Free Woods: 19th century community unique in areaPublished 12:00am Wednesday, April 14, 2004
A little known, yet fascinating crevice in the racial landscape of America once existed deep in the forests south of Knoxville in Franklin County.
Free Woods, an isolated farming community where people of three races are said to have intermarried and abolished slavery well before the Civil War, challenged the prevailing social values of the 19th century South.
Today, a church, a cemetery and an Indian mound on a winding gravel road near the Homochitto River stand as silent reminders of a unique community preserved in the oral history of its generations.
Marshall Miller was born in Free Woods in 1914. As a boy, he plowed on his family’s farm and drove oxen in his father’s logging operation. Nearing 90, Marshall spoke with excitement when recalling the story of Free Woods.
&uot;I want to give it to you as straight as I can,&uot; he said recently from his home in the Amite County village of Coles.
A Miller family Bible, handed to Marshall when he was a child, sat on the kitchen table before him. Worn with time, its pages include the names of ancestors born as far back as 1774.
Marshall said his paternal ancestors came to America from England and migrated westward from Virginia and the Carolinas. His great, great-grandfather, John W. Miller, had a daughter, Clorie Miller, born in 1820 to a Cherokee woman.
Clorie’s mother’s name is unknown, Marshall said. &uot;She died of pneumonia along the way, and they came on here,&uot; he said.
Clorie is thought to have been a young girl, probably 10 or 12 years old, when she and her father settled on 13,000 acres just north of the Homochitto River in Franklin County.
&uot;(John) had some money. He got somebody to hew his logs out and build him a house. He never did believe in farming with a lot of people. The hardest work, he did it himself,&uot; Marshall said.
Members of the Gibson family of native Choctaws lived in the area, too. An Indian mound still stands where the Free Woods Road corners onto Marshall’s property near the river.
Clorie eventually married George Gibson and had two children, but kept the Miller name. After George Gibson’s death, she is said to have had three more children by George Gibson’s step-son from a previous marriage.
Marshall’s cousin, Gloriasteen Gibson, 75, is the only Free Woods native still residing in the old community. She said the history of Free Woods begins with Clorie Miller.
&uot;Great-Grandma Clorie was really the mother of Free Woods,&uot; she said.
Other white families, including the Wilsons and Havards, settled in the area with the Millers and Gibsons.
‘Stepping the broom’
Freewoods native and Detroit resident Harry Gibson, 67, has recorded as many as 2,000 offspring from eight original Free Woods families on a genealogy chart.
&uot;The chart is three feet wide and over 50 feet long. I keep it rolled up in sections,&uot; Harry Gibson said.
African-Americans also lived in the Free Woods community, though the exact point of their arrival in Free Woods is less documented.
Information Harry Gibson received during his research indicates John Wilson married a slave woman known only as &uot;Black Mary&uot; and fathered several children, some of whom married into the Gibson family at Free Woods.
This would date the African American presence in Free Woods prior to the Civil War, since John Wilson reportedly later fought for the Confederacy and was killed at Gettysburg.
There was also a significant number of free blacks in Southwest Mississippi, particularly in Adams County, during the first half of 19th century, according to Dr. Robert Jenkins, an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University.
&uot;The number of free blacks in Mississippi peaked at about 1,300 in the 1840 census. And most of those were in the Adams County area,&uot; Jenkins said.
John Miller eventually deeded his property to Clorie, who later set aside small pieces of land as public trusts for a school, a church and a cemetery.
From those beginnings, an unusual community evolved as the Millers, Gibsons, Wilsons, Havards and other families reportedly intermarried, producing a complex lineage of European, African and Native American ancestry.
Harry Gibson said many of the marriages referred to in the history of Free Woods likely were not sanctioned by the state, which then prohibited interracial marriages.
&uot;There may have been some formal marriages, but there were probably more common-law marriages,&uot; Gibson said.
Marshall used an old expression he heard as a child to describe the Free Woods wedding ceremonies.
&uot;They used to ‘step the broom’ when they got married. I never did see it done, but that’s what they called it,&uot; he said.
‘Stepping the broom’ or ‘jumping the broom’ at wedding ceremonies was derived from an African custom to symbolize the cleaning away of the past and the start of a new life for married couples.
What makes the story of Free Woods even more uncommon is that its residents are said to have abolished slavery prior to the Civil War-thus the &uot;Free&uot; in Free Woods.
Harry Gibson said the slavery decision at Free Woods was probably made by the original landowner, John Miller. Marshall believes the Millers didn’t approve of slavery for two reasons.
&uot;They didn’t want to see people whipped or worked too hard. Sometimes, you just don’t believe in something. And the ones that had slaves was always carrying on about ‘my gang is better than your gang.’ That did away with all that,&uot; he said.
Natchez historian Jim Barnett of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History heard of Free Woods in oral history interviews he conducted a few years ago with a longtime resident of the Franklin County community of Garden City-just down Mississippi 33 from Knoxville.
Barnett said the racial intermixing and abolition of slavery at Free Woods was unique.
&uot;This shows that the people at Free Woods were defiant of the attitudes that most people had in those days,&uot; Barnett said.
Jenkins, who specializes in African American and Mississippi history, was unfamiliar with Free Woods. But he said the community might be compared in some ways to the Cane River plantation area of Natchitoches Parish (La.), where Creoles descended from French, Spanish, African and Native American ancestors during the 18th century.
&uot;That’s the only other place that comes to mind, where you had all three races cohabitating,&uot; Jenkins said.
&uot;They stuck together&uot;
Accessible only by horseback or wagon trails well into the 20th century, the isolation of Free Woods no doubt contributed to its uncommon social interaction.
But Marshall said the people of Free Woods also developed a strong sense of community by helping each other.
&uot;If you got sick or something, or if you had a farm and got down where you couldn’t do anything, they’d all come to see about you. They’d bring you something or work your fields out. When you got through, you had just as much as they did. Everybody got along good,&uot; he said.
That’s not to say that the people of Free Woods were never bothered by outsiders. Marshall told the story of Tom Havard, whose wife was allegedly taken from his home by an intruder while he was working in the woods.
&uot;Tom went to the general store in Knoxville. Mr. Horace Butler ran that store. He saw the man with Tom’s wife. He gave Tom a .45 caliber pistol and two boxes of cartridges. He said ‘Don’t worry, your casket is paid for if you need it,’&uot; Marshall said.
Tom practiced shooting the pistol for two days before riding to the man’s house and rescuing his wife, Marshall said.
&uot;Tom had a pretty running saddle mare. He rode right up to the man’s porch and got her. And he never had to shoot the pistol,&uot; Marshall said.
Gloriasteen Gibson recalled how the community later bonded together to protect itself from the Ku Klux Klan. She said while the Klan raided families in other communities, they dared not enter Free Woods.
&uot;People in Free Woods kept their horses saddled and didn’t sleep at night. If they heard a shot, they knew which way to go. These people out here stuck together. The Klan knew if they came down here, these people would kill them,&uot; she said.
Marshall left Free Woods when he was 14 for a job carrying spring water for a logging crew.
&uot;I got through plowing and I slipped off (to the job) that Monday morning, and the man hired me. My momma didn’t know I was gone. She fixed dinner for my other two brothers, and before she knew anything I was long gone,&uot; he said.
Marshall went on to fight forest fires for the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression and build tanks for the Army in Detroit during World War II.
After the war, Marshall returned to Mississippi to help his father, who had fallen ill. A doctor advised him to move his father from Free Woods to Crosby for better access to health care.
&uot;They still had to meet the doctor and ride him into Free Woods on horseback then. They didn’t get good roads into Free Woods until the oil wells came,&uot; Marshall said.
As roads and rail transportation improved in the 20th century, many Free Woods residents relocated to urban areas, and the old farming community began to dissolve.
Today, only relics of the old community remain under its towering oaks and hanging moss. But Free Woods descendants across the nation lay claim to a proud heritage and uncommon place in Mississippi history.