Washing Our Hands in the Clouds
Joe Williams, His Forebears, and Black Farms in South Carolina
Petersen uses the Williams family genealogy, neighborhood, and, most important, their farmlands to understand Pee Dee and South Carolina history from the 1860s to the present. In his research he discovers historical currents that run deeper than events—currents of agriculture, land ownership, and allegiance to native soil—and transcend the march of time and carry the Williams family through slavery, war, Jim Crow, and economic dislocation to today's stories of Joe Williams. In gathering what Petersen describes as a collection of front porch stories, he also writes a history of what matters most to this family and this locale. The resulting narrative is surprising, unconventional, and true for all families in all places.
In Dillon County, tobacco production followed cotton farming. Old-time logging coexisted with textile factories. Jim Crow gave way to uncertain prospects of racial harmony. Those were monumental changes of circumstance, but they did not change human character. Washing Our Hands in the Clouds is a history of human character, of life that endures outside of the restraints of time. To understand this phenomenon is to realize that both Scipio and Joe and the generations between them wash their hands in the timeless clouds of South Carolina's sky.
"For so long, writers have focused on African Americans as slaves or immigrants to the North during the early 20th century. Unraveling the story of generations of one farming family whose sense of place kept them rooted in South Carolina, Petersen reveals that an independence despite travails is a story rarely told in South Carolina."—Lee Gordon Brockington, senior interpreter for the Belle W. Baruch Foundation at Hobcaw Barony
"While focusing on Joe Williams, a descendant of free blacks, Bo Petersen uses simple stories that might be heard sitting on a front porch to illustrate issues that profoundly affected the Pee Dee region such as slavery, tenant farming, education, segregation, discrimination in government farm programs, and the values of an era when a man's word was his bond. To one who grew up in the Pee Dee watershed, the book rings true. It offers significant insight into the issues that define the region while remaining a very enjoyable read."—Suzanne Linder Hurley, author, with Emily Johnson, of A River in Time: The Yadkin-Pee Dee River System
"With an easy journalistic style, Bo Peterson relates the story of a South Carolina family. Interweaving past and present, we follow four generations of the Williams family as they face emancipation, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the challenges of farm families—both white and black—to remain on the land. Washing Our Hands in the Clouds is more than a family history. It is a triumph of the human spirit."—Eldred E. "Wink" Prince Jr., Coastal Carolina University
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