Published by the University Press of Kentucky, The Seed of Sally Good’n: A Black Family of Arkansas 1933-1953 traces the descendants of a woman named Sally, a young African and Cherokee slave who was purchased by Taylor Polk from the Cherokee community near Fort Smith in the late 1920s. Taylor Polk, a prominent landowner in Montgomery County, was married to a white woman, but like many slave owning men, he fathered multiple children with Sally, including Spencer Polk, the grandfather of the book’s author, Ruth Polk Patterson.
Initially Taylor Polk kept Sally in Fort Smith, but by 1833 Taylor brought her back to Caddo Township where he built her a cabin near the family home. She gave birth to three sons by Taylor Polk, all raised as servants in the Polk household. Sometime between 1835 and 1838 she gave birth to a daughter named Eliza whose skin was much darker than her sons. Polk suspected infidelity and sold Sally and Eliza “down the river to New Orleans,” writes Patterson, when their youngest child, Spencer Polk, was only four years old.
As Patterson notes, much can be found about the white side of the Polk family, but written records for the slaves are sparse at best. Drawing form oral history which she corroborated with written records, she discovered that by the end of the Civil War Spencer Polk was able to acquire land under the Southern Homestead Act of 1866, wherein freedman and whites who had fought with the Union were able to homestead land in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Patterson writes, “ Although many former slaves were anxious to homestead land in Arkansas, very few were able to do so.” In many instances the white officials refused to tell black freedman where the land was. If they were able to find the legal documents for the land, they had to find a way to acquire tools needed to clear the trees and money to buy the seeds. By 1866 when the law was passed, many black families had already hired themselves out to white farmers in order to feed their families and were unable to move and begin a homestead. “By 1880,” writes Patterson, “only 25% of black farmers throughout the south owned their land.” Spencer Polk, existing in a world between both the black and white communities, was one of few black men able to access this resource.
Ruth Polk Patterson’s book is a detailed look at the complex life of her grandfather, a man who lost his mother at four years old and later found some measure of acceptance in the white community after the war, so long as he deferred to the status quo of white superiority. He and his wife Ellen, also of mixed ancestry, and a midwife in both the white and black communities, built up a large subsistence farm and produced everything the growing family needed on site. Together they had ten children, but later lost two sons to violence from the nearby white community in the early 1900s. His youngest son, Arthur, married a woman from another former slave family and remained on the family land up through the 1950s, giving birth to the author in 1930.
Exploring archeological evidence and family history, this 1985 publication delves into the combination of cultural influences within the family, West African, Cherokee, and European. It’s also a powerful look at ever-changing cultural concepts of race, social Darwinism, the myth of Anglo-Saxon superiority that dominated the south at the time. Writing about her grandfather, author Ruth Polk Patterson notes that, “his background, though different from others in some specific details, illustrates the kind of background out of which many Arkansans have come. Slavery, racially mixed parentage, and survival in isolated backwoods of the South are elements in the heritage of many people, both in Arkansas and the nation.”
More on the story of Spencer Polk and his granddaughter Ruth Polk Patterson in upcoming columns. Click here to order a copy of The Seed of Sally Good’n. Read more in the summer reading series here.
The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.