One October weekend a couple years ago, I drove four hundred miles from my apartment in New York City to an all-day diner near Niagara Falls, to meet a man to whom I might — we weren’t sure — be related. We’d found each other through an African-American genealogy group for people who live in, or come from, or have ties to Carroll County in the Mississippi Delta. The man’s name was Carlos and he’d introduced himself on the group’s Facebook page as the great-grandson of a former slave at a Delta plantation called Cotesworth. I wrote to him saying that my family comes from there too. We were the ones who owned Cotesworth.
Neither Carlos nor I had been to Niagara Falls before. He was there for his sister’s wedding; I was there to meet him. I’d chosen the diner because it looked warm and inviting. It was a small place, with a line of swivel stools in front of a long Formica countertop and a handful of vinyl booths occupied by people who, based on their ability to order without a menu, seemed to come there a lot. Waitresses wiped counters and carried plates stacked with pancakes as Carlos, his wife Tai, and I sat in a back booth. We tried to figure out what kind of small talk was appropriate among strangers when one of them came from a family that had once enslaved the other’s.
“Do you know if anyone’s done anything like this before?” I asked.
Carlos shook his head. He had a broad, relaxed smile, a trim beard, and the slight paunch that often comes with middle age. “No,” he said, “I don’t believe there’s been any contact between the two sides until now.”
We’d come together to verify a story, passed down among some members of Carlos’s family — I never heard it from mine — that Carlos’s great-grandfather, Joe George, was actually my great-great-great grandfather’s son. Carlos wasn’t sure if it was true, but there were several black Georges in Carroll County who talked about this possibility as if it were fact. They’d been told so by their grandparents, who in turn had been told by theirs. Their only proof, such as it was, was the fact that the name of Joe’s father was never recorded and that he seemed to come into a small sum money immediately after the Civil War.
Carlos and I had ordered DNA kits, which we planned to take later in our respective hotel rooms; neither of us wanted to spit into test tubes in the middle of a diner. We talked for two hours over coffee and cinnamon-raisin toast. We told each other about our jobs, our hobbies, and our families — who they are, where they came from, and just how deeply they intersect. “If it’s true, we’ll have to tell somebody,” Carlos said, “to get our side of things put into the story of Cotesworth.”
I’m not from Mississippi but my father is. His mother grew up in Greenwood, a small town about fifty miles east of the Mississippi River, where the flat Delta land is just beginning to tilt and roll again. Her name was Vernon — an unusual name for a woman, made even more unusual because no one in our family can remember how she got it. The story I’ve been told is that Vernon was named after an itinerant preacher who traveled through Greenwood sometime in the 1910s and swept her mother into a fervent, if brief, religious frenzy. Vernon hated her name and told her children never to pass it on. But then she died. She walked outside one Sunday morning in 1974, picked up the newspaper, took it back to bed with her, and that was it. The maid found her two days later, a cold cup of coffee still on her nightstand. She was fifty-six. Her oldest child, my father, was twenty-five years old and two weeks into his first job at a bank up north in Chicago. I came along many years later and so my (middle) name is Vernon too.
My family is deeply, intractably Southern. I’m not. I’m the only one on either side (my mother comes from Memphis) born above the Mason-Dixon line, a fact that inspired my parents to affectionately dub me “The Damn Yankee” whenever I said or did something they considered too Northern, such as pronounce “New Orleans” as two separate words or say “you guys” instead of “y’all.” For the past nine years I’ve lived in New York City, working at magazines and renting charming (OK, cramped) apartments — a lifestyle about as far removed from the Mississippi Delta as one can get while still remaining in the United States.
Still, I feel culturally connected to the region, much the way I imagine children of immigrants identify with a homeland that has never been their own. I don’t know why I feel this way, exactly. It’s a hard thing to suss out. Maybe it’s because before New York, I lived for seven years in Nashville. Or that on more than one occasion I’ve had to explain to fellow Northerners what pralines are. Or that when I take those “soda or pop?” regional dialect quizzes, the language algorithms never know where to place me. I grew up accompanying my parents to places such as Graceland and Vicksburg’s battlefields. On a family trip to Natchez when I was six or seven, I bought a small Confederate flag in the gift shop of an antebellum home-turned-museum and kept it in my room, on display next to some plastic horse figurines, until I grew old enough to know what it meant and put it away.
But while I feel drawn to the South, my father has taken pains to scrub his Southernness away. He lost his Mississippi accent decades ago; when the bankers and businessmen in Chicago heard his drawl they assumed he was uneducated and maybe a little stupid, so to further his career he worked to get rid of it. Only a few traces remain, such as his habit of shortening the name of his home state to three syllables instead of four. Or the words “pin” and “pen,” which he vehemently believes should be pronounced the same way. And then, of course, there’s the biggest relic of all: Cotesworth, the grand, gable-roofed white mansion and accompanying nine hundred-and-some-odd acres that members of his family — Vernon’s family, my family — has lived in for more than 150 years. My dad calls it the big house.
Cotesworth is one of the Delta’s last remaining plantations. My great-great-great grandfather, a man named James Zachariah George, bought it, named it, and used the land to grow cotton, wheat, corn, oats, rice, hay, and sweet potatoes. He was also a lawyer, then a colonel in the Confederate army, the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court, and for two terms, until his death in 1897, he was a U.S. Senator. He believed in slavery. He fought against Reconstruction. When the political tide turned away from him, he devised methods to ensure that his people — white people — would remain on top. In 1931 the state chose him as one of two Mississippians it wanted to memorialize in the National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. You can still find him there, bold and bronze, with one hand in the breast of his overcoat, right in the U.S. Capitol’s visitor’s center.
J.Z., as my family calls him, raised his nine surviving children at Cotesworth. When he died, he gave the plantation to one of them, who gave it to another, and so on. Today it’s a cattle farm. Vernon’s younger cousin, Kat, still lives there. Kat is eighty-three now but she still wakes up before dawn to feed the two hundred or so cows that graze on Cotesworth’s fields. She drives a tractor and bales her own hay, but she’s been having a harder and harder time finding the money — and energy — to keep up the big house. Sometimes she’ll rent it out to Hollywood filmmakers, which is how Cotesworth came to be Jessica Chastain’s great mansion in The Help. But maintaining such an old house costs a lot of money and there just aren’t enough movies filmed in rural Mississippi to pay for its upkeep.
Every time I visit Cotesworth the paint is peeling a little more, the floorboards sagging a little lower. The house still doesn’t have central heat or air-conditioning, and the second kitchen — built in the 1950s, when Kat and her late husband, J.B., moved into the place — has been plagued by wasp nests for as long as I can remember. So in 2013, Kat sold Cotesworth to the state of Mississippi. She moved out of the big house and into a much smaller one elsewhere on the property. The state, through a non-profit, will preserve the mansion as a museum and event space. Kat is the last person who’ll ever live at Cotesworth.
There are two sides to the story of Cotesworth, but they both start the same way: with the man who owned it. Everything happened because of him.
James Z. George was a big, bowlegged man with a fleshy face and a long goatee that over the years faded from rust to a light gray. He went by Jim among friends, though he never seemed to have many. J.Z. was quiet and gruff and dressed so poorly that when he moved to Washington D.C. in 1881 — to serve the first of what would ultimately be his two terms in the United States Senate — a local newspaper noted that his hat looked “as though it had been jammed by every awning post and umbrella between the Treasury and Capitol.” A law partner once joked that he dressed like an educated hog.
J.Z. was born in 1826 into a well-off family in Georgia that had hundreds of acres of land and several slaves. But then his father died. J.Z. was barely a year old. His father didn’t leave a will.
This was a problem for J.Z.’s mother, Mary. In Georgia in the 1820s, wives didn’t automatically inherit their husband’s money or possessions, so in the absence of a will Mary was left with nothing. Her only recourse was to remarry. She chose an older family friend named Seaborn Durham, who in 1834 moved his new family to Mississippi.
Mississippi had only been a state for seventeen years when the Durhams moved there. And it had been only four years since President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war, John Eaton, met with Choctaw chiefs to tell them that the United States intended to take their land. Eaton gave the Choctaw a choice: They could stay in Mississippi and become U.S. citizens — living among the new white settlers, although not as equals, and only in specific areas — or they could move west to Oklahoma and resume their lives on arid, nearly uninhabitable land the government had set aside for them. The Choctaw chose the latter. A second, smaller nation called the Chickasaw would later follow them. Today, less than one percent of Mississippians are Native American. When my father was born, his parents lived in half of a one-story suburban duplex in Jackson on a street called Chickasaw Avenue.
Within two decades of the Choctaw’s and Chickasaw’s departure, Mississippi would transform into a collection of small towns and massive plantations, with a population that was mostly black and enslaved. Durham and his family, like thousands of other white, western-moving homesteaders, settled in a low-lying area where the fertile soil made it an ideal place to farm. The settlers called it the Delta.
It’s a bit of a misnomer, really. The Mississippi Delta is not an actual delta. It’s not the end of the Mississippi River. It’s just the name of a region, a short stretch of the river’s path that separates its eponymous state from Arkansas and then Louisiana and is prone to flooding. The Delta starts just outside of Memphis and ends two hundred miles later in Vicksburg, about halfway down the state. As it moves south it starts to expand, spreading eastward about eighty-five miles before tapering back again so that it resembles the engorged stomach of a snake that’s just eaten a large meal. And in some sense, it has: The Delta has taken from the river sediment and silt so rich and fertile that at times the ground feels as thick as potting soil. You can’t always see the river easily in the Delta but you can hear it, running behind tall trees and sloped levees with some of the brightest, green grass growing atop them.
Durham settled his family in Carroll County, along the Delta’s eastern edge. In 1847, when J.Z. was twenty, he apprenticed at a law office in Carrollton, the county seat. He married a local girl, a devout Baptist named Bettie Young. The couple had one child every two years for more than a decade, a practice that J.Z. once called “those necessary biennial occasions when a new stranger arrives among us.”
The Georges moved into a former stagecoach inn that sat on a winding country road a few miles outside of Carrollton. It was an elegant home, painted white with double doors that opened onto a long front porch set in place by six square columns. J.Z. bought up surrounding farmland, including several thousands acres in nearby Leflore County. About sixty-five slaves worked the land.
Over the years the Georges renovated and enlarged their home and added a small, hexagonal building in the front yard that would serve as J.Z.’s law library. They called the place Cotesworth, after Charles Cotesworth Pinckney Smith, the chief justice of Mississippi’s High Court of Errors and Appeals, where at the time J.Z. was working as a court recorder.
And that, more or less, is how Cotesworth has remained. The columns are still white, the porch is still long, and these days the windows’ shutters are painted a deep, dark green. The house has been added to over the years — there’s a screened-in porch in the back now, and a swimming pool off to one side — but the Cotesworth that I know is the same one my father and Vernon knew, and the same one J.Z. George is standing in front of in old family photographs.
To walk into Cotesworth is to walk into a house divided: four rooms, two on each side, are separated by a dark hallway that runs from the front doors to another pair in the back. Many old Southern homes were designed this way for one simple reason: it’s hot in Mississippi. Even in the spring. Some days it’s not so bad, other days the humidity hangs in the air as if someone has just taken a long shower. People walk and talk languidly in the Delta because to do anything more would put them in a constant sweat. And they bookend their homes with double doors with the idea, or rather the faint hope, that when opened together, they might encourage a passing breeze.
On one side of Cotesworth’s hallway are the master bedroom and living room. On the other are the dining room and parlor, although Kat usually pulls back the four-paneled folding door that separates them, turning them into one big room. The walls are adorned with generations of family portraits. Upstairs the layout is much the same, with four bedrooms, two on either side of yet another long, double-doored, hallway. I’ve never slept at Cotesworth but I have eaten in the formal dining room. I was six or seven and my parents, who at the time were still married, had brought me to Mississippi to meet Vernon’s family. Kat celebrated our visit with an enormous, multi-course supper served in the middle of the day.
I remember a lot about that first visit. My favorite books back then were The Secret Garden and Alice in Wonderland, and the revelation that my family owned an old mansion in the middle of nowhere felt as if I’d found a garden no one knew about, or fallen into an upside-down world. I ran all over Cotesworth’s grounds, lounging on its front porch and playing with my plastic horses in the overgrown grass that covered its front lawn. Kat gave me full run of the place, with one exception. Behind the big house, off to the side, was a small, two-room shack. It hadn’t been used in generations, Kat explained. It wasn’t structurally sound and the inside was covered in wasp nests. It was best to keep away.
I’d only learned the most basic outlines of American history at that point, and my knowledge of the Civil War came mostly from picture books of Abraham Lincoln. Still, the way Kat talked I could tell there was something somber about Cotesworth, a shadow lingering over the place that never fully lifted. At lunchtime, Kat offered me a big glass of Cotesworth’s well water. It was full of iron and I thought it tasted like blood.
On that trip — actually, on all my trips to Cotesworth — I spent most of my time in J.Z.’s law library. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are still filled with his musty legal journals and Congressional Records. Later generations have added novels, children’s books, and, more recently, old copies of Life and The Saturday Evening Post. The last time I was there, I found a multi-volume set of the complete works of Mark Twain, each book autographed by the author. They were just sitting there, on a shelf, where they’d been for probably a hundred years.
Few Southern plantations are still owned by the same families who had them before the Civil War, maybe a handful at most. Neither the state of Mississippi nor the National Historic Landmarks Program track plantation ownership, in part because it’s hard to define a plantation; how much land and how many slaves would be required to qualify? When I asked officials from these institutions, they could only point me to estates much statelier than Cotesworth that have since been turned into museums. There are two plantations next to each other in Louisiana; some of their land is still owned by the original families but the rest has been turned into a state park. Shirley Plantation in Charles City, Virginia has been passed down through the Carter family — which at one point included Robert E. Lee’s mother — since 1638. It remained a working farm until the 1960s when the rise of factory farming drove the comparatively small operation out of business and the Carters turned the place into a museum. Randy Carter, one of the two brothers who now run Shirley, grew up with tour groups walking through his house in the middle of the day.
The Shirley Plantation is forty miles outside of Colonial Williamsburg, which provides it with a steady stream of tourists throughout the year. But Cotesworth isn’t near anything. Carrollton isn’t near anything. It’s 100 miles from Jackson, 130 miles from Memphis. It’s so out of the way that when my father and I decide to visit Kat one recent April, we realize that neither of us had been down there for almost a decade.
This visit was my idea. I’d suggested it as an excuse for my dad and I to spend time together. Our family is so small and scattered, with me in New York and him retired and living in Florida, that plane tickets and advance planning are required any time we want to see each other. I also knew that Kat had sold Cotesworth, and I wanted to see it again before it changed.
“You sure you wouldn’t rather go someplace more fun, like New Orleans?” my dad asked when I proposed a trip to the Delta. “You sure you want to spend your vacation in the middle of nowhere, Mississippi?”
Yes, I told him. I was sure.
The Mississippi River’s levees are the highest points in the Delta. Below them, the rest of the land is flat and brown and poor. My father and I drove down red dirt highways that curved around tilled fields with nothing growing in them. It’s been raining too much this spring. The soil is still too wet to plant. So the fields sit empty. They glide past my car window, miles and miles of dirt plots filled with nothing. Every once in a while a home appears in front of one, with a rusted tractor in its front yard and faded work shirts hanging on a clothesline attached to a small clapboard house. Usually the house’s roof is made of corrugated metal, sometimes it’s long planks of wood. It looks like something that shouldn’t exist anymore, something that’s seen — or that should be seen — only in old photographs.
We pass a farm. And another one. A crop duster flies low in the sky. There’s a well-drilling company and a septic tank manufacturer. We see at least three pipe factories. Then a pipe warehouse. Near Clarksdale, we start seeing flatbed trucks carrying white PVC pipes up and down the highway. It gets to be a joke between the two of us, my dad and I, that instead of cotton or soybeans, these days the Delta grows pipes.
There are catfish farms and tamale stands. A pick-up truck advertising “Hot Boiled Crawfish” is parked in a ditch with two picnic tables beside it. I know about the catfish and the crawfish — they’re all over the Deep South — but the tamales surprise me. They’re sold on the side of the road out of huts no bigger than a tollbooth. My dad says they come from an influx of Mexican laborers who moved into the area in the early 20th Century. Slavery had been abolished and landowners needed cheap labor, lots of it, if they were going to keep their plantations running. This sounds feasible and I later read something by a Southern food historian that confirms it, except I’m not sure I’m getting the full story. Because the only people I see in the Delta — the people walking along the side of the highway, the people passing us in cars, the people taking shirts off the clothesline, the people selling the tamales — are black. That is, until we stop at a gas-station-and-hamburger-stand in Chatham for quick bite to eat and then suddenly it changes. Inside, everyone is white. It’s like this everywhere we go: one color of people or the other. Always separate. Never mixed. This segregation surprises me although I know it shouldn’t. The way I grew up in Chicago was essentially the same. It’s just that there, people are separated by neighborhoods instead of by restaurants.
There are only six hundred people living in Carrollton today. The town has been split into two — Carrollton and North Carrollton, although it’s hard to tell them apart. Both have boarded-up storefronts, crumbling sidewalks, and populations that are majority black. Nearly half the people living there fall under the federal poverty line and the one tamale restaurant has long since gone out of business. Almost everything in the Carrolltons has gone out of business. When six members of the Mississippi State Community Action Team surveyed the towns as part of a development project in 2006, they had trouble finding anywhere to buy a cold Coca-Cola.
The one thing the Carrolltons still have is religion. “There are two Methodist churches with one preacher who alternates every other Sunday,” Kat told me once, years ago, during one of my visits to Cotesworth — which is technically part of North Carrollton. “There are two Baptist churches, two Episcopalian churches, two Presbyterian, two mayors, and two boards of aldermen.” There are two high schools: the private Carroll Academy (mostly white) and the public J.Z. George High School (mostly black). But there’s only one phone book. In it there are more than a dozen people with the last name George. In my family, the surname has long since died out.
Cotesworth still doesn’t have a street address, which can make it hard to find on a map. My dad says he doesn’t need one. He reaches Carrollton as if on scent, then crosses the railroad tracks — an old Georgia Pacific line that has been abandoned for nearly twenty years — and turns north onto an unmarked country road. He drives deliberately now, slowing in front of every winding dirt driveway we encounter to see if it looks familiar. “Is that — no,” he says, and moves on to the next one. After the third or fourth try, he finds a gravel path that seems to rise and curve to his liking. He turns off the road and slowly rolls our rental car up to Cotesworth. “Told you I didn’t need any damn Google map,” he says. He smiles and gets out of the car.
We arrive on Easter Sunday; Kat had suggested that day so we could attend her annual family brunch. She’s a small and slender woman with a tanned, deeply lined face and the kind of long, Delta drawl that discourages the pronunciation of consonants. She keeps her white hair cut short and unadorned, just like her name — I’ve never heard anyone in my family refer to her as Katherine. She wears plaid shirts, work boots, and blue jeans. Black ones, sometimes, if we’re going to a family funeral.
Kat has roasted an Easter ham and baked some casseroles and is serving them, buffet style, on the back porch of her new log cabin home, the one she moved into after she sold the big house to the state. My dad and I spend the afternoon sitting in lawn chairs, eating coconut cream pie and talking to cousins and cousins-of-cousins I never knew we had. Kat is in the kitchen, playing hostess — still in blue jeans, even on Easter — and asks us to come back the next day so we can have what she calls “a proper visit.”
Whenever I see Kat, which admittedly isn’t often, I start to think about Vernon. She lived at Cotesworth as a child, although only briefly. The rest of the time she grew up just twenty miles away in a small, cramped bungalow in Greenwood that her father, the town’s sheriff, could barely afford. She married at twenty-four — it was 1942 and my grandfather, an Army Captain in World War II, was home on leave — had two children after the war, and then proceeded to smoke and drink her way through the teas and luncheons and whatever else comprised the limited list of acceptable feminine interests in the 1950s.
It’s well agreed upon by those who remember Vernon that she could out-think and outwit everyone else in the family. She was smart. Fiercely well-read. If she had been born of a later generation, she probably would’ve left Mississippi and done something else with her life. But she wasn’t. My dad says that of all the pictures he has of Vernon, there’s not one in which she is smiling.
“It’s funny that you say that,” Kat tells him, “because I remember Vernon always laughing. And smoking. She was a big smoker.”
“Pall Malls,” my dad says. “I know because I stole them. That’s how I got started.”
It’s Monday, the day after Easter, and we’re on Kat’s porch again, enjoying coffee before driving over to Carrollton’s cemetery to see Vernon’s grave. “Tell us some stories about Mama,” my dad asks Kat, “what she was like.”
The thing is, for all his insistence on knowing where Cotesworth is, my dad doesn’t remember much about his mother. When I ask him to tell me about her, he always refers me to his sister or to Kat. I wish I could tell you why, but the truth is that I don’t know. He says it’s because his parents sent him off to boarding school when he was fifteen, then divorced a few years later, so he never lived with Vernon again. I don’t know, though. By the numbers, my childhood wasn’t so different from his: I left for college at eighteen; my parents divorced six months later and I never lived at home again. But I know both of them deeply. If you ask, I can tell you plenty of stories.
With my dad though, there’s only silence. A reluctance to reach back into the past. There’s a sadness to Vernon that, if he can manage it, my dad would rather not think too much about. And anyway, her life is over now. What’s done is done. What good would going over everything really do?
Children look to their parents to inform them of their place in the world, to show them who they are and where they came from. So much of my dad comes from Vernon. And so much of him is in me. All three of us were or are — when we want to be, that is — gregarious charmers who draw people in with funny stories often made funnier with the aid of a few glasses of wine. Other times, though, we can be sullen and withdrawn. My dad, like Vernon, likes to antagonize people. They both know how to pick a fight. For some reason — or maybe because of that — I don’t.
But I look just like them. My mom’s family is Polish, with ruddy, round faces and what my mom jokingly calls her potato nose. But my face is pale and thin, with high cheekbones and straight, very un-potato-like features. When I frown two creases form between my eyebrows instead of one, something Vernon had too. I know because as a child I spent a long time staring at the picture my father kept of her in his study.
I don’t have any photographs of Vernon. My dad doesn’t have many and the ones he does have, he wants to keep. Instead, I’ve come to know her through stories. I can tell you, for example, that she rarely cooked. She avoided anything resembling physical exercise. She was thin and pale and fine-boned, and funny in a clever sort of way that had a tendency to get her into trouble.
At seventeen, while briefly bedridden with tuberculosis, Vernon passed the time by answering magazine ads for mail-ordered brides — that is, until a woman came looking for her fiancé, a man named Vernon (or so she assumed) who said in his letters that he lived on a big plantation. The real Vernon lied and said he had died. As an adult, she wormed her way into a dinner party held at a house she admired because she wanted to see inside. She once gift wrapped a dead rat and gave it to her daughter’s boyfriend just because she thought it would be funny. And every April Fool’s Day she switched the salt and the sugar and then had Thelma, the family’s black maid, bake aluminum foil into the breakfast biscuits so that when my grandfather bit into them, the metal in his fillings would hit the foil and send a painful shock.
My grandfather, Bill, was a by-the-book trial attorney with an abridged sense of humor who, over the years, had less and less patience for Vernon. “Daddy was the typical mainstream, wound-too-tightly guy and here’s somebody putting salt in his Rice Krispies,” my dad says. Vernon also drank. When my father was young she left twice to “dry out,” as he puts it. But it never took. She and Bill started fighting. “I used to hear them screaming at each other from the bedroom. About money, about me,” my dad says. Then he went off to school. His parents divorced. A few years later, Vernon was gone.
None of that had happened yet when Vernon lived at Cotesworth. She didn’t live there very long, just a year or so during the Great Depression, when her parents couldn’t afford to care for her or her sister, Emma George. They stayed with their great aunt Lizzie, J.Z. George’s last living daughter. Lizzie was nearing seventy, widowed, and the keeper of her father’s estate. She didn’t drink. She didn’t smoke. She wouldn’t let the girls wear make-up or stockings and insisted on serving dinner on Cotesworth’s best china even though, this being Depression and all, she didn’t have money for meat. Vernon didn’t get along with “mean ol’ Aunt Lizzie,” as she always called her, but I get the impression that she adored Cotesworth. I picture her running in the fields or driving around in Lizzie’s 1912 electric car (which is still there, and still works) or paging through one of Mark Twain’s books in the library. Once Vernon was older and had her own children, she took them on regular visits to Cotesworth. But she never lived there again. At one point she even inherited some of J.Z. George’s farmland but she turned it over to Kat.
There are two sides to everything in the Delta. Vernon and Kat and I are just one part of Cotesworth. The other part is much harder to get at. Let me back up and start again.
The year that J.Z. George bought Cotesworth was also the year that he switched from law to politics, a decision prompted by his fervent belief that Mississippi should do everything it could to keep slavery legal. In January 1861, just two months after President Abraham Lincoln’s election, Mississippi became the second state to declare itself independent from the United States. J.Z. attended the secession convention and helped draft the formal declaration, which called slavery “the greatest material interest of the world.”
J.Z. served as a colonel in the Confederate Army but he wasn’t good at fighting. He was captured twice — including during his first major battle — and spent most of the war at an Ohio prison camp. He passed the time by teaching law to other prisoners and wrote two letters home every week. “Make some arrangements with our negroes,” he instructed Bettie in 1865, when it became clear that the South would lose. “When I get home, if they desire to remain with me I will make, if I can, arrangements to keep them. If they wish to go out for themselves, all well.” On June 9, 1865, two months after the South surrendered, J.Z. took an oath of allegiance to the United States and was released. Bettie greeted him at Cotesworth in a new dress she’d sewed out of scraps of black silk.
I wanted to find out about the people who’d been enslaved at Cotesworth — who they were, where they came from, what they did after the war. But those sorts of records aren’t easily found. J.Z. rarely mentioned a slave by name in his letters home. He talked sometimes about an older man named Jake for whom he seemed to feel something resembling true affection. During the Civil War, Jake supposedly buried the family’s silver in Cotesworth’s front yard so Union soldiers wouldn’t find it. He attended family weddings and worked for the Georges after he was free. But those are just the whitewashed, benign stories my family tells. No one talks about the other ones, the ones it would hurt to admit.
Several of Carrollton’s modern-day Georges belong to a Facebook group called Carroll County, Mississippi African American Genealogy. They use the page to swap stories and compare family trees, piecing their past together as best they can. It’s not a perfect system; slavery records were poorly kept. Plantation reports usually list the number of people a slave-owner had, along with their ages and genders (in 1860 J.Z. owned three six-year-old girls, for example), but for anything more you have to get creative. In the genealogy group, the same name pops up again and again: Joe George, who as a young boy was enslaved at Cotesworth.
“We’ve tracked everybody down to Joe George, but we don’t know where he came from. There was no record. It’s like he manifested out of thin air,” a man named Wonnee George told me. Wonnee is thirty-eight and lives in Chicago, but he grew up in Carrollton and didn’t seem at all surprised when I contacted him on Facebook and asked him to tell me about his family. “In Carrollton, everyone is related. It’s the same last names over and over again. But where they come from, that’s another thing. I went to J.Z. George High School, a school that had the same last name I had and I didn’t know anything about it. I always questioned it. I’d say to my aunts, why do we have that name? My aunts would look at me. The hush came about. They didn’t want to say.”
Joe is the man most modern-day Georges can trace themselves back to. But they can’t go back before him. Every time I asked about him, I received a different story. In some, he was bought as a child off a slave ship in the Carolinas. In others, he was born in Mississippi. In yet another, he lived for a while in Washington D.C.
Within these origin stories, the same rumor cropped up again and again. I first heard it from Tim Smith, a history professor at the University of Tennessee at Martin who’s originally from Carrollton (the white part of town) and has written the only contemporary biography of J.Z. George. “There is one thing — although I didn’t find any proof — but there’s a good chance that he, like many other plantation owners who had complete control over their slaves, that he fathered illegitimate children,” Smith told me. “The white portion of the family doesn’t talk about it and I’ve never broached it with them. But there are some black Georges in Carrollton who declare they’re descended from him.”
After the war, Mississippi re-joined the Union the way a petulant child, dragged by the arm, still tries to disobey his parents. The state refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, formally abolishing slavery, until 2013. Instead, it passed other laws. It limited newly freed blacks’ ability to assemble, required them to show proof of employment, and made it illegal for them to rent farmland — essentially barring them from competing with plantation owners by growing crops. In the years immediately following the Civil War, black children were often taken from their parents and “apprenticed” to their former slave-owners, who paid little to no money for their labor.
Congress responded to these laws with the 1867 Reconstruction Act, which divided the South into five militarized districts, each run by a former Union general, essentially supplanting the state governments. Federal officials registered tens of thousands of former slaves to vote in Mississippi and by 1873, the state’s lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and nearly half of its House of Representatives were black. Hiram Revels, a Methodist pastor from the North who’d recently moved to Natchez, became the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate in 1870. But these attempts at racial equality were short lived. Whites fought back and in the 1870s Mississippi erupted in violence.
It was a type of violence that went beyond harassment or even simple brutality. The word we use today for what happened is terrorism. There’s the farmer who had three empty graves dug on his land before a local election — just in case his freed slaves decided to vote. Or the group of white men who in 1874 attacked and murdered black families at a Fourth of July party in Vicksburg because they were mad that a black Union veteran had recently been elected sheriff.
A few months later, another group of white men stormed the Vicksburg courthouse and demanded that this same sheriff leave town. When the sheriff and his supporters confronted them, they “were slaughtered — simply slaughtered and butchered,” the Chicago Tribune reported back then. “They were chased through the woods and fields and shot down like dogs.” Men were shot in the street. Others were dragged from their houses and killed. In a congressional investigation, one man testified that he’d survived by hiding in a sugar cane field for days.
A lot of Mississippi’s violence was organized by what came to be known as the White Line, an informal, quasi-militia of white men who used force and intimidation to ensure that people voted along the “white line,” meaning only for the white candidates. In books, J.Z. George is sometimes mentioned as being part of that group. During the violence in Vicksburg, he distributed political pamphlets claiming blacks were planning to massacre whites while simultaneously telegramming the U.S. Attorney General to say that federal troops weren’t needed because there was “perfect peace” across the state.
The Ku Klux Klan was active in Mississippi too, although with their white hoods and vows of anonymity I don’t know for sure if my great-great-great grandfather was involved with them or not. He sometimes offered legal aid to Klansmen who got in trouble with the law, and a 1966 Ebony article about the Mississippi Klan mentions him by name. But Tim Smith, J.Z.’s biographer, says he never found any proof of direct Klan involvement.
Dennis Mitchell, a history professor at Mississippi State University at Meridian who wrote about J.Z.’s White Line involvement in his book, A New History of Mississippi, isn’t so sure. “I would guess that he would have participated in the White Line rather than the Klan although it is possible he did both,” he wrote to me in an email. The difficulty with identifying socially prominent Klan members, Mitchell explained, was that they often destroyed evidence of their membership. “I disagreed with Tim Smith’s conclusion about J.Z. George before his book was published and pointed out to [his publisher] that absence of evidence did not absolve George of guilt.” It’s important to remember, he said, that back then the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t just a backyard group of a few dozen men in white robes. They numbered in the tens of thousands, spread all across the South. “I read one report from a spy who was sent to Lafayette County during Reconstruction,” Mitchell told me, “He said that all the young white men in the county belonged to the Klan — without exception.”
J.Z. George’s involvement, whatever it was, paid off politically. White Democrats regained control of the state government and in 1880 Mississippi elected him to the United States Senate, where he would make his most significant contribution to American history: He re-wrote Mississippi’s constitution and then lobbied the U.S. government to let it pass.
The constitution subverted the newly passed Fifteenth Amendment, the one that said that a man couldn’t be denied the right to vote because of his race. “Our chief duty,” J.Z. explained in an 1889 speech, “is to devise such measures…as will enable us to maintain a home government, under the control of white people of the State.” In addition to the usual poll taxes and gerrymandering that Mississippi employed, J.Z. came up with what came to be called the “understanding clause.” His idea was that all eligible voters should be able to read the state’s constitution or, when it was read to them, explain what it meant. Given the dismal, almost nonexistent education blacks received — and the fact that voter registration officials, who were all white, determined whether a person had passed the test or not — this disqualified almost all of them. During Reconstruction, more than 80,000 former slaves registered to vote in Mississippi. By the 1892 election, fewer than 9,000 were left on the rolls.
Other states soon passed their own versions of Mississippi’s understanding clause, making it a common practice in the Jim Crow South. Some states got creative with their tests; Louisiana once issued blacks a series of what can best be described as word puzzles, asking them to do things such as “write the word ‘noise’ backwards and place a dot over what would be its second letter should it have been written forward,” before they could legally register to vote.
These literacy tests lasted for decades. They were, for a time, held up as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. And their significance went beyond the voting booth. Jury lists were drawn from voting rolls. Districts were resized. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck these and other suppression tactics down, but the consequences of such systematic disenfranchisement have reached far and wide, rolling on through the years and generations.
This isn’t just something that used to happen and is over now. Subtler versions of these methods are still being used. In 2013 the Supreme Court terminated the part of the Voting Rights Act that required the Justice Department to sign off on voting laws in certain Southern states, the ones with a history of voter suppression. Jim Crow was long gone, the Court reasoned, federal oversight wasn’t necessary anymore. One day after the Court delivered its opinion — and I mean that literally, the very next day — North Carolina passed a new law that, among other things, required voters to show specific forms of photo ID and shortened early voting by a full week. When drafting the law, the legislature had researched its possible racial consequences. It knew that more than 60% of African-Americans in the state voted early, compared with 40% of whites. They were also more likely to lack a driver’s license or passport, which, coincidentally, were the two main acceptable forms of identification allowed by the new law. It took three years but North Carolina’s law was eventually struck down in federal court. In issuing its decision, the three-judge appeals panel called it “as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times” that proved outright, intentional racial discrimination by a state.
This is my great-great-great grandfather’s most lasting contribution to the United States. It’s why his statue is in the Capitol. It’s why Carrollton’s public high school is named after him — a high school attended by descendants of his slaves, a high school that has a drop-out rate of about 17%, a high school to which, on an A-to-F ratings system, the state of Mississippi regularly marks with Cs and Ds.
I’m not sure how many people in my family know or remember this about him. If they do, they don’t talk about it. But it’s hard for us to claim ignorance. There is an original, handwritten copy of Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution sitting on a wooden desk in Cotesworth’s parlor, the same wooden desk at which J.Z. supposedly sat when he wrote it.
Eventually my search for Joe George’s descendants led me to that Niagara Falls diner, and to a man named Carlos Bibbs. I found him through the Facebook genealogy group. He was in his mid-forties, married, had two teenage daughters. He worked as an attorney for the city of Memphis. He was also, on his mother’s side, Joe’s great-grandson.
Carlos and I first started corresponding by letter and then later on the phone. He told me he grew up in Memphis and spoke of “his side” of the George family, as he put it, and mine. I asked if he meant that literally — if he’d heard the same rumor I had, that there was a chance we were related. “I don’t know if that’s true,” Carlos replied. “But in all our records, it starts with Joe George. It doesn’t say who his father was. Maybe that’s the reason for the absence of information, why it’s not there.” Then he asked if I’d be interested in meeting in person. He’d be in New York — up at Niagara Falls — for his sister’s wedding in October and if I’d make the drive, he’d be happy to meet me. “We could take a DNA test,” he said. “People will always wonder unless we put it to rest.”
We met at the all-day diner in the part of Niagara where the tourists don’t usually go. It was mid-morning and nearly every seat was full, packed with customers. I arrived first and sat in a back booth, facing the door, wondering how I would recognize Carlos. As it turned out, I didn’t have to. He spotted me first.
“See? I told you she’s a real person!” Carlos said to his wife, Tai, as they slid into the booth across from me. He had a cheerful way about him, although I couldn’t tell if that was his natural state or if his high spirits were just an artificial attempt to make our meeting as pleasant as possible. Tai wasn’t as open, at least not immediately. She told me later that the only way she’d let her husband meet a strange woman who found him on the Internet was if she could come along too.
We talked for a while about other things: what kind of law Carlos practiced (litigation); what I did for a living (wrote for a magazine, although usually not articles like this one); and his sister’s wedding, which would be held later that day beside the Falls. Carlos asked me about my love life. Was I married? Did I have a boyfriend? Tai swatted him on the arm and told him to quit interrogating me. “Well, she might be my younger cousin! I have to look out for her!” Carlos said.
I didn’t know how to steer the conversation to Cotesworth. It’s just not something I’d done before, to sit in front of another person and talk about how my great-great-great-grandfather owned his great-grandfather and what that meant to us. But Carlos seemed pretty calm about the whole thing. To him, the past is nothing more than a series of facts — facts he’d like to learn about, facts he won’t deny — but facts that, he says, are no use getting too worked up about.
“Look, racism will always be part of America,” he told me at one point. “That’s just how it is.”
That’s probably true, I said, but doesn’t it lessen with each generation?
“I don’t know,” said Tai, “sometimes I think it’s getting worse.”
Tai said that when she was growing up, in the 1970s, the country was operating under the happy delusion that everything was finally equal. Or at least, becoming that way. As a young girl in Michigan, she was occasionally made to feel like she didn’t belong somewhere but she thought — naively, she now realizes — that over the years those experiences would grow fewer and farther between. But her daughters are in high school now, and they’ve encountered a type of racism that, thirty years ago, Tai either never saw or didn’t notice. The country has taken a step backwards, she thinks. A rift has opened up. Or maybe it was always there. “I don’t know what it is that’s causing it,” she said, “but it’s changed.”
“Can I ask,” I said, “What sorts of — what do you mean, exactly?”
“Well, let’s see,” Tai said. She pulled out her phone to show me a video her daughter had taken at school. She’s in a ninth grade art class full of white students. The teacher, also white, is helping a boy to draw a picture of the Confederate flag. Tai’s daughter had sent it to her because she felt uncomfortable. She was surrounded by white people drawing the Confederate flag. She didn’t know what to do. Did she say something? Tai told me that her other daughter had recently been called “nigger” and a white boy she knew a “nigger lover” just because he sent her a message on Snapchat.
“She asked me, ‘What does that mean?’ Tai said. “I told her ‘Well, some people think that certain types of people shouldn’t mix.’ She didn’t get it. She’s had a white boyfriend before and nothing like this happened then. I said, ‘Well, not everyone thinks that way. But some people do.’ You know the term ‘Bed not wed?’ There are people out there who think you can do whatever you want for fun but don’t get married.”
When these things happen, Tai and Carlos aren’t always sure what to do. They’ve raised their daughters to believe that they can do and be anything and they’ve watched them go through life with the kind of confidence that assumption breeds. Tai says she and Carlos try not to bring too much attention to racism because sometimes they wonder if focusing on it gives it a power that only makes it worse. “I don’t want to raise them to be too conscious of it,” she told me. “If you focus too much on it, start looking for it all the time, that’s no way to live.” But then someone will call their daughter the N-word, and they’ll have to figure out how to talk to their girls about what that means.
Carlos told me what he knew about Joe George: Both he and his mother were slaves at Cotesworth. Joe was still a young man when the Civil War broke out, and when it was over he somehow — Carlos isn’t sure why or how — came to own a piece of land in Carrollton that some of his descendants still own. “In the 1970s it was a daycare center. I don’t think it’s used as anything now,” he said. Joe married and had nine children. By the time Carlos’ grandfather came along, his side of the family had moved to a nearby town and opened up an upholstery shop.
That night, after the wedding, Carlos invited me to an impromptu family gathering at his hotel’s bar. He and Tai introduced me to their cousins and their aunt, who grew up in Carrollton and was now in her mid-seventies.
“Auntie, sit next to Claire, she has something to tell you,” Carlos said, gesturing to the open couch cushion next to me. “Go on,” he turned to me. “Tell her.” So I did. When I was done, she looked at me for a long time. She told me that one of her uncles had once been invited to Cotesworth. “So some of us have been there,” she said, “but I haven’t.”
Then she told me a different story about Joe George. In her version, Joe was a freeman from Canada who somehow wound up in Mississippi before the Civil War. That’s different from what Carlos told me, what Wonnee George told me, and what other people had posted to the genealogy group. I keep searching for records on Joe but they either don’t exist or aren’t much help. That night back in my hotel room I spat into a vial and mailed my saliva to the DNA testing company. If Carlos and I weren’t related, he’d probably never find out where Joe came from.
Time and distance are needed before we can understand some things or talk about what they mean. I don’t know why that’s true, it just is. Heartaches need time to dull. Anger simmers then fades. Even childhood looks different when you’re on the other side of it, when you see it for what it is — a phase, the first step in life — rather than the only reality you know.
I see the changes that Tai talked about. I feel them too. When we met, almost two years ago now, neither political party had chosen a candidate for President. Now we have a leader who’s been championed by the Ku Klux Klan, who has called an entire country criminals and rapists, whose campaign rallies, on more than one occasion, have flirted with violence. People are saying and doing things that, as a nation, I thought we’d long ago decided we abhorred. The rift has widened. It’s different for me than it is for Tai, but what she says still rings true.
It reminds me of something a woman named Sharonica Forrest told me, back when I was looking for people to talk to me about Joe George. Sharonica is Joe’s great-great granddaughter. She grew up in Grenada, the next nearest town to Cotesworth after Carrollton. She’s thirty-three now and lives near Memphis, but returns to Grenada regularly to see her parents. “Things are still so divided down there,” she says. “When I visit home I feel a vibe that’s still there. It’s hard to describe. Old sores have been there a long time.” Sometimes Sharonica drives by “the plantation,” as she calls it, but she’s never been to see it. “I’d like to get together with more white people, only I don’t know how they’d feel about it,” she says. “I wish we could talk more with the other side.”
Whatever’s going on, whatever ‘vibe’ the Delta still has — or the South, or all of us — Sharonica doesn’t think it’ll go away on its own. She has a hard time getting her grandparents to tell her the Joe George stories they know; like Wonnee’s family, they also abide by the hush. But Sharonica and Wonnee and Carlos and I, we don’t feel that way. Something is different with us. Maybe enough time hadn’t passed until now.
When I tell people about Cotesworth and Joe George and Carlos, sometimes they’ll ask me if I’m doing this because I feel guilty.
“It’s not guilt but shame,” Tom DeWolf told me, “what you’re feeling is deep shame.” Tom runs a group called Coming to the Table, which seeks to do as an organization what I’ve been doing on my own: connecting slave and slaveholder descendants in some sort of attempt to, as he calls it, “start to heal.” He’s right that I don’t feel guilty. But the thing is, I’m not even sure if the right word for what I feel is ashamed. It’s more like a determination to admit the truth.
There’s a hypocrisy to American freedom that a lot of people would just prefer to ignore. The incompatibility of Revolutionary ideals with the institution of slavery was something even the earliest founders and shapers of this country acknowledged at the time. A draft of the Declaration of Independence calls slavery a violation of man’s “most sacred right of life and liberty.” It was written, of course, by someone who owned hundreds of slaves. The Southern colonies wouldn’t join the new nation if it curtailed slavery and so the issue was put aside, to be dealt with later. Eventually we fought a war over it but still that wasn’t enough. Since then America has lurched in fits and starts toward equality, but with every inch gained comes one side’s declaration that things are fine now, that’s enough. But it’s not enough. The effects of what men like J.Z. George did ripple through this country even now. We encounter this truth again and again but somehow we still we manage to avoid facing it head on.
I can’t stop loving my family and by extension I’ll always be fond of Cotesworth. But it’s possible to care for something and know that what it stands for is deeply wrong. I didn’t tell Kat or my dad about the DNA test before Carlos and I took it. I should have, but I wasn’t sure how they’d react. Maybe they’d accept the results. Maybe I’d just become the Damn Yankee again, meddling in something I don’t really understand. But when Carlos asked, I knew I had to take it.
A few months after meeting, Carlos and I got an email from the DNA testing company with our genetic results. It was negative. We are no more related than two strangers passing on the street.
We’re not strangers, though. We live in the same country. We come from the same place. I don’t know if we’ll ever meet face to face again, but at least we’ve done it once. We’ve talked through the hush. At the holidays Carlos and I wish each other a merry Christmas. We click “like” one each other’s Facebook posts. We email here and there. It’s definitely one of the stranger connections either of us has ever made with another person, but it’s real. I hope it doesn’t go away.
Vernon is buried in a North Carrollton cemetery, just a couple miles east of Cotesworth. The rectangular granite slab inscribed with her name lies a few yards away from the private wrought iron gate that encircles J.Z. and Bettie’s stone mausoleum. Vernon isn’t inside the gate because there isn’t any room. So many generations have come and gone — buried in ever-widening rows in front of the mausoleum — that the George section has long been filled up. Instead she rests outside of it. Kat will probably be there one day too. But not my father. And certainly not me.
Dad has brought a bouquet of white flowers with him to the cemetery. He kneels down to Vernon and fastens the flowers to her headstone so they won’t blow away. It’s been almost ten years since he’s last been to see her. He’s carrying a black backpack, which he unzips and then pulls out a bottle of champagne.
“Mama would’ve appreciated this much more than the flowers,” he says. He pops the champagne then pours it into red plastic cups.
“To Mama,” my dad says.
“To Vernon,” Kat and I reply.
We pour a little champagne on Vernon’s grave then walk to the rental car and drive back to Cotesworth. That afternoon Kat shows us around the property and points out everything the state plans to change. The swimming pool will soon be filled. Air conditioning needs to be installed; Cotesworth can’t be rented out as a wedding venue unless it can keep the talcumed and hairsprayed guests cool during Mississippi’s summers. The library has already been climate controlled to preserve the books.
Behind the big house, the two-room shack is now so structurally unsound that it might make more financial sense to tear it down. But since it’s the only remaining part of what used to be Cotesworth’s slave quarters, the state is going to fix it up. The architecture firm tasked with restoring Cotesworth says the building will be “part of the narrative in recounting all aspects of life at Cotesworth,” although it’s not clear yet whether that part will be just a commemorative plaque or if people will able to walk inside it and see it for what it is.
That night, after we’ve said goodbye to Kat, my father and I drive to our hotel in Greenwood. The town is named after Greenwood LeFlore, the Choctaw chief who signed away his people’s land in 1830, moving them all to Oklahoma in a decision he quickly came to regret. There are no more Choctaws in Greenwood today; the town is nearly 70 percent black. It is also the headquarters of Viking Range Corporation, the kitchen appliance company that churns out $20,000 professional-grade ovens and hosts a gourmet cooking school that draws a steady stream of tourists and gets written up as a culinary destination in nouveaux Southern magazines such as Garden and Gun. Viking has kept Greenwood partially insulated from the dirt roads and desolate fields that make up the rest of the Delta.
My dad takes me to dinner at Vernon’s favorite restaurant, a place called Giardina’s that still seats diners (all white, of course) in private, curtained booths, the same way it did when it opened in 1936. We sip Vidalia onion soup and share hot tamales served on china plates, a formality that makes even my dad laugh. Afterwards, we totter over to the restaurant’s bar to continue the evening. A television is turned to a basketball game. My dad quickly falls into a conversation with the bartender that starts with praise for Michael Jordan and ends, twenty minutes later, with praise for Muhammad Ali. The bartender, a slender black man in his early forties, is wearing the restaurant’s uniform of a crisp white shirt and pressed black pants. There’s no one else in the bar tonight, which makes my dad and me his only option to pass the time. He asks us what we’re doing in town. Are we here for the cooking school, like everybody else?
My dad shakes his head. “I’m from Miss’ippi but she’s a Yankee,” he says, gesturing to me. The drinks have revived his long dormant accent and every word comes out long and slow. “She wanted to see the Delta. See where she came from,” he says. “I’m trying, but I’m not doing so well. Can you explain Miss’ippi to my Yankee daughter?”
The bartender smiles and shakes his head. “Not sure that I can,” he says. “We have too much recent history here.”
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.