Georgia Today: For Woman Whose Ancestors Enslaved People, The Fight For Racial Justice Is Personal
In communities across the country, the reckoning over racism is playing out in ways big and small. For one young farmer in Northwest Georgia named Stacie Marshall, her personal awakening began with a horrifying discovery: She learned that her ancestors kept enslaved people. On the latest Georgia Today podcast, we hear how she’s now working to heal race relations in her community.
RELATED: Her Family Owned Slaves. How Can She Make Amends? (New York Times)
Steve Fennessy: The murder of George Floyd by police last year reignited a national conversation about racism in America and what to do about it. And the reckoning continues in farm country and especially farm country in the Deep South. The discussion about race also highlights agriculture's connection to slavery and centuries of discrimination by white farmers and by the government itself.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: The Farm Service Agency offices in the past made it more difficult for some socially disadvantaged producers to access credit or when they accessed credit, it was late in the growing season or it was at a higher interest rate. So it's a systemic issue.
Steve Fennessy: Change is also on the minds of some farmers in rural Georgia. On this episode of Georgia Today, I'm joined by New York Times reporter Kim Severson. Kim recently profiled a farmer in Northwest Georgia with deep Appalachian roots. This white farmer experienced her own racial awakening and now leads the call for racial justice in her community. Tell us a little bit about Dirt Town Valley, Ga.
Kim Severson: Well, it's in Chattooga County, which is about 26,000 people up in the northwest corner of the state not far from Dalton. It's a smaller subset of a larger farming community up there.
Steve Fennessy: And what are some of the crops? What do they grow up there?
Kim Severson: It's kind of low rolling hills. There are a few cattle farms, some chicken houses, broilers. Some farmers make money growing and selling hay because obviously they've got a lot of livestock up there and they can sell hay. It's not the kind of agricultural land we think about in South Georgia, which are big flat fields that lent themselves more to the plantation-style agriculture that the state was built on.
Steve Fennessy: What's the history of the Scoggins, that family in that area?
Kim Severson: So originally, in the mid-1800s, J.W. Scoggins, who was the great-great-great-grandfather of Stacy Scoggins Marshall, who I wrote about, got some land. They started this thing called the Cherokee Land Lottery and I think the deal was made, “Give us your land, we'll give you a ton of land out West.” It was the beginning of the Cherokee Trail of Tears route. So, over time that original Scoggins land got added to and they had about 150 acres. And then in the ‘50s, her grandfather married her grandmother and her grandmother's family had another 150 acres. So all told now, the Scoggins family has 300 acres.
Steve Fennessy: Introduce us now to — to Stacie. Who is she and how did she actually come into the farming business?
Kim Severson: Stacie Marshall is in her early 40s. The Scoggins family was one of the sort of prominent farm families and she grew up there. She has a younger brother. And they were the two children of her dad, Steve Scoggins, who's an only child. So he inherited the land from his parents. And she, you know, was Miss Chattooga County in 1998. She started kind of on the pageant path a little bit. Mostly she did it, she told me, to get some scholarship money because they didn't have enough money to send her to college and she wanted to get an education. So she got a scholarship to this small Baptist college close to the Tennessee border and went off to this Baptist college, where either you were studying to be a minister or you wanted to be a minister's wife. So she left. Her husband and they both kind of went their separate ways. She ended up at University of Georgia. They both ended up getting master's degrees, but came back together. When they were 21, they decided to get married.
Steve Fennessy: One of the things that was most striking about Stacie Marshall's journey is the revelations that she came to in her adulthood. Tell us a little bit about the discoveries that she happened upon.
Kim Severson: Right. So Stacie loved farmland and she felt very connected to her grandparents, but she didn't quite realize the history until she had the first of her three daughters and she was trying to breastfeed and was having a very difficult time. And her grandfather, in an effort to be supportive, said, “Well, you know, you get that from the Scoggins women and they couldn't produce milk either. So that's why they had to get Mammy Hester.” And turns out that Mammy Hester was one of the seven slaves that her family owned — seven people that her family had enslaved. Then her grandfather was like, “Well, she loved the family so much, even after the Civil War was over she stayed with us and, you know, helped raise a lot of our kids” — you know, that false narrative that I think a lot of Southerners tell, I think, in order to make the brutality of enslavement seem less difficult.
Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution: Slavery was, without a doubt the most important institution in America. It is the institution that shaped not only the Southern agrarian way, but also the trade in the North. It is really what makes possible the optimism of America.
Kim Severson: And the name stuck with her: Hester. And she was feeding her child and she thought about this woman who fed her ancestors and that stuck with her. Time passes. She has a couple more kids and then her mother-in-law, and [who] loves her ancestry.com account. One day she said to Stacie, “Did you know your family owned seven slaves?” And Stacy said she was just taken aback. She said, “I just felt like I need a shot of whiskey at that.”
Steve Fennessy: in hearing the story of Stacie Marshall I couldn't help but be reminded about remarks that Andrew Young once made about how racism in the South differed, historically anyway, from racism in the North, which is to say that in the North, Blacks and whites might not have been separate legally, but they were separate geographically. But in the South, you know, for all that Jim Crow might have ensured these social and legal divisions, Blacks and whites often lived close to each other.
Andrew Young: The white person in the South has lived with it and struggled with it all their lives. In the South, people were close enough so that a lot of people in leadership positions had been cared for by Black women, where there was not just a servant relationship, but where it was somebody that worked with the family through long years. They were probably more mother to the people than their own parents were. You had a complicated set of personal relationships in the white community in the South that made Southern whites very, very guilty about the racial situation.
Steve Fennessy: And so now we have Stacie Marshall, whose father's best friend is Black.
Kim Severson: And in fact, one of the first people she went to was her dad's best friend, who is a reverend. He was her high school vice principal and she's known him her whole life. This guy and her dad grew up as kids together. They used to work on — on her grandfather's farm. Mr. Mosley went to the Black school; Mr. Scoggins, the white school. One day her dad said, “Hey, what kind of milk did you pick today?” And Mr. Mosley said, “Well, we didn't have chocolate or white milk to pick. We just had one kind of milk.” And they started to compare notes and see just how different their educations were. But they've remained very close friends because it's such a small community, right? And you don't rock the boat because we're in this together as farmers and people of this community. But it's very clear there's, you know, a racist hierarchy in that community, but it's all wrapped up in love and family and it's hard to untangle.
Steve Fennessy: So Scoggins, her great-great-great-grandfather, the one who founded the land, was he the one who purchased these people and enslaved them?
Kim Severson: Right. And it turns out there were three adults — two men and a woman — and four children that he ended up enslaving, one of whom was Hester, which is the only name that Stacie still has and knows about. But at that time, she's trying to cope with her grandparents, who just passed and her mother. And so her father says to her, “I'm going to give you the farmhouse, your grandparents' farm house and three acres. And when I pass on, it'll go to you.” So she's in the farmhouse cleaning out her grandparents' pots and pans and clothes, and she comes upon this dusty old boot box and opens it up. And inside is a photocopy of those slave records. They call it the slave schedule. And she sees listed the seven people, their ages, their race, gender. And it really hits her then that the story is hers; the family story is now hers. And what the hell is she going to do about it?
Steve Fennessy: Next, we'll hear more about Stacie Marshall and how her neighbors in Chattooga County reacted when she started speaking out about racism. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy, I'm joined by New York Times reporter Kim Severson. We have this young white woman who is in line to inherit this farm that was, you know, worked upon by — by enslaved people generations ago. How did she even begin to sort of wrestle with that question?
Kim Severson: The first time I saw her start to really wrestle with it in a in a more public way was when I first met her. And that was just right before the pandemic. And I was in a marketing seminar for Black farmers, just kind of listening, looking for stories. And she stood up at the end of that when the leader asked if there were questions and said, “I am about to inherit 300 acres and my family owned seven people and I need to know how to make it right or what to do.” There, people came up and talked to her about maybe, you know, letting — working with Black interns who could work the land, helping the Black church, putting a community center together, something like that. But the question did come up: Should she give the land away or should she sell it and give cash to the descendants of the people that her family enslaved? You know, 300 acres sounds like a lot. But, you know, if you give the land to somebody, right, they've got a tax burden or they've got to want to farm it. There's not a lot of people who want to farm. And it's not easy farming there, you know. And is that going to do any good? Is that reconciliation? Is that really going to heal the community? So she started grappling with all of this and lecturing at Berry College about her experience. She's got two sharecropper shacks that are still on her land. And she would bring the students and they would talk about the legacy. I think this summer of all the social injustice protests and the death of George Floyd really kind of turbocharged her focus.
[News Tape] PBS: It was one year ago that George Floyd's slow and agonizing death was captured on cellphone video. The footage showed Floyd pinned beneath Officer Derek Chauvin's knee for more than nine minutes, unable to breathe. That video sparked widespread outrage. Protesters took to the streets in cities around the world, demanding justice and new restrictions on police. Many police and their unions fought back.
Kim Severson: I think it gave her more courage to — to go ahead with kind of these vague plans and ideas that were in her head. By the fall, I thought, “I wonder what she's up to?” And I just kind of randomly gave her a call one day and she invited me up to the farm. And I was lucky enough to have time to just sit with them, to go to Mr. Mosley's church with him and to watch Stacie Marshall's process as she came to understand what she could and couldn't do to try to fix the racism in her community.
Steve Fennessy: And she grew up in a religious household. And so is her journey informed by her religion? And to what degree is — is she maybe considered an outlier within that?
Kim Severson: Stacie went off to the University of Georgia and I think got a little bit away from her upbringing and started to see the world a little differently, I think some of the students she worked with were very closeted gay kids who were very tortured. And she started to kind of think about what they were going through and what some of the stricter, more difficult parts of her religion, what that meant for certain people. She had three daughters and she started to see how she was being treated as a woman in a very male-centric organization. And she told me that feminism was always a dirty word when she was growing up. And she said, “One day, I just started to think, ‘Well, heck, I think I am one!’” because, you know, she could see that she was not getting the best end of the deal in some of her work situations. So I think she had that awakening. Now she's pulled back from some of the more conservative aspects of the evangelical path that she was on. She's a very God-centered person, though. So I think through that journey also she started to open her eyes to her own racism and to what it means to have white privilege. These are concepts that she was coming to in this place that she loved a little bit on her own.
Steve Fennessy: And where did that take her? Or is she deciding what she can affect versus what she cannot?
Kim Severson: I think that it became clear to her that giving away her land was not really going to be a solution. It’s — her husband talked about it like being like carbon offset, but for guilty white people. So the idea is that you pay some money and then you can kind of relieve your burden of racism. And that isn't particularly any real healing. Some of the national leading voices on reparations, people are very adamant that individuals and even, to a degree, local government should not be participating in reparations because it kind of lets the federal government off the hook and that all these efforts should go to pressuring Congress to do a formal reparations program.
[News Tape] NPR News: Supporters of this effort say that the committee vote that we expect to see today that would eventually send this to the full House is a really important milestone in their efforts to meaningfully deal with the lingering effects of slavery on this country that still exist to this day.
Steve Fennessy: You think about all of the South and, you know, we live on haunted ground. And so I'm curious, because this is something that potentially a lot of white farmers could be thinking about. Is she seeing her story as somehow instructive for others?
Kim Severson: It's not just the South. A fellow got in touch with her from Tulsa whose family back in the day had participated in the Tulsa race massacre. She heard from someone in Utah whose family had taken land from the Ute Indians and or people who inherited land in Virginia. Same sort of situation: “What do we do?” She just started to work on creating guidelines for small communities that want to look at their racial past. And I think that's the key. People have no idea what it's like for that family legacy land to mean so much to you and for your community to mean so much but to have this one piece that is the one thing you're not proud of, right? But you love your land. And I think that kind of discussion around race is something that only people in those communities can have. One thing that Mr. Mosley said is you just need to pour as much love on this valley as you possibly can, so — which sounds a little flimsy, maybe? Or insincere. But I think there's something about that. So if she can just keep opening the door, so other people who think like she thinks can come forward and you can tamp down and drive out the very active racism that's in that community. I mean, you're intertwined with the heart of it there. But on a real personal level, the Kirbys, who live right across the street, who are 70 years old — in their mid 70s, and she grew up knowing they worked for her grandfather in the sharecropper shacks, although they were called renters by that time.
Steve Fennessy: And the Kirbys, they're a Black family, right?
Kim Severson: Right. And they — they don't have much family around. So Stacie looks over and brings them soup. When Mr. Kirby had to go to the hospital, you know, brings holiday food over the girls, her daughters go over and help him out with things. And I think there's a very important personal piece of this fight against racism that involves taking care of those people who were clearly exploited throughout their lives, maybe even by her own grandfather. She feels like she can't go up to them and say, “I want to give you money.” She feels like that would be very demeaning to them in a way. So she asked them if there were any issues left over from the days when he worked for her grandfather. And Mr. Kirby said there's a a little bit of a land dispute. There's a piece of land he believed he owned that her grandfather put his fence on. So Stacy's going to get that surveyed and pay him for that land. So she's just trying to make it right.
Steve Fennessy: We'd mentioned that one of her ancestors had owned seven people. Has she had any — any luck in identifying or tracking down any descendants of them?
Kim Severson: So far, she knows that Hester, when the first census after the Civil War, her name shows up as a owner of a boarding house, and she had a daughter who married a man named Perry. She just recently told me she thought she found the son-in-law of Hester's, found his grave at the local Black cemetery that's attached to the to the Black church in that community. So she's pulling that thread and trying to find those descendants. And she's has gotten some offers from genealogists who are going to help her do that. And she thinks if she can find enough of their descendants, perhaps she will call them to the farm and have a discussion about what they might want or what would be important to them. So I think that's very much in the future for her.
Steve Fennessy: You know, a lot of these conversations about reparations, about reconciliation, they tend to occur in cities. But this is something that's occurring writ small in this very tiny corner, rural corner of Georgia. And so does Stacie feel now that she's been the vanguard of a larger conversation that maybe incorporates not just these — these urban areas, but — but more of the more remote pockets of the country?
Kim Severson: Absolutely. I think Stacie was surprised to find that there were a lot of other people who felt like she did, but it's pretty overwhelming. And she said, “I just wished I had stayed a farm mom trying to make goat milk soap videos for YouTube. It would have been a lot easier.” So I think I think she's a little overwhelmed by it. You know, she's trying to figure out how to start a community foundation, how to move forward in all of this. And I believe that she sees herself as probably a reluctant leader of this kind of movement in small farming communities all over the country. She's now taking interns onto her farm. She's continues to lecture at the college. There's an old cemetery up in the woods where most of the people who are buried there were buried during enslavement. So she's trying to get that preserved. She's doing pieces of that work. But the biggest part is, and especially after our piece came out, is dealing with some of the really brutal racist attitudes that are still in that area. She got some threats from a fellow who's connected to a family that has deep Klan roots. The rumor going around Dirt Valley was that Stacie Marshall's going to give all our land to Black people. Someone called her and said, “Look, now, I'm not saying that I am like this, but there are a lot of people here who don't like Blacks and whites together. And you have a nice family and you wouldn't want to screw anything up. And if I were you, I'd just be really careful.” She took that as a lightly veiled threat. People were talking about her and that she should watch her back. She had to call the sheriff out to have them do extra patrols at her house and the Kirbys' and the Mosleys’, sent her kids to her mother-in-law's. I think she knew that that existed in her town obviously, but it hadn't shown itself so blatantly before. There's definitely a cost to it for her speaking out. You know, there's this overwhelming love of the land and family history that has this terrible stain on it. And so how you reconcile that is really, I think, going to be something she'll work on for the rest of her life. And hopefully her kids will pick up and things will change.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to New York Times reporter Kim Severson. The battle over how or even whether to address racial discrimination in agriculture shows no sign of letting up. Billions of dollars in checks were set to begin going out this summer to farmers of color. The payments are part of the massive COVID-19 relief package that Congress passed earlier this year. But after some white farmers sued the Biden administration alleging the race-based aid is unconstitutional, the payments are now in limbo.
Attorney Rick Esenberg: There is no such thing as benign discrimination. There's no such thing as a little makeup discrimination to even things out. I mean, we are all for laws that prohibit discrimination, but those laws have to apply across the board.
Steve Fennessy: For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. And don't forget to leave us a review on Apple. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jahi Whitehead. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.