Did Not End With The Civil War. One
Man's Odyssey Into a Nation's Secret
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 16 1996; Page F01
I was hot, I was tuckered, I was angry. I
was a little boy, picking cotton for my grandfather on his 360 acre farm in Alabama, and I was
feeling like a slave. Lincoln
freed the slaves a hundred years ago, I informed my grandfather sourly.
"Mister Lincoln ain't freed no
slaves," he said. Slavery lasted well into the 20th century, he said, to
his personal knowledge.
My brothers and I were on break, sitting in
the shade of towering oaks, stupid with exhaustion, sipping sweet lemonade from
dented tin cups. Daddy Yo, which is what we called our grandfather, had us
transfixed and terrified as he sat and stroked his old gold pocket watch and
told us how white folks stole black children off the streets of Alabama and
took them to plantations as far away as the Mississippi Delta. How this was
done entire generations after the Emancipation Proclamation. How black people
were held in bondage. Daddy Yo had seen it happen, he told us.
I wondered if those white men might someday
come for me. I was 10.
By and by I grew bigger and stronger, and
Daddy Yo grew smaller and feebler, but the tale he told never got less vivid or
more benign. As a bent old man, he wept with each word as if ghosts had
returned from the past to feast on his soul.
Those summers on his farm were the cruelest
and the kindest of my life. The spiny points on the cotton buds ripped our
cuticles, making our fingers bleed. Once the skin toughened, the pain would
leave, replaced by something dark and gnarled and protective.
The scars on my hands have faded. The demons
of the past revisit me as they did my father and grandfather. Daddy Yo is dead
and his gold pocket watch belongs to me now. Today I find myself stroking it,
and telling my own children my grandfather's story, pretty much the way he told
It was 1918, and he was near 7 years old.
Daddy‑Yo and his friend Cleveland and two other boys were playing along a
dirt road in Sumter
County. They were big
kids, and strong looking. Suddenly, up pulled a brand‑new automobile. Lot of dust hanging behind. Two fancy‑dressed white
men settin' in the front.
Hey y'all nigra boys, have y'all ever seen
the likens of such a beautiful machine?
"I can't reckon we have, suh," my
grandfather replied, removing his cap
and lowering his eyes. It was
considered a sign of disrespect for Negroes to meet the stare of a white
person. In some parts, Negroes were thrown in jail and fined $25 for
"reckless eyeballing," which meant they made eye contact with a white
I'll tell you boys what. How about hoppin'
in for a ride down to York?
We'll be back before you know it.
Poor Negro boys riding in such elegance was
unheard of. They were more accustomed to traveling on splintery cross boards on
the back of mule‑drawn wagons. My grandfather was wary:
"We sho' do appreciate it, suh', but I
reckon we'd better be headed on back to the house now," he said.
"We're much obliged, though."
Suddenly the driver jumped from the car,
cursing and swearing.
The four boys broke toward the wooded area
along the roadside. My grandfather didn't stop running until he was on the
front porch of his house. He waited for a few minutes, praying the others would
soon join him. They never did.
My grandfather told his father what had
happened. Within minutes, a dozen men on mules and wobbly old field wagons were
on the roads, searching for the three stolen Negro children. But the boys were
gone. Authorities were notified. Authorities said nothing could be done, if
anything at all had happened. Negro boys sometimes get ideas into their heads,
and just plumb run away.
The story didn't end there. It ended 20
years later. My grandfather was sitting on his front porch, when he saw a
family of derelicts emerging from the back of a delivery truck.
He blinked and stared, then slowly rose to
his feet. The oldest derelict, with the grizzled face and the watery eyes, was
his old friend Cleveland, who had been by his side that day 20 years before but
was not as fast on his feet.
"When Cleveland saw us, it took more than an hour
to settle him down," said Daddy Yo. "We had to try to get him
pacified from that. There were two or three children standing out there not far
from him. When he learned his father had passed on, Cleveland cried."
Cleveland told Daddy Yo he had been taken to the Mississippi delta, sold
into slavery and held for 20 years on a plantation surrounded by two rivers and
protected by armed guards, barbed wire and dogs. He said he eventually escaped
with the help of a white laborer, who drove him off with the woman who had
wife on the plantation. There were other plantations, all over the South, Cleveland said. Men kept
under lock and key. Men whipped for insubordination, men killed on a whim.
Anyway, that was Daddy Yo's story.
Story like that stays in your head.