Cassie is old enough to understand segregation and the realities of African American life in 1930’s Mississippi. She is bright and curious, characteristics reflected in her desire to learn about the Mississippi constitution. Proud of her race, she despises her mulatto cousin who thinks of herself as white. However, the execution of her friend T.J., her brother’s running away from home, the racial hostility she experiences, and the problems of the Depression take an emotional toll on her. Her parents’ nurturing of her pride and self-respect and her close family ties, however, give her the strength she needs.
Papa, Cassie’s father, is an old-fashioned disciplinarian but also a hardworking and considerate father. He tries to support his family by working on their small farm, but he is faced with a constant struggle against poverty. He is forced to take out-of-town work, but he manages to stay two steps ahead of Harlan Granger, who is determined to annex the Logan property through deception.
Mama, Cassie’s mother, is the daughter of a sharecropper who was once a school-teacher. She lost her teaching job because she supported a boycott against the Wallaces, who ran the store on the Granger plantation. Mama assists students with evening lessons, works hard to help sustain the family, and runs the farm in Papa’s absence.
Stacey, the Logans’ eldest son, is devastated by T.J.’s execution; his father’s departure from home further depresses him. Stacey is not able to deal with his emotional problems as effectively as his sister does, and he runs away, leaving his family to undertake a long search for him.
Harlan Granger, the Logan family’s chief antagonist, is the most powerful of the four major white landowners in the county. He thrives in an environment of segregation and prejudice, gets special treatment from the sheriff, and is hated by the poor people of the county. He is envious of the Logans’ property, and he makes repeated, dishonest attempts to annex it to his own much larger estate.