Roots: REACHING INTO THE PAST September 27, 2013
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in 2006. We rerun here to celebrate our past and learn from it.
By Julie Murphree, Julie’s Fresh Air
Well, historians will tell you that studying history, in general, is good for us. You and I live in the present. We plan for and worry about our future. History, however, studies the past. Given all the immediate and pressing demands, why bother with what has been?
Our past should be studied to help us understand presently who we are and especially if our present state needs improvement. We can understand others and other societies too. History helps us understand present-day change and how the society we live in came to be ─ the good and the bad. And, we have to prepare ourselves to take the good with the bad and determine how to overcome the bad.
In our free society ─ like no other ─ we have an opportunity to improve. But unless we study our past and assess it against the future there’s no way to improve. The critical rule, though, for studying history is evaluating it honestly.
Julie’s Fresh Air will continue to share historical family insights. We want to keep learning and growing. We want to be prepared to successfully change. We also want to celebrate the good things from our past.
The following story is about my paternal Great Grandfather, M.T. Crossland. There are sobering aspects to this story. Grandpa Crossland was a slave-owner. But you’ll see how he changed and transformed in an era of great change. Finally, you’ll read about his murder, in part, because he did change with the times while others resisted.
And, yes, his story helps me with my future. Main lesson: Stand for what’s right, even in the midst of great resistance.
Reaching Into the Past ….
Reaching into the past to discover where you came from is like trying to reach for that cool glass of water on your nightstand in the dark. You feel around delicately and deliberately so as not to knock anything over and disturb the quiet. When your hand closes around what you’re looking for and you take that first gulp it’s reviving.
For a few years now, mom ― Pennee Jouette Howard Murphree ― has been reaching into our ancestral past on the Howard and Murphree branches of the family tree. As she’s scrambled and felt around in the dark with few clues ― an obscure date, a remote birthplace, anything ― some of the refreshing discoveries Mom’s uncovered about our families have become as reviving as that cool glass of water ― a wonderful family legacy that is no longer lost to the dark, quiet, unknown past.
I don’t possess mother’s gift for researching the obscure names and dates, but when she finds an exciting family discovery ― an ancestor ― I hope at times to help her and the family go back in time to revive the past.
This last January (2002) I had the honor of doing just that by going to the places where one of our ancestors walked. One of mom’s most recent discoveries, on Dad’s side of the family, is Meridith Taylor (MT) Crossland: 1868 Alabama State Legislator, Justice of the Peace and father of 13 children. His life in such volatile times has become a strong curiosity for me.
Driving down the Interstate from Birmingham, Alabama to Tuscaloosa (all by myself, no less) very early on a crisp January morning I began wondering what noble or ignoble truth’s in one’s family tree can be uprooted once descendants begin digging around the roots. So far, Mom and I conclude that MT Crossland had fairly noble roots (at least the ones we’ve dug up so far). Yes, he was a slave owner, and yes, he fed and helped the Confederate rebels in the Civil War. But his efforts to assimilate the “freedman” (African Americans) back into normal society after emancipation; his ongoing public service, first as a Justice of the Peace and then as a short-lived legislator (literally); and his apparent spiritual involvement in a local church as a founding member, all tell me his roots were strong and deep, if not redeeming.
This weekend’s visit to learn more about my ancestral hero seems like fate. How could one predict that my next career jump in magazine publishing would land me in Birmingham, Alabama, where the telephone book is thick with “Murphrees” and there’s more branches in our family tree around here than all the woodlands I speed past on my way to Tuscaloosa. It’s in Tuscaloosa where I connect with a living link to MT Crossland to learn more about his life and times.
For good, or ill, I peer into the past. My rented Toyota Corolla rolled up in front of the home of Dewey and Maveleen Crossland. Dewey is the great, great grandson of MT and a history buff, with the help of Maveleen, in his own right. Maveleen, a retired teacher and Dewey, a retired welder, seem instantly connected to me. Loving and unassuming, they ushered me into their open and cozy home on the outskirts of Tuscaloosa and began showing me photos of distant relatives that make my family tree beautifully full. Family is so intertwined, so rich with historical connections. These are my people; they are my past. They help lay a foundation for my future and for the future of others to come.
Dewey and Maveleen tell me that family lore says MT was of partial Cherokee Indian decent. The name “Cross” and “Crosslin” are on the “Trail of Tears” list of Cherokees from Tennessee. The same names appear on a later Cherokee registry. The son of Samuel Crossland of Fairfield, Tennessee and Annie Johnson of Bedford County, Virginia, MT was born in Cooke County, Tennessee, on June 4, 1805. He arrived in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, in the early 1820s.
Not long after, in 1825, MT met and married Lucienda Cleveland. In 1832, Lucienda’s parents, Joseph and Martha “Patsy” Meeks Cleveland, sold 80 acres of land in Echola to Lucienda and MT. Two years later, MT and Lucienda became charter members of Dunns Creek Baptist Church, faithfully serving the small congregation. They began laying down roots and growing a family.
And grow a family they did. Lucienda bore MT 13 children within a 21-year period. Two years after the birth of her last child, Meridith Taylor Crossland, Jr., Lucienda died. With young children still to raise, including seven-year-old twins, MT knew he couldn’t do it alone. In 1850, he met and married 36-year-old Naomie Caple from South Carolina. History records do not indicate that MT and Naomie had children of their own.
As MT acquired land, worked it and raised his family, he most likely easily acknowledged his position in the social and economic structure of the South in his day. Based on our current determination of the amount of land and number of slaves he owned, MT Crossland was a Small Planter ― probably identified as a few rungs below the Southrons who owned vast plantations and counted their slaves and acres by the hundreds and thousands. But his position was equally far above the Crackers who owned small patches of land and barely eked out an existence, but were still above the Low-Downers who owned nothing and worked as plantation overseers and paid hands, but remained a step above White Trash, who were above only the slaves.
Then, in the South, ownership was king. Anything less meant you were nothing. But this measure of worth from generation to generation continues to be fleeting … “For riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations…” (Proverbs 27:24).
Without prompting or fanfare, Dewey and Maveleen gather coats and car keys and say, “Let’s go walk where MT walked.”
MT Walked Here
Our first stop was near the bridge where MT Crossland was mortally shot. On November 14, 1868, MT, elected earlier in the month to the Alabama state legislature, left his home (now known as the Wiley McGee place) on horseback with a companion legislator, Simeon Brunson, state representative from Pickens County. Only a few miles from his home, on the old upper Columbus Road (between Bethany and Echola) in the Sipsey River area, they were ambushed.
Today, the bridge that crosses the Sipsey River is a concrete, 2-lane structure; in MT’s time it was of wooden construction, known as the Sipsey River Bridge. Graffiti scars the bridge. An intrusion. If only travelers knew how sacred I consider this place. When MT was shot, he didn’t die immediately. I imagine that he must have taken cover behind the trees. But in November the trees are bare; his situation was not good. They had been en-route to Tuscaloosa to make connections to travel to Montgomery for state legislative meetings.
Although not around now, older citizens of Echola have been shown by earlier generations the big Sweetgum tree on this ancient road where the assassin ambushed MT. His assassination illustrates, to some extent, the bitterness and violence in the South during Reconstruction days, one of the most tragic periods of our early American history.
As mentioned before, MT had fed and helped Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. His older sons and son-in-laws fought as Confederates. At the end of the war as former slaves were adjusting to life as freed men, MT, along with other Southerners, took the Amnesty Oath in Tuscaloosa in 1865. This oath basically dismissed what the United States had considered an act of treason if you had fought as a Confederate during the Civil War (1861-1865). And though he had been a slave owner, according to oral accounts, MT became a sympathizer of the freed slaves. Was it his Christian roots? Had he realized that in this new world, as freed men, the black was to be lifted up and not brought down? As Paul says in the New Testament about believers in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).” It’s my hope that MT saw only “ones in Christ Jesus” and did not make distinctions as a result of skin color. Based on the evidence so far, this is my hope. And when he did recognize the natural, God-given rights of the newly freed slave, in the Deep South during Reconstruction, he most likely signed his death warrant.
According to Alabama historians, the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camellia had become active in Alabama by the summer of 1868 (just previous to MT’s murder that same fall). These two groups would disrupt Republican meetings, lynch blacks, whip or shoot at white Republicans, and blockade roads to prevent rural blacks from registering to vote or from voting at all on election day in the hopes of carrying Alabama for the Democrats in the presidential election of 1868. Most historians say that such activity was particularly concentrated in the counties of the Tennessee Valley and the western Alabama Black Belt. Republicans under harassment by this activity regularly appealed to the current Alabama governor for protection, but any actions by the governor were limited for fear of alienating the white citizens of Alabama. (The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881, Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins, 1977.)
Those who first told MT’s story orally said that, wounded and bleeding, he was carried back to his home located between Springer Town and Echola in Tuscaloosa County. The log house which still stands today as an historical site was built between 1865 and 1866, just at the close of the Civil War. This became our next stop.
The current owners, the Webs, welcomed us with open arms into MT’s former home. Mr. Web, a lover of all things made of wood, has restored the place back to much of it’s original look including tearing down siding that had covered the original square hewn logs. Mr. Web first took me up the original (and rickety) staircase to the loft where MT hid and eventually died after being shot. They say he painfully lingered for several hours, but without modern, medical attention bled to death. Mr. Web even showed us MT’s bloodstains in the wood floor, preserved these countless decades since the murder.
Transfixed on the darkened ameba-like area on the floor, I could only imagine how MT grabbed hold of those remaining few hours to relive his life. Had he accomplished everything he wanted? Had he told his wife “I love you” one more time? The children. Were they settled and ready for their futures? Had he settled his own affairs? And then, did his thoughts float to regrets ― regrets about what he still hoped he could do. Did MT have regrets about the deep, deep post-Civil War wound that would take a long time to heal in the South?
My mind continues to try and read or imagine MT’s thoughts. He was a Southerner! How could they ― his enemies ― not see that he had the best interests of the South in mind. He took pride in his Southern heritage, but above all, he was a supporter of the Union of States that made America strong. The climb back from a deeply destructive war would be hard but what was needed now was unity, not more rebellion. Would neighbor continue fighting against neighbor even though the war was officially over? Would the black man ever find acceptance in this society? Now, better futures would have to be built by others. He had done his best. God was his eternal refuge now.
Before and during the Civil War, thousands of Southerners had pledged no allegiance to the Confederacy, and asserted no belief in what the Confederate States represented.
Possibly in the mind of MT Crossland, he and certainly Southerners that had never supported the Confederacy, considered a war that left 700,000 dead an abomination, an historical obscenity that had little to do with any great political differences between the North and the South. Some historians consider those differences were a fiction created by rich Southron plantation owners who, before the War, constituted a mere five percent of the white population ― yet owned more than three quarters of all the land in the South.
Small Planters, like MT, owned the remaining twenty-five percent of the land in the South; they had few or no slaves. In this group, the vote for secession was not unanimous. For example, in the election of 1863, South Carolina candidates opposed to The War had actually won seats in the Confederate Congress, but were refused their elected places on the grounds that their opposition to The War had made them “traitors unfit to hold political office.” Even earlier, a South Carolina referenda taken just prior to The War showed that forty percent of white Southern landowners opposed secession ― a sizable segment of the population whose sentiments the Confederacy chose to never acknowledge.
Considering some of the things MT did at that time, he had to have been a man of conviction or plain stubbornness (hopefully not stupidity). For one, he ran on the Republican ticket in the Deep South right after the Civil War. That alone was reason for animosity among his neighbors. According to the history books, as a supporter of the Blacks during the time of Reconstruction and running on a Republican ticket, his political label would have been Scalawag by his Democratic, Southern neighbors. Plus, every black male that could now vote typically registered Republican.
“Few Southerners willingly acknowledge an ancestor who was a Republican during Reconstruction,” says Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins in her Book, The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881. I do! True, I’m not a Southerner and more than 100 years later it might be easier for me to see the value of MT’s apparent convictions. Had I been a white Southern Democrat, bitterly angry over the outcome of the war whether I was a Small Planter, Southron, Cracker, Low-Downer or White Trash, would I have been as angry toward MT?
And if I were black? Here, I would simply be trying to survive. My hopes for a new future would be daily slammed by reality.
The local Echola area in Tuscaloosa County did consider MT Crossland a county leader even before he was elected state representative from Tuscaloosa County on the Republican Party ticket in 1868 (a term he never served). His other known public service was as a Justice of the Peace. Dewey and Maveleen tell me MT’s signature can be found all over various legal documents such as wills, land transactions, land dispute settlements, and marriage licenses and certificates.
The Echola community, according to local historians, had emerged as a prosperous farming community before the Civil War. Prosperous partly because of the rich lands and pioneer families, like the Crosslands, who worked hard for their living. They operated extensive farms, some with slave labor. MT had anywhere from 700 to 1,200 acres of land in the Echola community, alone. After the war, MT let his former slaves live on his land as sharecroppers. When he died, it’s recorded that his second wife, Naomie, received 760 acres.
But while Echola was a prosperous farming community before the war, post-war politics and Reconstruction poverty would change all that. In June 1865, President Andrew Johnson had, by proclamation, established a provisional government for Alabama before it could be considered to have all the rights and privileges of non-confederate states in the Union. This was typical for any of the confederate states that had originally pulled away from the Union. Although Southerners themselves (interestingly enough), both Johnson and Lincoln, before his assassination, reflected a high degree of amnesty toward the South in much of their policy efforts ― too much for the so-called Radical Republicans at the time. After the Reconstruction Act of March 1867, a military commander ― much to the dislike of Southern Democrats ― functioned as Alabama’s chief executive for a year. In the 1868 election, in which MT ran as a Republican, the Democratic Conservative Party did not run any opposition candidate for the Alabama House of Representatives from Tuscaloosa County.
But obviously, MT ran and he ran on the Republican ticket. Until I know more, the question remains as to why he didn’t just run on the Democratic ticket, since it appears he had a choice. The thought currently running through my head is that he might not have initially stirred up so much controversy had he chosen the alternate route. Was it so important to him to run as a Southern Republican, especially at a time when he knew the possible political backlash of such a choice? What made him so willing to be negatively labeled, maligned and ultimately murdered for simply choosing the wrong party in the eyes of white Southerners at the time?
Perhaps Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins in her book, The Scalawag in Alabama Politics, 1865-1881, offers the best answer to MT’s Republican choice: his Scalawaging ways. Demystifying the typical negative historical narrative of the Scalawag, Wiggins says, “Many sincerely believed their political views incompatible with the Democratic party. Others possessed an acute awareness that they were living in revolutionary times and recognized the futility of further opposition to Radical Republican rule. Others frankly saw that their political alignment meant the difference between financial success or failure in the immediate future.” Wiggins goes on to show from her extensive research that the traditional stereotype of the “scalawag as the north Alabama small farmer of little education, no political experience, and Unionist sympathies does not hold true for Southern white Republican leaders in Alabama.” Wiggins research revealed that the majority of Southern white Republicans in Alabama were lawyers, doctors and any number of very successful professionals.
In the 1868 election in which MT participated, Republicans gained control of the Alabama government. Historians often discuss the heightened level of political confusion and violent feelings over the position and rights of the freed blacks, many of whom where elected to state legislatures throughout the South at that time. This was partly the result of so many newly registered black male voters in the South. In some parts of the Deep South, blacks outnumbered whites in certain communities. We read in history books how life and property, for both blacks and whites, were endangered, and federal military commanders often reported an inability to exercise authority over outlying regions. Unrest and lawlessness in the South reigned. In fact the Republican government of the Alabama Legislature in 1868 did finally declared martial law in Tuscaloosa, Pickens and other counties. I wonder if MT’s death helped spark this decision.
In the Weekend History Notes of the Tuscaloosa News a few years back, an article was written that states, “The citizens of west Tuscaloosa county did not agree with Mr. Crossland’s thinking regarding the freed Negroes, according to information handed down from earlier generations of Echola.” In fact, Dewey and Maveleen told me as we traced MT’s steps that a few days before his murder, MT had been verbally threatened that he “would not serve his first term in office.”
Though legislative investigations regarding MT’s murder were carried out, MT’s murderer was never found and convicted. MT was buried at Dunn’s Creek cemetery, which was our final stop.
In addition to the usual marble marker at MT’s grave, there is one layer of bricks laid square around his grave. At one time it was a mound, several feet high, of hand made brick, covering the entire grave. Someone has placed a newer and more readable headstone just below the older one that reads “In memory of Meridith Taylor Crossland, Cooke County Tenn. [his birthplace] June 4, 1805, November 14, 1868.” After this day, I feel I know him better. I want to know him even more. I want to know what built his character. What made him take the political risks he took? Have his convictions about people, about their rights, about the rights of all men, regardless of color, creed and religion moved down through the gene pool?
Dewey and Maveleen have given me a gift today: themselves and a connection to our mutual past. I treasure them as if I’ve always known them. I’ve shaken the hand of a living Crossland. I am connected; I am proud.
Knowing the significant, difference-making history of an ancestor can drive a modern-day generation to make a difference, too. I trust that through the ages someone in our family tree has prayed that future generations make a difference for the current times. MT faced the Civil War, Reconstruction and a murderous enemy. As of September 11, 2001, we face some of the same overwhelming challenges. Meridith Taylor Crossland did not appear to flinch in the face of adversity. When we face adversity, will we?
This gulp of history has been as reviving as that glass of water on my nightstand.