Stories of Hard Work + Prisons in Mississippi
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A few years ago, my father and I went on a trip through Mississippi. I have long been infatuated with the South and my father is game to travel anywhere anytime, so off we went. We flew into New Orleans, headed East to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and then wandered upstate.
Right about smack in the middle of the state, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, is Greenwood, MS, a lovely little town with a river running through it, a nicely restored downtown and a complicated history. Today, one of the major town landmarks is the headquarters of the Viking stove company. I love to see how things are made and so the tour of the factory and the corporate headquarters - complete with cooking school - was fun to see.
While Viking gives the town a much needed shot of commerce and tourism, the bottom line is that Greenwood, like most of "Main Street USA," is fighting an uphill battle against the suburban big box stores, the Internet and other dimensions of the global marketplace in which we all live. Lucky for us, Greenwood has not given up on this struggle - it is a unique pleasure to be in a town where locally owned shops, not national chains, are the rule. One stellar example of this type of business in Greenwood is Turn Row Books, a bookstore that specializes in Southern Literature, and books about the Mississippi Delta in particular, a community center, a coffee shop, a destination. It was on these shelves that I found Mary Hamilton's fascinating autobiography, "Trials of the Earth."
This weekend, I finally found time to read this book and once I started, children, housework, transcription and all other worldly duties were forgotten. It was just me & Mary. What a storyteller! What a life! Mrs. Hamilton was a white woman who lived and worked in logging camps throughout the Mississippi Delta in the late 1800s with her husband and children. While her husband managed work crews that cleared the dense forest and laid the railroads, she was at home birthing and burying children, cooking for literally 100s of boarders, farming, sewing, canning - living the life of a pioneer homesteader.
"I would get up mornings at 4:00, get breakfast and Frank's [her husband] lunch, see him off, then stack my dishes, go milk, come back and wake Leslie and Frankie [her children], fix their breakfast, mix my light bread, put it out to rise...After I poured the dishwater for [Leslie], I would go out where Will [a hired hand] was clearing land. He was a good, hard-working boy, but I could keep up with him. We had a big Cuban machete, two or three cane axes, and a chopping axe. We would cut all cane, vines, and saplings six inches and under and shove it all back. Some weeks we would cut down two acres, some three, but how we worked to do it. I worked so hard to save my home and my children...Sometimes, when the bell would ring for 11:00 [for lunch] I would almost wish I could die" (pp. 157-158).
Madre mia! What did you do this morning?
Aside from the inspiration and the reminder, for those of us who have running water, about the life o' luxury that we lead, it happens that Mrs. Hamilton had stories about prison as well. Most of her life in the Delta was spent near to the "State Farm" in Parchman - a swath of land that was particularly unruly and a site that would become one of the US's most notorious prisons. (For more on Parchman, read Oshinsky's Worse Than Slavery) At one point, her home directly bordered the "state convict farm" - with just a thin fence between her family's homestead and the prison land.
Her memories from this time include stories about her sons tracking escaped convicts, products from the prison store that were smuggled from the farm to buyers on the outside, and a "negro" women, for whom she made a dress, who met a horrible fate inside the convict cages. Although the story of how an escaped convict almost clobbered her over the head comes in a close second, the most dramatic story for me was when her six year old son, who she had sent (alone) to make some purchases at the prison store, crossed paths with an escape convict who used the boy as a human shield against the "trusties" who were trying to shoot him dead. Luckily, the boy escaped from the incident unharmed. Shortly thereafter, the family moved as "such things as I have just told began to make Frank and me see that that was no place to raise a family" (p. 214). You think so?
Mrs. Hamilton's stories about Parchman and its "convicts" are included in one short chapter towards the end of the book and are by no means a central narrative to her autobiography. Her family lived for only 3 years in the home next to the prison. However brief, her writing about the prison reflects an ambivalence about the criminal justice system that is not uncommon to those who spend time near prisons and/or prisoners. She accepted without question that the men and women who were held in Parchman deserved to be there. The punishment was, in her mind, appropriate for those who had broken the law. Still, there were parts of the system that made her uneasy and it was often difficult for her to explain to her children what was happening to the people around them. Watching the escape convicts being hunted down by bloodhounds and groups of men through the thick Delta wildlife she wrote, "I couldn't help but feel it was cruel and cold-blooded, but it was just" (p. 212).