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Family’s roots on Dougherty land eight generations deep

Virginia Seabrook poses with her sons Calvin Barlow, left, and Elvie Barlow at her home in Dougherty County. Seabrook is the matriarch of the family that has owned the same farmland for eight generations. The land was originally deeded to her great-great-grandfather, Titus Stephens, more than 150 years ago. (July 26, 2013)

Virginia Seabrook poses with her sons Calvin Barlow, left, and Elvie Barlow at her home in Dougherty County. Seabrook is the matriarch of the family that has owned the same farmland for eight generations. The land was originally deeded to her great-great-grandfather, Titus Stephens, more than 150 years ago. (July 26, 2013)

ACREE, Ga. — Twice a year, on Independence Day and Thanksgiving, some 40 to 50 of Virginia Seabrook’s kids, grandkids, great-grands, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews celebrate with her on the 100 acres of farmland that’s been a part of their family for eight generations.

They come from all over Georgia and all over the South, drawn to this mythic piece of property that was deeded to the 84-year-old Seabrook’s great-great-grandfather Titus Stephens by the man who owned him. Even before the Civil War ended slavery as an American institution, Albany planter J.W. Mock allowed Stephens, one of his slaves, to purchase the 100-acre tract that sits on the Dougherty County/Worth County border along County Line Road.

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Elvie Barlow walks among the cotton plants that are being grown on his family’s farm in southeast Dougherty County. He has written a book, “Covered by the Blood: An African-American Family’s Journey from Slavery,” based on his family’s history. (July 26, 2013)

In the more than 150 years since, through drought, famine, economic depression and the Jim Crow laws that sought to deny all blacks the rights guaranteed them by the U.S. Constitution, that land has remained the property of Stephens’ descendents. Their roots are more firmly planted in the fertile soil than the acres of cotton and peanuts that grow in it.

Discovery spurs writing of family history.

“I remember over the years some men from around here trying to buy our land from my grandmother and my mother,” said Seabrook, who still does the yardwork on the land surrounding the property’s homeplace, where she lives alone. “They always said no. They knew what this land has meant to this family over the years.”

Even when Seabrook’s grandfather died in the late 1950s and her mother, Rubye Sullivan, and grandmother, Clemmie Russell Holmes, were left to pretty much tend to the farmland alone, the women clung fiercely to their family’s birthright.

“This land was probably most vulnerable after my great-grandfather (Homer Holmes) died,” Elvie Barlow, one of Seabrook’s six children and the author of a book about the family’s ties to the land, said. “The farm was pretty much taken care of by my great-grandmother, my grandmother and my mother, and people tried to come in and intimidate them.

“I’m sure those kinds of things happened a lot throughout the time my family’s owned this land, but it took a lot of courage for those women to stand up to every threat and hold onto this property.”

SOURCE OF PRIDE

Barlow, who is an environmental scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Regional Environmental Justice program, notes in his book “Covered by the Blood: An African-American Family’s Journey from Slavery” that Dougherty County’s 1870 Tax Book pointedly states that blacks were not allowed to own land in the county at that time.

But not only did his great-great-great-grandfather hold the deed to the land along the southeastern border of the county, African-American families — many of them descendents of slaves — eventually settled on most of the land surrounding the 100 acres owned by Titus Stephens.

“There were the Plummers and the Greens and George Jackson and Sydney Wallace and Buster Field. ... All the land around here was owned by black families,” Seabrook said. “Now, though, we’re the only ones left who still own their land.”

Barlow says the decline in land ownership by African-Americans is not limited to the families that once were his family’s neighbors.

“At one time, I’d say that 90 percent of the land in East Dougherty County west of Mock Road was owned by black families,” he said. “My research indicates that in the 1920s, more than 80 million acres of farmland in this country were owned by blacks. Now, it’s dwindled to around 3 million.

“Some of the kids in these farm families grew up and moved off, forcing them to sell their land, and some of the landowners lost their land through poor business practices. But a lot of the land was taken.”

It’s a source of pride for Seabrook, the matriarch and historian of her family, that the 100 acres obtained by Titus Stephens, who had been taken away from his mother in South Carolina and sold to Mock at the age of 9, has been retained generation after generation by his descendents.

And even though the family does not directly tend the land now, renting it instead to area farmers, there is a strong consensus among the five generations who gather for those Independence Day and Thanksgiving get-togethers that the history that binds them to the land is too strong to break.

“Even those of us who have moved on to other things still consider that land a part of us,” Calvin Barlow, another of Seabrook’s sons who is an Atlanta-based big truck driver, said. “We all grew up there, working on that land. That’s the way we survived, growing enough food for our family.

“I think the annual meetings we have here have gone a long way in keeping the younger generations interested in the history of this place.”

‘IT MEANS EVERYTHING’

As he shows a visitor around the farmland that his great-great-great-grandfather was able to obtain even while he was the legal property of another man, Elvie Barlow admits to being humbled by that reality.

“There’s really no record of how Titus Stephens came to own the property,” Barlow says. “There are indications that J.W. Mock was not like a lot of slave-owners of that day, that he treated the people who worked on his land with dignity. I’d like to believe that he willed the land to my great-great-great-grandfather for his hard and faithful work. Or Titus could have paid for the land with money he earned.

“I think about the struggles he must have gone through, and what all of my ancesters must have gone through with groups like the KKK that resented black people owning property. It makes things look pretty easy from this point on. I think I speak for the rest of my family when I say that this land will be part of us until Christ returns.”

Barlow will get no argument from his mother, whose sweet smile lights up her face as she talks about the land that is so much more than dirt, trees and the crops it yields. She speaks proudly of the bold men, and especially of the strong women, who withstood every attempt at intimidation and rose above any intended indignity to hold fiercely onto a parcel that allowed her family to write its own rich history.

“It’s just unbelievable, and I am so proud to be a part of this family,” Seabrook says, her smile brighter than before. “Over the years we’ve been willing to fight for our land, and we’ve done everything we had to do to hold onto it.

“No, we won’t ever consider giving up this land. It means everything to me.”