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oxalis on the windowsill

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I have come to think a lot about what’s in a name or a label. What is conveyed? Should some names or labels be forgotten, erased from memory? But what might be lost along the way? What insights from human history, and how names and labels were used, might inform who we are today? Take the label “turpentine negro.”

The colonization of America resulted in the development of a naval stores industry. Naval stores are products — tar, pitch, turpentine and rosin – produced from pine and at first primarily used in early ship building. Tar was needed to seal wooden ships and ropes. Turpentine would become a vital ingredient in a range of manufacturing from paints and varnishes to paper production. Europe had relied upon Sweden for its tar but with the “discovery” of the New World and its expansive forests, new opportunities emerged for Britain to develop its own naval stores in the colonies. New England forests were tapped for awhile but it was the abundant long leaf pines of the southern colonies that would prove to be most lucrative, especially in the Carolinas and later in Georgia, Florida and Texas.

I first learned of this tree and the concept of naval stores while researching a colonial-era Bostonian. As a young man he joined a business venture where he sailed to the Carolinas, purchased tar and pitch, and then returned to sell the naval stores in New England. I wondered what was the source of tar and how was it produced. In learning about tar, I learned about turpentine production and that’s how I learned about the “turpentine negroes” and “turpentine niggers.” The words, this classification of human beings, can be found used hundreds of time in mostly southern newspapers from the 1880s to 1940s.

turpentine workers

I know there was turpentine in the house where I grew up. I just don’t remember how my father used it. This is when I really miss my brothers’ memories because when I think of turpentine, growing up in Virginia, it was something very much in the male realm. I don’t think my mother did anything with it except disparage it for its scent.

Disparage. To regard or represent as being of little worth.

Turns out, since before the Revolutionary War, southern Blacks were essential to the production of naval stores. The nature of the work meant they lived in the pine woods. There they formed a unique culture. The first Black workers were mostly enslaved, often hired out by their owners. Even after the Civil War, these workers, now technically free, continued to apply their skills in the turpentine orchards, traveling from pine woods to pine woods across state lines.

Over many generations these men and women produced the goods that helped keep the world’s greatest fleets afloat. They produced goods that enabled improvements in the manufacturing of a diverse range of products. Their labor was valued but they were disparaged as human beings, by whites and sometimes other people of color as well. Thus the distinction that was made by the label, turpentine negro.

Frederick Law Olmstead during his travels in the South wrote in 1855, “There are very large forests of this [long leaf pine] tree in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama; and the turpentine business is carried on, to some extent, in all these States. In North Carolina, however, much more largely than in the others; because, in it, cotton is rather less productive than in the others, in an average of years. Negroes are, therefore, in rather less demand; and their owners oftener see their profit in employing them in turpentine orchards than in the cotton-fields.

If we enter, in the winter, a part of a forest that is about to be converted into a “turpentine orchard,” we come upon negroes engaged in making boxes, in which the sap is to be collected the following spring. They continue at this work from November to March, or until, as the warm weather approaches, the sap flows freely, and they are needed to remove it from the boxes into barrels. These “boxes” are not made of boards, nailed together in a cubical form, as might be supposed; nor are they log-troughs, such as, at the North, maple-sap is collected in. They are cavities dug in the trunk of the tree itself. A long, narrow ax, made in Connecticut, especially for this purpose, is used for this wood-pecking operation; and some skill is required to use it properly.

A considerable amount of turpentine is shipped in barrels to Northern ports, where it is distilled; a larger amount is distilled in the State.

The orchards operated under a task system. Workers were assigned specific tasks. Olmstead is noted as describing, an overseer had “ten hands dipping + six hands getting timber, seven hands at the cooper shop, five hands at the still, one hand cutting wood, and three wagoning.”  After the Civil War, with slavery’s end, the system essentially remained the same.

As C. W. Wimster recalled in a 1939 Federal Writers Project interview:

My folks believed in education, an I was sent to school regular when I was a boy, but worked in the summers. When I was about ten years old we moved to a camp at Martin, seven miles from Ocala, an I was promoted to talley “man”—keeping tally on the number of trees boxed or streaked by each nigger. Niggers do all the labor in the woods, an most of the work around the still. The manager, foreman, commissary men and woods riders are all white men. At each camp there will be from 50 to 200 niggers, accordin to the number of “crops” worked. A crop is about 10,000 trees.

turpentine worker’s home, georgia

The white folks live in fairly good homes at one side of the camp, and the niggers in their quarters at the other side in two-or three-room cabins or board houses. We always aimed to have separate quarters for the single niggers to keep them from messin up with the married men’s wives. But this didn’t always work, and there was many a fight on account uv them mixin at night in the woods.

One of the jobs that Wimster later took was “as manager of eight camps owned by a New York concern at Opal, Okeechobee County. This was a big virgin woods in low, swampy country, and the outfit was a big one of 120 crops. There I had charge of 400 niggers and nine woodsmen (riders).

three turpentine pickers

When asked about the home life of the Black people in the Florida turpentine camps, Mr. Wimster replied: “Turpentine niggers are a class by themselves. They are different from town niggers, farm laborers or any other kind. Mostly they are born and raised in the camps, and don’t know much about anything else. They seldom go to town, and few of them ever saw the inside of a school house. In nearly every camp there is a jack-leg preacher who also works in the woods, and they usually have church services on Sunday at one or another of their houses.

And every camp has its ‘jook’, as they are now called, but the original name of this kind of a joint was a ‘tunk’. This is a house where the men and women gather on Saturday nights to dance, drink moonshine, gamble and fight. Between dances or drinks, young couples stroll off into the woods and make love. … The supreme authority in a camp is the foreman. To the niggers he is the law, the judge, jury and executioner. He even ranks ahead of God to these people.”

In a 1903 New Orleans newspaper they were described as the worst character of criminal for the police to deal with when they came to town to spend their money. I suspect there were few things worse than to call a successful Black man a “turpentine nigger” nor was it uncommon for a person of color to say, “What do you think I am a turpentine nigger?”

turpentine worker

In 1942, author Lillian Cox Athey wrote of the long established industry that stretched from North Carolina to Texas. She noted that long leaf pine covered about 1000 miles, with more than 1200 turpentine camps to be found in the woods and over 45,000 workers. She presents a romanticized view of the camps and their management. And as for the workers:

Excerpt from Evening Star, Washington, DC, 1942

At a 1946 Southern Forestry Convention, one report noted that the times were changing and that the “old fashioned turpentine negro” was to become a shadowy creature of the past. In a post-war world, workers were going to towns, “wearing zoot suits and driving trucks and making money.”

The language is regional. Searching old newspapers the terminology is primarily expressed in deep southern publications. More recent use of the words appears in the historical novels of writers with southern roots. Studying the characterization of these workers from antebellum times to just after World War II suggests that this regional history is also a national if not indeed global history. Shining a spotlight on people, labeled turpentine negroes, illuminates once more the ties that link North and South in the American slave economy and offers the opportunity to think about who benefited from that economy, who suffered, and the enduring legacy long after slavery ended.

Sources of Images & Further Reading

Outland, Robert B. “Slavery, Work, and the Geography of the North Carolina Naval Stores Industry, 1835-1860.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 62, no. 1, Southern Historical Association, 1996, pp. 27–56, https://doi.org/10.2307/2211205.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Turpentine workers. Georgia. United States Georgia, 1937. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017770332/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Overseer in the turpentine woods. Georgia. United States Georgia, 1937. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017770378/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Untitled photo, possibly related to: Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. United States Alabama Cordele, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017768046/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. United States Alabama Cordele, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017763012/.

In the great pine forests of the South – gathering crude turpentine – North Carolina. , ca. 1903. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003663487/.

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thai basil

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cucumbers in brine with hot red peppers and oregano

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from the garden

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I have a tendency to overwater African violets. But when I tuck them in a sunny nook where I forget about them … voila! New green growth and several blooms in a lovely shade of purple.

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