A sweeping look at nearly 200 years on a Southern plantation, told by a descendant of the slaves who lived there.
Historian Baker explains that his 30-year project documenting Wessyngton Plantation in northwest Tennessee began in the 1970s. Intrigued by an 1891 photograph in his seventh-grade social-studies textbook of four well-dressed, dignified African-Americans, he soon discovered that two of the former slaves in the picture were his great-great-grandparents. They had lived at Wessyngton, a huge plantation that in its heyday spanned thousands of acres and was a major producer of tobacco and other crops, all harvested by a slave labor force that included the author’s relatives. That revelation spurred Baker to interview former Wessyngton inhabitants and dig through massive records kept by the plantation’s owners, now in the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville. The result is not only an exhaustive, meticulous history of Baker’s family—his one-on-one interviews with elderly family members are particularly vivid and revealing—but also a portrait of what it was like to be a slave, and a former slave, in the pre– and post–Civil War South. One fascinating section reveals how Wessyngton slaves found opportunities to worship together despite the ban on congregating in large numbers (slaveowners feared rebellion). The songs they sang while toiling in the fields communicated the secret locations where that night’s service would be held. Baker also learned that one of his distant relatives was probably a white slaveowner, and that his great-great-grandfather was among the many slaves who ran away with the Union Army. The sheer amount of detail here can be daunting, but it is always riveting, and the importance of Baker’s research can’t be overstated. As one of his interviewees put it, “Our people need to know what all those people went through back then for us to get where we are now, especially the young folks.”
Enriching, deeply personal history.