A funny thing happened at the end of December. We got a check in the mail for $3,600. First, we paid off some bills. Next, we bought a new couch and matching loveseat. Husband got a new game console and a couple of games. We partnered with another family to throw a cool Kwanzaa party. With the bit we had left over, we added to our savings.
By New Year’s Day, the money was gone and we’d had a fun week spending it. It was a lovely end to 2011 for us.
What’s even more excellent is that we’re going to get a similar check next year, right at the end of the year. Actually, we’re probably going to get this check every year until we die, at which point, our daughter will start getting it.
The check comes our way because I am my great-grandfather’s great-granddaughter. Never met the man, but I reap the benefits of being in his bloodline.
The check thing would be 100% cool except for this nagging guilt I have over the idea that he made his fortune, thanks in large part to the fact that he was white. See, during the time that my great-grandpa made his money, you could be hardworking, ambitious, and lucky like he was, but if you were black, you almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten rich. This may seem like a pretty strident statement, but if you keep reading, I hope you’ll find that you agree.
My great-grandfather’s name was Ai Camp. He was a pretty boss dude. He was tall with a big belly and an even bigger presence. People in the family have described him to me as a risk-taker and a go-getter. Other people, less generous, opt for the adjective “crazy” instead of “risk taker.” Other adjectives I’ve heard applied to Ai are intimidating, enigmatic, hard-nosed, ruthless and stubborn.
My grandmother (his daughter-in-law) and my mom (his granddaughter) both told me stories of how people were terrified of him and made every effort not to call attention to themselves when he was around. When you were in the presence of Ai Camp, they told me, the last thing you wanted was his attention.
We call our yearly check “The Wheat Money.” That’s what my mom called it when I was growing up and she got her yearly checks. Of course, my mom had four times the amount of land I have – so she got four times the amount I get (at least). The Wheat Money comes from the wheat-farming land that my great-grandfather Ai acquired in the frenzy that followed the Homestead Act of 1862: A frenzy that he exploited with his hard work and larger-than-life personality. A frenzy that wasn’t really available to former slaves to the degree it was to whites.
Among those former slaves who were NOT out staking claims were my husband’s great-great-grandparents (genealogists call these his second great-grandparents). They were born into slavery in Alabama and Louisiana in 1855 and 1860.
The 1860’s were pretty wild. Almost as crazy as the 1960’s. The 1860’s weren’t wild because of hippies, free-love and weed but they were a time of tumultuous social changes.
Four major Federal laws were passed in the 1860s that caused incredible social changes. The first three of these often get overlooked because the big thing happening at the time was the Civil War. In 1862 the Homestead Act was passed. Then, Pacific Railroad Acts were passed in 1862 and 1864. These three acts encouraged whites to “Go West Young Man.” These were big deal happenings for the Camp side of our family.
A year after two of these Big-Three-Go-West laws were passed, the first set of slaves had their rights restored. By the way, my husband and I are training ourselves to say that the slaves “had their rights restored” because we don’t want to view emancipation as a gift that was given to the slaves, but rather, as a restoration of their natural-born rights.
The Emancipation Proclamation, wherein slavery was made illegal, was the very big deal happening for the Young side of our family during the 1860s. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863 and the rights of the slaves were restored in waves with the last group having their natural-born rights restored in 1865.
So, to put the laws in the context of my great-grandfather Ai Camp’s life — he was born in Ohio in 1865, the same year the last slaves had their rights restored.
Ai’s parents set off from Ohio shortly after Ai was born, probably because they had set out to look for land upon which to stake a claim. In the first eighteen years of Ai’s life the family lived in Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Colorado. Finally, in 1883, they took “the Immigrant Train” to Washington State where they would settle for good.
Certainly, those years must have been hard for the Camp family. Perhaps they had times when they went hungry. They must have suffered through some cold, hard winters. Some of that travel might have taken place in covered wagons. Really. Maybe, in their travels, they felt fearful in interactions with American Indians. Luckily, they had guns.
Meanwhile, in the Deep South, we have my husband’s second great-grandmother, Jemima Bowden, born a slave in Alabama, in 1860. Jemima’s husband, my husband’s second great-grandfather, Tolliver Young, had been born a slave in 1855, in Louisiana.
Jemima would have her rights restored when she was five years old. Tolliver would have been closer to ten years old. As they grew into young adults they may have had an existence somewhat like that of the Camp family.
The families might have wandered a bit, looking for a place to settle. They might have gone hungry from time to time. They might have been very cold some winters. They would have been fearful in their interactions with whites. They wouldn’t have been able to defend themselves from violence. In many instances, they were legally barred from having guns, even for hunting.
In1888, Jemima and Tolliver were married in Ashley, Arkansas. That same year, Ai Camp married a young woman named Eliza George.
Eliza’s family had come from Texas, also seeking a viable plot of land. Ai and Eliza were married in Pampa, a city in the Territory of Washington. Washington wouldn’t become a State until the following year.
The two couples had in common the year of their marriage. What they did not have in common was their net worth. Though both couples had started life in families with no property, Ai, at 19 years old, had staked a land claim. The Homestead Act required five years between the initial claim and the full transfer of ownership from the government to the individual. The year before he married Eliza he would have been able to file the paperwork to officially make the land his own.
Two years later, when the 1890 Census was taken, both men listed their occupations as “Farmer.” I find it ironic that they listed the same occupation, since their lives must have been depressingly different.
The Camps would have to work hard, but their work would be their own. They would not be working off debt as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. They would not have to make cash payments on a loan.
Ai was free and clear of debt from the first bit of brush he hacked from the soil. Had he decided that he did not want to farm the plot of land he’d first chosen, he could have walked away at any time, moved to a new area and staked a new claim there.
Ai’s free-and-clear stake was made possible by the Homestead Act. The Act established, that you didn’t need to be a man of means to attain land. After Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, land was available, 160 acres of it, to any man who would find a plot, file an application, improve on the land over a five year period and then file the paperwork to get the official deed.
So while poor whites made the mad scramble westward on Federally funded train tracks, blacks, having some of their rights restored, were not exactly flourishing. In fact, they were be actively denied the chance to flourish by whites.
I’ve recently been doing some reading that has taught me a lot about what life was like in the days and years after the Emancipation Proclamation. First, I read some of the Slave Narratives published in the book “When I Was a Slave.” The Slave Narratives were collected in the 1920s and 30s. Writers were sent all over the country to find living former slaves and capture their stories for the National Archives. Many of the Slave Narratives are also published online.
I also spent time looking at online records that are available through Ancestry.com and FreedmensBureau.com. The book, “Slavery by Another Name” by Douglas Blackmon was also very helpful.
Through reading, I have learned what so-called freedom was really like for people like Tolliver and Jemima.
Tolliver and Jemima probably lived at times in a state of near terror. For one thing, frustrated whites could and did kill blacks on a whim. After all, there was no longer an investment to lose by killing someone black. Blacks under slavery might be beaten, but generally, their lives were too valuable to snuff out – someone had paid for them and was hoping they would remain healthy enough to labor and create children.
Once slavery was made illegal, blacks were no longer representative of a white man’s investment. They were simply expendable.
If you were a former white master of great wealth who had seen his net worth plummet to near nothing with the stroke of Lincoln’s quill, you might be pretty pissed. You might take out your anger by killing a few black people here and there, just because you felt like it. Any sheriff or judge in your area was going to understand your frustration and look the other way.
Next week we will finish this installment. We will continue to run this feature throughout the month of March.
By Kristl Smith Tyler
Special to The Austin Times