Reading Matters

The story of former N.C. slaves who bought land they’d worked in bondage

Here in “A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland” (Harvard University Press), is the remarkable story of 114 black slaves who migrated in 1844 from North Carolina to a 1600-acre plantation in Greensboro, Ala., owned by Paul Cameron, heir to the Stagville Plantation outside Durham. By 1870, thanks to their hard work and tenacity, the former slaves – only blacks, no whites – had purchased from Cameron the land they earlier worked in bondage.

This fascinating story is told by Sydney Nathans, professor emeritus at Duke University, where he taught for 40 years. Nathans first visited Greensboro, Ala., in 1978, and found, sitting on her porch, a descendant of one of the former slaves. Alice Hargress was still living in a house on Cameron Place, and the story of how her ancestors had come down from North Carolina to work the Cameron’s plantation had been passed down for generations.

“Alice Hargress had been fierce about holding on to the land and equally fierce about others doing the same,” Nathans writes. “Blacks who let their land go, whether becuse of bad management, deception on the part of others, or indifference, she regarded almost as ‘goats’ -- men (and it was usually men) who didn’t see what it took to get and hold the land, or, above all, what having land meant for generations to come. Those who willfully or drunkenly relinguished the land she regarded as Judases.”

This book seeks to “humanize what it took for African Americans to get land to illuminate how and why successive generations held on to it against all odds and, s one observer put it, ‘against all comers.’ ”