Sunday, February 3, 2013

Illusions of Freedom

The picture I've posted above is Wilson Steverson.

He was born in 1838 on the Stephenson plantation in Coweta County. Wilson was one of fourteen children raised by Archie and Harriet.

I can't even imagine trying to cover all the bases with raising fourteen children, but of course, Archie and Harriet didn't experience many of the things I had going on as a parent. They didn't have any school activities, traffic, dinners out, money worries, etc. All they had to worry about was keeping their master satisfied.

Archie and Harriet were slaves. They belonged to Moore Stephenson who owned the plantation.
Yes, Archie and Harriet and their children belonged to Moore Stephenson. Of course, this means they were property. Think about your own dishes, the car, books, clothes....all property, right? Archie and Harriet were on the same level of thought as your computer or the rug on your floor.

The image below is taken from an inventory list Moore Stephenson created at some point. (You can click it to isolate and enlarge it)

Among the inventory you can see there is nine year old Wilson (down at the bottom). Notice he was worth $300. I think you can buy some brands and sizes of flat screen televisions for $300 today, can't you?
Moore Stephenson had owned Archie and Harriet for many years. Archie had helped his master clear his land when it had been nothing but a frontier full of rattlesnakes and an Indian here and there according to family lore. There is also a family story that tells how the master saved Archie's life when a panther was close by and ready to attack.
I'm certain that there was some degree of feeling on both sides, but when everything was boiled down...Archie didn't really have a choice in helping Moore clear his property, and Moore certainly had no choice in saving Archie's life.  He would be out a large investment.

The master's family along with his slaves were thrown into a tailspin when Moore Stephenson died in 1849. The slaves along with all of the property were divided into equal lots for the survivors. The estate handlers worked meticulously to make sure each lot was equal monetarily....around $1600. Slaves were listed along with horses, mules, chickens and farm equipment.

Archie went to Linnah, Moore's wife, but later on Linnah Stephenson fell on hard times, and Archie was sold to a man named Brewster. Archie was fortunate in that he saw his wife and a few of his children on the weekends, and there was always a little extra time at Christmas. Most slaves who were separated from their spouses, parents and children never saw them again.

While the manner of dividing Moore Stephenson's property seemed fair to his heirs, the process of dividing the estate had a huge effect on Archie and Harriet's family.

With the flick of a pen Archie and Harriet went to different owners and their children were divided as well. Wilson and his brother were given to Emily Stephenson, the master's daughter. At the time she was eleven.

Per the African American Encyclopedia of History edited by Paul Finkelman...."While some family members were merely hired out or rented, others were sold, mortgaged attached to satisfy debt or transferred to Texas with the expansion of the Cotton Kingdom."

A few years ago when I was still in the classroom, students would invariably puff up and tell me that IF they had been living during slave times they would have run away, they would have revolted, they would NOT have put up with slavery at all, but it just wasn't that simple.

In an article from The Herald, Roland Barksdale-Hall who happens to be a great-grandson of Wilson Steverson says, "Wilson and his family never considered running away as an option. Because of strong family ties, a runaway slave feared retribution from his family as well as from his master...Slaves wanted to be free, but with their whole family."

So, life continued for Wilson and his new owner Emily Stephenson. A few years later when she married George R. Fambrough, Wilson followed his new master to the front during the Civil War in the capacity of a body servant. You can find out more about the role of a body servant here.
With the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments Wilson and his family were finally free, and while they certainly celebrated that fact, we need to remember that freedom in 1865...and at least the next hundred years....wasn't freedom as you and I would describe it. As soon as the 13th amendment was passed southern states passed Black Codes which basically kept former slaves under constant scrutiny of the white community.

As the family reunited Archie changed his surname from Brewster to Stephenson to reflect homage of sorts to his former master, and they encouraged their children to do the same. Most did. However, somehow, Wilson went with the "Steverson" spelling.

After emancipation Wilson worked as a farmhand, logger and peddler in Coweta County. He saved 50 cents on every dollar he made to purchase 80 acres in 1885. The total cost was $600. 

The land he chose lay along the Georgia Pacific railroad in Salt Springs/Lithia Springs. Yes, I'm sure you were beginning to wonder where the Douglas County tie-in was going to come in. The property had a two-story house and six 3-4 room cabins. The Encyclopedia of African American History states, "The spacious grounds of Wilson Steverson's farm reflected a high standard of living with respect to the black family in the late 19th century." While it wasn't unusual for black men to own land at the time Wilson was certainly in the minority of his race, and according to Barksdale-Hall Wilson had to keep an independent relationship going with certain whites in order to keep the Ku Klux Klan from forcing him off his land. It was also helpful that Wilson Steverson was a mulatto having bi-racial ancestors.

Wilson and his wife Rilla raised nine children in Douglas County....three of which would become educators. Over the years Wilson planted cotton crop after cotton crop....a very successful money maker for Douglas County farmers, white and black alike, for many years following Reconstruction.

The picture below is Wilson's family taken during a family reunion on the Salt Springs/Lithia Springs property.  Wilson and his wife are to the extreme left.

Economically, things began to change in the 1920s....
While most of the country experienced a boom in the market place, the price of cotton began to fall in Georgia. The boll weevil had arrived in the state around 1915, but by the mid-twenties farmers were feeling the full effects of ravaged fields.
Faced with menial jobs here in the south as the only alternative, Wilson sold his land and along with his daughter Mary and son-in-law Joseph he moved to Pennsylvania.'

At the age of 80 Wilson became part of what we history types designate as the Great Migration.  From 1916 to 1930 over one million blacks left the South for better economic opportunities in the North.

Per his great-grandson, he also left Georgia to experience real freedom, "He knew how to play the game, but he was tired of it."

Wilson worked for the Erie Paper Mill and American Sheet and Tin Plate Company in Farrell. He also served as the caretaker for the Church of God campgrounds while Joseph and Mary also had a stand at the Farrell Curb Market where they sold butter, fruit and pork.

By 1921, Wilson's son Etania and his wife and children moved to Farrell. Suddenly, there were three generations living in a three bedroom house, but isn't that what family does when they need to?

Etania had been a sharecropper and cotton picker here in Georgia. He got a job in the Farrell works of Carnegie Steel.

While Wilson and his children did find more economic opportunities in Pennsylvania, it wasn't all a bed of roses. The house they lived in which was owned by the steel company was in poor shape. The bathrooms on the upper floors leaked...urine often dripped down the walls. Blacks were given the lowest paid jobs at the steel mill and other places even when they had high school diplomas while their white counterparts had not finished school.

Before his death in 1948, Wilson Steverson was honored as one of fifteen centenarians in the state of the time he was 109. Of the fifteen people honored he was the only one who had been born a slave.

Terry Harper, one of Douglas County's famous sons is the great-great grandson of Wilson Steverson!

The Herald
The Post Gazette
A family newsletter....
A play by Roland Barksdale-Hall containing several family documents/pictures


  1. Wow! What a beautiful tribute to our ancestors. My mother and aunt, would refer to themselves as Georgia Peaches throughout their lives,would return from Pennsylvania to Douglas County for the May Day Singing. I would like to invite you to attend my presentation, "210 Years Later: From Georgia Slavery to the Atlanta Braves and Globetrotters: Researching a Black Coweta County Family's Roots, Struggles and Progress" at the Georgia Archives on Saturday, October 18, 2014 at 11:00 a.m. It would be wonderful to meet some folks from our "Old Georgia Home." Rev. Roland Barksdale-Hall

  2. I'm a descendant of Moore Stephenson and am so grateful to stumble upon this story!


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