by Tim Gilmore, 11/6/2017
When Joseph was seven, his parents moved from St. George, Georgia to Callahan, Florida and stayed in a house on the Musslewhite farm.
That first house remains, though the other structures on the Musslewhite farm are gone. The main house across the street is gone. The chickenhouses beside it are gone. The foreman’s house, where Joseph and his family lived before the Johnson house, is gone. The commissary, beside Joseph’s first house, is gone. The workers’ houses, behind the commissary and the first house, are gone.
A more accurate word than “farm” for the Musslewhites’ enterprise would be “plantation.” Joseph’s parents always told him not to go back toward “the quarters,” as they called the workers’ houses, and he rarely saw the black people who worked the plantation.
Even in the late 1950s, black plantation workers lived on Musslewhite property, worked the fields, and spent their meager earnings on provisions in the commissary. Many whites shopped elsewhere in Callahan, or “in town,” meaning Jacksonville, 20 miles to the south. The Musslewhites paid their black workers and the workers paid their earnings right back to the Musslewhites in the plantation commissary, the only place they could shop.
Sometimes Joseph saw black people heading into the commissary. He saw them at a distance, working in the field. He saw them around the communal bonfires they built in the evenings out back in “the quarters.” He imagines they must have made music back there in the twilight, but can’t remember it.
Recently the West Nassau [County] Historical Society demolished the commissary and built a smaller replica at its headquarters on Dixie Avenue. The society’s web page says that in 1928, Cecil Musslewhite, Sr. “came to Nassau County from Georgia and purchased hundreds of acres, a turpentine still and a commissary,” but it fails to mention the black farm workers, their “quarters,” or the commissary pay system—nor the source of the Musslewhites’ wealth.
Before the historical society demolished it, calendars, ads, and business cards still stuck to interior walls, the rusted staples that held them having bled out across the faded paper. Charles Pickett for County Commissioner. Jerry R. Poole for County Judge. American Turpentine Farmers’ Association: “The Voice of the Gum Turpentine Farmers of the Nation.”
And then one evening in 1958 or 1960, when Joseph was eight or 10 years old, his daddy drove the family back up U.S. 1 from Jacksonville and Joseph saw the crosses burning in the fields. The family went “to town” once a week for groceries and other supplies. This one night, they crossed the Ku Klux Klan.
To the right, Joseph saw a crowd of men standing and milling about in a large field walled in by pines. The whole assemblage was lit by a tall burning cross perched high amidst the crowd. About a third of the men gathered at the side of the highway wore the Ku Klux Klan’s standard white robes and hoods.
On the left-hand side of U.S. 1 from the Klan field, the part of Callahan once called “Black Town” ranges out into the streets and old trees. Directly across from the Klan rally stood Greater Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, founded by former slaves and freemen as Bush Harbor Church in 1872.
“All the black people could see the Klan rally and the burning cross and all the commotion through the trees from their houses across the highway,” Joseph says.
Today, Greater Mount Pleasant’s congregation meets in a handsome brick structure set back from the highway, but when Joseph saw the Klan rally in ’58 or ’60, the church met in a white wooden building closer to the road. Today, the Three Crosses of Calvary stand out front of Greater Mount Pleasant against the field where Klansmen once burned their own crosses.
“The black people of Callahan had a bird’s-eye view of all that bullshit,” Joseph says. “The Klan staged their rallies right there, across the main highway through town, right across from Black Town.”
His daddy pulled the car to the side of the road by the rally. Joseph’s mama told him not to do it, but he wouldn’t listen. Both parents told the children to get their heads down and hide. J.H. left the car and wandered into the rally. He was gone for a few minutes, came back to the car, started the engine, and headed back home. He said nothing. Joseph’s mama asked nothing. All the way home, nobody said a word in the anxious silence of the smalltown Southern night.
Today, Joseph says, “They wanted to make a big spectacle for Black Town, but even out here, they covered their faces and wore their hoods.”
He calls it “chickenshit intimidation.”