Yes, there is a Fitler,
We Found it…
Rose Villard and I traveled through about 25 states and three continents, I talked with her in person or by phone every day for 15 years and picked her up for church on Sunday morning for at least 10 of those years. And as my best and dearest friend, Rose became my partner in many, many adventures. One of those adventures took place when we took a six week trek across the Great Lakes to Itasca, Minnesota, the source of the Mississippi River then down along the river following blue roads as the river grew bigger and wider. We listened to Mark Twain’s books until we got to Hannibal, Missouri, and then listened to Patti LaBelle until Memphis. We both cried at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. Then we headed south along the Mississippi to Greenville. We had already been on the road for two and a half weeks, but this adventure was detouring to search for Rose’s family roots.
Both of us had read John M. Barry’s book, Rising Tide, about the 1927 Mississippi River flood. The descriptions of how the slaves and former slaves were treated by the patrician Percy family, guardians of white interests in the cotton empire in the Mississippi delta were riveting, even more so when Rose claimed that her mother, Nona B. Johnson Jenkins, had been on that levee as the waters rose to cover all the lowlands of seven counties. The problem was that Nona never talked about those times in detail. We were going to have to piece together a more comprehensive picture of the Johnson family during Reconstruction. The book concluded that the 1927 flood that did such damage to the region, in fact changed the entire social structure of black and white Mississippians in the delta. Hundreds of thousands of blacks left the cotton fields and headed north to take factory jobs in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Gary, Indiana. Among them were Nona B. Johnson Jenkins, her six kids and all her brothers except for Seth who stayed in Heathman up in Sunflower County. But the entire Johnson clan left Fitler, Mississippi. By 1935 they were all gone. And Rose had lots of questions about what happened to her family. She believed they had been driven off Big Poppa Johnson’s land and the Ku Klux Klan just took it. I was looking for evidence that Ed Johnson in fact owned land at Fitler and when and where he lost it and what he did next. Rose was told all the black folks records had been burned in the courthouse. I was convinced from my work in the Kentucky Ohio River counties, that land and tax records generally were kept intact however many other documents were lost, stolen or strayed.
From John Barry’s book we learned that in 1927 the Delta black folk had encountered a new form of economic slavery, share-cropping, and from a social perspective not much had changed since the Civil War. Ten percent of the population (white) controlled 90 percent of the population (black), and nowhere did this distinction show more clearly than 1927 as the Mississippi River rose and rose and rose into the flood of the millennium. The narrative described how the delta blacks were forced to keep building the levee higher as the waters rose; then when the white folk of the Greenville area were taken off the levee by steamboats, the blacks were held at gunpoint to keep them from following. As Rose narrated some of the tales she had garnered from various aunts and uncles, she declared that she really needed to know what happened in Mississippi that was so bad that her mother picked up six kids and moved to Chicago without money or friends there to help them.
The grinding poverty in the big city of Chicago took its toll as Nona Jenkins worked cleaning houses and babysitting children of working mothers in order to support her children — “too proud to take charity,” had worked on Rose’s psych. “Why did Daddy abandon us? How did Big Poppa lose his land to the Ku Klux Klan? What happened to the large Johnson family? They had scattered all across the country.
Tracing Rose’s Roots
Rose had accompanied me in several journeys as I tried to search out the history of my family, so she asked me to go with her to Mississippi to track down her family. Over several years I had met Uncle James, Nona’s brother, and Aunt Bea in Trenton, Seth’s daughter, and of course, I’d talked with Nona, but we really needed to go down to the archives of Issaquena and Sunflower Counties and stand on the levee at Greenville to find Rose’s family history. So we left Schnecksville and New Tripoli Pennsylvania and headed to find Fitler, Mississippi, taking a 4,500 mile odyssey to find some answers.
The very first thing we discovered as we drove south from Memphis, Tennessee, to Greenville, Mississippi was that a large portion of the cotton fields had given way to enormous catfish farms, the new cash crop of the upper delta. Secondly, cotton must be the ugliest plant ever cultivated. Until the white puffs come out, the plants are just plain UGLY and for those of us raised in orchard and corn and wheat and sorghum and pineapple and avocado regions, most of the Mississippi delta is even ugly with the cotton balls in full bloom. Thirdly, as you get off the main highways, most of the back country of the Mississippi delta is poverty stricken to the ‘enth degree. So much for our Mississippi travelogue, I don’t think they will ask us to write one. Some of the people we met were right nice; others were scary. But we finally found Fitler.
Historical Issaquena County, Mississippi, and the Fitler Plantation
Before we left Pennsylvania, we had several oral vignettes of Fitler, Mississippi, the home place for the Johnson-Jenkins-Bradley-Lee families.
— Nona Bradley Johnson Jenkins told of going fishing in the Mississippi and being very careful about the cottonmouth moccasin snakes that were prevalent.
— James Johnson, her brother, told of living in a large room upstairs of the cabin and his older brothers nailing his shoes to the floor overnight. He followed them one night down to the speakeasy on the river and you had to cross over a narrow plank way to get to the building where he could hear the music and laughter. Big Poppa, who had become a Baptist minister, came after his sons that very night. James and the other brothers ran across the plank so fast they fell into the Mississippi River. James, very wet made his way back home without seeing the dancing, the hooch, or whatever else went on there.
— Bea Johnson Moody, Seth’s daughter, lived in Trenton, New Jersey, so Rose and I went down to see her several times. She had been a union organizer for the Ladies Garment Workers Union and had had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt at Hyde Park, New York. Aunt Bea told of hiding under the covers when Big Mamma (Charlotte Johnson) came for her visits to Seth Johnson’s house. Apparently Big Mamma made the circuit of her children’s homes staying as long as three or four weeks and sharing all the gossip of the family and neighbors. Bea used to pretend she was asleep, but she listened whenever Big Mamma gossiped. (photo: Aunt Bea and Rose Villard at New Tripoli, Pa)
Because Seth Johnson settled at Heathman, up in Sunflower County, Bea did not know too many stories about Fitler. But she did know that both Big Mamma and Big Poppa were buried at Heathman Cemetery. We got the rest of that story from Aunt Lillian in Greenville.
— Rose Jenkins Villard, who had come down to Mississippi as a young woman looking for her father, said that Joseph Jenkins worked on the Mississippi River, but she had no idea what he actually did.
So we had a few isolated snapshots of the Johnson clan, but not much else. We drove into the motel and surprise, surprise, there was a big welcome sign – Johnson Family Reunion. So Rose immediately went down to mingle. “They weren’t all that friendly,” she exclaimed when she came back up to the room. “Wrong Johnsons, but I did get something to eat. They had a buffet set up so I helped myself.” “Was that before they noticed you didn’t belong to their side of the family?” I asked.
The next day, we headed out to find Fitler and the courthouse records. Taking back roads proved very “iffy” because we soon saw water on both sides of the raised roadway (path was more like it) and my Camry just fit, so no car better be coming the other way. Finally we came out to a road that led to Fitler, but we really needed the courthouse records, so we made our way to Mayersville, the third or fourth historical center of Issaquena County. I then spent the next three hours going through tax and deed and mortgage records. Ed Johnson was easy to find, but he didn’t own the land, he was deed-leasing it from the Melskinner Brothers first in 1913 and a second time in 1916. The Melskinner Brothers were paying the taxes on the property, so Ed Johnson was either leasing the land as a share-cropper or he was purchasing the land over time and never paid it in full. The census records find the Edward D. Johnson (Ed, Edd and Ed G.) in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 records of Issaquena County near the Manny Plantation on Beat 2, located near Fitler, Mississippi. And I double checked to see if any African Americans owned land and paid taxes on that land in Issaquena County, and I found several men who owned, not leased. Unfortunately these records said nothing about the KKK running Ed Johnson off his land in the 1920s. All the records say was that in 1930, Ed and Charlotte Johnson were living on Moore Street in Greenville and he was a porter in a retail grocery store. The 1930 census also showed Nona B. Jenkins and six of her children living with her Mom and Dad.
“Rose, I said,” your Pennsylvania driver’s license doesn’t have the right birth date on it,” I commented, “Here you are at age 3 in the Greenville census, You are five years older than your driver’s license says.” She ignored me, of course.
Aunt Lillian’s Stories
The very next day we went over to Greenville to meet Aunt Lillian Jordan, who was descended from Alice Johnson, Seth’s daughter, and thus Aunt Bea was her aunt and Nona Bradley Johnson Jenkins her great aunt. Lillian was the last of the Johnson family left in Greenville. She told family stories the same way Aunt Bea did, very colorful and detailed. We started with Big Mamma (Charlotte Johnson) and Big Poppa (Ed Johnson). Apparently Big Poppa, Ed Johnson, after leaving Fitler down in Issaquena County moved to Greenville in 1930, then took a job as overseer at the Greenbow & Beard Plantation in Bolivar County. According to Lillian’s story, Ed Johnson rode a big white horse and told all the workers what to do that day. In spite of becoming a Baptist minister, Big Poppa Johnson apparently placed his wife Charlotte Bradley Johnson at Priscilla, Mississippi, some four or five miles south of his work at Stringtown, and also he apparently raised another and separate Johnson family up there. Big Mamma took to visiting her children one at a time, staying for several weeks, and bringing all the family and neighborhood gossip and then passing along new information from her succession of visits.
When Charlotte Johnson died, her sons – Eddie, Seth, Marcus, Benjamin, Eldridge (Uneide said to have died in the 1920s, Henry was in Detroit, James was up north, and Qute in California and Nona already in Chicago), made arrangements to bury their mother at the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery at Heathman in Sunflower County. Two of the boys rode up to tell Big Poppa Ed Johnson to come to the funeral. Apparently Ed objected because his boss had not yet returned from Jackson, the state capitol, and as overseer he could not leave the plantation. Whereupon his sons, man-handled Ed Johnson all the way to Heathman to the funeral. “They got to fighting right there at the burying grounds,” explained Lillian, “Big Poppa and his sons. It was quite something.” According to Rose, her uncles were quite willing to “perform” at any family gathering especially if they had a touch of liquor in them. She remembered an incident at Uncle Henry’s funeral at Detroit when James hung on top of the casket as they tried to move it up the church aisle.
Lillian further said that her grandfather Seth, had been among those black folk in the refugee camp after the 1927 flood, and that times were very hard. Her own father was Tell Jordan, but her mother Alice Johnson Jordan married again to Fred Clay, so she had a step sister and step brother, Topsy Clay and Freddie Levi Clay. The day that we visited Greenville, Lillian’s granddaughter was visiting from Arkansas where she lived and was going to school.
That afternoon we headed for Heathman to the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist church cemetery where Charlotte Bradley Johnson was buried. The stones were scattered and a little random, so Rose spent about an hour carefully looking for her grandmother’s grave.
As evening approached, we drove along the great levee south of Greenville looking for a way to get up on top and see the Mississippi River. A sign warned us not to go up on the top of the levee without a four-wheel vehicle, and our Camry didn’t seem to want to scale the heights. After all, we had seen the Mississippi River for an entire week getting to Fitler.
The next morning we headed for Jackson, Mississippi, to the state archives to see what other documentation we could find about Ed and Charlotte Johnson, but the archivist on duty that day was less than helpful, in fact she was downright rude, so we left and headed to visit a friend of ours in Vicksburg. Then we made a decision to forego the rest of the trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans since we had both been there, and we headed inland up the Natchez Trace.
Years later I learned that Issaquena County had been the center of the Choctaw native people’s tribe and I recalled when our train stopped at Albuquerque New Mexico, the Native Americans there all gave Rose free bead necklaces because they said she was Choctaw.
And More of the Story….
Not Cotton, Trees………………
We did not know it at the time, but Fitler, Mississippi’s claim to fame was not the traditional Delta cotton, but rather the largest stand of cottonwood hardwood trees in the world. There were many cotton plantations north of Fitler and in the rest of Issaquena County but in the south part of the county there was a huge hardwood forest. Further investigation showed that Issaquena County, Mississippi, had the highest density of slaves in the country at 92.6% black and 7.3% white with no Free Blacks registered. In 1860 there were 7,244 slaves, 39 slaveholders each held 77 slaves or more about 65% of the total, the rest of the slaves in the county were held by 76 other slave owners. (Source: Tom Blake “Issaquena County, Mississippi: Largest Slaveholders from 1860 Slave Census Schedules) That same census revealed a substantial occupation – overseer—among the white population of Issaquena County. There were no Free Blacks registered.
The hardwood trees were an important commodity in Antebellum and Reconstruction America, because most of the trees in the Deep South were soft wood, OK for fences and shacks and paper products, but not for buildings of any substance; therefore the plantations from Fitler shipped timber to Vicksburg and New Orleans. That’s why Joe Jenkins always claimed to be a boat-person from New Orleans. In 2014, I found a federal government study (“Historic Resources Assessment of the Pascagoula River/Dela, Twin Oaks and Mahannah Farm Tracts, Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Wildlife Mitigation Project” completed for the U.S. Corps of Engineers, Mobile District) that covered the Mahannah (Manny Plantation) Wildlife Management Area. The study revealed that during the 1920s and 1930s several African American cottages were positioned back in the forest as a weak, isolated community. The people disappeared and there are no traces of the cottages today. The 1913 and 1916 land leases for Big Poppa Johnson in Beat 2 Issaquena County near Manny Plantation were almost certainly back in the edge of the forest between the hamlet of Fitler and what is now the Mahannah W.M.A.
The second relevant document was the 1919 Fitler Plantation Deed wherein I. Lucas sold to Annie E. Heath all his ownership of the Fitler Plantation including the counters and shelving, post office fixtures and two desks and one chair situated in the storehouse on said land, known as the “Red Store” with Annie Heath paying all the taxes for the year 1919. Total sale price was $5,000. Almost certainly the Johnson-Jenkins part of the family would have purchased goods at the Red Store at Fitler, Mississippi. When Seth Johnson, age 25, filled out the World War I draft registration in Issaquena County, he said that he was working for I. Lucas at Fitler, Mississippi.
A third exciting document was the detailed map of plantations of Issaquena County that was filed in the state archives in 1908. Examining further documents and maps of the Issaquena County plantations, it appears that at least part of the Lee and Johnson families lived in the cotton plantation area north of Tallula during slavery
The 1865 Freedmen’s Contracts for Issaquena County, Mississippi, the nearest possible documents out of Slavery, showed a Ben Lee, age 57, and Mary Ann Lee, age 12 at the Oakly plantation with S. M. Davis holding the work contract. Bin Johnson, 47, and Jim Johnson, 30, were working at the Ellislu Plantation for Seth Stronghton. Seth also had a contract for a Big Charlotte, age 22, working at Homochitto Plantation and a Charlotte, 14, at Duncansby Plantation, and there were nine Jewish first names with no surnames at Ellislu, Homochitto, and Oakly plantations. S. M. Davis also had Lucretia, Mary, Mily, Nat, and Peter Johnson under contracts at Holly Ridge and Oakly plantations. These plantations were all adjacent to each other along the MIssissippi in the northern section above Tallula. About half the names on the contracts listing were first names only, and there were no Bradley surnames listed, however where the Lees were located at least some of the Bradleys may have been as well.
Complicating the story is that Ed Johnson was born in 1872 in Alabama, not Mississippi. Since there were already a number of Johnsons living in Issaquena County, this may be a case where Mississippi slaves were auctioned to Alabama planters at the Vicksburg slave market and then former slave families were being re-united immediately following the Civil War. Another possibility is that the previous Alabama slave-owner lost his property during the war and let the
former slaves go or else moved to Mississippi bringing some former slaves with him. There are probably a number of other possibilities including Ed’s father moving where jobs were available.
More information about the large hardwood forest came from the 1993 study done for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which apparently was used by the state of Mississippi in establishing the 12,695 acre Mahannah Wildlife Management Area. The study shows a series of abandoned river channels and one active channel coming through the forest. The WMA headquarters in 2014 stated that these geomorphic features are called the Cypress Bayou, a unique hardwood and bottomland agricultural swamp, created by overflow from the Yazoo River entering the Mississippi River just 15 miles north of Vicksburg.
1993 Map for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2014 Map for Mahannah Wildlife Management Area
Rose always wanted to complete her family history, not just for her own curiosity but also as a legacy for her children and grandchildren. Unfortunately we only had part of the study done when she died in 2008, so I have continued searching her family as well as mine from time to time. But my travel is greatly restricted, and much of the needed information is down there in Mississippi and Alabama. So we have left clues for the next generation to continue finding out about the Johnson-Jenkins-Bradley-Lee families of Fitler, Issaquena County, Mississippi.
Love you, Rose.
Diane Perrine Coon`
Public Documents: Studies and Articles
Blaine, H. and Eugene Wilson, “Historic Resources Assessment of the Pascagoula river/Delta, Twin Oaks and Mahannah Farm Tracts, Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway wildlife Mitigation Project, Mississippi,” (Tuscaloosa, AL: 1993), prepared for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District.
Blake, Tom, “Issaquena County, Mississippi: Largest Slaveholders from 1860 Slave Census Schedules and Surname Matches for African Americans on 1870 Census,” on line access through ancestry.com August 20014.
Bragg, Marian, “Historic Names and Places on the Lower Mississippi River,” (Vicksburg, MS: 1977), Mississippi River Commission, prepared for Department of the Army, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Issaquena Genealogy and History Project, “1865 Freedmen Contracts for Issaquena County,” Bob Franks, copyright 2003, 2004., on line accessed August 2014.
…………………………………………… .”Fitler Plantation Deed: 1919,” Bob Franks, copyright 2003, 2004., on line accessed August 2014.
………………………………………………”Issaquena County Communities,” Bob Franks, copyright 2003, 2004., on line accessed August 2014.
…………………………………………………………………….., “Issaquena County Geographical Landmarks,” Bob Franks, copyright 2003, 2004., on line accessed August 2014.
Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, “Mahannah Wildlife Management Area Map,” (Jackson, MS: 2014), online access August 7, 2014.
……… “Mahannah,” home page for Mahannah WMA, on line access August 7, 2014.
Mississippi Genealogy and History Network, “Issaquena County MSGHN,” on line access August 2014
…..……………………………………………., “Sunflower County MSGHN,” on line access August 2014.
Schneider, Betty Aron, “Sunflower County, MS: Mt Zion Cemetery Black burials, Heathman,” (Jackson, MS: Mississippi GenWeb, 2008), transcriptions by Bernice White and Sharon Grissette, on line access July 2014)
Turnage, Lawanda, “Mississippi Trivia,” (Jackson, MS: Mississippi Tourism Division, 1997), on line access August 2014.
Wikipedia, “Issaquena County, Mississippi,” on line access July 2014.
Public Documents: Census, Birth, Death, Draft Certificates
Federal Manuscript Census:
Boliver County, Mississippi, Beat 3, Mount Bayou Town: 1910
Green County, Alabama, Mountua 9 Precinct: 1930
Issaquena County, Mississippi, Beat 2, Beat 5: 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940
Issaquena County, Mississippi Slave Schedules: 1850, 1860
Sharkey County, Mississippi: Beat 1: 1920
Sunflower County, Mississippi: Beat 3, Indianola, Heathman: 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940
Washington County, Mississippi: Greenville: 1900, 1940
Arkansas, County Marriage Index, 1837-1957 – Louis Jordan and Alice Johnson, 1931, on line access through ancestry.com August 2014.
Greenville, Mississippi City Directory: 1940 page 315, on line access through ancestry.com August 2014.
World War I Draft Registration – Seth Johnson, Issaquena County, MS, July 1917, access through ancestry.com August 2014.
Online Photos and Media
Crosby Lumber Company, Genealogy and History of Issaquena County, Mississippi, on line photos, accessed August 2014., google images.
Issaquena Genealogy and History Project, “Rand McNally World Atlas, Mississippi, 1897,” Bob Franks, copyright 2003, 2004, originals in Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, on line accessed August 2014.
………….”Contemporary Issaquena County Map,” Bob Franks, copyright 2003, 2004, originals in Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, on line accessed August 2014.
McFarland, A. “Map of Plantations of Carrol Parish, Louisiana, and Issaquena County, Mississippi, (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress Map Division, 1908), on line access August 2014.
Williamsburg Photos, “Overseer on a White Horse,” on line access August 2014, google images.
Barry, John M., Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).