With every book, a few things never make it into the final version. But this story, which tells the establishment of the all-black town of Willow Bend from the perspective of the man who founded it, was too good to put aside. Ambrose Byrd, the hero of my new book Freedom's Island, hears a slightly different version when he comes to Willow Bend. That's the version in the published book.
On a chilly day in January just before cotton planting season, Truehart said to Niecy, “I’m going to see Marse Little today about buying that land.”
Fifteen years after the end of the war, slavery habits died hard. Hiram Little’s renters and sharecroppers, most of them his former slaves, still called him “Marse.”
Niecy stirred the pot of black-eyed peas she was soaking and said, “I wish you wouldn’t.”
“Can’t keep our heads down forever.”
Both of them still remembered the terrible days after the massacre. The Republican sheriff was run out of town by the Klan, and the black men who voted for him were beaten by the men in white hoods and told at gunpoint never to vote again. Truehart, who had led his friends and neighbors to the polls, was singled out. In addition to the beating, the Klan set fire to his crop in the field. That was a bitter year, with nothing to sell against their debt to Marse Little.
Niecy sighed. “You’re determined to do this.”
He put his arms around his wife. Fifteen years married, he could still put a lot of feeling into it. He pressed his cheek to her hair, and said softly, “I am.”
The Little family had been one of the biggest landowners before the war, when three thousand acres was a big plantation. Now they owned ten thousand acres, with two hundred families renting land and cropping shares. Since he came back from the war, Truehart had been to the Little house every year to sign his rental agreement. He never relished a visit. Even as a free man, he had to come in the back door and wait in the kitchen until Marse Little was ready to see him. As a Union soldier, he had walked through the front door of more than one vanquished plantation house. He wasn’t a vengeful man, but he relished the memory of wiping his Union Army-issue boots on a slaveowner’s threshold.
Marse Little’s butler Sam took him from the kitchen into the study, where Marse Little spent his days. The house had gotten grander and grander since the war. Truehart’s feet sank into soft carpet, and the rooms were full of dark, heavy furniture. Since Truehart had last been here Marse Little had painted the ceiling gold. Niecy, who had been a slave in the kitchen before the war, and who never had a high opinion of the Littles, would snort at that. She’d say they could paint the insides of their chamberpots gold, if they wanted to.
Hiram Little sat at a big desk of dark wood that swallowed him up. He didn’t rise. He said, “How do, Jim.” He knew perfectly well that Truehart, Jim to his kin and friends, now preferred to be called “Mr. Truehart.” Or “Sergeant Truehart,” after the rank he’d attained in the 1st Mississippi Infantry.
“May I sit down, Marse Little?”
Surprised, Little gestured to a chair. Truehart sat. Little said, “What is it, Jim? You ain’t going to break that agreement you signed after you sold your cotton?” That was Little’s idea of joking—speaking meanly of someone.
“No, sir. Ain’t planning on breaking any agreement. Came on some other business today.”
“Well, speak your piece.”
“It’s about some land you own.”
Little looked at him in surprise. “Can’t sell you any cotton land, Jim.”
“Ain’t asking about that. Asking about that bottom land, right by the river.”
“Right where the river curves, across from the island, where those weeping willows grow.”
“What would you do with swampland?”
He had studied this, not just the land itself, but Marse Little’s feeling about it. “I reckon I could try to raise some corn and hogs on it.”
Marse Little laughed. “On that land? Don’t think a hog could squeeze itself through the canebrake!”
“Thought I’d try.”
“That land’s worthless for farming. You want to buy it from me?”
Truehart said mildly, “Wasn’t planning on taking it, sir.”
“How much would you want?”
“A hundred acres.”
Marse Little shook his head. “A hundred acres of swampland,” he said. “Not worth a thing, and you’d get swamp fever just by walking through it.”
Truehart waited politely.
Little said, “A dollar an acre.”
Good cotton land was going for ten or fifteen dollars an acre. Little was giving this land away. Truehart said, “I’m mighty obliged, sir.”
“I can write you a note.”
“I have some money put by,” Truehart said. “I can pay in cash.”
“We’ll write up the contract, and the deed, and you can pay me after you sign.” He chortled. “Swampland. I’ll give you the island, too. It’s all swampland, like the river bottom.”
“Thank you, Marse Little.”
“Go on, then. I’ll let you know when the lawyer’s written up the deed.” He stared at Truehart. “Jim, if you can grow anything on that land, you ain’t a farmer. You’re a magician.”
Truehart rose and inclined his head to Marse Little. “Thank you again, Marse Little.”
On the way home Truehart had to stop to wipe his face and laugh. Dollar an acre. The island for free. Marse Little had no idea what Truehart was going to do with that land, and he wouldn’t like it when he found out.