At first glance, Delores’s lineage is difficult to discern. Before now we have spoken only on the phone, after I was given her number by her niece, Laura “Butch” Ross. During my research into the story of Prospect Hill, I have often conducted first interviews on the phone rather than in person, and sometimes have found myself deliberating whether the person I am speaking with is descended from slave or slave owner, because many have similar accents and frames of reference. I wait for their perspective to reveal itself through some telltale sign—a verbal marker such as the use of “aks” in place of “ask” by blacks, or a reference to “faithful slaves” by whites. Sometimes the clue lies in what is left out of their account. The prevailing white version of the story of Prospect Hill always includes the slave uprising, but the prevailing black version never does. In many cases my assumptions have turned out to be entirely wrong, and I might be deep into a conversation before I know for sure.
In Delores’s case, neither her speech nor her perspective gave her away on the phone. Finally she said, “I’ll just be frank with you, it was kind hard growing up in the South with a black mother and a white father.”
After greeting me at the door and inviting me in, Delores launches into one of the more curious genealogies that I have come across.
“I’ll tell you, Roots, the best movie ever made, don’t have nothin’ on the Ross family,” she says. “We’re all over the place. Go way back, all over the place. Here some of ‘em started out in Africa, come to Mississippi, then end up back in Africa. And a whole lot of ‘em—black, white, you name it, been right here all along—and I’m talkin’ a long, long time.
Delores’s hair is long, wavy, and black, carefully molded with pomade, her skin midway between black and white. Her house is a catchall sort of place, with furniture from the 1960s and 1970s, potted plants and vases of plastic flowers, and every available surface crowded with memorabilia and framed photos of people, both black and white. Many area residents have a tendency to reduce key figures in local history to archetypes and stereotypes—good guys and bad guys, everything black and white, but not Delores. She listens patiently to a summary of the history of Prospect Hill, then leans back on her sofa and takes a long drag off her cigarette. She is unpretentious and self-possessed, and has no qualms about entertaining my questions about her family history—in fact, she relishes the opportunity.
“One thing it ain’t, is black and white,” she says, and blows cigarette smoke toward the ceiling….
“Here, pass me that picture there, Butch,” Delores says, and Butch hands her a framed photograph from among the group clustered on the coffee table. “That’s Thad Ross, my daddy,” Delores says, and passes the photo to me. “He was a descendant of Isaac Ross.” The photo looks to have been taken in the 1930s. A white man is seated on a sofa beside a dark-skinned girl with a black woman seated in a chair nearby. There is no mistaking they are a family. “It was taken down in Jefferson County,” she says. “That’s my father there. The girl is Jimmie, my sister, Butch’s mother. The lady’s Queen Esther Polk, Jimmie’s mother.”
The photo would be right at home in many family albums across the South but for the mix of skin colors. There are many people of mixed race in this part of the country, but they are usually the result of clandestine encounters. Racial mixing is rarely documented for posterity, particularly by members of prominent white families like the Rosses….
Delores points to a group of framed photos on the mantel, and adds, “That’s all my family up there.” She goes down the line, naming names. Most of the faces are black, but some are white, and others are in between. She pulls out her albums and shows me snapshots of blacks and whites intermingling unself-consciously—fishing on a lake, visiting in someone’s living room, gathering for a graduation….”
“Isaac Ross was a unique fella during that time,” James [Belton] says, in typical understatement. “He went along with slavery but his slaves were not slaves in the traditional sense. I doubt seriously if you would find anything written about the slaves before 1870, when blacks were first included in the census. But from word-of-mouth, folklore, what was passed down from generation to generation, it is apparent they were not like other slaves. I was told, you know, that some of those Beltons actually attended Oakland College. They were not free, per se, but they were educated.”
Before the Civil War, Oakland College was a private school for planters’ sons, and Isaac Ross sat on its board. Today it is Alcorn State University, which was founded in 1871 as the first land-grant college for blacks in the United States.
Most historical accounts note that many Prospect Hill slaves were taught to read and write, and that they all enjoyed relative freedom within the confines of the plantation. Ross never sold any slaves, and it appears he kept them sequestered from the slaves on neighboring plantations. When Isaac Ross Wade took over as master of the plantation, however, they were treated like any other group of slaves, James says. “By the time of the burning of the house, from what I gather, all of the slaves but a few were extremely bitter. Isaac Ross had treated them like relatives, and the truth is, a lot of them were relatives. The Belton ladies who worked around Prospect Hill were very light—you couldn’t hardly tell ‘em from white ladies, my father said. But after Isaac Wade contested the will [that freed the slaves and offered them emigration to Liberia], they weren’t getting the treatment they had gotten during Ross’s lifetime, and resentment just built up. That was how they came to set fire to the house.”
Why did any of the slaves choose to remain behind when the majority emigrated to Liberia? James has a ready answer. A few were not given the option of being repatriated, he says, “most likely because they were just bad apples, like you have in any community.”
The others, he says, may have been wary of traveling to a distant, unknown land. But Mariah was different. Belton believes she chose to remain behind because her two sons, Wade and Edmond, had fled Prospect Hill to escape being lynched in the aftermath of the uprising, and perhaps she knew their whereabouts.
It may have been the grief she was keeping within over what had happened,” he says. “She knew her sons did not go to Liberia, and perhaps she thought, ‘For me to ever see my sons again, I have to stay in the area.’ So she was sold to Walter Wade and transferred to Rosswood with her son, William. He was my great-grandfather.” He digs through the stack of papers on his kitchen table and pulls out a photo of the young man, which looks to have been taken around the 1850s, with an inscription that identifies him as a carriage driver….
James still has a lot of questions, but most of them concern the genealogical riddle. He has organized the documents pertaining to his family and Prospect Hill on a CD-ROM, complete with images of the portraits of Isaac Ross and his wife, and of tombstones in the graveyard, and he plans to give a presentation on the subject at the next Belton family reunion. Since 1984 the Beltons have held reunions, often several times a year, at various locations. Last year the event drew more than 4,000 people, he says. “I had to get my facts in order,” he says of his Prospect Hill presentation. “I don’t like to lose history, and the first time I mentioned all this at the Belton reunion, the whole place went quiet. People’s mouths dropped. They said, ‘A white man did that before the Civil War—in Mississippi?’ They didn’t believe me. One fella who did believe the story said, ‘Man, you need to get in touch with Spike Lee. It’s make a great movie.’
“There’s a lot about our history people don’t realize,” he says, “Like that a lot of blacks in the South owned slaves.” In his view, the story is complicated, and it is shared. “Some of the white Rosses have helped me put a lot of information together, and the white Beltons, too,” he adds.
When I mention what so many have said about the story not being simply black and white, he smiles. He says there are a lot of gradations between any two extremes, and cites as an example the quasi-ward system that he remembers as a child, which was similar to that which exists in Liberia today.
“It was basically the same way here,” he says. “It wasn’t like slavery, but I grew up with a stepbrother and -sister, who Dad took in and raised ‘em, and they worked for the family. They were like family, and they were less fortunate, and they worked for us. I see a lot of that—people who are less fortunate, maybe because they’re darker-skinned, and they weren’t given the same opportunity.”