Standing together on the wraparound front porch of this bungalow-style home, Dorothy Giles Ngongang and her younger sister Sandra Giles McBeth gaze across Pea Ridge Highway at a vast field and a large storage building filled with hay.
And memories of their childhood flow.
Back then, instead of the storage building, a small, dilapidated five-room hut housed the two of them, their parents and their eight siblings. Back then, they ate mostly what they could catch: rabbits, squirrels, river cooters, robins. Back then, during the cotton harvest, the Giles kids were only allowed to go to school when it rained – because on every dry day, they were needed in the fields.
A visitor can’t read Ngongang’s eyes, hidden behind dark sunglasses, but she smiles softly as she takes it in.
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“It’s just a blessing,” says the 72-year-old Charlottean, “to be on this side and not that side. It just shows you what the Lord has brought us from. All this time and all these years. ... We really came from –”
Her sister interrupts, forcefully: “Nothing. We came from nothing.”
“Over there, that was slavery,” says McBeth, 65, of Union, S.C. “And over here was freedom.”
The life of a sharecropper
Although the Giles family believes their ancestors were enslaved, so far they haven’t found records spelling that out.
But they do know that in the decades following the Emancipation Proclamation, many black families – including theirs – were caught up in another kind of exploitation permeating the cotton-planting South.
Almost as soon as the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, white landowners began seeking cheap labor to keep farms profitable, while freed slaves gravitated toward working these farms, as they sought ways to feed and shelter their families.
Black families routinely entered into agreements called sharecropping, in which they rented plots or “shares” of land and paid with a portion of their harvest. It was often a raw deal; landowners could lock families into contracts that wound up drowning them in debt.
Ngongang and McBeth say their father – Enoumas “Bo” Giles, born to a single mother, who died when he was 3 – was raised among sharecroppers, and from boyhood had it in his head that this type of work was the surest way to economic freedom.
In 1939, Bo Giles married a young woman named Lake Copeland, and as Bo worked tirelessly at sharecropping, the couple started a family that would grow to 10 children.
The Gileses first lived in a smaller hut on the farm. Then in the mid-1950s, they moved closer to the road, into one that housed all 12 for a time. Each of the children, as soon as they were able, were taught to farm the cotton fields and set to work by their father.
Sunup to sundown. Didn’t matter how hot the sun was. No lollygagging.
“I think I got a spanking every day, because I wasn’t using both hands,” recalls another Giles child, Mary Watkins, with a laugh. “You had to pick cotton with both hands.”
They’d come home to meals that sometimes were as paltry as cornbread and water; they used an outhouse because there was no indoor plumbing; they’d sleep two or three to a bed, and those “beds” were sackcloths filled with hay.
If it rained, and they couldn’t tend the crop, their father would allow them to take off for school. But if it cleared up in the middle of the day, he would pluck them out of class and hurry them back to the farm.
Watkins says the family would pick 40 bales of cotton per year (a bale weighs about 500 pounds), and would make maybe $300 for their efforts. Total. For the whole year. Some years, it was as little as $100, she says.
For food that the family didn’t hunt down and kill, pull out of the ground or off a tree, they went to a little store up the road that let them run a tab. The clerk never gave them any receipts for purchases, she says – so at the end of the year, when it was time to settle up, they just had to take the store’s word for how much they owed. It was usually almost everything they had.
But the Giles children knew there was a better life out there. All they had to do was look across the road at the big white house.
‘It was like a little refuge’
Its paint was white. The lawn was manicured. There were cozy-looking rocking chairs on the wraparound front porch.
“We thought that house was a mansion,” Dorothy Ngongang says.
It was on another large, rolling plot of land that was not a part of the farm they worked on, and it was owned by an affluent white couple with three daughters: Joan, Marian and Peggy Wheeler, who were close in age to several of the Giles kids.
In the era of Jim Crow laws that relegated black people to separate schools, separate drinking fountains and separate movie theater entrances, this was practically the only sliver of earth where Dorothy and her siblings felt equal to whites, she says. That’s because the Wheeler girls didn’t care that the Gileses were black.
They were just happy to have other children to play with.
“Mama wouldn’t let us go over there, unless there was an adult with us, but they could come over to our house every day,” recalls the youngest Wheeler, Peggy McKinney, who is now 67 and still lives in Jonesville. She laughs at how they’d circumvent this rule: “Mama would be inside watching TV and my sister could run like a racehorse, so I’d get out on the porch and make racket like me and her was out there playing, and she’d go running over there to get ’em.”
The kids would play ball out on the perfect front lawn in the shadow of a giant tree. Jackstones, pick-up sticks, marbles on the porch. Hide-and-seek underneath it.
The Giles children cherished these times. Says Ngongang: “It was like a little refuge.”
Off the farm, into college
By the 1950s, sharecropping was falling out of favor, but Bo Giles kept at it long after others had stopped. He finally gave it up in 1964.
According to the family, a massive hailstorm killed the crops that year, and on top of that, their mother finally succeeded in pressuring their father to make education a priority. (Neither Bo nor Lake Giles had ever learned to read.)
Eight of the 10 children would go on to earn high school diplomas, while continuing to do hard labor after they moved off of the farm.
They picked peaches. They cleaned houses. They worked in the cotton mill. Mary, for example, went to her high school during the day, then pulled second shift (4 to midnight) six nights a week at a mill owned by Milliken & Company. When she got home, she’d have homework to do.
The hard work and the hard line on education would continue to pay off: Bo died in 1974, but Lake (who died in 2004) would live to see four of the children earn two-year college degrees. Three more got bachelor’s degrees and all three of them would complete master’s programs.
Dorothy, who was salutatorian at her high school despite missing many days to the cotton fields, finished atop her class at Mars Hill College north of Asheville. She moved to Charlotte and spent the next several decades teaching high school biology and environmental science. Toward the end of her career, she taught Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes to students at Providence High, then West Charlotte; she left Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2007 to work for the district in Fort Mill, S.C., and retired three years later.
Her children – from a 13-year marriage that ended in 1993 – found their own academic success: Son Decker is a consultant to nonprofits in Seattle, daughter Chelsea is a cardiologist in Philadelphia.
Socioeconomically, Ngongang had been about as far away from the sharecropping life as she could get. Then one day the phone rang. It was Peggy McKinney, formerly Peggy Wheeler, one of the girls who had grown up across from the Gileses in that big white house.
In fact, McKinney wanted to know whether Ngongang and her siblings were interested in buying it.
‘Come on, we can do this!’
It had been about 10 years since anyone had occupied the house, and Peggy, who had inherited it and come upon financial and health problems, decided to sell rather than fix it up.
But before she put it on the market, she called Ngongang.
Why? McKinney says, simply: “They had lived across the road when we were growing up, and we played with them every day. ... So they were like family, so I thought, ‘OK, that’ll be sort of keeping it in the family.’ ”
When Ngongang and another sibling brought the idea to their younger sister, Mary Giles Watkins of Simpsonville, S.C., she balked.
“I said, ‘Wooooooo, this thing? Boy, it needs so much work,” Watkins recalls, laughing. “And they said, ‘Come on, we can do this!’ ”
As a child, she had looked across the road and saw it as a mansion. Now, more than half a lifetime later, she looked at it as something potentially not worth the trouble.
She laughs again, after someone points this out. Then she gets reflective.
“When I tell people now the way I lived, they don’t wanna believe it. ‘No, you didn’t!’ Oh yes, I did! And sometimes I catch myself being ashamed of it, but then again ... that’s just my life. That’s how I grew up. That’s a part of me. I can’t be ashamed of my life. I’m alive, I’m healthy, and my mom and dad did the best that they could. I’m not ashamed of them.”
‘I’d rather them have it’
As Ngongang flits from room to room while giving a tour of the house, it quickly becomes apparent how much work the family has put into it – and how much work is left to be done.
“They had a smaller kitchen, and we sort of opened it up.
“We added a Jacuzzi in this bathroom, and there’s a new hot tub in that other one.
“It needs a roof, that’s probably $10,000; siding, six or seven thousand; the windows need to be replaced, that’s about $8,000; and my brother wants a fence around the whole property.”
It’ll all get done, she says, because it has to.
Because this is now the place that her family – many of whom are scattered between Charlotte and Atlanta – has designated as the meeting point for holidays, or birthdays, or anniversaries, or any other time they want to connect.
Since Ngongang, Watkins and a third sibling purchased the house in April 2015, they’ve poured tens of thousands of dollars into making it not just livable, but lavish. Finally, this past Christmas, it was in good enough shape to accommodate a big holiday gathering of Bo Giles’s descendants. They came together to feast on turkey, ham, pulled pork, candied yams, collards, sweet potato pies and on and on.
They opened presents. They watched NBA games. They told stories. Ngongang’s son Decker chronicled the occasion on social media (posts that ended up going viral).
And when they went outside, then crossed the road to pet a neighbor’s horses, they were just a few hundred yards away from where several Gileses once celebrated around a spindly tree decorated with popcorn threaded onto string.
Back then, on Christmas, each child received the same thing from Santa every year: a brown paper bag containing one peppermint stick, one orange and one apple. Nothing more.
As Ngongang and McBeth stand in the yard sharing these memories, a car pulls into the driveway.
It’s Marian Belue – the middle Wheeler sister, who lives over the rise – and she greets them with a hug, then joins the conversation.
“It makes me sad that it’s not in the family,” says Belue, 69, of the house she grew up in. “But if anybody had to have it, I’m glad they got it. ... I’d rather them have it than anybody around.”
The women all look at each other, and share a smile.
“Thank you,” Ngongang says, softly.
“I feel at home when I come down,” Belue says.
“And you’re welcome,” Ngongang says, “to come anytime.”