Thursday, November 12, 2009

Whitfields, Bains, and a heritage of slavery

Born into slavery, Caroline Atwater eventually became sufficiently prosperous to share with her husband the ownership of a small farm. When Dorothea Lange photographed her at this farm on July 1, 1939, Atwater said she had been born at the beginning of the Civil War and could remember 'waiting on the mistis' of a plantation belonging to a member of the Whitfield family. The Whitfields owned her mother while her father belonged another slave-owning family, the Bains.

She said she had four living children and "three or four dead." The field notes of Lange and the academic researcher she accompanied said of Atwater that
Her name is on the mail box rather than her husband's because he can not read or write. She went to a "subscription" school and learned. While in the kitchen door being photographed she was telling of their church and of how she sells a little here and there to get some money, of how the stores nowadays won't let you run accounts, "except maybe until next sad'dy."'
-- quoted in Daring to Look: Dorothea Lange's Photographs, by Anne Whiston Spirn (University Of Chicago Press, 2008)

Lange encountered Atwood during a photoshoot of July 1939 in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. She had been sent there by her boss in the Farm Security Administration to work with two researchers, Margaret Jarman Hagood and Harriet L. Herring, documenting farm conditions particularly among tenant farmers and sharecroppers.*

A couple of days after they visited with Atgood, Lange and Hagood visited with a farming family named Whitfield. There were many Whitfields in that part of North Carolina so it may not be strange to find that neither Lange nor Hagood noted a possible connection between the Whitfields who had owned Atgood and the Whitfields whom they met with. If there were a connection it would be an ironic one since the Whitfields visited on July 3, 1939, were not prosperous landowners; they were an impoverished sharecropping family.

By some coincidence, this family had the only sharecrop on property owned by a man named Bain. There weren't so many Bains as Whitfields in that area and it's quite likely that this Bain was a direct descendant of the Bain family which owned Atwood's father back at the time of the Civil War. There's no obvious reason why Lange and Hagood did not note this coincidence in their field notes. They may have simply forgotten what Atgood told them or they may have considered the fact an unimportant one.

Their field notes of the visit with the Whitfield family say that the man who owned the land they sharecropped was son of "Old man Bain" who had divided his large farm among his children when he died early in the 1930s. Each of the 11 children had received about 100 acres and the Whitfield's landlord was farming all of his 100 apart from the five he made available to the Whitfields.

A few years ago, in preparing to write her book on Lange, Anne Whiston Spirn tried to locate the Bain farm and any of the Whitfield family who might still be in the area. She wrote about the trip in her blog. Without too much difficulty she tracked down a man who was a neighbor of the Whitfields and who knew the two Whitfield children who were about his age: Millard and Dorothy Lee. Here, from my blog post of Lange's photos of the Whitfields, is Lange's photo of the Whitfield family showing those two with their siblings and parents:

From the left are Irene Isabel (age 35), Dorothy Lee (age 3), Colene (age 9), Isobel (6 months), Millard (age 6), and Charles Dewey (39 and known as Dewey).

The combined portrait that Lange and Hagood make of the Whitfields in photos and field notes is a greatly appealing one.** They have no money and their farming venture is precarious but they are optimistic about what the future may hold for them and willing to believe the federal government can help. They seem so much more content than you could readily expect, to the extent, it seems, that they experience as normal, everyday, and even pleasant what we would experience as hardship verging on destitution.

You can tell something about the family's unexpected equanimity from comments Irene made as recorded in the field notes:
The mother is barefooted in the picture which shows her churning and is standing so that her feet will not show. When she left the churn she covered it with the cloth to protect it from the flies. She showed us how she churned with one hand and waved the other to keep the flies away. She scalded all the milk utensils after washing them carefull so they would not sour. She was brought up, she said, to follow her daddy around and likes field work better than cooking and housekeeping.***

All this even-termperedness is a bit harder to understand given Dewey's connection to the prominent and, it would seem, prosperous Whitfield clan of Person County. You might think he would revewl some resentment at being a poor relation, but if he has that feeling, he doesn't show it. The opprobrious terms red neck and poor white trash don't fit him or his family and neither does the stereotypical image of the grudge-holding white supremicist or Ku Klux Klaner. Yet it's likely to be a fact that Dewey's ancestors were the Whitfield family on whose farmland Carolyn Atwater was born as slave nearly 80 years before.****

In a neighboring post, Spirn describes how she found Colene. From her she learned that Lange and Hagood had mixed up the names of two elder daughters and she was able to supply the name of their mother, which the field notes had omitted (I've given all correctly above).

Here are some of Lange's photos showing Colene:

A detail from the family portrait above.

With her dad and the rest of the family on the porch of their house.

A detail from this shot.

Another shot with Dewey.

On the porch of a nearby country store.

Spirn took this photo showing (on right) Colene Whitfield Yarbrough at 78.

It's curious that Colene was 78 years old in 2007 when Spirn took this photo and Caroline Atwater was about the same age in 1939 when Lange took hers. They both came through hard times and each in her way prospered, but it seems the journey has been harder on the latter, though that may mean that the outcome, land ownership and independent -- if poor -- living, may be the more satisfying. Here is Lange's portrait of Caroline Atwater taken July 1, 1939:

Of Dewey's Whitfield contemporaries and forebears

Some internet searching turns up information about the Whitfields of Person County, many of them Dewey's ancestors and near relations.

You can probably locate land owned by members of the family from some Person County place names, most of them within a few miles of the property that the Dewey Whitfields sharecropped. Near Wheeley's Church there is a Frank Whitfield Road, part of State Road 1166. Near that road there is a Whitfield Cemetery and elsewhere in the county you can find a Huff-Blalock-Whitfield Cemetery and an Edwin Whitfield Cemetery. Not far away is Whitfield Farms Airport and Whitfield Pond.

There are Whitfield family members are buried in the cemetery of Ebenezer Primitive Baptist Church a bit to the west on John Pleasant Rd.

An online map search also turns up in the same part of Person County a Robert Whitfield Rd, a Rogers-Whitfield Rd, a Welch-Whitfield Rd, and a Whitfield Farm Rd.

Genealogical pages show more than 50 of Dewey's Whitfield relatives who were living in Person County during his time, including eight brothers and sisters. His uncle Charles Asbury Whitfield was fairly well known. Born in Person County in 1859, he was elected to the North Carolina state house of representatives in 1899 and again in 1913. He was buried in the Whitfield Cemetery.

Genealogical pages also show that "Charles Dewey WHITFIELD was born 28 SEP 1899, and died 8 SEP 1976. He married Irene TATUM. She was born 1905 in Person Co, NC, and died 27 SEP 2003 in Burlington, NC."

Internet searching also turns up extracts from two early 19th-century wills which dispose of slaves and other property and seem to suggest that the Person County plantations owned by Whitfields and Bains did not keep large numbers of slaves. They are from members of the Winstead family, into which both Whitfields and Bains married. See the extracts from wills of Samuel and Mandley Winstead at the bottom of this post.


Main sources:

Unless otherwise noted, all photos come from the FSA collection of the Prints and Photos Division of the Library of Congress. Click to view full size.

Daring to look: Dorothea Lange's photographs and reports from the field by Anne Whiston Spirn (University of Chicago Press, 2008)

In this book, Spirn tells how Lange, who enjoyed conversing with people whom she photographed, offered to buy Mrs. Atwater's apron and Mrs. Atwater declined, saying she had received it as a gift from her daughter.

Anne Whiston Spirn, a blog by the author


Extracts from wills of Samuel and Mandley Winstead
Samuel Winstead, III (10 Jul 1723 - 1806)
In the name of God, Amen. I, Samuel Winstead of Person County, North Carolina, being very low of and weak in body but in perfect mind as usual and calling to mind the certainty of death and uncertainty of life-make this mmy last Will and Testament (to wit) after all my just debts are paid. It is my will and desire that my wife, Elizabeth Winstead, have during her natural life the use of the land and plantation whereon I now live, also the following Negroes — Jo, Oliver, Hat, Solomon, Isbal, Glascon and Davenport. Also my stock and of all kinds together with all my household and kitchen furniture and plantation tools with all the crops made on my plantation in the year One thousand Eight Hundred and Five — my will is that my Negro, Bet, be sold and the money arising from such sale be paid to my wife, Elizabeth Winstead, for her own proper use. I give to my son, Custance (Sic) Winstead, a bond now in my possession against Benjamin Vestal, also the land and plantation I now live on and one cubbard. At the death of his mother, Elizabeth Winstead, to him and his heirs forever. . . .

I do hereby constitute and appoint Elizabeth Winstead and Custance Winstead Executors of this my last Will and Testament. In witness whereof I do hereunto set my hand and affix my seal this 17th day of October 1805.

(signed) Samuel Winstead


Mandley Winstead (29 Oct 1760 - 26 Dec 1846)

Will Book 5, page 321 Hopkins County, Kentucky

In the name of God Amen I Mandley Winstead of Hopkins County and the State of Kentucky being of sound mind and disposing memory but calling to mind that it is appointed once for man to die, do therefore proceed to make this my last Will and Testament in manner and form as followeth, to wit, My body I resign to its mother dust when it may please God to remove my spirit and my soul I bequeath to God who gave it hoping to participate with him in the hapiness of Heaven where he dwelleth.

As to my property I make the following disposition, First I give and bequath to my beloved wife Amy Winstead all the property of every description which she had in possession at the time I married her consisting of one tract of land in Hopkins County on Bull Creek containing one hundred and seventy acres and one negro man named Bob and one boy named Henry and two feather beds and furniture and one common work horse and one cow and calf also two breeding sows and barrows other articles of less value and may be known by the families as her former property also one full year's provisions for my said wife. . . .

Sixthly I have heretofore given my son Bushard D. Winstead one negro girl named Parthema worth two hundred dollars I have also given my son Charles T. Winstead one negro boy named Beverly worth three hundred dollars I have also given my Daughter Sally Cox one negro boy named Alfred worth two hundred and fifty dollars I have also given my daughter Elizabeth Weir one hundred and twenty dollars. I also have given my daughter Anna Yarbrough one hundred and twenty dollars, I have also given my daughter Jane Cox one hundred and twenty dollars now my will and direction is the price or value fixed upon the three negroes above named and the money above given namd be paid or divided among my first six children, to wit , Elizabeth Weir, Anna Yarbrough, Bushard D. Winstead, Jane Cox, Sally Cox, and Charles T. Winstead so each may have the same amount of the other.

Seventhly I give and bequath to my daughter Elizabeth Weir during her life and at her death the heirs of her body, Bushard D. Winstead, Anna Yarbrough during her life and at her death the heirs of her body, Jane Cox, Sally Cox, and Charles T. Winstead a certain negro man Jack, a negro Woman named Kesiah, a Negro boy named Daniel, and a negro girl namd Eliza to be equally divided among my said children as they may see fit.

Eighthly All my negroes with their increase not here before namd and disposed of I give and bequath to all of my children namely Elizabeth Weir during her life and at her death to her children, Bushard D. Winstead, Anna Yarbrough during her lifetime and at her death to her children, Jane Cox, Sally Cox, Charles T. Winstead, William M. Winstead, Pleasant B. Winstead to be equally divided between them all as they may see fit.

Ninthly I give and bequath all my personal estate consisting of stock, horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, household furniture, farming utensils and all and every species of property not herein before named and disposed of to my eight children above named.

Tenthly I nominate and appoint my son Charles T. Winstead to execute this my last will and Testament acknowledged and signed this 13th day of July eighteen hundred an thirty-three.

Test Mandley Winstead
James W. Williams
Jas Metcalf Kentucky

Hopkins County January County Court 1850


*Anne Whiston Spirn describes this research project here. See also my post on Carolyn Atwood here.

** See my previous post the Whitfield and Lyons families, North Carolina,1939 and the field notes given in Spirn's book: Daring to look

***Here are Lange's photos of Irene churning and cleaning the churn.

This one shows her cleaning up after lunch; Dorothy Lee is in the doorway.

**** You can infer this from genealogical records as I somewhat loosely indicate below.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The old store with the rough-cut cedar posts still stands in the Gordonton community at Highway 49 and Wheelers Church Road. The Baines family may have owned it.