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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Thomas Henderson, October 28, 1999. Interview K-0228. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

An African American tenant farmer defies the odds

In this excerpt, Henderson describes how tenant farmers worked his family's small tobacco farm in Brookneal, Virginia, during the 1910s. He recalls in particular one African American tenant farmer Pollard Pennell. After serving in World War I, Pennell returned and became a succeessful farmer in his own right, owning several of his own farms. Henderson's comments here both illustrate the ways in which tenant farming operated in the tobacco industry and suggests that it was possible for certain individuals, at least, to break with social customs that typically made social mobility difficult, even impossible.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Thomas Henderson, October 28, 1999. Interview K-0228. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

THOMAS HENDERSON:
Well I can tell you that there was-we had a tenant there before the war started and his name was [unclear] and his wife was named Flossie. They lived on a tenant house.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Pollard Panel?
THOMAS HENDERSON:
Pollard Penell.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Penell, okay.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
And he was drafted. She stayed there on the farm. And he came back and became a very successful black man.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Right.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
Farmer-he had several farms and that just [unclear] Pollard. But my mother and daddy were very fond of the man and his wife.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
So your daddy owned land but he wasn't a farmer. He didn't directly farm it so he-
THOMAS HENDERSON:
He rented it out.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
He had tenants living on the place. And there were tenant houses on the farm?
THOMAS HENDERSON:
I think only one.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Only one and that's where the Penells lived.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
But I remember seeing Pollard Penell the day he came in in uniform. It was long about when I was four years old. And Flossie was out our house, his wife.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
And they had children?
THOMAS HENDERSON:
They stayed there and had children. And then-
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Was this when he was leaving or when he was returning.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
When he was-after the war.
CHARLES THOMPSON:
Well he came back safely then.
THOMAS HENDERSON:
Yes. He got back safely. And he became a very successful farmer. He owned several farms as time went on. And he was a very intelligent man. And, of course, I don't know what became of him after that. He went his way and-. I know while he was there my mother and daddy had a lot of respect for him. They liked him very much as tenants.