Monday, January 19, 2009
The other morning I drove over to The Property on Which I Have Permission to Trespass (Commenter Breezeway's Gwynn's Island cottage) and was treated to a light and color show. Lightness, darkness and color are part of what today's story is about.
In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I am sharing some facts and a story relating to race relations on Gwynn’s Island.
John W. Dixon wrote a book entitled The Black Americans of Gwynn’s Island, 1600s through 1900s, “Facts and Perceptions,” from which I took the following information:
“1. The first black people arrived on the Island in the mid-1600s.
2. Black men, women and children accounted for nearly half the Island’s population from 1790 through 1860.
3. The first major decline in the black population occurred after the Civil War.
4. The black community was fairly well established in 1910. By 1920, the last black family departed.”
Mathews Mountain Man, who grew up on Gwynn’s Island, shares a story about the decline in the black population below. Thanks, MMM, for your contribution.
by Mathews Mountain Man (MMM)
"Most people called him Daddy Jim. He was a hard man, at times. Folks that knew him say that he cursed, often – G.D. this and the hell with that. I suppose he was that way because he wasn’t a big man, but he always had a big man’s job. He was a waterman all his life – lived on Gwynn’s Island, which sits in the Chesapeake Bay between the York and Piankatank Rivers. The Island is shaped like a triangle; about three miles long on the Bay side. A good part of it is marshland, filled with “skeeters” in the summertime. Back in Daddy Jim’s day the only way on and off the island was by boat or ferry.
Daddy Jim owned a couple of work-boats – used them for crabbing, fishing and raking oysters off the bottom of the Bay. He sometimes had a bunch a fellas working for him – big round-shouldered guys, the kind of shoulders one gets from spending long days working a set of shaft tongs – these were the kinda men that wouldn’t take crap from anyone. So Daddy Jim had to be a hard man to keep fellas like that out of trouble, not to mention getting a good day's work out of them.
As hard as he was though, he had a reputation for trying to be fair and for acting prudently when the well being of others was at stake...
During the first part of the twentieth century, Gwynn’s Island was racially integrated. But, as was common throughout the south during that time, there were whites that didn’t want their neighborhood integrated; and, they would often blame anything that went wrong on the blacks. If something was stolen the whites blamed the blacks; if some skittish souls were suddenly awakened late at night by strange noises, they claimed that black folks were out to get them. Talk went on like that for years until one day a white man accused a black man of cutting him up and robbing him a few days before Christmas. The white man went around telling others his story, getting everyone stirred up.
Until recently, I believed that that event represented the low point of race relations on Gwynn’s Island and that Daddy Jim and a few others subsequently rounded up all the blacks and told them that they had twenty-four hours to get off the island – and, twenty-four hours later they were gone. My grandfather (Poppa), however, recently shared a more detailed version of the story that offers a different perspective.
Poppa confirmed the story about a white man who was cut-up before Christmas and that a black man was accused of the crime. He added that there was a trial; a trial that was typical of the early 1900s. An all-white jury saw a white man who had been cut-up, claiming that he had been knifed by the black man. When the black man pleaded his innocence the jury didn’t believe him. What Poppa told me next, however, came as a surprise.
Poppa said that after the trial Daddy Jim overheard one of the white men talking bout how he had lied, that he and another white man had been drunk and got in a fight with each other – things got a little out of hand and one cut the other up. He added that while the black man was in jail, some whites on the island started talking about lynching him. The whole thing snowballed, and within a short time a lot of blacks on the island were threatened. In the meantime, the black man was released from jail and went home to Gwynn’s Island. When he learned that his life was in danger he ran off to hide. At some point, Daddy Jim gathered a group of blacks at a church to discuss the situation. Poppa said that they decided that the safest thing to do was to leave the island; and, that night, Daddy Jim and my great-grandfather shuttled several boatloads of black folks, with all the belongings they could carry, from Edwards Creek to Cricket Hill. The wrongly accused black man, however, was still missing. My great-grandfather eventually found him hiding in the church attic. Poppa said his father had a hard time convincing the man to come with him; he feared that he was being lead into a trap. But the black man finally left the church, got on the boat and was taken to the mainland.
I asked Poppa why someone didn’t just tell “the law” that the two white men had lied. He said that it would not have done much good; the law wasn’t supportive of blacks back then.
Perhaps Daddy Jim bravely took on the risk of getting involved in the first place, though others might argue that he was opportunistic. I may never know the truth, but I’d like to think that Daddy Jim’s main concern was for everyone’s safety including his family, the blacks and even the whites. It seems like he did his best to make sure no one got hurt – and no one did. Sure, he could have taken a stronger stand; one might argue that he should have. But, he did act, and, perhaps for the times, he acted in a sensible way. After Poppa told me the story, I couldn’t help but wonder what would’ve happened to all the Jewish people in Krakow if Oskar Schindler had taken a more absolute, less subtle stand against the Nazis. Gwynn’s Island was not a holocaust prison camp, but in the early twentieth century it wasn’t above bloodshed over racial issues.
There’s more to Daddy Jim than I’ll ever know, good and bad. But if the story my grandfather told is true, I have a new found respect for Daddy Jim...
Today, Gwynn’s Island is once again integrated."