is gardening an addiction? What are the telltale signs? Stories and photographs about Eleanor Roosevelt and Michelle Obama’s ‘Victory Gardens’ kickstarted my gardening addiction. Covid19 pandemic definitely revved up an obsession. I already amassed a collection of ‘rescue plants’ from local deli counters and grocery stores! I love garden centers and seed catalogs more than clothing stores! I canceled a Martha’s Vineyard vacation one year because I didn’t want to leave my ‘Three-Sister Garden’ project. For many Native families the three ‘sister’ crops- corn, beans, and squash, grown together in the same plot work together to thrive and survive. I also grow herbs, beans, berries, and greens. I composted my food scraps and joined a local CSA. I became active in the urban gardening movement and considered myself an environmentalist. I attend online classes and conferences. I eat mostly plant foods. These include vegetables, fruits, beans, seeds, nuts, legumes, whole grains. Sometimes I eat fish, meat, eggs, and dairy. But I choose mostly foods from plant sources.  So, I’m a true flexitarian who mixes it up with Creole Soul, Afro-Asian, and Caribbean cooking. That’s a spicy Bhindi Okra Masala in the pan (above, left); a Palestinian Caribbean Afro-Asian #Globalbowl with Falafel, Vegetable Biryani rice, Trinidad Curry Channa, Szechuan Green Beans, Jamaican Callaloo (below, left); and fresh-picked speckled lima and cranberry beans from the garden (below, right).!

 

Urban sanctuary

Evergreen trees, Japanese maple trees, and shrubs in large plant boxes add a sense of serenity, beauty, and wilderness. Most of my edible and medicinal plants grow in several plant containers of all sizes and shapes. A pergola frames part of our outdoor urban sanctuary and creates a sense of height and privacy. We still live a semi-quarantine life because of the Covid19 Variant. We are blessed to go up to our roof to spend daily time outside to enjoy fresh air and sunshine. With this change in seasons, I usually do mini plant makeovers. For more winter colors, I’m exploring small bulbs to bloom in January and February. I am mentally preparing for the winter. But I’m not there yet. Right now, I’m affirming how everything is interconnected and interdependent.

More bloom time

There are still more blooms to come. The Fall season is a lovely spiritual time that represents harvest time. Our lives go through growth cycles and seasons as seen in nature. I’m still trying to decide on some cool weather crop options. Should I plant spinach, kale, greens, bok choy, broccoli, and Brussels Sprouts again? What new perennial flower bulbs will I plant for Spring?  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

Top 5 Black Poets on Food

#NationalPoetryMonth
Essential poetry books for #NationalPoetryMonth

It’s still April and #NationalPoetryMonth! So for hungry, quarantined readers who are stuck at home sheltering from #COVID19, it’s time to look deeper into your kitchen. That’s where you will find food poems by top African-American and Caribbean writers who can satisfy your cravings. Food is their metaphor and main ingredient.

“I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun, and rain,” said Kevin Young, poet, and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, on National Public Radio’s ‘The Salt’ program. “And that’s where food comes from, and so there’s this common link,” said Young, editor of a multicultural anthology called Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink.

The writers I chose here cover all of the essentials we need, from collard greens, kitchen grease, berry picking to other important topics. Each of the following poems is as unique as the poets who cooked them up. One poet seduced you with chocolate. Another wondered why you eat healthy food. All of them reflect our culture with nuanced politics, humor, and love.

 

Top 5 Black Poets on Food

Rita Dove won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her work “Thomas and Beulah.” She was a U.S. Poet Laureate (1993 to 1995), National Medal of Arts honoree (2012), and an English professor at the University of Virginia. Dove is known for her lyrical style and historical edge. She also writes about music in “Sonata Mulatticaand dance in “American Smooth.  I acquired an addiction to chocolate during menopause. So naturally, I was drawn to Dove’s ode to the confection called “Chocolate.”  Here’s an excerpt of it, taken from the “American Smooth” collection.

Chocolate

“Velvet fruit, exquisite square

I hold up to sniff

between finger and thumb –

 

how you numb me

with your rich attentions!”

 Maya Angelou – When I lived in the Bay Area, I had the honor of enjoying Dr. Angelou’s food several times at the home of Jessica Mitford and Robert Treuhaft, her dear friends in Berkeley, California, where she camped out to write and cook. We still grieve the 2014 loss of our beloved storyteller, writer, activist, and author of the 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Dr. Angelou was also an extraordinary chef, host, and humorist. Her poem “The Health-Food Diner,” published in “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou,” is a hilarious poke at vegetarians. When you read the whole thing, her razor-sharp humor will get to you. She begins with raw veggies and ends fantasizing about meat. Then, she builds her plant-based crescendo to a frenzy of pork loins, chicken thighs, and Irish stew. Here’s how her poem opens.

The Health Food Diner

“No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).”

Elizabeth Alexander – I met the distinguished poet, essayist, playwright, and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in the NYC subways during the launch of her poems in Metropolitan Transportation Authority- NYC Transit’s Poetry in Motion. You may remember Dr. Alexander as the poet who delivered President Barack Obama’s inauguration poem in 2009.  Her “Butter,” included in “The Hungry Ear,” is a vivid tribute to her Caribbean mother and the many delectable ways one can cook with butter. Her British West Indian menu includes Yorkshire puddings in the first half of the poem. Here are some opening lines.

Butter

“My mother loves butter more than I do,

more than anyone. She pulls chunks off

the stick and eats it plain, explaining

cream spun around into butter!”

 Nikki Giovanni – Dr. Giovanni is best known as a Civil Rights poet-activist and co-founder of the Black Arts Movement. She writes about food as memory, sustenance, and aphrodisiac. A humorous and serious poet-foodie, Dr. Giovanni shares stories about her grandmother, aunts, and mother’s cooking at poetry readings. Her book, “Chasing Utopia- A Hybrid,” describes how she went from being the “baby in the family to becoming an elder.” So, while this book is mostly about mourning her loved ones, she spins lovely stories about them through food. This is a must-read for food poetry fans. For example, as she searches for “Utopia” beer to toast her mother’s memory, she explained the correct way to cook grits.

The Right Way

 “My Grandmother’s grits

Are so much better than mine

Mine tend to be lumpy

And a bit disoriented”

 Langston Hughes – He is probably one of the most celebrated literary figures from the Harlem Renaissance. His poem entitled “Harlem” is best known as “A Raisin in the Sun,”  the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed Broadway play. This was the top poem mentioned when I asked colleagues to name their top five Black poets who told stories through the lens of food. Most everyone in my generation can recite this powerful poem by heart.  Here are his most famous lines. 

Harlem

“What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?”

Kevin Young writes from the kitchen table. Covering race and culture, he sings praises for our home life, survival, and resilience. In his recent book “Brown,” he writes about everything literally brown, from us brown people, James Brown, church pews, and everyday life. Here’s an excerpt from Brown.

[Hospitality Blues]

Welcome. Have a seat-

The audience sits.

I insist. I’m your host.

Your money is no

Good here, no good

Essential Poems and Poets to survive #Covid19

I hope these excerpts leave you hungry to explore more poetry. Who are your ‘essential’ Black and Caribbean food authors who can help us survive the current pandemic?

Note: This post is an update of a similar 2015 post on food and poetry.

1619 Africans arrive in Jamestown, Va

Honor memories, Brooklyn Slavery #400years

Brooklyn
A beautiful street in Brooklyn, 2019 holds dark secrets.

Honor the memories. Honor the people who were enslaved here. Honor the people who built Brooklyn. ‘Brooklyn Slavery #400years’ (Project 1619Brooklyn) aims to center New York’s dark secret. We invite everyone to come to our table for community reconciliation, truthtelling, and empathy. Let’s honor and express radical equality at this moment in history!

Invitation: Please join our ongoing dialogue series about slavery framed by history, storytelling, and the arts. Our formats will include multimedia, photography, video, podcasts, blog posts, creative tours, events, the arts, and public activities. Stay tuned for our animated film and new platform, in the works, that will take you on a multimedia tour of our legacy and influence.

We welcome your creative participation via culture and personal reflections that explore themes of slavery, freedom, racism, identity, inequity, memory, and more.

This special project honors the memory of the first Africans who were brought ashore in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, a time now recognized the beginning of American slavery.

1619 Africans arrive in Jamestown, Va
painting of 1619 Africans arrival in Jamestown, Va. courtesy US National Parks Service.
Brooklyn slavery
Brooklyn bill of sale for ‘Anna’ 1751

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This community-based project recognizes ‘400 Years of Inequity’ from 1619-2019. Let’s re-frame the narrative about slavery here in the ‘Deep North,’ specifically in Brooklyn, New York.

Our project’s launch date is set for Indigenous People’s Day (aka Columbus Day) October 12, 2019, to shed new light on the Dutch invaders, their encounters with the local Lenape tribes, the importation of enslaved Africans, abolition, tribulations and triumphs.

 

Brooklyn slavery
Brooklyn slavery started in the 1600s by the Dutch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I grew up in Brooklyn and was taught that slavery was a Southern thing and that Brooklyn was filled with ‘settlers’ seeking religious freedom and abolitionists,” said Sylvia Wong Lewis, project director.  “Some of those stories may be true. But a lot of our American slavery history chapters are missing. Today, 400 years later, it’s time to re-chart the American story. Let’s reset the narrative, develop new questions, attempt to find answers, and offer resources to learn more,” Wong-Lewis added.

Inspirations: We were inspired by the organization ‘400 Years of Inequity.’ They have called all people to come together in ‘radical equality,’ as stated in an excerpt from their website cover:

Picture

2019 will be the 400th Anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans to be sold into bondage in North America: in 1619 at Jamestown.  We are calling on families, organizations, neighborhoods, and cities to observe the anniversary by telling their stories of oppression and resistance.

We must link arms in radical equality.

Picture

Inequality is a threat to our health and democracy.  Nearly 400 years of division have created an apartheid society: we need a new social infrastructure to carry us through the challenges of climate change, decaying physical infrastructure, rapidly evolving jobs, underperforming schools, uneven access to health care and lack of affordable housing. Communities and organizations across the country are already observing the call, and addressing these inequalities in bold and impactful ways.”
Click here to learn more.

 

The wonderful Board of Trustees, staff and members of the Brooklyn Historical Society and their  ‘In Pursuit of Freedom’ exhibit, that explores the anti-slavery movement from the end of the American Revolution to Reconstruction, continues to inspire many of us.  Click here to learn more.

My own personal family history as a descendant of enslaved and enslaving people motivates and inspires me to seek truth-telling and empathy.

Slavery arrived in New Amsterdam (Brooklyn) and its environs with the first Dutch invaders (settlers). “While some residents owned their own slaves, others used company slaves provided by the Dutch West India Company, a trading company that governed the colony until 1655,” according to Brooklyn Historical Society documents. To read more, click here.

Would you like to share a family story? Do you want to be featured in our community dialogues–on a podcast, a video, or in a print story? We are scheduling interviews through September 2019. Do you want to write a guest blog post? We can send you guidelines. To participate in our ‘Brooklyn #400Years’ project, please state your interest in the contact form by clicking here.

Tempy’s Songs

 

Tempy’s songs were sacred. As we draw closer to the season of Easter I think of Madame Tempy Smith, my paternal grandmother, who became a religious person during her later years. I wish I met her during her younger years when she worked on our family’s dairy farm and was said to like blues and jazz, and what she later called the ‘devil’s music.’ I would have loved to have had conversations with her about many things. Although classically trained at a conservatory and well-versed in blues and jazz, Tempy’s true calling was helping people and religious music. When she arrived in Harlem during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, she began composing sacred music in earnest all the while developing a real estate empire, and establishing her famous music and art schools.

Easter song, Negro Anthem, Negro Spirituals

Tempy was known to lead her pupils in the Negro Anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing to open her concerts and recitals, and especially on Easter. This song was especially important to her because it was originally a poem set to music. Reading, writing and reciting poetry were key parts of her elocution and theater classes taught at her music and art schools. The song, aka NAACP’s theme song, was created by two brothers, who were family friends James Weldon Johnson (lyrics/poem) and J. Rosamond Johnson (composer). Click here to learn the lyrics. Negro Spirituals Go Down Moses and Swing Low Sweet Chariot as sung by another family friend Paul Robeson, were also Tempy favorites.

Tempy’s song of gratitude

 

Madame Tempy loved songs that told stories. Her sacred songs were about gratitude. Thank God, Thank God was believed to have been written on Easter Sunday, her first day in Harlem after traveling and performing for two years on the road with her musical family. Here is an excerpt of some lyrics: “Thank God, Thank God, for Je—–sus, Thank God, for His Ho—–ly Word—–Thank God, He died that I may live, Thank God for His Ho—–ly Name. He is so Pre—–cious, dear to me, He keeps me lest I go a—–stray, He leads me and guides me all the way, Thank God, Thank God, Thank God Thank God.”

I recently shared some of Madame Tempy’s original composition with friends from my family archives. She apparently composed many songs while still a student. But it looked like she only began publishing her original songs once she left the South and moved North. Education records revealed that sacred music was Madame Tempy’s major course of study while she was a Boston Conservatory student.

Because of Tempy, I believe I developed a love of church music. I’m certain it is because of her that I expanded my spirituality, religion appreciation, and developed a love of many music genres.

Researching at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

While researching Madame Tempy’s life for ongoing media projects at Harlem’s famed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, I found photos of her music schools, news clips, programs from her pupil’s recitals, and much more. Talented and determined Black folks like Tempy did not have the benefit of The Negro Motorist Green Book to guide her travels during a dangerous road trip from Ocean Springs, Mississippi to Harlem, New York in the 1920s. She depended on our black community’s ‘grapevine,’ a tight network of friends and families, black churches, and ‘word-of-mouth.’ Whether you were born with music genes or not, I believe music set us free.

Madame Tempy Smith in Harlem

Madame Tempy’s Music Genes

“Madame Tempy’s musical and business skills were fully realized when she joined others who were part of the Harlem Renaissance. A courageous person with a dictatorial personality, she became a real estate entrepreneur, sacred music composer, and legendary piano teacher. With every Harlem apartment building that she purchased a music school was set-up, and rehearsal studios and rooms were rented. She employed all of her children, nieces, nephews and many extended family members.” Click here to read more about Tempy’s songs.

#JimCrowed

#JimCrowed

#JimCrowed is when Black people are exploited by old, racist Jim Crow laws today. If you are Black and your land was stolen, you were #JimCrowed. If you are Black and your right to the truth is denied, you’ve been #JimCrowed. In honor of Black History Month, this special edition looks at an instance of Jim Crow and Black land ownership. Guest writer William T. Butler Jr., talks about challenges to his family’s North Carolina land.

#JimCrowed
Black American Gothic: Farm couple, Charles Freeman and Mary Freeman (late) wife.
Photo by William ‘Tommie’ Butler Jr., inspired by
‘American Gothic’ by Grant Wood. Photo taken, 2015, Hallsboro, NC.

Jim Crowed, By William T. Butler Jr.

We have all experienced at least one “Jim Crow” incident in our lives, one that left us thinking: “This is what our fore parents had to put up with.” One of those moments, happened to me recently when the Columbus County North Carolina Office of Taxation, decided to give away my grandparent’s rural homestead. Located in a part of coastal North Carolina, Ransom Township, the relatively small parcel of land had no liens, no unpaid taxes, and was not for sale. One day in 2018, it mysteriously disappeared off the books of Columbus County North Carolina Office of Taxation.

After the Great Depression

It might surprise you to learn how or why this could happen. First, let me tell you something about my late father, William T. Butler Sr. aka “Bud,” a family man and patriot living in the rural Cape Fear Region, by Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina in the late 1930s. After the Great Depression, he dropped out of North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University to work at the local lumber mill to help support his parents and younger siblings. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Army to earn more money.

During his tour of duty, he served in combat with distinction in every major theater of battle from the Normandy Invasion to the liberation of Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Before leaving home, he had promised his siblings and parents to keep them safe and fed at home. Back again from Europe, my grandfather urged my father, to move up North, for the safety of his young family, wife, Vivian, and their first child, David, my older brother. When my father was a child, one of his mother’s nephews had been lynched by a white mob in their hometown. After returning home from the war, wearing his uniform decorated with valor medals, another cousin was lynched. The KKK White Supremacists had declared war on Black veterans!

#JimCrowed
Parent’s Wedding, 1945 From Left: Adeline Butler-Pugh (late, sister of my); Mary Butler (my father ‘s mother; William T. Butler (late, father); Vivian Murphy-Krease (late, mother); David
Krease (late, stepfather to my mother); Alice Murphy-Krease (late,
mother of my mother).
Photo by Maryellen Butler (late, sister of the father).
Location: Father’s Parents homestead in Randsome Township, NC.

Never missed a payment

So, my father settled in Brooklyn, New York in 1950 where I was born followed by my younger sisters, Valarie, and Aliya. My father continued to financially support his sisters, until they were each married and his parents until their deaths, all while he lived far from them in Brooklyn. Among the many things that my father drilled into our heads was his mantra: “Always pay your property taxes! It’s key to owning your land.” So, 53 years later, when named, Executor of his estate in 2003, I automatically and religiously paid the annual taxes on all our North Carolina properties. I never missed a payment.

It took me nearly ten years to settle the books before I could begin to focus on the old family homestead. One day I had the idea to find pictures of the old homestead online at Terraserver.com. I called the Columbus County North Carolina Office of Taxation because this required some very specific information: 1.) Associated Coordinates X (easting) and Y (northing); 2.) Location (RANSOM TWSP); 3.) Land Parcel Property No. (27875); 4.) Account No. (15-08080); and 5.) Patience. Handling local real estate transactions and paying Columbus County tax bills, I spoke with office staffers at least twice every year for the past for 17 years. Some of the personnel would recognize me and comment on my “out of town” voice.

Deed in my hand

When I called recently, I held a copy of our old homestead deed in my hand. The person on the other end of the phone said: “There’s no deed on file matching your inquiry.” I responded: “There must be a mistake. I have the deed in my hand. Better check again.” After a long hold, the representative came back to inform me that deed is now listed as owned by a couple living on Silverspoon Road, Tatum Township, North Carolina. Shocked, I had three questions: 1. How and when did they get ownership of my land? 2. What are the rules regarding conflicting tax collection? 3. What about refunds with compounded interest and penalties?

I exhaled for one moment

After another long hold, the voice on the other end of the phone said: “We’ve found the original deed registered by your grandparent’s in 1922.” I exhaled for one moment. But there were some problems, of course: 1. The original parcel demarcation is no longer discernible. An accurate calculation cannot be made. 2. I must submit newly updated deed at my expense. A new deed registry requires: a. Land Survey to calibrate exact property line coordinates. b. I will need to complete a new filing of an up-to-date deed with Columbus County Office of Taxation, and c. registration requires hiring a North Carolina licensed real estate law firm. The proposed alternative solution was to close the existing tax account. No refund was allowed.

#JimCrowed
Cutting his muscadine grapevine, Charles Freeman, 93, 1st cousin to William T. Butler Sr. (father) Photo was taken by William T. Butler Jr., 2015.

Black farmers and landowners

I took my complaint to the North Carolina Land Loss Prevention Project (LLPP) and they agreed to represent my case. Founded in 1982 by the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, this organization provides legal support and assistance to financially distressed and limited resource Black farmers and landowners in North Carolina.

Why share this story with you? Maybe you know something about my family, this part of North Carolina, and how land was measured and demarcated in the old days. If so, you may be able to help. Please share your collective old family memories, memorabilia, source materials, photos, and old stories. Your old photographs, letters or treasured memories may contain a missing piece to this family puzzle. I am asking you to help us save our land. Talk with the family elders, tell them what we are trying to accomplish. Get the word out across the country to family members, friends, neighbors, and allies.

Large family network

My initial target audience for this story was my large family network, especially those descended from one Jane Webb, born free in colonial era Northampton County Virginia in 1699.  She was the first person of color to take a slave owner to court in an effort to free her family.  Actual court records tell a fascinating story of this woman who took on the slavery system in colonial courts for ten years until finally reaching Virginia’s Supreme Court. She stood defiant, even public lashings, harassment, humiliations, and threat of death didn’t deter her. I believe my story should be important to everyone. This is a focus on hard-earned Black land ownership and how we have lost untold acres of land over the last century through tricky rules. Perhaps this happened to you! I want people to know, to feel, to believe that this land theft is happening now in 2019!

Mother with her aunts
Mother with her aunts & dog during summer break from Pratt Institute. Photo by Aunt Virginia Dare Murphy in NC

A Huckleberry Finn movie

Back in the old days, homes in rural America really didn’t have addresses.  Perhaps this is hard to believe but I witnessed this personally as a child.  Anyone that says different just doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.  I can remember when there were no streetlights, signs, paved roads, and house numbers. Most children ran around barefoot all summer. For me, it was like visiting a Huckleberry Finn movie every summer. Rural and urban people live very different lives. I once asked why there were no street signs or house numbers and the simple answer was: “Everybody knows where everybody lives.”  Land demarcations and measurements simply identified deed title.  That old pre-computerize recording system made possible what has happened in my case and has been used to rob lands from countless other people.

Needle in a haystack

In North Carolina, our land is a relatively small parcel surrounded in every direction by thousands of miles of vast lands both wooded and rural within a huge state. The difficulty of finding it is greater than searching for a needle in a haystack. The archaic recording process makes it even harder. I believe this is by design, no accident. Over time thousands of small parcels began to comprise vast large parcels in the hands of large land developers. Today, the old Klan methods of violence are wasteful and inefficient. Control of information is the more powerful way Jim Crow laws are employed–silent, cost-effective and far more permanent.

The really crazy thing

I don’t know how those names got on a new deed for my property. The Land Loss Prevention Project will handle it. I know I didn’t sell any land to those people. I think my unexpected call prematurely threw a wrench into their game. The calm way I responded was unexpected. I will not say that the whole town was in on it. But everyone knows that this has gone on for generations. The really crazy thing is everyone born and raised in this part of North Carolina are all related to each other whether they are Black, Indigenous, or White!  One way or another all these people have their neighbor’s blood on their hands and running through their veins. And the lynchings that have been documented will never equal those that are still unknown.

#JimCrowed
G-Grand Uncle Henry Freeman, brother of my grandmother, Mary Freeman Butler, 1800s

For you genealogists out there

Think about this story if you are descendants of Jane Webb who are spread near and far across this country and around the world. For you genealogists out there, the family names are: Willie Moseley, Ellen J. Moseley, Christian Webb, Henry Butler, Mary L. Butler (direct descendent of Jane Webb), Walter Mosley, and John Knowles. If you recognize any of these name(s) from your own family history research, please share. I can talk to you about my grandparents and their farm, as I regularly visited them for over sixty years. My deed description states “chain and stakes” measurements. I’m looking for equivalency of 1922 measurement to measurements used today.

This has truly been a learning experience for me. My lovely niece, Atiya Butler, my late brother David’s daughter, is our family historian and genealogist. Her dedication and insights fueled my deeper journey into our family history. My ancestors brought me thus far and likely the reason that I have no fear or doubt of a positive outcome. We can prove that it is possible to unite for the good of all. Let’s deny wrongful takers what they would take. Once this case is resolved, I’d like to invite everyone to stand with us by a plaque on our land that states simply: “The hardest challenges are the simple ones only you can accomplish.”

#JimCrowed
William ‘Tommie’ Butler Jr., (hat) with siblings and G-Grandmother on ancestral land in Columbus County, NC, 1957.

About the author: William T. Butler Jr. aka, Tommie, is a Brooklyn writer, gardener and stage production guru living in Atlanta, Ga.

Black families, Who’s minding your land down South? Do you know anyone whose land was sold from under them, without their knowledge? Please share your comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Save

Save