The movie "12 Years A Slave" has made clear the extent of the brutality slaves had to endure before emancipation. But life in the segregationist south up until the civil rights movement was, in many ways, not much better than during slavery.
That’s clear in "Sharecropper's Troubadour," the latest book from Michael Honey, the Fred T. and Dorothy G. Haley Endowed Professor of the Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma. It’s an oral history of an African-American man named John Handcox, who braved the wrath of plantation owners by using his gift for song to organize sharecroppers into a union.
Handcox had a unique talent for writing verse.
"A lot of the poems he wrote are just brilliant," Honey said. "They explain sharecropping in a way no one else could, except somebody who lived through it."
Born in 1904 in Arkansas, Handcox was descended from slaves. He grew up a bit better off than sharecroppers because his family owned some land and managed to subsistence farm and raise chickens to sell. Handcox also had the good fortune to go to school, where he discovered his gift for rhyming at an early age. But his father died in an accident before Handcox turned 20, and that's when Handcox learned what it was like to work for plantation owners.
`Root, Hog, Or Die A Poor Pig'
He saw firsthand how plantation owners fleeced their laborers and kept them locked in an endless cycle of debt. He saw people everywhere dressed in raggedy clothes they had no money to replace.
"The way I see it when we were slaves, we were valuable but when we became free, we lost our value," Handcox wrote. "We were not freed, we were taken out of a pen and put in a pasture and they said to us root, hog, or die a poor pig."
Handcox's songs like "Roll the Union On" and "There Is Mean Things Happening In This Land" became anthems for sharecroppers, black and white, and inspired them to stand up to their bosses. His music grabbed the attention of musicologist Charles Seeger, father of the folk legend Pete Seeger, and Charles Seeger recorded Handcox's music in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress in 1937.
Pete Seeger writes in a foreword for Honey's book that when his father introduced him to Handcox's music, "I was bowled over by the songs and poems, and started immediately memorizing some of them and repeating them for friends."
Honey, himself a civil rights activist and musician, met Handcox in 1985 and recorded his memories as an oral history.
Honey will be speaking about Handcox and singing with local musicians at 7 pm on Feb. 12th at the Tacoma Public Library. And the following day, Feb. 13th at 12:30 pm, he'll have a reading and book-signing in William Philip Hall on the University of Washington Tacoma campus.
To hear more of Handcox's 1937 recordings, go to Michael Honey's website.
To listen to the complete interview with Honey about John Handcox, click below.