Chicago is a city influenced by immigrants and migrants from all over the country and the world. In this series, “How Did We Get Here?” Morning Shift will talk with people who’ve researched their family’s migration stories — how they or their relatives arrived here, and why they left home. This is part one; here’s part 2 and part 3.
Growing up on the West Side of Chicago, Tiffany Walden knew her grandmother, Irene Johnson, had been a sharecropper in a tiny town called Deeson, Mississippi, but not much else about what her life was like there.
So earlier this year, Walden decided to learn more about what sharecropping was like for African Americans during the 20th century, and to pay Deeson, Mississippi, a visit in person.
Walden published her research in The Triibe’s “Out West” series. She joins the Morning Shift to talk about what she learned about her family’s story, and how it ties into the Great Migration of African-Americans from farms in the South to cities in the North.
Challenges to Discovering African-American Ancestry
Tiffany Walden: In going down to Mississippi — Morgan Elise Johnson, who’s the co-founder of The Triibe, went down there with me, and she also was on a journey as well, and trying to figure out her family roots because they, her family, grew up a few miles from where my grandmother lived in Mississippi. So being down there we learned that record-keeping isn’t as sophisticated as it could be when it comes to African-American history. So a lot of our history were in churches, but one of the churches in Bolivar County that we went to in Alligator [Mississippi], no one’s there. You know it’s — it’s dilapidated, there aren’t any records in there. The cemetery, you know, is another place you can go and find records of deaths, at least, and we went to the cemetery looking for Morgan’s family and we were met with foliage and forestry and, you know, it was really hard to walk through there. You had no idea what was in those trees, so we didn’t walk too far into them. So I was able to find while down there, like, a record of my grandmother’s school attendance for one year, so at least I know she was in school for—I think it was 1928 or ‘29, that we found at that time. But, you know, there’s no records of what happened after that, or what happened before it. And another thing that I didn’t mention in the story is that I did try to get her birth certificate. But once I got the birth certificate, it was a completely different name on it. So I have no idea if that’s her actual birth certificate or not.
What Sharecropping was actually like
Walden: Growing up, my grandmother would always make fun of me, saying that I slept all day. But I just thought, you know, she was just… being my grandmother, just poking at me. But in reality, her days started at 4 o’clock in the morning when she was my age, when she was in grammar school, you know, she got up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning — had to go out into a field and pick cotton, or go out into a field and tend to the cows or the chickens or things like that, and that’s why in the story I interviewed Mrs. Eliza Rogers, who kind of told that story of what it was like to sharecrop as a child, and possibly running into rattlesnakes while you’re out there picking cotton and stuff. So the larger your family was, the more production you were able to have at the end of the year.
Tony Sarabia: If you did, though, because way the plantation owners — the property owners treated their African-American workers.
Walden: Right, you know, a lot of times you ended up with maybe $200, and that’s only if you had a landlord that was honest and would give you something. But a lot of times people ended up with nothing, and, you know, you worked on this property and they told you it was yours, but at the end of the day it wasn’t, so it was still a form of slavery.
Ties to the Broader Great Migration
Walden: Growing up on the West Side, you realized that we all sound alike. You know, growing up on the West Side, people — I would go to another side of the city or I would go out of town, and people would say I sound country. Saba makes a lot of references to that in his music as well, so there’s a lot of commonality there, and I think that so many of us are from the Mississippi area, the Arkansas area, and I think the story of sharecropping has become something in history that seems so distant, but it’s really not that far away…
GUEST: Tiffany Walden, editor-in-chief at The Triibe
LEARN MORE: OUT WEST II: A MISSISSIPPI STORY (The Triibe 12/18)