Truehart built a cabin and moved his family to the new place. Thornton, encouraged, cleared enough land to plant cotton, too. The news began to spread. “More than a bale an acre after they cleared it to plant,” people said.
The next year, more families joined them, to clear and plant, then build houses and move. Within four years there were a dozen families living on the bottom land, eight of them planting cotton and the other four living on hogs, chickens, and produce from kitchen gardens. The next year, the people of Willow Bend cleared some land next to the road. Ben Thornton, with some help from Joe Levy, opened a general store, and everyone pooled time and money to build a meeting house. The Reverend’s sister was a schoolmarm, trained at the Normal School in Holly Springs, and it made sense to build a schoolhouse, too.
The word began to spread that Willow Bend was a place where black people could own their land, make their own living, and live free. More people moved there and built houses near the meeting house and school house. By 1885 there were a hundred people living in Willow Bend.
Truehart saw Marse Little in town. Marse Little stopped him on the street. “Jim, what’s this I hear about that town of yours by the river?”
Truehart took off his hat and inclined his head. “Some folks have settled there,” he said.
“Twelve families, two hundred acres in cotton, a bale and a half an acre.”
“That’s right, sir.”
“Was I wrong to sell to you?”
“Wasn’t wrong to sell us no-good swampland, Marse Little.”
“I’ll buy it back from you.”
Truehart was so surprised that he raised his head. Marse Little said, “Ten dollars an acre.”
Truehart said, “Ain’t up to me alone. Not with so many folks living there now.”
“Go back there and ask them. Ten dollars an acre. Cash on the barrel.”
Truehart talked to his neighbors. No one wanted to sell. “Didn’t think so,” he said, as they met after Sunday meeting. “Don’t want to sell myself. Didn’t want to say no straightaway. Now I can say we studied it and we ain’t inclined to.”
Marse Little wasn’t pleased, as Truehart knew he wouldn’t be. Truehart didn’t want to sell. The land was his—the deed said so—and if he wanted to keep it forever, that was his right. His neighbors felt the same way. “It’s ours,” they told him, “free and clear, and we ain’t selling. Not to anyone, and especially not to Marse Hiram Little.”