Sold for a Bag of Flour
In July 1991, an elderly white couple drove their pickup truck into my grandparent’s driveway. The old woman sat in the driver’s seat, trying to console her distraught husband. As my grandmother pushed her walker toward the vehicle, the old man, through uncontrollable tears, cried, “My brother’s dead! My brother’s dead.” Grandma, in need of comfort herself, rubbed Mr. Younce on the hand, consoling him in his grief.
My grandmother’s name was Inez. The man who was dead was her husband, Charles “Bryant” Woodley. Mr. Younce had just heard that my grandpa was dead. When Mr. Younce said “brother,” it wasn’t church lingo or street talk. He really meant brother, someone who had grown up with him in his family.
Their story began in 1916, when my great-grandfather, Job, made a decision for his family that would change my grandfather’s life forever. My grandfather, Charlie Bryant, was the middle child in a family of 8, and times were hard. Real hard. Job could no longer provide for his household. He knew of the Younce family who owned a sawmill in their area of Macon, GA. Job went there with two of his younger sons and offered to give the boys over to the Younces as workers in exchange for food. Mr. Younce agreed to take eight-year-old Charlie and gave Job a bag of flour to seal the exchange.
Charlie was raised with the Younce children, but never had any formal education. He spent his life doing household chores and working in the Younce family lumber yard. The Younces traveled over a period of years from Georgia, to Florida, to Virginia, young Charlie in tow. Upon leaving Virginia, they decided to move to North Carolina, this time bringing with them a truckload of 12 African American men. These men worked for the Younce family for many years in the lumber yards of eastern North Carolina, many of them becoming lifelong friends. Charlie worked with the family for over 73 years.
As a young child, I never knew the Younces very well. But I do remember visiting Granddaddy Charlie at the lumber yard on many occasions, stacking wood to earn money for candy and ice cream. Two of the Younce sons, James and Earl (and his wife Daisy), were like brothers to my grandfather. Earl was a mechanic who fixed Granddaddy’s cars. Granddaddy, a carpenter, returned the favor by building picnic tables and furniture for Earl.
Over the years, as I’ve tried to process the relationship my grandfather had with the Younces, many conflicting thoughts and emotions came to mind. How difficult must it have been for Great-grandpa Job to let go of his young son? Was this some sort of post-reconstruction slave trade, Granddaddy being sold for a bag of flour? How many of the other children were “sold off” for a bag of flour or a side of beef or less? As his life unfolded in the midst of the Jim Crow South, how were the Younces publicly portraying their relationship to Granddaddy—as guardians or employers or property owners? I don’t have any of the answers. As I research and remember, I can’t seem to help or hold on very long to my conflicting feelings of confusion, gratitude, indifference, anger, intrigue. One moment, I’m vexed my grandfather worked for them so long with little connection to his biological family. The next moment, I’m grateful for the relationship between Granddaddy, Earl and Daisy.
The tears that Earl Younce cried when Granddaddy died, the ways in which they cared for my grandmother afterwards, all attest to a love that can’t be fully explained or understood with mere family history. That bag of flour led to a bond truly built on blood, sweat and tears, and to a love that crossed boundaries despite the circumstances that led them to each other.
The histories of black and white families, their distance and mingling, their love and hurts, isn’t always neat. Life is messy, but also surprising and awkward and beautiful. Like my grandfather’s relationship with the Younce family. Resistance and solidarity aren’t always outward acts of opposition and protest, tacit agreement and unanimity. Accommodation isn’t always cowardice or compliance. They can and should coexist where there is true neighbor love and empathy. The deepest solidarity often exists where there is an acknowledgement of injustice and a resolve to not give in to it, while also making room for one another in our hearts and lives. Perhaps, like Earl and Granddaddy, we too can find a way to be brothers and sisters. Perhaps what starts as transactional relationships borne of dire necessity can become transformational relationships borne of life lived together, wherever it takes us. Perhaps.