Chapter Fifteen

How I Came To Be Ivy

            In 1915 my paternal ancestors Nelson Ivy (16) and his wife of fifty-three years, Ara Ann Ivy (17) lived on a farm they rented in the Village of Abbott in Clay County, Mississippi. In this year he was age seventy and she was sixty-nine. On a typically hot and steamy, summer day, Nelson had another nagging “episode” which he attributed to a bout of indigestion. But this time it was particularly frightful, and perhaps it occurred while he was working out in the fields. Unlike before, today Ara Ann would not be deterred by him. Their forty-one year old widowed son Nelson 2 resided with them and she probably sent him to fetch the doctor. Surely, Nelson still felt beckoned by the work left to be done that day. He had no time to be ill. His family’s livelihood still depended upon him working on his crop. He had little doubt that his pace had slowed. However, laboring on a farm was what he had always done from the time he was a young field slave on the Ivy Plantation not far from where they were presently residing. This particular day was a fateful day, however. Fateful because the doctor would confirm what Nelson would not let himself acknowledge before; that he was in poor health. As a young man, Nelson was probably of medium height and build, but stronger than his appearance might have suggested due to his laborious and life-long occupation of working in the cotton fields. His mind was more clear and sharper, then. But over the years, bouts of indigestion and the lapses of memory – that got more frequent – let him know that he was not young anymore. Nelson was still confident that he had a few more years left to supervise the field work and then he looked forward to his turn to retire full time from sharecropping. As he and Ara Ann waited for the doctor to arrive, he lay back in his bed and retreated into deep thoughts about his first years as a sharecropper.

            As far back as Freedom Day, Nelson supported himself and his family by working as a field hand. He became a cotton sharecrop farmer in the late 1870’s. He took the dubious opportunity to manage his own farm rather than remain just a field hand. Nelson thought he could have some control over his own destiny if he had a farm of his “own.” He learned that to make a living under the social and economic conditions during Reconstruction in Mississippi was tremendously difficult, but he persevered. Nelson knew God well and petitioned him constantly throughout his hard and troubled life. Nelson rejoiced in the good years when fair weather brought adequate yields; years which were sandwiched between the dreadful years of drought; which then alternated with the ruinous years of boll weevil infestations.

            Given the fickleness of nature, becoming a sharecrop farmer was of uncertain advantage to Nelson and his family for another reason. The conditions detailed in the sharecropping contracts made them like slaves again. His crop was planted at the direction of the landowner and conformed to landowner’s self-serving schedule. As a “cropper,” Nelson would share or owe the landowner at least half the cotton he planted, tended and cultivated.[i] Nelson’s portion of the net profits after meeting the obligations of his contract was meager in comparison to the landowner’s portion, yet Nelson supplied all of the labor and bore all the planting risks. In addition, he had to meet the projected yields of the contract and pay the landowner the agreed quantity of the crop, whether or not field yields had been favorable. There were other clauses that affected Nelson’s share of the crop and thus the profits he was able to keep. Part of his contract was to provide the upkeep and repair of the landowner’s home, outbuildings, fencing, and anything else the landowner required. If these additional tasks were not performed to the owners’ liking, Nelson would owe a larger share of his crops, maybe as much as three-fifths, to the landowner. The landowner even charged him for the cost of fertilizers used on the land. Anything that the landowner charged Nelson would have been at a price to the landowner’s liking. Then, he was also responsible for adequately storing the cotton for the landowner and for himself after the harvest. Nelson would have been responsible for attending to and providing feed for the landowner’s work animals he borrowed or else the landowner would charge him for feed. On top of those stipulations, all seed produced by his crop was the property of the landowner. By owning the seed production, the landowner robbed Nelson and his family of their future independence, growth, and prosperity. As it was, Nelson had to purchase all the seed he required for the following year’s crop. Thus, the sharecrop system forced him to have to borrow on the next year’s profits. Nelson was forever working to pay off the previous years’ debts. His indebtedness anchored him to the land and put the landowner back in control of his destiny. If the sharecropping contract allowed Nelson a personal patch of land to farm, he could not plant cotton crops because they would compete with those crops listed in the contract. Even then, he could plant in his personal patch only the crops allowed by the landowner.

            In addition to the landowner interfering with his success and livelihood, Nelson was barred from voting; was treated as inferior socially; frequently treated unfairly in business transactions; and federal government enforcement of civil rights for him and the general Negro population was nonexistent. Still Nelson managed to support his wife and children to the best level that Mississippi society would allow a sharecropper.

            Nelson’s thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the doctor at his bedside. Ara Ann waited for the doctor to summon her to her husband’s side when his diagnosis was ready. After an examination of all of Nelson’s physical signs and symptoms, the physician’s diagnosis was that he had a diseased heart and his problems with memory were symptoms of poor blood circulation through his brain. At the moment the doctor pronounced the diagnosis, time seem to lapse into slow motion for Nelson and Ara Ann. The doctor’s instructions seemed to drift wisply out of his mouth so that the letters of each word suspended in the air like plumes of smoke from a corn pipe. Already the doctor’s words had changed something inside of Nelson. He had to finally admit to himself that perhaps he had less time on this earth than he was planning. He could no longer ignore his mortality, now that the doctor had given a name to his symptoms. The diagnosis changed his focus from future things such as the harvest season and the fall cotton prices, and forced him to pay more attention to the present and to examine his past.

            By the following week the “indigestion” felt better and Nelson got back to his farming duties, though it might have been hard at times to keep his thoughts in the present. During the day when he was out in the fields or at night in bed, there were uninterrupted periods when thoughts of loved ones paraded through his mind – those who were living and those who had passed on. No longer taking time for granted, it was natural for Nelson to review and reflect back upon his life, at least the parts that he could remember. He had memories that came clearly to him – though some he was uncertain about, others were forgotten – and then, there were certain happenings of which he was never aware.

            Ben Isbel (32) was the name of Nelson’s father and his mother’s maiden name was Addig Isbel (33). These names were recorded on Nelson’s death record. They were born in Alabama and their years of births were estimated to be between 1820 and 1824. Since Addig’s maiden surname was recorded also as Isbel, she and Ben had probably been slaves together on the same Isbel Plantation prior to their emancipation. Why did their son Nelson have the Ivy surname after emancipation and not Isbel? It could be that Ben and Addig, originally held by Ivy slaveholders, were sold away to Isbel slaveholders which caused them to leave young Nelson behind to grow up as an Ivy slave. From this time forward, all of Nelson’s male descendents and their children would carry the Ivy surname. But, whatever the reason for the difference in their surnames, fortunately Nelson had passed down the names of his parents and the enigma about the surname was preserved in the archival history to be pondered by his descendent generations. Ben and Addig probably had other children however there is no known information about them. It was presumed Ben and Addig died prior to the 1870 enumeration since they did not appear there or in any subsequent censuses. Nelson’s death certificate was the only record of them, so far, uncovered by my research.

            Deep in thought about his parents, inevitably Nelson’s periods of reflection would be interrupted by his work or by someone summoning for his attention, and each time he put aside his memories for another time.

            Ara Ann’s response to the doctor’s assessment of her husband’s health was not any different, emotionally, from how any of us would respond today upon hearing the same news about a spouse or significant other. The doctor’s diagnosis of Nelson’s heart disease only confirmed the seriousness of what she already suspected. Still, the reality of his mortality, as well as her own, felt heavy on her chest, but what could they do about it? In 1915 there were no effective medicines – at least none they could afford – to improve the symptoms of heart disease, so people like them had to stand by and watch their loved one’s health grow continually worse; and after the death of a spouse, there was no financial assistance for the surviving spouse whose source of income died with their partner.

            However, Ara Ann and Nelson were Christian believers – Baptists probably. So, Nelson’s heart condition was but one more problem to let God handle, and they gave it over to Him, but they still worried. Only God knew how long their lives were going to be on this earth. Ara Ann reminded herself that for all the kinds of tests and trials they had lived through thus far, there was always a blessing in the end. They had lived, practically, their entire lives together; an incredible feat in itself during the days of slavery. That one fact alone was verification that the Ivy slaves, who made the old Master Ivy a very rich man, were given the blessing of family stability from God.

            Though she may not have wanted it to, it is reasonable to think that the doctor’s diagnosis changed Ara Ann as well. Still processing the doctor’s instructions, she suddenly felt frightened with the thought that her time with her husband might be ended at any moment. It caused her to long for the comfort of her parents. Ara Ann had memories that came clearly to her – though some she was uncertain about, others were forgotten – and then, there were certain happenings of which she was never aware.

            According to Ara Ann’s death record, her father’s name was Jesse Ivy (34) and her mother’s maiden name was Sallie Ivy (35). Here again, Jesse and Sallie were probably members of the Ivy slaves, hence the common surname.[ii] The birth state of Ara Ann’s father was recorded as Alabama on the 1870 Mississippi census and her mother’s birth state as Virginia. Her parents’ birth years were estimated to be during the period between 1824 and 1828. This was during the time when northern and eastern seaboard slaveholders were selling off their slaves to domestic slave traders. It is plausible that pre-teen Sallie was sold to slave traders by her Virginia owners. She survived the difficult walk in chains from Virginia and through the southern wilderness where she arrived in Alabama. Shortly after arriving, Sallie may have been purchased at a slave auction by Thomas Byrd Ivy. In the case of Jesse, he may have already been held by Thomas Byrd Ivy on his Alabama plantation since his birth. Both Jesse and Sallie migrated with the Ivy slaveholder family to the northern Chickasaw Territory in Mississippi. It is likely that Ara Ann had siblings, however there are no known records about the other children that Sallie and Jesse may have had.

            Though the remembrance of her parents took only a few seconds, Ara Ann realized that memories of them, especially of her mother, would have to be enough comfort to sustain her and help her cope with the new uncertainty about Nelson’s weak heart. Ara Ann’s memories of her mother had sustained her through other worries many times before.


[i] Charles C. Bolton, “Farmers Without Land: The Plight of White Tenant Farmers and Sharecroppers”, Mississippi History Now: An Online Publication of the Mississippi Historical Society. 2000 – 2004

[ii] Death Certificate of Ary Ivy 8177-22748: Mississippi State Department of Vital Records, Jackson, Mississippi.


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