Monday, January 19, 2009

Race Relations

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.
Daddy Jim
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."


abb said...

I just love Daddy Jim. Because on him, this world is a lot better place to be. Wish I could give him a big old kiss on the cheek. That's a lot of legacy to live up to.

Unknown said...

What an interesting story. I love folk stores, or folklore as it's sometimes referred to. Thank you for the good read.

Val said...

what a bitter sweet story - with a heroic ending thanks to Daddy Jim. How the world has changed.....hasnt it?

Ann Marie said...

Great post today! I like hearing stories about the Island. I really do not know much about it.

Anonymous said...

When I was in Salt Lake City, I looked up the 1920s census. Very interesting history lesson.

Do you know what Daddy Jim's last name was? Could it have been Brown?

Mental P Mama said...

Wow. We've come so far. Bless his heart.

MommyTime said...

Seriously, I know I should be all witty and funny in your comments because your posts are generally that, but I mean it when I say: you MUST write a book, CBW! Your photos and stories would make the most wonderful "curling up to read" collection. And I"m not even kidding when I say you should email me sometime if you ever think you might want to do this and want to talk about how to pitch a book to a publisher.

Anonymous said...

Another of life's little fork-in- the-road. Just like planes landing in rivers, events could have taken a different turn on the island back then. Untold stories continue to exist because lives were spared.


Anonymous said...

Great story! I'd LOVE to know what ever became of Daddy Jim and his family.

Bayman said...

The story was passed down in my family, too. It was not passed down as something of hate, but of what might have been if not for Daddy Jim. It is part of our history and needs to be told. Today of all days, it is most fitting. The whole world has reason to celebrate with us. Tuesday begins a new era of hope.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to CBW for taking the “risk” and posting this story, to Bayman for adding a degree of credibility, and to the rest of you for your indulgence. My own misgivings about the story notwithstanding, I am pleased that we have arrived at a time when a “man” is judged more by the content of his character than by the color of his skin.

Now, enough melodrama, it’s time for CBW to post one of her rip-roaring, wise-cracking, catch-yourself snorting stories. Her comment count is down... go CBW!


Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

No, thank YOU Mathews Mountain Man for writing this for us. We need to know more about our past because the experts--our older population--are dying off, and their stories die with them.

You'll have to wait until Wednesday for one of my more typically ridiculous posts...tomorrow is short and sweet due to the Inauguration.

Speaking of the Inauguration, I have a dress that will either be at or near the official, historic festivities tomorrow. I loaned it to a friend's daughter (an athlete extraordinaire at Mathews High School--I live vicariously through her). It's between mine and another dress but no matter - she took my dress with her.

Yes, it's a stretch, but it's the closest thing I"ll come to rubbing elbows with history in the making. My dress. (On somebody else.) At (or near) a most historic event.

I think I need to get out more when I am bragging about stuff like this.

Have a great evening, everyone.

Anonymous said...

Note that I should have credited MLK for the "...content...color..." remark.


Anonymous said...

Great story MMM! I wish I knew Daddy Jim's last name, also. B/c I'll bet some of his people are still in the county and they should be proud! I'm qwahhing in a good way!!

Middle Sis

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

Middle Sister - Glad to hear the qwah, we need to hear it more often. Boom Bam Bippy.

Anonymous said...

does anyone know Daddy Jim's last name? dang. I wish I knew to ask Granny two weeks ago what she knew about this story

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this. MMM thanks for sharing.

Life's direction is rarely decided by a watershed moment, but rather by a series of small decisions. We never know if we're doing right, so we do the best we can.

My hat's off to Capt. Jim for doing the best he could for his neighbors.


foolery said...

When I come here I feel as if I've been hanging out in a barber shop listening to old guys tell stories. I mean that as a compliment. This story is precious, and should be sent to your local historical society, college, library -- everyone.

Thanks, CBW, and thank you especially to MMM for keeping good stuff like that from slipping quietly away.

Unknown said...

My family was in Mathrews in the early 1840s by the the name of Allen, Peter Robert Allen was my grandfather.

Unknown said...

I loved reading this story, written so many years ago. I was wondering if either MMM or Batman would talk to me about it. I am updating John Dixon’s book, Black Africans of Gwynn’s Island, and I’d like to include the story. John refers to it, but you all seem to have much more information. I can be reached at PS I am related to Hudgins and Edwards families of GI