It's difficult to imagine that less than ninety years ago that eighty percent of Americans lived and worked on farms and in rural communities and that yet today less than four percent of our population call America's farms their home.
One of the most important and almost forgotten stories in our nations history is the legend of the African-American farmer. Many of the customers of Colonel Tom Sutton's frontier country store complex were farmers who acquired their land through the government's proclamation from the Civil War: Special Field Order #15 - that was read to an audience by William Tecumseh Sherman in January 1865 in Savannah, Georgia. The proclamation granted through the "Freed-Man Bureau" - "40 acres of land and a mule" to those who qualified. The majority of those I interviewed as we assembled the artifacts for the museum and it's related history lived as their ancestors had in rural Georgia communities for generation after generation. Many of them were direct descendants of those who had received their land through the "Freed-Man Bureau." Each of their stories is a treasure of American history and has a unique place in our countries origins and folklore. One of the memorable and unforgettable stories is of Jethro Hanks, an African-American farmer who was a legend in this rural community. Mr. and Mrs. Hanks with fortitude and courage had worked, as Jethro Hanks called it, 'A spit of Land,' raised five children and saw them all successfully graduate from our nations colleges and universities.
Their youngest son Lawrence, graduated from Morehouse College with high honors. He matriculated at Harvard University earning his masters of Arts and doctorate of philosophy. Doctor Hanks was chair of the department of Political Science at Tuskegee University from 1984 - 1993 and from 1993 - 1998 dean for the office of African American affairs at Indiana University. He is presently associate professor of Political Science at Indiana University. Dr. Hanks is the author of four books.
I initially had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Hanks when he was invited to be the grand marshall at our community Christmas parade. He had requested a tour of the museum, his father had passed-on and he and his mother wanted the opportunity to see the history and artifacts that Jethro had talked about. I was very moved and impressed by Dr. Hanks remembrances of life on the farm and his boyhood impressions that his father had left with him. Shortly thereafter I had the following e-mail sent to him.
Sent: Wednesday, January 19, 2005 1:18 PM
To: 'Hanks, Lawrence J.'
Subject: RE: need short Bio on Jethro Hanks
Hi Lawrence, thank you for writing back.
In talking with my father-in-law, David, he responds with these words:
The Suttons Corner Museum epic is an extraordinary true story and the role your father and his ancestors played in that historical moment has left a huge legacy which the museum captures and gives perpetual life.
In the many conversations he had with your father, David found inspiration which assisted in his desire to see the project through to its conclusion. As Jethro explained to David, his lifetime ambition was to have his children make the quantum step into a world he could only dream of. He would visit the museum when it was under construction and inquire of David as to his knowledge of past and present world affairs. In Jethro, David sensed a unique man, a repository of philosophy and wisdom lubricated with a magnificent sense of humor.
His pride was not limited only to the success of his children, but of the self-satisfaction that he had been correct in his assumption that all obstacles could be surmounted by dedication and reaching out to achieve – he told David that he embraced God for inner strength and that he felt his life had been God’s will.
One of the major disappointments in David’s 12-year odyssey per the museum was that he did not have the opportunity to have Jethro and his stories on film. They had talked about it and your father agreed and looked forward to doing it. David recalls: Jethro asked, “What kind of clothes will you want me to wear?” David’s reply – “just as you are.”
David wants you to plumb your heart and soul so that Jethro’s story will continue to be an inspiration. He says the story need not be long, but from the heart. In the “Jethro-Lawrence” story we have in one generation what can be achieved by one man’s dedication and the response of his children to the opportunity. It is normal for stories to fade as time goes by – but in this case the museum's ability to commemorate that historical moment will give the story a life of its own – a perpetual source of inspiration.”
In our web site epilogue, David’s last paragraph reads:
“ The story of the Suttons Corner Frontier Saga” ends with lines of dialogue that remain unanswered and therefore seem to echo beyond the final page…”
Many lives can be touched and influenced by the “Jethro-Lawrence” story” – a true story that like the museum does not have to be fictionalized.
The following letter is Dr. Hank's response. A letter that is a testament that journeyed from a son's heart to his fathers soul. A moment of American historical literature to be treasured.
=======================================September 25, 2005
It has been seven whole years since you made your transition from the physical plane to another realm. Seven is the biblical number of completion, yet, in many ways, the longer you are gone, the more I know and understand that your influence will always be with me—your spiritual essence is infinite. I was too young to realize how special you were and how important you were to my development while you were with me. I have been feasting on the conversation that we had on January 10, 1997, exactly a week before you left your body for your spiritual eternity. I know you already know everything that I am about to share, yet, bear with me while I share with you now what I could not share while you yet lived.
Since you have been gone, I have tried to remember when I first became aware that you were my Dad. I cannot remember and that is indeed a good thing. You simply were always there and I had the luxury of taking that for granted. As a young kid, I remember you working 12-16 hour days. You would leave the house very early in the morning and returning late in the evening from working on the farm. I remember you not talking to us a whole lot. You would come home, sit at the kitchen table, eat your evening meal, and be gone by the time I was off to school the next day. I knew that you worked very hard and I was too busy in my own world to wonder why you did not talk a whole lot. I remember George Washington, Jr. calling me “Little Jethro” because he said that you spit me out your mouth. I did not like the expression; I did not lack the mental image that it placed in my mind; I did not like the name; I did not like him; nor did I want to look like you!
I remember watching you as you watched the weather especially in the spring and in the fall. There were times when you wanted it to rain, and there were times when you wanted it to remain dry. Given that this was the era before irrigation, neither you nor any of the other farmers could do anything about the rain. Even now the rain cannot be controlled when God decides that it will come. I remember you going to buy your new trucks on at least three occasions. You negotiated your best price—when the dealer included the cost of financing, you told them to deduct it because you would be paying cash. The salesmen were always flabbergasted that a “dirty, overall wearing, loud talking, tobacco chewing, black man” would have the resources and the foresight to pay cash for a vehicle. I also remember the look on their faces when the bank verified that your check was good each time.
I remember not really enjoying going out on the farm—in fact, I hated it. The days were long, the work was hard, all of my friends were hanging out down town, and during this time in your life, your communication skills were not the best when it came to relating to me. I remember getting out of your way on Saturday because that was the day that you always wanted me to go on the farm with you. I will hide behind the shed in the chicken yard. When you would ask where I was, Mom would say she did not know, and she was telling the truth—she didn’t know! When you would call me, I would answer. If you did not, I figured that you really did not need me on that particular day so I would just stay put until you left. Thanks to my work on the farm, I knew that I was not an outdoors man. Although I did not know what my vocation would be. I knew that it be more mental than physical and more inside that out.
I watched how hard you worked and how dedicated you were to being your own man. I could see that you were well respected in the community, in your church, and at the barbershop, although I was too young to appreciate all that was required of you to keep the high level of personal integrity that you maintained. I marveled at your fearlessness as you killed rattlesnakes, wrestled with cows, and manhandled hogs as you farmed and raised livestock to provide for your family. Yet, you were distant. As a teenager, I remember saying that “I was your worst child” because of youthful rebellion that pales in comparison to behavior of modern youth. I remember the first fishing trip that you, Uncle Paul, my cousin Ralph, and Paul and Hasan experienced on Lake Chattahoochee. I remember not catching anything all day but you keep telling me to be patient and I would eventually catch a big fish. Just as you predicted, about five minutes before we had planned to pack up and leave, I got this big tug on my bamboo pole—I caught the biggest fish on the day, a huge trout that was especially good eating for me because I caught it.
I remember the summer of 1969 when I worked at the sawmill company, the same one where you worked when you were in your twenties. While I would be dead tired every evening after stacking lumber for 10 long hours, you wanted to talk about what happened. The short answer to your question was that the same thing happened everyday. I stacked lumber for 1-0 hours in the hot sun while fighting flies and musquitos. Yet, I realized that this was your way of facilitating conversation. This period was the first time I had seen a jovial carefree side of you. It was refreshing to know that it was possible. I have thought of this period quite a bit as I have tried to engage your grandchildren.
I remember the Sunday back in August of ’72 when you drove me to the Greyhound bus stop on the outskirts of Fort Gaines to catch the bus to Atlanta to attend Morehouse. You gave me a one hundred dollar bill and told me to study hard. I recall you being very proud that I was making it five out of five—all of your kids had gone to college. While it was clear that you had hoped that one of your sons would take over the farm, you never thwarted any of our dreams. (Besides, it was clear that while I was your last hope, I was hopeless). Having to drop out of school in the third grade, you valued education and wanted it as much of it as possible for your progeny.
I remember not getting any closer to you during the Morehouse years. I sensed that you cared and loved me, yet neither one of us ever verbally expressed these sentiments. I would come home for the holidays and occasionally on weekends, but never for the summer. There were no summer jobs save working on the farm and that was the absolute last thing that I wanted to do. You were farming big time during this time and the crops were good. My financial aid was good so I didn’t have to bother you at all save for one occasion. I remember meeting you in a peanut field to retrieve a check for $250.00. I didn’t know then, but I do know now, what it is like to come up with modest amounts of monies in short periods of time.
You beamed with pride when I graduated from Morehouse and was on my way to Harvard. It was at this point when we started talking every weekend. There was something about being so far from home that made talking to you and Mom a priority. Although we never talked about anything deep, we did talk and I felt closer to you after years of wondering when I would be done, you beamed again when I graduated from Harvard with a Ph.D. I remember you bragging to your buddies that your baby son had gone to school for 24 years and was finally done. Moreover, my accepting a job at Tuskegee also brought you tremendous joy.
I remember the Tuskegee years as being the prime of your life—you appeared to actually be enjoying your life. You had retired from farming and spend a good deal of time downtown and the local grocery store. You left the church where your Grandpa Mose Turner had served as a Deacon, Saint Luke, and joined where Grandma Vercie and Grandpa Stephen has served for decades, Springfield. You started to develop a real sense of style in your dressing. And most of all, you became the consummate granddad. You enjoyed spoiling them with ice cream and cake that they were not suppose to have. With them, you became the father that I always wanted. You became their “Papa’ and the endearing stories are ubiquitous. Because of your closeness to the grand kids, I was reluctant to leave many of comforts of Tuskegee. Yet, destiny was calling me to other challenges.
After nine years in Tuskegee, you and Mom, and all of us, had gotten use to being less than two hours from Fort Gaines. When I felt the need to be “re-potted,” moving away from you and Mom was a concern. I had enjoyed sharing the trips to the doctors in Columbus for your check up and I would miss that. When you and Fran both assured me that you would be fine, the pragmatism of going to a place paying more money prevailed over being in close proximity to you and Mom. Nonetheless, leaving was hard, yet you were supportive. You were especially delighted that I would be making appreciably more money.
The move to Indiana went smoothly. During the early years, there were times when I actually got to Fort Gaines more than I did when I was less than two hours away. We continued to talk as you advised me about my new position. You warned me that working as an administrator in the arena of race would be troublesome. Nonetheless, you gave sage advice. The pain that you had been experiencing for years was getting worse and your doctor could not find the source. After exploratory surgery, it was discovered that you had a malignant growth on your spine, yet the pain was showing up in your stomach. Upon the advice of the doctor, we decided not to tell you.
I remember when your doctor put you on a regime of medicine since chemotherapy was not an effective remedy for your type of cancer. I also remember when one of the nurses inadvertently asked you about our cancer. Heretofore, you did not realize that you had cancer and his question was indeed shocking. Nonetheless, you had a fighting spirit, and I encouraged you: if you could conquer a 2,000lb bull, you could conquer cancer. I will never forget when it became clear to me that I was wrong. Like all growth, it was painful, yet I am all the better for the experience.
I remember visiting you in the rehabilitation center in early January of 1997. You had an appointment with our doctor—the news was not good: while your body’s initial reaction was positive, the latest tests showed that cancer was winning the battle. The expression on your face did not change, yet tears began to fall from your eyes; it was my first and last time seeing you cry. The trip back to the rehabilitation center was a long one. When we got back, I got on my positive thinking soap box—a change of diet and faith in God could deliver you from this cancer. As I preached with authority, I believed this with very ounce of my being.
I spent that evening with you since I was going back to Indiana the following afternoon. It was a difficult night—you were in tremendous pain. While the doctor had authorized morphine for your pain, this was not communicated to the nurse’s station and I had to raise holy hell in order to get the relief that you needed for a restful night sleep. By daybreak, you awoke very clear headed and apparently refreshed. It did not make sense because you had only slept for approximately three hours. When your breakfast was brought in and as you prepared to eat, you said, “I am ready to go home!” “Of course you are, and I don’t blame you.” I responded. “That’s why you need to eat your breakfast so you can get well.” “Oh, I am not talking about Fort Gaines, I am talking about my heavenly home!” you said.
“Are you telling me that you are ready to die, “I asked? Your reply was, “Yes” “I have lived a good life. Since I have been sick, God has purified me and forgiven me for all of the wrongs that I have ever done. You are my youngest child and I have seen you grow up to a mature man with a family of your own. I am in tremendous pain, and I want to go home. With all that heaven has to offer, why should I fight to stay here in all of this pain?” I was totally devastated—I felt as if someone had gotten an ice pick, placed it over my heart, and hit it with a sledge hammer. I remember being enveloped by a paroxysm of tears. I am not sure how long I cried or how long the intense pain persisted. When I regained control, it was dark and you were wide awake.
You shared with me your list of parting wishes: (1) take good care of your Mom; (2) take good care of your children; (3) take good care of your wife; (4) don’t sell the farm; and (5) put God first in your life. It was really hard leaving you because I knew that it will be my last time seeing you alive. You were asleep when I left and I did not bother to wake you. Although you were in a comma, I talked to you several times before you passed away a week later.
At the time of this writing, Your physical body has been gone a complete seven years. It is impossible for me to share how much you’ve impacted my life. Yet, I will give it a shot. First and foremost, your confidence is your salvation made me more confident about mine—I now also know, more than ever before, that God and salvation and damnation is real. Secondly, the older I get, the smarter you get—I hear your voice as I experience so much of life and now I know what you were trying to tell me but I was not at the stage of reception. Thank you, for sharing anyway. Thirdly, the strong connection between you and Julius continues after you are gone. He wrote about you in his personal statement for college—he also has so many of your mannerism. If you are not his guardian angel, I bet you were in on the selection process. Finally, I have some sense of what was on your mind when you sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner at 10pm not engaging anyone. I can only imagine the challenges that you faced as an African American farmer trying to raise a family in southwest GA in the era of segregation. It took me a while to get it, but becoming a husband and a father helped. Perhaps, there are some things that you can comprehend until you experience them.
It occurs to me often how George Washington, Jr. called me “Little Jethro” because he said that you spit me out your mouth. I did not like the expression, I did not like the name, I did not like him, nor did I want to look like you! Over 45 years have passed since that time and some of my views have changed. Mr. Washington really wasn’t a bad man; “Jethro” is not a bad name—you redeemed it from the damage done by that Beverly Hillbillies character, and I am looking like you more with each passing year and that’s a good thing. If I can develop a fraction of your character, I will consider it a blessing. (I still dislike the image that comes to mind when I think of being spit out of your mouth)!
This letter is simply to say that all is well with us. You are a great Dad!