Published in 1976, Mildred Taylor’s novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry won multiple awards, including the 1977 Newbery Medal. Set in Mississippi in 1933, the story is told from the perspective of Cassie Logan, a nine-year-old girl living with her family on their own land at a time when land ownership for black Americans was the exception rather than the rule. This is the era of black codes, Jim Crow laws, and explicitly legal segregation. Taylor weaves historical research throughout the story to paint a vivid picture of this fraught period of American history.
Sharecropping and Land Ownership
After the Civil War, Southern states were given an enormous amount of freedom to rebuild their governments, and it wasn’t long before black codes appeared. Their purpose was to maintain white supremacy in the south and prevent former slaves from exercising their new freedoms. These codes made it difficult for black people to make decent wages or go into business for themselves. Sharecropping became one way that white southerners extracted cheap labor from former slaves. Families could live on part of the land owned by a wealthy white person, raise its crops, and give a percentage of the crop to the landowner at the conclusion of the harvest. Both white and black farmers sharecropped in the years after the Civil War. But as time went on, sharecropping created a vicious cycle of poverty that primarily impacted black families. Black farming families were dependent on stores operated by white landowners, who often padded sharecroppers’ store accounts with things they didn’t purchase. In some cases, landowners charged greater percentages of crops and greater interest rates in exchange for store credit. The system was set up to keep black sharecroppers in constant debt and powerless to obtain financial independence.
In Roll of Thunder, Cassie’s parents orchestrate a boycott of the local store, which is owned by a murderous white family. Before long, the sharecroppers of the community are threatened by the white landowners, and are forced to drop out of the boycott:
“Mr. Granger making it hard on us, David. Said we gonna have to give him sixty percent of the cotton, ‘stead of fifty. . . . But—but that ain’t all Mr. Granger said. Said, too, we don’t give up this shoppin’ in Vicksburg, we can jus’ get off his land. Says he tired of us stirrin’ up trouble ‘gainst decent white folks.”
Because they are landowners, the Logans have an independence that sharecropping families—like their friend T. J.’s—do not.
Separate But Equal
The Supreme Court ruled in the 1896 court case Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation in the United States was legal as long as facilities were equally distributed and maintained. However, facilities were typically inequitable. Florida passed a law in 1885 that segregated its schools by race. Texas segregated its water fountains, restrooms, and waiting rooms. Other states passed similar laws. Seventeen southern states banned black people from enrolling in land-grant colleges. Schools for black students received far less public funding than their white counterparts, and they often had to use outdated equipment and textbooks.
Early in the novel, Cassie describes the school the white students attend, with its expansive lawn, sports field, bleachers, and buses. She then describes the school the black students attend—“a dismal end to an hour’s journey.” On the first day of school, Cassie’s teacher excitedly announces that they will have textbooks this year. The books, however, are the throwaways from the white school, complete with each student’s name and race recorded in the front.
Terrorism, night riders, and lynchings
In the post-Civil War South, black codes were laws enacted to maintain social control over the former slaves of the South. One way white people in the South maintained their supremacy extralegally was through terrorist activities, which went largely unpunished by the justice system. If a...
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