The thing that moved me most about Roy G. Taylor’s book Sharecroppers: The Way We Really Were is the way that that he remembered so many of the small things about a sharecropper’s life in eastern North Carolina.
I mean little things such as the dresses that mothers made out fertilizer bags for their daughters or the luster of the brilliantine that boys put in their hair to go to pack house dances.
Even when he just recalls the names of things, they evoke another age. Salty Galenas, Sweet Lorillard, Golden Grain– once everybody would have known them.
(The first two were snuffs, very popular with farm women at that time, and the last was a ubiquitous loose tobacco, made for hand rolling cigarettes, that came in a little sack with a string at the top.)
They’re little things, but we all know how even our smallest keepsakes can open up whole worlds of memory.
A Mother’s Hands
Roy Taylor grew up in a sharecropper’s family in Wayne County, N.C., in the 1930s and he seemed to remember everything.
Published in 1984, the stories in Sharecroppers were originally columns that he wrote for the Wilson Daily Times in Wilson, N.C., just up the road from Wayne County. At the time, he was editor of the newspaper.
In those columns, Taylor chronicled a sharecropper’s way of life largely in the days before the Second World War. He describes every step of tobacco farming, as well as hog killings, breaking corn, hauling guano, making soap and a hundred other moments in the lives of sharecropping families.
He recalls what country burials were like when he was a boy. He remembers wash days, quilting parties, fodder pullings, huckleberry picking, tent revivals and the excitement of getting a radio for the first time.
My friend Dr. Linwood Watson gave me my copy of Sharecroppers. At the time, he told me that his father, a Haliwa-Saponi farmer in Wilson, always said that Taylor captured the heart of what a sharecropper’s life was like in eastern North Carolina like no one else.
I will always remember Taylor’s description of his mother’s hands and the way that they were hardened and scared by a sharecropper’s labors– by scrubbing, working in the fields, washing with lye, caring for children and in a hundred other ways laboring with her hands, morning and night.
Taylor found beauty in those hands, but it was a beauty of another age, not ours.
I will also remember the way he recounted a farm woman’s daily rites. He recalls, for instance, how his mother made her final rounds on cold winter nights, after everyone else in the family was in bed.
“In her old flannel nightgown with a cap on her head, she’d walk through every room and stop at every bed carrying the oil lamp to check and see that all the young’uns were warm and that nobody was uncovered, the small ones and the grown ones.”
History is more than wars and battles, kings and queens and the rise and fall of empires.
A Special Person Like Zack
I also loved Taylor’s reminiscence of a local man who did not quite fit into the world the way that other people did. His name was Zack Coors and today I think we would call him intellectually disabled.
As Taylor recounts in Sharecroppers, Zack Coor spent his days roaming the back roads of Wilson County and relying on the hospitality of others.
“Every community has that very special person like Zack…. He had a radius of 15 or 20 miles that he traveled, stopping at practically every house for a meal if nothing else. But most of the time he was willing to go out to the woodpile and split wood, get up piles of trash or help feed up.”
Zack had a home and a loving family, but once he was an adult he took to the road and just came home now and then.
Writes Taylor: “…he chose haylofts or piles of cotton under shelters or on porches or tobacco barn shelters for a sleeping place…”
I think I like Zack Moor’s story so much because, in the way it describes someone different whose differentness and vulnerability were protected by his community, it speaks well to a gentle and kind side of that age that was so hard and so intolerant in so many other ways.
I also like Zack Moor’s story because I knew a man very much like Zack Moor when I lived at Lake Mattamuskeet many years ago.
The man I knew was very big and tender hearted. He was so big and strong that the sight of him frightened strangers, but he had no meanness in him. Like Zack Moor, he had a home and a mother that loved him, but at least around Lake Mattamuskeet he was free to roam and wander the roads.
This man mostly traveled along the back roads and fishing villages between Belhaven and Stumpy Point. On one occasion though, I picked him up hitchhiking in a county 30 or 40 miles away. He made a little money by picking up bottles by the roadside and turning them in for the deposit.
His mother got him to promise that he would always come home and get a good meal now and then and she made sure that he stayed well-groomed and his clothes neat and clean.
Nobody that knew him ever closed their door to him. I did not know him well, but I picked him up hitchhiking whenever I saw him on the road. He sometimes slept on the screen porch at the house where I was staying.
There was something about the way that he was accepted there that made me feel hopeful about the world. It made me feel as if there was a place in the world for everybody.
“When barns were unlocked”
Roy Taylor’s book is about the details of a sharecropping life. It is not a meditation on how life changed after the Second World War and what we lost and what we gained by the passing of the old ways.
Yet something in Zack Moor’s story led Taylor to reflect on just those matters. It is one of the few places in Sharecroppers that he does so.
I think the end of his column on Zack Moor is worth quoting in some detail. In that column, Taylor writes:
“Zack offers a good example of how times have changed in the past 50 years.”
Remember Taylor was writing in the early 1980s, so he is talking mainly about changes that happened, or at least began to happen, during and just after the Second World War.
“It could not be that way today, and he wouldn’t be free to roam the community. Those were days when barns were unlocked and the smokehouse was about the only building that was ever locked. Not even the dwellings were locked in those days… It was a freer society and women were not afraid to walk the roads at night.”
That is hard to imagine today of course. Now people would be scared of Zack Moor. Doors are locked and I hardly ever see a hitchhiker. Everybody seems to be afraid of everybody else. I can’t remember when I last met anyone like Zack Moor or my friend at Lake Mattamuskeet on my travels.
Taylor goes on:
“It is better that Zack lived his life in another era, for he would never have been happy with a life of restricted freedom. He would no doubt be victimized by society if it were possible for him to roam the back roads and the highways in the present generation.”
“His life would be in danger every moment, and there would be no place for him to lay his head after a day of wandering, for all the buildings of value are put under lock and key and roamers are looked upon with suspicion.”
“A Question for our Present Society”
Taylor doesn’t stop there. As small as it is, the story of Zack Moor obviously set him to thinking about the things that we are afraid of and some of the other ways that life had changed most profoundly in the U.S. during his lifetime.
Speaking again of Zack Moor, Taylor wrote:
“… But his life poses a question for our present society. We have come so very far since those days there is no way to compare the two worlds. We have seen most of the great events that have occurred throughout world history since the 1930s. We who are the products of that age can look back upon it all and only we can know exactly how far we have come.”
I think he is talking here largely about changes in science and technology, such as electricity, telephones, automobiles, airplanes, rocket ships, radios, movies, televisions and antibiotics.
“We have gained most of the material things that we didn’t even think about in that age, and nobody would want to revert back to the way of life we knew then. But have we really come so far when we have lost many of our former values? When we can no longer walk the pathways that we remember as children with total freedom and with no fear of tomorrow?”
With those words, I realized that Taylor was talking about more than one kind of fear.
He had seen the dawn of an age of atomic bombs, fallout shelters and nuclear bomb drills in schools. For much of his life, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had teetered on the edge of nuclear war. We had come to the brink of Armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as other times that were not so well known to the general public.
Somehow in Taylor’s mind, he connected these things: the fear that led people to lock their doors, the fear that made them keep their children close, the fear that made them wary of hitchhikers and vagrants, the fear that gave children nightmares about the end of the world.
Much had been gained, he was saying, but much had been lost, too.
Beginning with his tale of Zack Moor on the back roads of Wayne County, Taylor ends up here:
“Life was ours [then]. The future was ours. There was no fear of manmade weapons that could destroy our entire world. We [had] the promise of tomorrow and we were happy in that knowledge. We can’t say that today. It isn’t the same world.”
Taylor did not say it, but I will say it for him: the time has come to think about what we are afraid of, how fear rules our lives and how we can make a world in which we are not so afraid of one another all the time.
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Roy G. Taylor’s Sharecroppers: The Way We Really Were is out of print but you can find copies at many libraries and used bookstores.