DIRT TOWN VALLEY, Ga. — Just before people started to take the pandemic seriously, Stacie Marshall slipped into the back of a conference room in Athens, Ga., and joined two dozen Black farmers in a marketing seminar called “Collards Aren’t the New Kale.”
She stood out, and not just because she was one of only two white people in the room. Ms. Marshall, 41, still had the long blond hair and good looks that won her the Miss Chattooga County title in 1998. The win came with scholarship money that got her to a tiny Baptist college and a life away from the small Appalachian valley where her family has farmed for more than 200 years.
Leading the seminar was Matthew Raiford, 53, a tall, magnetic Gullah Geechee chef and organic farmer who works the coastal Georgia land his forebears secured a decade after they were emancipated from slavery.
He asked if there were questions. Ms. Marshall raised her hand, ignored the knot in her stomach and told her story: She was in line to inherit 300 acres, which would make her the first woman in her family to own a farm. She had big plans for the fading commercial cattle operation and its overgrown fields. She would call it Mountain Mama Farms, and sell enough grass-fed beef and handmade products like goat’s milk soap to help support her husband and their three daughters.
But she had discovered a terrible thing.
“My family owned seven people,” Ms. Marshall said. She wanted to know how to make it right.
Mr. Raiford was as surprised as anyone in the room. “Those older guys have probably never heard that from a white lady in their entire lives,” he recalled.
For almost three years now, with the fervor of the newly converted, Ms. Marshall has been on a quest that from the outside may seem quixotic and even naïve. She is diving into her family’s past and trying to chip away at racism in the Deep South, where every white family with roots here benefited from slavery and almost every Black family had enslaved ancestors.
“I don’t have a lot of money, but I have property,” she said during a walk on her farm last winter. “How am I going to use that for the greater good, and not in like a paying-penance sort of way but in an it’s-just-the-right-thing-to-do kind of way?”
It’s not easy finding anyone in this farming community of 26,000 she can talk to about white privilege, critical race theory or renewed calls for federal reparations. She can’t even get her cousins to stop flying the Confederate flag. It’s about heritage, not hate, they tell her.
Farming, family and unspoken discrimination are braided together so tightly here that she can’t untwist them. She is aware that she sometimes stumbles across the line between doing antiracism work and playing the white savior, but she finds the history unavoidable.
“I can’t just go feed my cows and not be reminded of it,” she said.
Hers is the national soul-searching writ small: Should the descendants of people who kept others enslaved be held responsible for that wrong? What can they do to make things right? And what will it cost?
After the seminar, the farmers offered some ideas: She could set up an internship for young Black farmers, letting them work her land and keep the profit. Maybe her Black neighbors wanted preservation work done on their church cemetery.
Or maybe — and this is where the discussion gets complicated — she should give some land or money from the sale of it to descendants of the Black people who had helped her family build wealth, either as enslaved people in the 1800s or, later, as sharecroppers who lived in two small shacks on her land.
“She is deep in Confederate country trying to do this work,” Mr. Raiford said when he went to visit her farm this spring. If she can figure it out, he said, Chattooga County could be a template for small communities all over the South.
As the only young woman running a farm in the valley, Ms. Marshall already feels like a curiosity. She expects that people will turn on her for telling the community’s story through the lens of slavery. You can’t really hide from your neighbors here, which is the best and the worst thing about tight communities. Not long ago, she ended up in a CrossFit class with Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Republican this region elected to Congress in 2020.
Ms. Marshall hasn’t told most of her extended family what she is doing. “I will get some hell,” she said. “There are people in this community that are totally going to turn when I start telling these things.”
At the same time, she is protective of her corner of the South.
“I don’t want my family to be painted out as a bunch of white, racist rednecks,” she said. “God, I am proud of every square inch of this place — except for this.”
Raised in the Faith
The rolling farmland in this northwest corner of Georgia has never lent itself to the plantation agriculture that once dominated other parts of the South. Today, about 300 small farms raise cattle and broiler chickens, and grow soybeans and hay.
Few make much money. The poverty rate has edged close to double the nation’s. Ms. Marshall, who is on the board of the local homeless shelter, sees people in need all around her. “It’s really hard for people in Chattooga County to understand white privilege because they’re like, ‘We’re barely getting by,’” she said.
Over the years, her father and grandfather drove trucks or took shifts at the cotton mill to keep the farm running. At 68, her father, Steve Scoggins, still works 3 p.m. to midnight as a hospital maintenance man.
Only 10 percent of the population is Black, a number that historians estimate was probably five times higher before the Civil War, and began to drop after Emancipation and as African Americans moved north to escape the Jim Crow South.
Most residents are evangelical Christians. It’s such rich Trump country that the former president held one of his last campaign rallies five miles from Ms. Marshall’s farmhouse. “Some good friends were at those rallies,” she said.
Her father, who lives down the road, is as proud of his farm daughter as a man could be. He unabashedly supports her work against racism, but at the Dirt Town Deli, he sometimes stays quiet when an offensive comment passes among his friends. All in all, he’d rather discuss his tractor collection and the fried-egg sandwiches his daughter makes him every morning for breakfast.
He also supports Mr. Trump, and doesn’t understand why in the world she started voting for Democrats.
In some ways, Ms. Marshall doesn’t either. Her childhood was steeped in conservative rural politics and the power of the evangelical church. She left home to attend Truett McConnell University, a Baptist school near the Tennessee border, on a scholarship for students with ambitions to become a minister or marry one.
There she met Jeremy Marshall, a product of the Atlanta suburbs who was studying for the ministry. They married when both were 21, and went on to earn master’s degrees — hers in education, at the University of Georgia, and his in counseling.
They lived and worked for a decade at Berry College, a liberal arts school in northwest Georgia where they helped care for 400 evangelical students in a special program paid for by the conservative WinShape Foundation. But last year, as the coronavirus hit, they decided it was time to move to the family farmhouse she had inherited.
Between the pandemic and trying to get her arms around how to run a farm, Ms. Marshall hasn’t really reconnected with the big tangle of extended family and friends she grew up with. She’s a different person from the one who left 20 years ago. Many things she accepted as gospel back then seem less clear now.
“Feminist was a dirty word growing up in this area,” she said. “And I began to realize, well, damn it, I think I am one. Some things just didn’t set right with me anymore.”
She is bracing for the family’s disappointment.
“I don’t think I have a greater moral compass or am more evolved than my family members,” she said. “We all grew up being taught, ‘Don’t air your family’s dirty laundry.’ I guess I am putting the laundry on the line.”
‘This Is Mine Now’
Growing up, Ms. Marshall heard that her family had once enslaved people, but the history hit her in a visceral way 12 years ago, just after her first daughter was born. The baby was struggling to nurse. Ms. Marshall was nearly in tears. Her grandfather, Fred Scoggins, tried to offer some comfort.
“You know,” she recalled his saying, “you get that from the Scoggins women. Your great-great-great grandmother couldn’t produce milk, either. So they had to buy a slave.”
They called her Mammy Hester, he said, and he spun the same false narrative that some white Southerners use to soften the harsh reality: The family had treated Hester so well that after the Civil War, she remained with them.
Ms. Marshall began thinking a lot about Hester, whose milk had fed her ancestors. Then, about five years ago, she learned that the truth was even worse than she knew. Her mother-in-law, an amateur genealogist who works her Ancestry.com account with cheery enthusiasm, delivered the news. “Did you know your family owned slaves?” she asked, producing documents she had discovered.
“I felt like I needed a shot of whiskey,” Ms. Marshall said.
But it was easy to shove the family history aside. Her daughters were growing up. Her mother got sick with cancer and died. She lost her grandparents. “I picked out three coffins in five months,” she said.
Her father gave her the family farmhouse and three acres. When he dies, she will take control of the remaining few hundred acres.
Ms. Marshall started clearing out the house. She was sorting through her grandparents’ cast-iron pans and old furniture when she came across a dusty boot box filled with wedding announcements and newspaper clippings.
Inside was a copy of a county slave schedule from 1860 that her mother-in-law had discovered. This time, Ms. Marshall really studied it. Seven people were listed under the name W.D. Scoggins, her great-great-great-grandfather, identified only by their ages, genders and race. Her family had owned two men and one woman, all in their 30s, and four children. The youngest was 5 ½ months old.
“It took on a different meaning because I was going through their jewelry and their clothes,” she said. “I was like, this is mine now. The family story is mine. Am I going to stick this in a drawer and forget about it?”
She thought about her daughters. “I knew I needed to reframe this story for them and for the farm and for this community,” she said.
W.D. Scoggins had another unsettling legacy. He acquired the family’s first tract of land, a mile or so from her farm, in an 1833 lottery that gave Creek and Cherokee land to white people. Key portions of the Trail of Tears start not far from her valley.
“So you figure out that you got stolen land that had the enslaved put on it, and your family benefited off that for a lot of years,” said Mr. Raiford, the Gullah Geechee farmer who has become her friend and adviser. “Now you have to have two different conversations. It gets complicated real fast.”
Asking the Preacher
If anyone in the valley could help Ms. Marshall begin her self-styled healing project, it was Melvin Mosley. He had been the assistant principal at her high school. He is also her father’s best friend.
The two men met as boys, when Mr. Mosley’s uncle lived in one of the shacks on the Scoggins farm and worked for Ms. Marshall’s grandfather. Mr. Scoggins went to the white school, Mr. Mosley the Black one. Every book at Mr. Mosley’s school was a hand-me-down from the white school, but the boys didn’t understand that their educations were different until they started comparing notes.
“One day he asks me, ‘Did you choose white milk or chocolate milk today?’” Mr. Mosley said. “Man, we didn’t have a choice. We didn’t have chocolate milk. I didn’t even know what a spit wad was because we never got straws.”
Chattooga County integrated its schools in 1966, when the boys were in seventh grade. In interviews, the men talked about how unfair segregation was, but their perspectives on the past are profoundly different.
Both recalled joining the adults as they baled hay for Mr. Scoggins’ father, and breaking for midday dinner. The Black workers ate outdoors. The white workers went into the house.
“My mama would call them to come in the house, but they said, ‘No, ma’am,’ and stayed out by that wall there,” Mr. Scoggins said. “They were humble.”
To Mr. Mosley, eating outside wasn’t about humility. “We did what we did because that’s what you did,” he said. “That was a sign of the times.”
For decades, he taught in public schools and prisons. At 67, he is a preacher, and lives with his wife, Betty, on 50 acres near Ms. Marshall’s farm.
On a summer day in 2019, Ms. Marshall sat in their yard and told them she wanted to start sharing the whole, hard story of Dirt Valley, and make some kind of amends. She asked if she was on the right path.
Mr. Mosley always considered her a bright girl who should go to college — as he told her after sending her to detention for kissing a boy in the school mechanic shop. His advice now was simple.
“Let’s say that’s the water under the bridge,” he said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” All she needed to do was to pour as much love on their valley as she could.
“In all of our families, Black or white, there are some generational things that are up to us to break,” he told her. “And when we break it, it is broken forever.”
He stood and took her hand. Mrs. Mosley joined them in a prayer circle. “Father in heaven,” he prayed, “we ask you just to continue to give her the courage and the desire to break the chain of racism, Lord.”
On another visit, just before Christmas, Ms. Marshall sat with the couple at their dining room table eating vanilla-scented tea cakes. She had brought a copy of the slave records, and was seeking their advice on whether she should compensate Hester’s descendants if she ever found them.
“People aren’t looking for a handout,” Mrs. Mosley told her. “We just want justice in all of the things that are going on. It’s hard to explain it to a white person, but if you’re a Black person you understand.”
Gravestones With No Names
With the slave documents in hand, Ms. Marshall set out to delve deeper, trying to track down Hester’s descendants and to share what she had learned.
She began telling her story in lectures at Berry College. After George Floyd was murdered last year, she decided to bring students to the farm. The Mosleys and other Black neighbors and farmers sometimes come, sharing a meal and leading a discussion about race.
The visits include a somber walk out to the remains of the two shacks. No one knows exactly when they were built, or when the generations of people who lived in them started calling themselves renters instead of tenant farmers or sharecroppers.
“We always called it sharecropping,” Mr. Mosley said. “What that means is that when you were living on a farm like that, you couldn’t object to things because you’d find yourself homeless.”
Early on, Ms. Marshall took some students to clean up a nearby cemetery where a heritage group plants Confederate flags near the gravestones of Civil War soldiers. Scattered among the family plots are plain stones marking the graves of the enslaved. There are no names on them.
The only name Ms. Marshall has to work with is Hester’s. Finding her descendants seems all but impossible. The first census taken after the Civil War showed that Hester had become a landowner in Chattooga County, and that one of her daughters had married a man named Perry. Ms. Marshall recently found what she thinks is his grave in a cemetery next to the historically Black church in Dirt Town Valley.
There are dozens of Black people named Perry in the county, but few other clues to their lineage. For many Black families in America, only the scarcest genealogical records remain.
“I think this is really where white privilege slaps us in the face,” Ms. Marshall said. “The context for my own family is that I can trace back and find names on historical documents.”
But genealogy hunts can be expensive and time-consuming. Ms. Marshall’s days are already filled. Calves get stuck in the mud and have to be rescued. Goats need to be milked. There are children to raise.
Even if Ms. Marshall tracked down some of Hester’s relatives, what then? If she decided to hand over some land, she would have to find people who want to farm, or could at least shoulder the tax burden. If she sold some of the land and gave away that cash, how to decide who should get it and how much to give?
Mr. Marshall is a full partner in his wife’s antiracist work, but he likens financial reparations to carbon offsets but for guilt-racked white people.
“It’s like, ‘I’m not going to change my life, but tell me a dollar amount that would absolve me of guilt,’” he said. “That kind of transaction, whether it’s about the environment or racial inequality, is not going to create change.”
Some leading thinkers on formal reparations, in which the federal government would give money to Black descendants of the enslaved to help bridge the racial wealth gap and as a form of healing, say individuals like Ms. Marshall should use their time and money to push Congress to act.
Mary Frances Berry, the former chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights has called on the federal government to start a reparations Superfund. She said the small sum that Ms. Marshall could pay is no substitute for a government program, and would only impoverish her. It would not be truly reparative, and could even be dangerous.
“The risk I am talking about is not just about people shunning her, but the risk of people doing violence to her or her family,” Dr. Berry said. “Some people may take it upon themselves to shut her up.”
A Visit With the Kirbys
From her porch, Ms. Marshall routinely keeps an eye on the Kirbys, a couple in their late 70s who live just across the road. The relationship is a jumbled mix of shared history, familial love and unspoken pain.
When she was young, Nancy Kirby and her family were renters, living in one of the shacks before Ms. Marshall’s grandparents bought that tract in the 1950s. Gene Kirby sometimes worked for Ms. Marshall’s grandfather.
There are few people around to help the Kirbys as they age. A son lives in Ohio, but seldom comes home. A nearby niece pitches in, but can do only so much.
Ms. Marshall fills the role a daughter-in-law might. On holidays, she and her daughters deliver country ham and breakfast casseroles. When her mother died, Ms. Marshall stumbled into their den and grieved, her head in Ms. Kirby’s lap.
One of the first things Ms. Marshall did when she moved to the farm was ask the Kirbys if her grandfather had left any debt to them unpaid. Mr. Kirby asked her to untangle a small land dispute. Ms. Marshall promised to pay him for the land once they get it surveyed.
Ms. Marshall can’t imagine offering them anything that they might interpret as charity. They wouldn’t even accept the gift of her grandmother’s chair. Raising issues of reparations and reconciliation with them makes her uncomfortable.
“I would never want to do anything that would feel disrespectful,” she said.
But one afternoon last winter, Ms. Marshall walked across the road specifically to speak about racism. She brought a copy of the slave records, and arranged for Paulette Perry, 77, a cousin of Mr. Mosley’s who is something of a family historian, to join them.
At first, no one had much to say. They talked about Mr. Kirby’s tractors and who called Ms. Marshall the last time her cows got out.
Then they turned to issues of race.
“We never really had any problem with Black and white,” Mrs. Perry said.
“You just kind of knew where you stood and knew everybody,” Mrs. Kirby said.
The two laughed about how their brothers had to protect them from some white boys who threw stones as they walked home from school. How they hid under a bed, crying in fear for a half-day after someone pulled a prank and said the Ku Klux Klan was on its way.
The laughter faded. There were the hotel rooms Mr. Kirby was refused when he was on the road driving eighteen-wheelers, and the times he had to put up a fight to get paid.
And there was the death, at age 4, of the Kirbys’ son Gordon Eugene. A photo, with a lock of his hair, hangs in their den. On Sept. 10, 1967, a white teenage driver sped down the road not far from the Scoggins farm and struck him. Mr. Kirby saw it happen. “I was across the road holding my other baby in my arms,” he said.
The teenager’s mother denied that her son was the driver. Mr. Kirby said he called the sheriff and the state patrol, but they never showed up to take a report.
Standing on the Kirbys’ porch, Ms. Marshall said her goodbyes and headed back across the road. The path to reconciliation still wasn’t clear.
“These are people that I love dearly,” she said. “How do I put a number on what they have lived through?”