Interviewee: Morris, Rogers
Interviewer: Eric Atchison
Processed by: K. Clemons
EA: This is a recording of the Delta Black Farmer Exhibit. Mr. Rogers Morris. It is being tape-recorded from a video taken earlier.
RM: Well, my mother was from…Well, they came from Lake Providence, Louisiana. Well, my mother, that is, my grandmother, her mother, came from Lake Providence, LA, they moved up in the Greenville area. And they bought land up there. Of course, south…east of Greenville. They settled there, and I’m not sure. My sister has more details of how dad met mom. But, at any rate, they were also Louisiana people.
EA: How many siblings do you have?
RM: There are…Originally, it was five of us. My oldest sister, she’s passed—about two, two and a half years ago. But I have two brothers and one other sister. Both, my two brothers live in Greenville. One is Thomas Morris, attorney, A.J. Morris, Rosedale. My sister, she went into nursing…(inaudible).
EA: So she’s doing better than ya’ll right now, huh.
RM: Better believe it. Well, you know, of course, the problem down there is you guys get so many storms. Recently, got a lot of storms.
EA: Right, recently.
R.M.: That makes it kind of tough.
EA: Mosquitoes are…(inaudible)
R.M.: Yea, that’s true now.
EA: How much land did your family own.
RM: They owned approximately 104 acres. Now that’s my grandfather. And, of course, Dad bought a piece of land which he settled right near Winterville. The initial land was, I told you, was out east of Lamont. And he moved, Dad when he married, moved to Winterville. And he built a house there and later built one on the…He bought a hundred…he bought ten acres where he built a house for his family. And he bought that from my grandmother’s father, who was H.I. McFerguson…McFearson. And, of course, that land…we still have all of that land now. And it’s not for sale. Never for sale. EA: Alright, you answered my next question already, about how and when did your family acquire the land. And where is the land located? You said east Lamont?
RM: The land that was purchased for my grandfather is located about 31/2 to 4 miles east of Lamont, MS; and it’s just north of the county line.
EA: Of Bolivar County line?
RM: Right. No, just north of the Washington County line. And the land that was purchased by my father is just a mile west, east of the town of Winterville. It’s what we call Williams Bayou.
EA: Is the land still being farmed?
RM: Oh yes. Oh yes. We changed it a little bit. The land that was the family’s, belonged to my grandfather. It’s being farmed in soybeans. And also, we have…my uncle and my father put pecan trees back in the, whew back in the 1950’s. And that was kind of an unusual situation for black farmers to do, to plant pecan trees.
EA: What is it?
RM: About that project? Well, most of the farmers have been more into low-profit, any other thing. It was unusual—I don’t know who inspired Dad and my uncle to get into that. But it was unusual for Black farmers just to do that. I think we had…Well the County agent came on the scene a little later was Mr. Charlie Byrd. And he was the kind of individual, kind of inspiring small Black farmers to do some additional things, some other things to support the family. Those…A lot of the farmers didn’t have large acres of land. Back in those times, the largest one, I think, in that area, was about 120 acres. And then on down—40, 60 acres, that kind of thing. So it didn’t…it wasn’t…it didn’t lend itself even back in that time to provide your family with enough, you know, assistance. But Dad did a lot of other things. He grew vegetables. He grew sweet potatoes. And, of course, it’s ironic that now I’m growing sweet potatoes.
EA: Is that your main crop?
RM: That’s, more or less, what I call the cash cow. We got into it more about four, well about 5 years ago, as a result of a farmer coming back, not a farmer really, more of a trucker, coming back and talking to us about moving and growing sweet potatoes. It can be a very profitable kind of venture. So, it was really something I had to think about, too. It’s not just jump-in, jump-out enterprise.
EA: On the farms that you farmed, on the land that you farm, is it all family-owned? Did you rent some also?
RM: No, I owned, well…See I started, my background is environmental health. And, of course, I started here in ’68, came out to Mound Bayou and started working at the Delta Health Center. And we started with the environmental health programs. And then later moved to the directorship of the Health Center. I went on to get my Master’s at Cincinnati Environmental Health. So as we worked at the center, we still had that love for farming, love for the land. And we bought some land. And I got married shortly afterwards, and started raising a family.
EA: You said ‘we bought some land,’ who was that?
RM: Oh, that’s just the family.
EA: So you don’t rent any land; it’s all your own?
RM: Oh yeah, I do rent. Yeah, we rent the property that we own.
EA: Ok, where’s that at?
RM: The land I own is east of here. We bought about a couple hundred acres, buying a few pieces at a time.
EA: And the land you rent?
RM: It’s in the same area.
EA: And the land is still being farmed to this day?
RM: Oh yeah. Always been farmed.
EA: Who farms it?
RM: Well, originally, after my parents passed, we rented it out to a local farmer.
EA: And what was his name?
RM: Well, the (word?) we rented it first to, the Alexander’s, who were farming for a while there down in Greenville. And then we rented it to another large farmer (words?). And then we took it back over.
EA: Can you tell me some of the history around there?
RM: Well, the original, the property my grandfather bought, only my brother can share that. I don’t know that. We never really got any history on that portion of it. The land that my father bought from his father-in-law was owned by a local White farmer. I guess it was he and his wife. Of course, my grandfather was the horseman for this particular farmer. He was the one who always drove the carriage for the family. And what happened is that I think the farmer died. And he continued to work for the family. And he worked for the lady. And I think one of the things he wanted was land for his family. And so it was a result of that relationship that my grandfather acquired the first, it was really 40, but it was 32 acres. And my father married his daughter and he bought the home site and the land. On that land, some of that ice cream cotton land, it was just top quality. When you call it ice cream, that’s just an expression of how good it is. And he was able to grow other crops. See you can’t grow a lot of the vegetables on some of the heavier land. Not as well. They don’t produce as prolifically. And so that begets effort with vegetables. They sold, we raised cows and hogs and that kind of thing to feed the family, as well as sold milk and butter and eggs and that kind of thing in Greenville. It was tough. It was tough. Dad had some pretty interesting experiences.
EA: Can you tell me about them?
RM: Well, back in those times, the Black farmers went to secure funds for their operation. And this particular, it was PCA—Production Credit Associaton—and you can imagine back in the early ‘50’s, you would put in an application for this loan. He was never able to get what he needed. He was always cut. He was always cut. And it was just tough. But he was always able to make it out because he had a lot of ingenuity. And he built the house himself—the farmhouse—as well as did all the vegetable farming. And we, of course, we were kids; and we had to do our part. But it worked out good. You know, and somehow, you appreciate that effort. And that’s why the land is really special. A lot of blood and sweat went into it.
EA: And was the farm ever used for sharecropping?
RM: Well, it was originally, see…Back when my father, when my grandfather –and this is my mother’s father, no…my grandmother’s father, I’m sorry– purchased the land, much of the land was used for sharecropping. In particular, this (word?). And it was his dream to have his own place. But it worked out well with the family.
EA: Besides the cows and the milk and the eggs and the sweet potatoes, is there anything else that you grew sometimes?
RM: On that farm, only cotton We got, well, the greens, of course, that was a major item for me. We did sell a lot of chicken, a lot of chicken. Every now and then, they would do sausage. You know, when you did a lot of meats…Primarily, our cows, we strictly had milk cows, we didn’t do any beef. When you did the killing of the hog, that was a community kind of thing. It was a sharing among the members of the community. So we cured hams. And the hams were used a lot of times to pay some of the doctor bills. Dr. Holmes was kind of our family doctor back in those days. And Dad, when (words?) were sick—appendicitis or anything, he’d take us to him. And you had to be pretty serious to go to the doctor in those days. You had to pay with a ham, milk or whatever.
EA: Well, how has technology and what you’ve produced changed over time?
RM: It has changed significantly…I remember my father and my uncle were some of the first people in the area to go from a mule to a tractor. And it was an old lug-wheel (word?) mule…today.
EA: Where is it?
RM: It’s down on the home farm. And it made things a lot better for them. Of course, in some of that buckshot land, you use to get stuck all the time. But it did a lot of things to help him handle a bit more land. And the unfortunate part about it is that there was not a great deal of land available; because many of the farmers were Blacks who had acquired land…And, of course, we had an uncle who lived on a little piece of property. His wife was related to my grandmother. And they had a piece of land. He was a veteran. He was in World War I, World War II, and he had acquired some land. And they wanted some of the…they didn’t have any children. So they wanted one of us to come and stay with them. And they made sure they wanted me to do it. I was the youngest, and I just couldn’t see leaving home; but he was able to use the equipment to help him do a lot of this work. But in the latter years, of course it has helped in terms of expanding operations. And we’ve been able to do a lot of things with the (word?) operations. And with the GMO’s, whether that’s good or bad I don’t know. I guess we’ll know after years of …
EA: What are GMO’s?
RM: (Genetically modified?). They’ve done some things to turn some increase in years. But the bean is certainly, probably a more, I don’t know, I guess that’s good for eating dinner, your crops, and you can control your vegetation better and that kind of thing. But for some reason, they don’t tend to hold up as good as the older beans. But you can certainly handle more, because you use the RoundUp to keep the crops clean. But we’re getting (word?) with the quality of the bean. For some reason, they don’t stand up under extreme temperature stresses. When you have a high humidity and a high temperature and a late harvest, you can (rot right in the parks?). And that’s been the drawbacks of the bean. And, of course, you can (word?) reproduce these beans…(words?). And if you saved some beans, then you could use them. So it’s got its trade-offs. It’s got its trade-offs. Technology has helped.
EA: What technology, as far as farm equipment, do you use?
RM: Well, we’re not using any guided systems, but we’re using…All of our stuff is now computerized—recordkeeping, payroll, those kinds of things. We’re moving toward the guided systems. That’s a little ways for us right now. We’re not using that type of technology yet.
EA: Can they perform work?
RM: We had to…One particular one is changing to more vegetables. And a part of that is the acquisition of the kind of land that is more productive with vegetables. And it’s…And, really, it’s probably a transition that many small farmers will have to make if they plan to stay in because you cannot generate the path of income that you need off of a row crop if you don’t have large acreage. And so, you can generate the money it’s going to take. It takes a lot of work. It does take work. And the other tough part about this is that you don’t have a lot of young Black farmers out there. I would say the average age of Black farmers now is probably in the 60, 55-60 range. We have a few small farmers that are coming in, but the land’s not there. I mean, the land’s there. It’s capital (word?), so you’re going to get a lot of stress in cost, and the rental is extremely high, so it makes it pretty tough for a small farmer to get into business. And you can imagine if you paid, some of the federal land is renting for around 75, 80, 100, 110, 115 dollars. And I was talking to some guys in the Bolivar area, and it’s like (words?). So if you’re interest is 10%, you’re already off $15. And that does not…and that’s before you put seed in the ground. You’re looking at quite a (inaudible). The equipment costs is outrageous.
EA: Phenomenal. Has the land been divided over time?
RM: No, it has not. It’s still… In fact, we have a…It’s a thing where we possibly looking at, not dividing it per se, but settling some of the family members because we have several groups that are a part of the original tract. All of mine is distributed—my kids, my wife.
EA: How many kids do you have?
RM: I have four boys.
RM: Nope. Well, I have a pretty good cross section. I’ve got one who’s a chiropractor. My youngest one is in the (inaudible), and the other one is a mechanical engineer with Ford. I hope one day they’ll generate something that will bring something back; bring as many back as possible.
EA: Are there any buildings on the farmland?
RM: Oh yeah. Well, on the original, you know the family tract, the original family tract, there is a house that my dad built.
EA: It’s still standing?
EA: When did he build it?
RM: I was born in ‘45, so he built that house, I think, in like ’46. And, he of course, built a new barn to work in and another storage shed and stuff like that.
EA: Are those still standing?
RM: Well, they’re still standing. One is leaning on the everlasting arms. We will probably tear it down. It’s just a storage shed where we kept cattle and feed and cotton.
EA: But it’s going to have to come down eventually, right?
RM: Oh yeah. We’re going to have to take it down.
EA: Are you planning on keeping the house there?
R.M.: Oh yeah. Do ya’ll still stay there?
RM: We have some people staying there, because all of us had scattered. And (words?). And we have to do some repairs on it, but that’s sort of in plan. My son wants to change it to a bed and breakfast (words?), or something like that. But we’ll see.
EA: Besides the house and the other structures, have you ever built a structure of your own?
RM: Oh yeah. On the land we first got here, we had to build a…Well, at the time were doing hogs and little catfish. So we built a large shop (inaudible).
EA: Can you give me a general lay of the land?
RM: The piece that we have here is an, it’s an 80–, well, where the storage shed is, it’s an 80 acre tract.
EA: Is it square or…?
RM: It’s rectangular. And a stream flows through it. And this would be north; this would be south.
EA: The stream goes from north to south?
RM: The stream…This is where the…This is the west edge of the crop. And the stream, it flows through that crop. And, of course, what’s here is…this is eleven acres of land, and this is the stream coming…(inaudible). This is what I call a little small piece of (inaudible). And then, this is where the barn is located. Then this piece tapers off…(inaudible)…and it’s a little stream comes on through this way. And then these are three farms.
EA: So these are all farms right here?
RM: We decided, when we stopped raising fish…and, of course, you know, back in the 80’s, (words?). We opted not to knock the farms down. And, of course, my son, the youngest, he definitely wanted to do some crawfish, catfish. So we basically (inaudible).
EA: And what about the other one?
RM: Okay, there’s a…on down this way, there’s another (word?) to the tract, which that same stream flows through. So it would be like down here. It’s not adjoining.
EA: It’s rectangular as well?
RM: It’s rectangular.
EA: And the same stream kind of flows through?
RM: It flows on down this way, eventually going to the Sunflower.
RM: And back there, we just use at least (words?).
EA: And are there any structures on this end?
Alright. What would you tell a young person who was interested in agriculture today?
RM: Of course, I would first tell them, you need to be seriously into what you’re doing. That he needs to get first get him an education. Get him a good agricultural education. And even to the point of getting your Master’s. Because he needs to be able to…depending on what is outlook is, he would need to augment his income for farming. If he’s looking at something extremely large; or if he wants to go into produce, that means that he has to look at the kind of land that he wants to acquire. There are just a lot of things that he needs to look at. Of course, the other thing he needs to…if he’s not married, he needs to know what the wife’s thinking is. He needs to talk to her. (Words?) because that’s a large part of it. Some ladies are just not interested. When you come off of farms, (inaudible). So, you have issues there. Of course, he has to look at financing, his ability to get financing. He ought to make sure that he has his credit in order. And he’s got to be committed. He’s got to be very committed to agriculture and have a knowledge of what he’s getting into. But it’s a good life. You just have to make sure that you (duck, serve, and order?). You have to make sure that everything is planned and laid out. And from a record and management standpoint, with the programs that are available, the computer programs and record systems and guided systems and all that, he can do a good job. He’s definitely going to have to be computer literate. It’s a must.
EA: What is the value of your land to you and your family?
R.M.: When you say value, what do you mean? Do you mean dollar value, or do you mean as a livelihood?
R.M.: Ok, I think it’s a way of life that I’ve really come to love. It hasn’t given me all the financial rewards that I would like to have, but it is probably the best place now to raise sons. When I left the health center, it was a question as to whether I was going to stay here or whether I was going to move and go to another job in another area. And I had some offers in Alabama. I had some offers at another health center down there. Even Jasper, and a couple of other places. Because at that time, the health center movement was pretty strong. Do you know anything about OEO?
R.M.: Okay. That’s before your time. That was the Office of Economic Opportunity. And it was sort of, primarily during the latter part of the Civil Rights struggle, you know, in the ‘60’s. And it was a program that was designed to sort of help poor people. And with folks some economic kind of development, but primarily health care, meeting some of the basic necessities of life—water and suage, disposal—that kind of thing. And it gave rise to some of the programs that came out of…HEW, which is Health, Education, and Welfare. It was very important in some of your headstart programs. Getting back. The land…the issue of…so I stayed with my…I opted, after I parted with the health center, to purchase additional land and stay and farm. My dad was living, and I was working some with him, and doing the farm thing here. So, it worked out well as it was the raising of the kids. See one of the big things I know, I learned that if you can keep your boys busy, (words?). Always like that. Always. And so it was very valuable at that time. We were doing fish, and they could test the water, keep oxygen up in the pond, and go out at night and that kind of thing. So it was a real good thing for us for the raising of the kids.
EA: Do you see a time when the land will no longer be in your family?
RM: No. Definitely not. We’ve planned. In fact, we’ve been meeting. So our plan now is to…all of my brothers are older than I am. And our plan now is to begin to pick those kids, our grandchildren, who will now be the managers. When I say managers, I mean, handle the resources. That’s real important to us.
EA: How do you feel about keeping the land in the family for future generations?
RM: It’s just…It ties people, and it gives them a sense of ownership…a sense of stability. My children, you know, often, whenever they can, (words?), you know, do all kinds of things because they relate that way to it. It’s already in them.
EA: Ok, and has the family utilized any assistance to continue farming?
RM: Oh yeah, my father…You know, I told you he was having some pretty tough times dealing with the local lending institution. Of course, he worked around it. But then he worked with Farmers’ Home Administration, which is the Preamble to FSA. And it was Farmers’ Home, and then it was FHA, then FMHA, and now it’s FSA. And, of course, he…This was, perhaps, just before we left going to college. Well, before I left, I think, starting with the (words?), looking to expand to purchase some of the tractors and stuff that he needed to operate the farm. So he used them and then we used them to (words?).
EA: What lenders do you use?
RM: Oh, we use the Farmers’ Home. We’ve used NRCS, and Dad used it for our conservation programs. We have used…It was a water management district, sometimes they would have resources to help farmers.
RM: Each town.
EA: Now YND, I know.
R.M.: Well, YND is different. YND basically helps the water wells and looking at the water table’s level and (words?). But we didn’t have the (word?) back in that time. We just had water districts that helped do some drainage.
EA: How has race affected your family, besides the lending to the farm?
R.M: What now? Rice?
R.M.: R-i-c-e, rice.
EA: R-a-c-e. Like when you said your father went to get loans and stuff.
R.M.: Oh, how has race…? I can assure you that he’s been affected significantly by the race issue. It was a typical situation. Dad always had to go in the back door. That was typical of his time. And if there was anybody there who came in during that time, they were certainly waited on before he was. It certainly affected his ability to do the kinds of things he needed to do, because he was only getting enough to do the actual farming and not enough money to take care of a family. In other words those living expenses…But it made him tough. It made him look for ways to do that. And that’s where we were at. Milked the cows before we went to school (words?). Same thing in the evening. Even with the cotton gin, it wasn’t like this community. You had Black farmers in this community that had cotton gins (words?). He had to wait his turn. His turn was usually when all the other cotton was ginned. And there was a man who (words?), at that time. And he kind of took in Dad, and he was President of the cotton gin (word?). And he always made sure Dad…his cotton was ginned.
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