Thursday, August 25, 2011

Our Help Our family

I haven't seen the movie version of The Help yet but I'd like to. I enjoyed the book when it came out. I like Southern Lit and stories about women, especially minority women, so it was just my thing, although I could get grad school about it and say that it was unfair that the white character's story was privileged as the "main story" and she was the "main character" and all, but I'll save it. It was entertaining and satisfying. I'm pretty sure everyone has read the book already, but if you haven't, it's a quick entertaining read. I liked it and you probably will too.

My family has lived in rural Southern places much like the setting of The Help for centuries. My ancestors were all farmers and I love hearing stories about the relatives that came long before me. The thing is, you never know what you're going to dig up when you look far into the past and some things you find might be upsetting. What if one of your ancestors owned slaves? None of my relatives were wealthy enough to own any slaves before abolition, but I expect a lot of them shared the prejudices of everyone of their times. We came from a state that was split in the Civil War and a lot of my ancestors appear to have sided with the South after all. We have some old tin types of boys in Confederate uniforms.

On my recent vacation, I had the pleasure of speaking with my grandmother about her grandparents, who were born in the 1860s and who she knew very well. What she told me ended up being a really pleasant surprise.

My great great grandparents were named George Washington and Lydia Hill. Lydia was educated, but George had never been to school and was illiterate until his wife taught him to read. They farmed.

George was lucky enough to get some sweet potato plants that his parents had been growing for many years. They were a special strain I guess that had been growing in his parents' garden forever and who knows where they came from, but they were particularly good. George started growing the sweet potatoes and word got out that George Hill grew the best sweet potatoes around. He made enough money to buy more land and grow more sweet potatoes and pretty soon he was the biggest sweet potato producer on the Eastern Shore and everyone wanted Hill's sweet potatoes.

George Washington Hill wasn't educated but he was a smart businessman and he became a sweet potato tycoon. He bought a magnificent farm called Paradise Alley where he owned hundreds of acres of farmland and was a millionaire. A blight caused his special sweet potatoes to go extinct forever, but he still prospered with other crops and good investments.

George and Lydia had four daughters and no sons. Back then men relied on their sons to help farm, but George only had girls, so he needed hired help. He hired a black man named Sam whom he built a house on the property and he got a homeboy named Woodrow. My grandmother told me that "homeboys" were like black foster children. They were kids with no families who were given to white families. Most people abused them and treated them like slaves. It was child labor. They were called "homeboys" because they worked in the home most of the time. My grandmother explained that they were really treated horribly, and yes, that's where the term "homeboy" came from. I guess the term was reclaimed and recoded by African American pop-culture.

Woodrow was George and Lydia's homeboy, but unlike most farm families, they didn't treat him like their slave. In fact, my great great grandparents ADOPTED him. This was so totally unheard of that it caused a huge scandal. This happened somewhere around the 1910s my grandmother recollects, because she remembers Woodrow as being a young adult when she was a child. Woodrow had his own bedroom in the house and was my great great grandparents' son. He worked hard on the farm yes, but so would their natural sons if they had had any. My great great grandfather worked on his farm until he died even though he was extremely wealthy, although he could have probably hired more help if he'd have wanted.

According to my grandmother, Sam and Woodrow loved George and Lydia dearly. They were allowed to eat at the dinner table with the family, which was also unheard of. They were treated as equals. Mommom tells me that Sam got married and had a family and still remained living in the house that my grandfather built him on property. Woodrow she thinks did not marry, but she isn't sure. She said she just remembers him being around and her grandparents calling him their son and having a very loving relationship with him. Unfortunately, she thinks he passed away young, but she's not sure what happened because she was little.

I find myself thinking about this story a lot and feeling really proud and really happy that my great great grandparents were such good people. I know that most people back then were racist, even otherwise good people, because that was the way they were raised and that was how everyone was. It takes enormous strength of character to see through that sort of cultural norm and to go against popular beliefs and ways of life even when those ideals are wrong and harmful. I'm glad that my family members weren't like the characters in The Help who mistreated their black employees and considered them dirty and less than human. My relatives considered these people their family so much that they adopted a little black boy.


It makes me feel good to know that this is who I came from. I wish I could have known them. George and Lydia and Woodrow, I'm honored to be related to you, wherever you are.

8 comments:

Suffer Kate said...

I loved this! I love your family, Madame Lawns.

Jean_Phx said...

I just wanted to say that I liked the movie and, yet, agreed with you the Viola Davis should have been a little more center - but, real life doesn't always make money. (on an aside, I read & touch base with your blog everyday - but my boss won't let me post comments - Bastages :-) Love your work - glad your home and happy, and had a little fun along the way!

Kerry said...

Loved this! You about made me cry. That's the American Dream right there-that he took a few sweet potatoes and made them into an empire. And that he was so kind to the people he brought in to work- that's just icing on the cake. How wonderful.

It *is* hard to go against the values of your time, but good for him to do it. You about made me cry.

Sunny said...

I loved the book "The Help" and saw the movie last night. I think I disagree with you on the central character of the book, to me it was all about Abeline. Skeeter's story had to be told, it was her ambition as a writer that gave Abeline and Minnie their voice. However, in the movie, it certainly was more about Skeeter. And it was good movie (as usual not as good as the book). My mom and aunt had seen it before me and said to bring tissue, good call. The most heartwarming thing about the movie? At the end, when the credits started to roll, there was no bolt for the exits. Everyone sat quietly for about a minute before getting up.

Loved your grandmas story.

Recently watched Winter's Bone after reading the book. That was a good one too!

Dawn said...

That would make me so proud, too.

I only see one movie a year (sometimes less) at the actual movie theater, and I saw The Help last week. Definitely worth seeing, although the book moved me more.

Lydia is a great name and it was reserved three times for the daughter I never had. I am always happy to hear of strong, honorable Lydias.

JoeinVegas said...

Did you tape/record those conversations with her, so that your kids can pass on the stories? We wish we had done that with our older relatives.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about your story and maybe you know the answer. Was it legal back then for a white couple to adopt a black child? After reading and seeing The Help, it seems like so much between the races was not legal. Maybe it was "unofficial" or something like that? Really great story... inspiring and moving!

Melanie said...

I think you're related to my husband. He's got a George Washington Hill from Tennessee in his family tree.

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