DIRT TOWN VALLEY, Ga. — Just earlier than folks began to take the pandemic critically, Stacie Marshall slipped into the again of a convention room in Athens, Ga., and joined two dozen Black farmers in a advertising seminar known as “Collards Aren’t the New Kale.”
She stood out, and never simply because she was considered one of solely two white folks within the room. Ms. Marshall, 41, nonetheless had the lengthy blond hair and attractiveness that received her the Miss Chattooga County title in 1998. The win got here with scholarship cash that obtained her to a tiny Baptist faculty and a life away from the small Appalachian valley the place her household has farmed for greater than 200 years.
Leading the seminar was Matthew Raiford, 53, a tall, magnetic Gullah Geechee chef and natural farmer who works the coastal Georgia land his forebears secured a decade after they had been emancipated from slavery.
He requested if there have been questions. Ms. Marshall raised her hand, ignored the knot in her abdomen and instructed her story: She was in line to inherit 300 acres, which might make her the primary girl in her household to personal a farm. She had massive plans for the fading business cattle operation and its overgrown fields. She would name it Mountain Mama Farms, and promote sufficient grass-fed beef and handmade merchandise like goat’s milk cleaning soap to assist help her husband and their three daughters.
But she had found a horrible factor.
“My family owned seven people,” Ms. Marshall stated. She wished to know learn how to make it proper.
Mr. Raiford was as stunned as anybody within the room. “Those older guys have probably never heard that from a white lady in their entire lives,” he recalled.
Matthew Raiford, a Gullah Geechee chef, traveled almost 400 miles from his south Georgia farm to supply recommendation and help to Ms. Marshall at Mountain Mama Farms.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York Times
For virtually three years now, with the fervor of the newly transformed, Ms. Marshall has been on a quest that from the skin could appear quixotic and even naïve. She is diving into her household’s previous and attempting to chip away at racism within the Deep South, the place each white household with roots right here benefited from slavery and virtually each Black household had enslaved ancestors.
“I don’t have a lot of money, but I have property,” she stated throughout a stroll on her farm final winter. “How am I going to use that for the greater good, and not in like a paying-penance sort of way but in an it’s-just-the-right-thing-to-do kind of way?”
It’s not straightforward discovering anybody on this farming group of 26,000 she will discuss to about white privilege, crucial race idea or renewed requires federal reparations. She can’t even get her cousins to cease flying the Confederate flag. It’s about heritage, not hate, they inform her.
Farming, household and unstated discrimination are braided collectively so tightly right here that she will’t untwist them. She is conscious that she typically stumbles throughout the road between doing antiracism work and enjoying the white savior, however she finds the historical past unavoidable.
“I can’t just go feed my cows and not be reminded of it,” she stated.
Hers is the nationwide soul-searching writ small: Should the descendants of people that stored others enslaved be held chargeable for that unsuitable? What can they do to make issues proper? And what’s going to it value?
After the seminar, the farmers provided some concepts: She may arrange an internship for younger Black farmers, letting them work her land and maintain the revenue. Maybe her Black neighbors wished preservation work carried out on their church cemetery.
Or perhaps — and that is the place the dialogue will get sophisticated — she ought to give some land or cash from the sale of it to descendants of the Black individuals who had helped her household construct wealth, both as enslaved folks within the 1800s or, later, as sharecroppers who lived in two small shacks on her land.
No one is certain when the sharecropper shacks on Ms. Marshall’s land had been constructed.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York Times
“She is deep in Confederate country trying to do this work,” Mr. Raiford stated when he went to go to her farm this spring. If she will determine it out, he stated, Chattooga County may very well be a template for small communities everywhere in the South.
As the one younger girl operating a farm within the valley, Ms. Marshall already looks like a curiosity. She expects that folks will activate her for telling the group’s story by means of the lens of slavery. You can’t actually disguise out of your neighbors right here, which is one of the best and the worst factor about tight communities. Not way back, she ended up in a CrossFit class with Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Republican this area elected to Congress in 2020.
Ms. Marshall hasn’t instructed most of her prolonged household what she is doing. “I will get some hell,” she stated. “There are people in this community that are totally going to turn when I start telling these things.”
At the identical time, she is protecting of her nook of the South.
“I don’t want my family to be painted out as a bunch of white, racist rednecks,” she stated. “God, I am proud of every square inch of this place — except for this.”
Raised within the Faith
The rolling farmland on this northwest nook of Georgia has by no means lent itself to the plantation agriculture that when dominated different elements of the South. Today, about 300 small farms elevate cattle and broiler chickens, and develop soybeans and hay.
Few make a lot cash. The poverty charge has edged near double the nation’s. Ms. Marshall, who’s on the board of the native homeless shelter, sees folks in want throughout her. “It’s really hard for people in Chattooga County to understand white privilege because they’re like, ‘We’re barely getting by,’” she stated.
The partitions within the Marshall farmhouse maintain a long time of household historical past.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York TimesMs. Marshall is considered one of two kids of Steve and Darlene Scoggins. Ms. Scoggins died of most cancers at age 60.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York Times
Over the years, her father and grandfather drove vans or took shifts on the cotton mill to maintain the farm operating. At 68, her father, Steve Scoggins, nonetheless works three p.m. to midnight as a hospital upkeep man.
Only 10 % of the inhabitants is Black, a quantity that historians estimate was in all probability 5 occasions greater earlier than the Civil War, and commenced to drop after Emancipation and as African Americans moved north to flee the Jim Crow South.
Most residents are evangelical Christians. It’s such wealthy Trump nation that the previous president held considered one of his final marketing campaign rallies 5 miles from Ms. Marshall’s farmhouse. “Some good friends were at those rallies,” she stated.
Her father, who lives down the highway, is as happy with his farm daughter as a person may very well be. He unabashedly helps her work in opposition to racism, however on the Dirt Town Deli, he typically stays quiet when an offensive remark passes amongst his mates. All in all, he’d slightly talk about his tractor assortment and the fried-egg sandwiches his daughter makes him each morning for breakfast.
He additionally helps Mr. Trump, and doesn’t perceive why on the earth she began voting for Democrats.
In some methods, Ms. Marshall doesn’t both. Her childhood was steeped in conservative rural politics and the facility of the evangelical church. She left house to attend Truett McConnell University, a Baptist faculty close to the Tennessee border, on a scholarship for college kids with ambitions to change into a minister or marry one.
There she met Jeremy Marshall, a product of the Atlanta suburbs who was learning for the ministry. They married when each had been 21, and went on to earn grasp’s levels — hers in training, on the University of Georgia, and his in counseling.
They lived and labored for a decade at Berry College, a liberal arts faculty in northwest Georgia the place they helped look after 400 evangelical college students in a particular program paid for by the conservative WinShape Foundation. But final yr, because the coronavirus hit, they determined it was time to maneuver to the household farmhouse she had inherited.
Stacie and Jeremy Marshall with their three daughters: from left, Selah, 10, Grace, 7, and Addison, 13.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York Times
Between the pandemic and attempting to get her arms round learn how to run a farm, Ms. Marshall hasn’t actually reconnected with the large tangle of prolonged household and mates she grew up with. She’s a special particular person from the one who left 20 years in the past. Many issues she accepted as gospel again then appear much less clear now.
“Feminist was a dirty word growing up in this area,” she stated. “And I began to realize, well, damn it, I think I am one. Some things just didn’t set right with me anymore.”
She is bracing for the household’s disappointment.
“I don’t think I have a greater moral compass or am more evolved than my family members,” she stated. “We all grew up being taught, ‘Don’t air your family’s dirty laundry.’ I guess I am putting the laundry on the line.’”
‘This Is Mine Now’
Growing up, Ms. Marshall heard that her household had as soon as enslaved folks, however the historical past hit her in a visceral means 12 years in the past, simply after her first daughter was born. The child was struggling to nurse. Ms. Marshall was almost in tears. Her grandfather, Fred Scoggins, tried to supply some consolation.
“You know,” she recalled his saying, “you get that from the Scoggins women. Your great-great-great grandmother couldn’t produce milk, either. So they had to buy a slave.”
They known as her Mammy Hester, he stated, and he spun the identical false narrative that some white Southerners use to melt the cruel actuality: The household had handled Hester so effectively that after the Civil War, she remained with them.
Ms. Marshall started considering so much about Hester, whose milk had fed her ancestors. Then, about 5 years in the past, she discovered that the reality was even worse than she knew. Her mother-in-law, an beginner genealogist who works her Ancestry.com account with cheery enthusiasm, delivered the information. “Did you know your family owned slaves?” she requested, producing paperwork she had found.
“I felt like I needed a shot of whiskey,” Ms. Marshall stated.
Ms. Marshall walks her land daily to verify on her Angus cattle.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York Times
But it was straightforward to shove the household historical past apart. Her daughters had been rising up. Her mom obtained sick with most cancers and died. She misplaced her grandparents. “I picked out three coffins in five months,” she stated.
Her father gave her the household farmhouse and three acres. When he dies, she is going to take management of the remaining few hundred acres.
Ms. Marshall began clearing out the home. She was sorting by means of her grandparents’ cast-iron pans and previous furnishings when she got here throughout a dusty boot field stuffed with marriage ceremony bulletins and newspaper clippings.
Inside was a duplicate of a county slave schedule from 1860 that her mother-in-law had found. This time, Ms. Marshall actually studied it. Seven folks had been listed below the identify W.D. Scoggins, her great-great-great-grandfather, recognized solely by their ages, genders and race. Her household had owned two males and one girl, all of their 30s, and 4 kids. The youngest was 5 ½ months previous.
“It took on a different meaning because I was going through their jewelry and their clothes,” she stated. “I was like, this is mine now. The family story is mine. Am I going to stick this in a drawer and forget about it?”
She considered her daughters. “I knew I needed to reframe this story for them and for the farm and for this community,” she stated.
The first seven strains of this Chattooga County slave schedule include restricted details about the folks Ms. Marshall’s household enslaved.Credit…Courtesy of Stacie Marshall
W.D. Scoggins had one other unsettling legacy. He acquired the household’s first tract of land, a mile or so from her farm, in an 1833 lottery that gave Creek and Cherokee land to white folks. Key parts of the Trail of Tears begin not removed from her valley.
“So you figure out that you got stolen land that had the enslaved put on it, and your family benefited off that for a lot of years,” stated Mr. Raiford, the Gullah Geechee farmer who has change into her buddy and adviser. “Now you have to have two different conversations. It gets complicated real fast.”
Asking the Preacher
If anybody within the valley may assist Ms. Marshall start her self-styled therapeutic mission, it was Melvin Mosley. He had been the assistant principal at her highschool. He can be her father’s finest buddy.
The two males met as boys, when Mr. Mosley’s uncle lived in one of many shacks on the Scoggins farm and labored for Ms. Marshall’s grandfather. Mr. Scoggins went to the white faculty, Mr. Mosley the Black one. Every ebook at Mr. Mosley’s faculty was a hand-me-down from the white faculty, however the boys didn’t perceive that their educations had been totally different till they began evaluating notes.
Melvin Mosley just lately based Harmony Baptist Church along with his spouse, Betty Mosley, in a small constructing in Summerville, Ga., on the request of the native Baptist affiliation.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York Times
“One day he asks me, ‘Did you choose white milk or chocolate milk today?’” Mr. Mosley stated. “Man, we didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have chocolate milk. I didn’t even know what a spit wad was because we never got straws.”
Chattooga County built-in its colleges in 1966, when the boys had been in seventh grade. In interviews, the lads talked about how unfair segregation was, however their views on the previous are profoundly totally different.
Both recalled becoming a member of the adults as they baled hay for Mr. Scoggins’ father, and breaking for noon dinner. The Black staff ate open air. The white staff went into the home.
“My mama would call them to come in the house, but they said, ‘No, ma’am,’ and stayed out by that wall there,” Mr. Scoggins stated. “They were humble.”
To Mr. Mosley, consuming exterior wasn’t about humility. “We did what we did because that’s what you did,” he stated. “That was a sign of the times.”
For a long time, he taught in public colleges and prisons. At 67, he’s a preacher, and lives along with his spouse, Betty, on 50 acres close to Ms. Marshall’s farm.
On a summer time day in 2019, Ms. Marshall sat of their yard and instructed them she wished to begin sharing the entire, arduous story of Dirt Valley, and make some form of amends. She requested if she was on the proper path.
Mr. Mosley at all times thought of her a brilliant lady who ought to go to varsity — as he instructed her after sending her to detention for kissing a boy within the faculty mechanic store. His recommendation now was easy.
“Let’s say that’s the water under the bridge,” he stated. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” All she wanted to do was to pour as a lot love on their valley as she may.
“In all of our families, Black or white, there are some generational things that are up to us to break,” he instructed her. “And when we break it, it is broken forever.”
Mrs. Mosley is called the “first lady” of Harmony Baptist Church, the place she sings, preaches and helps set up providers.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York Times
He stood and took her hand. Mrs. Mosley joined them in a prayer circle. “Father in heaven,” he prayed, “we ask you just to continue to give her the courage and the desire to break the chain of racism, Lord.”
On one other go to, simply earlier than Christmas, Ms. Marshall sat with the couple at their eating room desk consuming vanilla-scented tea truffles. She had introduced a duplicate of the slave information, and was in search of their recommendation on whether or not she ought to compensate Hester’s descendants if she ever discovered them.
“People aren’t looking for a handout,” Mrs. Mosley instructed her. “We just want justice in all of the things that are going on. It’s hard to explain it to a white person, but if you’re a Black person you understand.”
Gravestones With No Names
With the slave paperwork in hand, Ms. Marshall got down to delve deeper, attempting to trace down Hester’s descendants and to share what she had discovered.
She started telling her story in lectures at Berry College. After George Floyd was murdered final yr, she determined to deliver college students to the farm. The Mosleys and different Black neighbors and farmers typically come, sharing a meal and main a dialogue about race.
The visits embrace a somber stroll out to the stays of the 2 shacks. No one is aware of precisely once they had been constructed, or when the generations of people that lived in them began calling themselves renters as an alternative of tenant farmers or sharecroppers.
“We always called it sharecropping,” Mr. Mosley stated. “What that means is that when you were living on a farm like that, you couldn’t object to things because you’d find yourself homeless.”
Early on, Ms. Marshall took some college students to wash up a close-by cemetery the place a heritage group vegetation Confederate flags close to the gravestones of Civil War troopers. Scattered among the many household plots are plain stones marking the graves of the enslaved. There are not any names on them.
The solely identify Ms. Marshall has to work with is Hester’s. Finding her descendants appears all however not possible. The first census taken after the Civil War confirmed that Hester had change into a landowner in Chattooga County, and that considered one of her daughters had married a person named Perry. Ms. Marshall just lately discovered what she thinks is his grave in a cemetery subsequent to the traditionally Black church in Dirt Town Valley.
Haley Smith, director of the Gate of Opportunity scholarship program at Berry College, helped lead a racial reconciliaton workshop with college students on Ms. Marshall’s farm in June.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York TimesNo one is certain who’s buried beneath unmarked stones scattered in an deserted cemetery within the woods close to Ms. Marshall’s farm. Most of these buried had been enslaved.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York TimesClose to an empty church Ms. Marshall’s grandmother as soon as attended, members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy place flags on the graves of Confederate troopers.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York Times
There are dozens of Black folks named Perry within the county, however few different clues to their lineage. For many Black households in America, solely the scarcest genealogical information stay.
“I think this is really where white privilege slaps us in the face,” Ms. Marshall stated. “The context for my own family is that I can trace back and find names on historical documents.”
She has pulled threads the place she will, becoming a member of the county historic society and learning the genealogical work carried out by a distant Scoggins relative.
But family tree hunts may be costly and time-consuming. Ms. Marshall’s days are already crammed. Calves get caught within the mud and need to be rescued. Goats must be milked. There are kids to boost.
Even if Ms. Marshall tracked down a few of Hester’s family, what then? If she determined handy over some land, she must discover individuals who wish to farm, or may not less than shoulder the tax burden. If she bought among the land and gave away that money, learn how to resolve who ought to get it and the way a lot to offer?
Mr. Marshall is a full companion in his spouse’s antiracist work, however he likens monetary reparations to carbon offsets however for guilt-racked white folks.
“It’s like, ‘I’m not going to change my life, but tell me a dollar amount that would absolve me of guilt,’” he stated. “That kind of transaction, whether it’s about the environment or racial inequality, is not going to create change.”
Some main thinkers on formal reparations, by which the federal authorities would give cash to Black descendants of the enslaved to assist bridge the racial wealth hole and as a type of therapeutic, say people like Ms. Marshall ought to use their money and time to push Congress to behave.
Mary Frances Berry, the previous chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights has known as on the federal authorities to begin a reparations Superfund. She stated the small sum that Ms. Marshall may pay is not any substitute for a authorities program, and would solely impoverish her. It wouldn’t be actually reparative, and will even be harmful.
“The risk I am talking about is not just about people shunning her, but the risk of people doing violence to her or her family,” Dr. Berry stated. “Some people may take it upon themselves to shut her up.”
A Visit With the Kirbys
From her porch, Ms. Marshall routinely retains a watch on the Kirbys, a pair of their late 70s who stay simply throughout the highway. The relationship is a jumbled mixture of shared historical past, familial love and unstated ache.
When she was younger, Nancy Kirby and her household had been renters, dwelling in one of many shacks earlier than Ms. Marshall’s grandparents purchased that tract within the 1950s. Gene Kirby typically labored for Ms. Marshall’s grandfather.
Nancy and Gene Kirby spend numerous time on the porch of their house, simply throughout the highway from Ms. Marshall’s farm.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York Times
There are few folks round to assist the Kirbys as they age. A son lives in Ohio, however seldom comes house. A close-by niece pitches in, however can do solely a lot.
Ms. Marshall fills the position a daughter-in-law would possibly. On holidays, she and her daughters ship nation ham and breakfast casseroles. When her mom died, Ms. Marshall stumbled into their den and grieved, her head in Ms. Kirby’s lap.
One of the primary issues Ms. Marshall did when she moved to the farm was ask the Kirbys if her grandfather had left any debt to them unpaid. Mr. Kirby requested her to untangle a small land dispute. Ms. Marshall promised to pay him for the land as soon as they get it surveyed.
Ms. Marshall can’t think about providing them something that they may interpret as charity. They wouldn’t even settle for the present of her grandmother’s chair. Raising problems with reparations and reconciliation with them makes her uncomfortable.
“I would never want to do anything that would feel disrespectful,” she stated.
But one afternoon final winter, Ms. Marshall walked throughout the highway particularly to talk about racism. She introduced a duplicate of the slave information, and organized for Paulette Perry, 77, a cousin of Mr. Mosley’s who’s one thing of a household historian, to hitch them.
At first, nobody had a lot to say. They talked about Mr. Kirby’s tractors and who known as Ms. Marshall the final time her cows obtained out.
Then they turned to problems with race.
“We never really had any problem with Black and white,” Mrs. Perry stated.
“You just kind of knew where you stood and knew everybody,” Mrs. Kirby stated.
The two laughed about how their brothers needed to defend them from some white boys who threw stones as they walked house from faculty. How they hid below a mattress, crying in worry for a half-day after somebody pulled a prank and stated the Ku Klux Klan was on its means.
The laughter pale. There had been the resort rooms Mr. Kirby was refused when he was on the highway driving eighteen-wheelers, and the occasions he needed to put up a combat to receives a commission.
The Kirbys have hung pictures of their two sons of their den, together with one containing a lock of hair from Gordon Eugene, who was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver at age four.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York TimesMs. Marshall introduced the slave information from her household’s farm over to the Kirby house to debate how racism has performed out of their group.Credit…Nydia Blas for The New York Times
And there was the demise, at age four, of the Kirbys’ son Gordon Eugene. A photograph, with a lock of his hair, hangs of their den. On Sept. 10, 1967, a white teenage driver sped down the highway not removed from the Scoggins farm and struck him. Mr. Kirby noticed it occur. “I was across the road holding my other baby in my arms,” he stated.
The teenager’s mom denied that her son was the motive force. Mr. Kirby stated he known as the sheriff and the state patrol, however they by no means confirmed as much as take a report.
Standing on the Kirbys’ porch, Ms. Marshall stated her goodbyes and headed again throughout the highway. The path to reconciliation nonetheless wasn’t clear.
“These are people that I love dearly,” she stated. “How do I put a number on what they have lived through?”