There Was a Tree in Starksville...

Southwest Georgia is where Lee, Terrell, Dougherty, Schley, and Sumter counties rub up against each other in the Flint River basin, and where creeks with names like Kinchafoonee and Muckalee snake through and spill over, as the water heads south.

The face of the land when I got there was slow, small hills and fields of cotton, peanuts, and corn; turpentine mills and piney woods; the clay a red juice in rain, red dust in hard sun. This is where Otis Redding came from, and Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. It’s where Jimmy Carter was raised, and where, during World War II, a white country preacher and his wife established Koinonia, an interracial, radical Christian farm.

This was also the home of the Albany Movement in the early 1960—the first mass movement of the civil rights era to have desegregation of an entire community as its goal—and the starting ground of the international affordable-housing program Habitat for Humanity. And, many years before, it was where my great-grandmother, Mariah Grant, arrived from Florida—with the children she could keep—and settled, at the end of slavery, in a town called Leesburg.

My parents, Dock and Ella, were born there—and left. They left with most of my aunts and uncles, all of my older brothers and sisters, my maternal grandparents, and a generation of my cousins. Almost everybody who could go, it seems, did go north: to Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, and, for most of my family, Chicago. I was born at the end of that journey. My sister Norma and I were the first of the Northern generation of Freeneys. And while cousins and friends from Georgia visited us throughout my Illinois childhood, none of my relatives went back South until the 1960s. I was the first to return.

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