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Column: As we celebrate history, let’s honor all of it

A number of years ago I went to rural Georgia to research the history of Jimmy Wilson, an elderly Black man who lived in the farm labor camp that once sat by the railroad tracks on Depot Lane in Cut­ch­ogue.

In his past I saw the arc of the American story, which supposedly bends toward justice. He was the grandson of an enslaved man named Shadrack Wilson; he was born in Georgia at a time when Black men and women were hanged from trees and lamp posts in front of enthusiastic crowds; he fled the South at the age of 13 or 14 to work on farms in the North; he died near the Depot Lane camp at the age of 87. 

He was as much a unique part of American history as he was to the history of the North Fork. To be clear, I am not writing this column because February is Black History Month. That’s all well and good. The people who lived in this camp deserve more than a mention during a designated month.

Their unsung contribution to the farming industry is a reminder that our past must be told in a different way — wider, broader, with the good and the bad: the whole story. 

Amy Folk, the Southold Town historian, and researchers Jackie Dinan, Richard Wines, Sandi Brewster Walker and I are researching the history of slavery on the North Fork, a practice that lasted here from roughly 1650 to the mid-1820s. That has also been an untold story, as historical societies in the area have previously shown little interest in the subject. 

Over the years Southern-born men and women lived in the Depot Lane camp: Bea Shaw, Frank Singleton, Oliver Burke, Eddie Clarke, to name just a few. Most spent the better part of their adult lives there. Many died there; some were buried in paupers’ graves.

While all the camp’s residents knew shards of their own stories, Mr. Wilson knew considerably more. He had worked on farms and lived in squalid labor camps from the age of 13 or 14 to his death. The others knew so little about themselves that I found their lack of any personal history to be astonishing.

Frank wasn’t sure of his last name and didn’t know where he was born, how old he was, or the names of any family members. Oliver knew he was born in Georgia, but that was it. He had never seen his birth certificate. Bea knew a little more about herself, and I was able to fill in some details when she introduced me to her mother in Riverhead. 

The morning I met her mother, Mary Evans, was the day of Bea’s funeral. After the grading barn at the camp burned down in 2006 and the camp was shuttered, she left to try and start over in Riverhead. She was murdered by a knife-wielding assailant in her East Main Street apartment. Her mother found the body.

Prior to the fire, it was clear the end of the camp was near. The local potato economy was down to a handful of growers. Mr. Wilson knew that but said he would be fine. Even in his 80s his sense of self-preservation — of his self-worth — was boundless. 

He knew he had been born in Barwick, Ga., in 1918; he knew his mother’s name was Ada Wilson; his father, he believed, was Berry Wilson. He said he left school in the third grade to milk cows so he could have money to support himself.

I told Mr. Wilson I would take him to Barwick to live out whatever remained of his years. I thought it would close the circle of his life and bring him back to where he was born. He refused. He would often get angry when I brought it up: “I will never go back to Barwick, Ga.” was his usual refrain.

I told him I would go. I hoped he would change his mind. He dug his heels in further. But the larger impact of the fire was that it forced a personal reckoning, making the residents confront the truth that they really did not know who they were or where they belonged. Mr. Wilson did not want to confront that truth.

My research in Barwick and nearby Thomasville offered clues as to his refusal to go home. In Thomas County where he was born, Black men and women were lynched for a variety of mostly invented “crimes.” Between 1882 and 1930, when Mr. Wilson was 12 years old, there were 458 lynchings in Georgia, state records show.

In 1920, when he was 2 years old, a Black man in Barwick (population about 80 at the time) named Ralph Wilson was chased by a lynch mob that said he had attacked a white woman in her home. His life was saved when deputies took him to another county to be jailed and await trial.

In February 1921 he was acquitted as it had become clear the “attack” never took place. The white doctor who had examined the so-called victim refused to testify at the trial and was fined by the judge. He wanted no part of an injustice. Without him, there was no case.

The very last paragraph of one of the newspaper accounts showed that, after the acquittal, Ralph Wilson was put in a sheriff’s car and driven out of town where he was dropped off. I have no idea what became of him after that. 

For a while I believed Ralph Wilson was Jimmy Wilson’s father, or perhaps his father’s brother, but most certainly a relative. He told me he didn’t know who Ralph Wilson was. I don’t think he told me the truth. This case, and all the others like it, may have explained his continued refrain of “I will never go back.” 

Around 1932, Mr. Wilson — just 13 or 14 years old — climbed up on the back of a pickup truck that took him to Red Bank, N.J., where he moved into a labor camp. And thus began his life bagging potatoes for New Jersey and eastern Long Island farmers — a life story essential to our local economy that no one ever recognized.

I heard an astonishing story when I was in Barwick, and it is one that has stuck with me as the group I mentioned above continues its research into the history of the enslaved on the North Fork. 

A white man named Ward Manley, whose family had once owned a labor camp in Barwick where Black men and women lived and worked tapping pine trees for sap to be made into turpentine, told me his family history. Historians have labeled these camps slavery by another name.

He said that in 1850s Alabama, his great-grandfather, was desperate to save his newborn son after the mother had died in childbirth. As he searched for some way to save the baby, a slave trader brought his caravan into town. One of the Black women offered for sale had just given birth to a baby boy.

Mr. Manley’s great-grandfather purchased the woman and her baby for $1,100 — equivalent to more than $36,000 today. The baby took the Manley surname, and his mother became the wet nurse to the white newborn, also named Manley. As Mr. Manley told me one day in his house in Barwick, “I was born because my father was born because his father was saved by a slave. She is why I am here today.”

Mr. Manley’s story illustrates the deeply human way the lines of fate, history and people are entwined, how the lives of the enslaved wrap together with the lives of their enslavers. There is no reason to believe it was any different on the East End. The surnames of the enslaved here show that.

The research done by our group’s North Fork Project has already broken an impressive amount of ground identifying the extent of slavery here and the names of many of the enslaved. This research will be shared with the public in the coming months.

There are no historical markers on the North Fork acknowledging the institution of slavery that existed here for more than 170 years. Nor are there markers to the dozens of farm labor camps that once populated Riverhead and Southold. Mark Torres’ recently published “Dust for Blood” is the first book-length treatment of the camps.

You aren’t likely to see the names of Jimmy Wilson, Bea, Oliver and Frank in a school curriculum about the local agricultural industry. Nor would you be likely to learn about an enslaved man named Elymus Reeve, who lived in Cut­ch­ogue and Mattituck, and was freed by his enslaver, Elizabeth Reeve. Our group will correct that.

But they were here, all of them.