The Charlotte Observer published a story about my great-great grandfather, John Frank Lytle, on Sept. 26, 1912. The headline read: "Colored Farmers in Mecklenburg: Frank Lytle's Story."
The reporter asked how this black man who was born a slave had acquired 300 acres and sent all eight of his children to college. Lytle’s short honest answer: "By hard work."
But he could not leave it at that. Lytle, who was 56, and by all accounts a smart businessman, humbly added, “My white friends have trusted me and helped me and I have sought to justify their confidence.”
In this article and in others I've found, it's clear that my ancestor and other black farming families had to work hard to make white people feel comfortable and to convince them that they were worthy of all they had earned.
Lytle came into this world as someone’s property, was taken from his mother, Mary, and sold off to another plantation. He was 10 when he was emancipated, and Mary reclaimed him. He had to have known of the Colored Farmers Alliance formed in the late 1880s and the violent opposition it faced from white farmers who felt threatened.
He understood who and what he was up against.
Nevertheless, he and his colleagues organized anyway. They held conferences and farming workshops at black colleges in Charlotte, Greensboro, and other cities. They hosted "colored fairs," shared ideas, worked together, and looked out for each other, all the while being careful not to step too far ahead.
At one meeting of the Negro Farmers' Union the guest speaker urged the audience "to be cool and quiet" and to stick to their jobs and make friends with their white neighbors "by sober and industrious conduct." The Charlotte Observer reported on the meeting on Sept. 5, 1919.
Lytle and the other black farmers in North Carolina walked the fragile tightrope of racism. Many had been enslaved, had seen their families torn apart, had endured Jim Crow laws that were meant to limit opportunity and restrict their every move, and yet, they still had to be humble, be quiet, be cool, and by all means, be friendly, lest they offend their oppressors merely by being successful in spite of it all.