Monday, October 23, 2017

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1584: God bless the child that’s got its own

  Mama may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own. That is a key verse in the Billie Holiday song, "God Bless the Child." It captures a profound truth about the power of ownership. I will change the word “his” to “its” as I employ the verse as a refrain in this Sketches. God bless the child that’s got its own.

  I learned the power of ownership through an unforgettable childhood experience. Our family lived on heir property (real property inherited upon death resulting in multiple owners). However, my father Sam Sanders was not an heir to the property because my grandfather, Miles Sanders, was still alive. We had no ownership.

  Other heirs besides my grandfather and my immediate family lived on the heir property. It may have been as many as six additional families. I don’t know how much land there was, but it was hundreds of acres. The part we lived on and farmed was 13 acres, but we did not have any ownership in the 13 acres.

  My mother, Ola Mae Sanders, was a strong, smart and outspoken woman. Some of the heirs resented her greatly. They would wait on the inside of the fence by the road each morning as my mother walked the mile and a half to work. They threatened to put her off the land because she was not an heir and had no ownership. In spite of her strong outspoken disposition, she would silently bear the threats. The same routine occurred each evening. She often said to us, “Where am I going to go with this big po’ family if they put me off this land?”

  We raised cotton and other crops on the 13 acres, but we also picked a lot of cotton for big White farm owners. We usually started school several weeks late so we could pick cotton into early September. The money made from picking cotton was critical for school clothing, books, supplies, and other school needs for this big family that grew to be 15 – 13 children, a mother and a father (although one child died young).

  One fall during the early 1950s, my mother said, “Children, I am sick and tired of them damn heirs threatening me every morning and evening. When y’all pick cotton this year, y’all can’t buy any school clothes, shoes, books, supplies or anything else. I am going to take the money and buy me a piece of land.”

  When we accumulated just over fifty dollars, my mother acted. We lived in North Baldwin in the area called Blackshear. That Saturday, my mother traveled over 20 miles to Escambia County. The place was near Atmore and its name was Freemanville. (That was so symbolic: Free Man Ville). She put $50 down on one acre of land. I think the acre cost $150. She returned to Blackshear in good spirits.

  On Monday, my mother walked to work as usual. She braced herself for the usual assault. But the “damn heirs,” as she called them, were not standing inside the fence when she passed by. My mother decided that they had overslept. When she returned that evening, the “damn heirs” still were not waiting by the fence. She still did not understand why they were not there.

  My mother learned that all the heirs on the land had heard that she had bought her a piece of land. The “damn heirs” never waited by the fence to threaten my mother again. They had lost their power over her because she had her own piece of land. We lived on the heir property for a number of years without any more attacks. We learned that the “damn heirs” didn’t really want to put my mother off the land; they just wanted to exercise the power of fear over her. We never moved to the one acre in Freemanville but its very existence freed my mother from attacks and it liberated our family from fear.

  That experience taught me the power of owning a piece of land. That experience taught me the broader power of ownership. I understood that people can’t threaten if you have your own. Our family became more secure and life got better for all of us just because my mother was buying her own piece of land. Ownership not only changes others, it changes us.

  My parents eventually moved the family to Bay Minette, the county seat of Baldwin County. We purchased 10 acres of land located a few miles from Bay Minette in an area called Tall Pine. I say “we” because the children also helped buy this land. Owning that land gave my mother and father greater security and pride. It also gave all 12 living children a growing sense of accomplishment. That one acre of land purchased in the early 1950s is still in the family some 60-plus years later. Also, the ten acres purchased over 60 years ago are still in the family. Both are symbols of security, places we can always go if the worst happens. They also remind us to own something. Every one of the 11 living children owns something. These experiences spur me on as am Alabama Senator, lawyer and community leader to help others to have their own. God bless the child that’s got its own.

Epilogue – Ownership changes how others perceive us. Ownership changes how we perceive ourselves. Ownership is very powerful. We just have to be careful that ownership does not become greed because greed is even more powerful.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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