You got people here? is often the first question I heard when The Black Land Project spent last week in Macon County, Alabama. Our interviews focused on a region just south of Tuskegee called The Ridge, a series of small communities (Creek Stand, Warrior Stand, Roba, Hurtsboro) along a geological elevation of soil too poor for commercial farming, but rich in game and pine timber. The Ridge is a place where having people – knowing who you are in the lineage of this place — is how people define themselves.
Many Ridge families are descended from white planters and enslaved African-Americans who arrived during the early 1800s “Alabama Fever” land rush. Surnames like Paceand Swanson abound. Some of these family surnames mark people who are related by blood or marriage. Others share a surname because their ancestors were from different families who worked side by side for generations as enslaved labor on a cotton plantation. After Emancipation, it was common practice for freedmen to be assigned their former owner’s surname. Even when unrelated by law, these families with shared surnames still consider themselves as family, bound to each other by hundreds of years of caring for this land and telling the stories of this place.
When people ask a newcomer Where are your people from? they can often help you to pinpoint “where” as a specific parcel of land on the Ridge. Some black families on the Ridge live on 40- to 100-acre plots that are held as intergenerational heirs property, or land protected in family trusts. Others are part of the return migration: northern-born descendants of people from the Ridge returning home to find – and sometimes repurchase- parcels of land that were owned or worked by their 19th century ancestors.
Our host Shari Williams recently acquired a single acre of land once held by her Pace family ancestors in 1890. She describes the act of reacquiring land through ownership as the power of connections to ancestry: “My relationship to land is not really just about ownership. It’s spiritual.”
When someone asks you ” Where are your people from?” what do you say? How far back can you trace where your ancestors lived?