Toni Morrison's Roots in Cartersville, Bartow County, and the shadows of Pine Log Mountain
Toni Morrison (1931-2019), winner of both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for her widely acclaimed novels, was the daughter of Bartow County, Georgia, native George Wofford, who had migrated from Cartersville to Lorain, Ohio, as part of the Great Migration of African Americans to the northern industrial cities in the 1920s and 1930s.
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on Feb. 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, not long after her father's move to that state from Georgia. He had married Ella Ramah Willis, whose family had migrated to Ohio from Butler County, Alabama, in 1929.
Morrison grew up with a conflicted and mostly negative perspective on the South. Although George Wofford apparently returned to Georgia to visit his family on a regular basis, it seems that he never brought his own children, so Toni Morrison had never visited her father's hometown until late in her life, in 1998, when she was invited by a literary group and provided with an emotional homecoming. As Pearl McHaney reported, "Morrison’s father visited Georgia often, but he never brought his family to the state he believed to be the most racist in the nation."
Morrison grew up hearing stories of the harsh life and experiences of racism lived by her family members in Georgia during the period from slavery through emancipation and Reconstruction. Her father, born in 1908, grew up in Cartersville during the worst years of lynchings in the community. He would have well remembered the mob lynching of 20-year-old Jesse McCorkle in downtown Cartersville in 1916 and that of John Willie Clark in 1930, as well as others which may not have been reported in the white newspapers and recorded for posterity.
Morrison frequently attributed her father's racial animosity towards white people, and the reason he moved north, to two factors: his resentment about job prospects for black men after he saw his father's job as a railroad engineer taken away and given to a white man, and his living through the fear and anger during the period when the white majority accepted and often participated in public lynchings of black men.
In a 2016 National Public Radio interview, Morrison stated, "My father saw two black men lynched on his street in Cartersville, Ga., as a child. And I think seeing two black businessmen - not vagrants - hanging from trees as a child was traumatic for him." Her father's experiences and memories told to her as stories influenced her writing in profound ways.
George Wofford’s father John Wofford (1872-1930) was listed as a brickyard laborer in 1900 but by 1910 he owned a multi-generational drayman (horse-drawn delivery cart) business and had a home on Gilmer Street in Cartersville, Georgia. Her grandmother, Carrie Morgan Wofford, was a laundress.
McHaney documented Morrison's reticent homecoming to Cartersville in the two photographs below. She also noted similar themes in Morrison's writing:
"We can read Morrison’s renderings of Georgia, drawn from her roots and imagination, in several of her novels. Cholly Breedlove, Pecola’s father in The Bluest Eye (1970), recalls traveling to Macon to find his father; in Song of Solomon (1977) Macon Dead Sr. is shot by white men claiming his Georgia peach orchard; Paul D, a character in Beloved (1987), works on a prison farm in fictional Alfred, Georgia. More recently, Frank Money, a Georgia veteran of the Korean War, tells his story in Home (2012). Frank — traveling across the country to carry his brutally abused sister home to the fictional Atlanta suburb of Lotus — journeys into the dreams and nightmares of the past. “Home” is where both Georgia’s racism and her beauty heal the traumatized brother and sister."
Photo by Kurt Smith, Lorain Morning Journal, 2 February 1974. Courtesy of Lorain (Ohio) Public Library.
Toni Morrison with her parents George and Ella Wofford, 1974
Song of Solomon and Morrison's identity
Song of Solomon (1977), Morrison’s third novel, tells the story of an African American man living in Michigan who traces his family’s roots back to Virginia. By reconstructing his family history, the protagonist, Milkman, is able to come to terms with his own identity.
While it is not known if Morrison ever traced her own ancestry, elements of Milkman’s ancestry echo Morrison’s Wofford roots, including a mountainous setting and the possibility of Native American ancestry. Morrison writes about the healing that Milkman experiences when he goes hunting with some distant relatives in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
He found himself exhilarated by simply walking the earth. Walking it like he belonged on it; like his legs were stalks, tree trunks, a part of his body that extended down down down into the rock and soil, and were comfortable there – on the earth and in the place where he walked.
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison seeing her father's former home in Cartersville for the first time in 1998.
Noble Hill School
Toni Morrison’s father George Wofford attended Noble Hill School (pictured at right), a Rosenwald School in Cassville, Georgia, north of Cartersville.
Born in 1862, Chicago businessman Julius Rosenwald made his living as a suit maker, until he bought a quarter of Sears Roebuck and made it big. He used his newfound wealth to start building schools for black children in the south, with the help of Booker T. Washington. 4,977 Rosenwald schools were built by the time he died in 1932.
One third of all black school children in America in 1928 were taught in Rosenwald schools. Throughout the country, black schools received less support than white schools, and Rosenwald was attempting to give black children the chance for a decent education.
Webster Wheeler built Noble Hill in 1923, and it is one of five Rosenwald schools still standing. It replaced Cassville Colored School, which had been built in the 1800s. It closed in 1955 and was absorbed into Summer Hill High School. Noble Hill School is now open as a museum.
Noble Hill Schoolchildren. This photograph portrays students and teachers at Noble Hill School in its early years.
Courtesy Noble Hill School.
In the Shadows of Pine Log Mountain:
The Georgia family history of Toni Morrison (born Chloe Wofford)
Many of the Bartow County Woffords, both white and African American, descended from either the masters or slaves of those who lived in the community of Wofford's Crossroads in what is now White, Georgia--in the western valley of Pine Log Mountain. This area was settled in the early 1830s by children and grandchildren of Major Nathaniel Wofford (1766-1846) who originally migrated from the Spartanburg, South Carolina, area by way of a settlement in what was then Cherokee territory and later Habersham County, called Wofford's Settlement. Some settled along Stamp Creek and also in the Cassville community of Bartow County. Nathaniel and some of his sons reportedly partnered with Cherokee wives, resulting in a number of Wofford cousins who were of mixed blood, which was significant at the time, since some of them went west along the Trail of Tears during the 1838 Indian Removal.
The Wofford's Crossroad Church and community were reportedly named for Thomas Jefferson Wofford (1812-1904). Several of the white Woffords owned quite a few slaves. In 1860, Thomas Jefferson Wofford owned 31 slaves and Charles Nelson Wofford owned 28 slaves. The famous General William Tatum Wofford of Cassville, a cousin, owned 10 slaves.
In an interview on file with William Wofford at the Bartow History Museum, he said that Toni Morrison’s grandfather John Wofford had expressed an understanding that his people had been slaves of the white James "Chuck” Wofford (1830-1914) family, who lived at Wofford’s Crossroads near Pine Log Mountain. After the war, Chuck Wofford married Henrietta Satterfield and moved into Cartersville, where he became the Depot Agent at the Cartersville Railroad Depot; he and his wife Henrietta and their growing family lived at 101 Douglas Street.
Morrison's great-grandfather John "Dock" Wofford, who was born into slavery in June 1849, was probably the son of a slave named Hannah, but his father's name is unknown. In the 1870 census--the first in which the former slaves were enumerated by name--a Dock J. Wofford, age 21, who cannot read or write, is living alone in Cartersville.
On April 3, 1873, John "Dock" Wofford married Vashti Barnwell, the daughter of Sol Barnwell and Manerva (or Minerva) Ramsour. She was born into slavery in November 1851 in Georgia. Vashti’s mother Minerva Ramsour (born 1828) appears to have been owned by the Ramsour family near Fairmount in Gordon County, Georgia. The death certificates of both Vashti and a sister Demarius list Sol Barnwell as their father, although few if any records exist for him. He was likely a slave of Robert Barnwell of Sonora in Gordon County, who in the 1850 slave schedule had one adult male slave age 33 (not named in the census at that time) who was likely to have been Vashti's father Sol. No slave of that age was listed on Barnwell's 1860 slave record, so Sol may have been sold or may have died. Manerva went on to marry Richard "Dick" Sims in 1868, and so Vashti was raised in the Sims family and is listed as a Sims in the 1870 census.
John "Dock" and Vashti Wofford were very likely members of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church since their marriage was performed by the Rev. Jeff Milner, a noted African American pastor in North Georgia. Mt. Zion, now at 147 Jones Street in the Summer Hill historically black district of Cartersville, has remained a pinnacle of black life in the community. According to the church's history site,
"Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church was organized during slavery time by Rev. Jeffrey Milner. They held their meetings under a bush arbor. During the first year the Rev. Milner became pastor, one Sunday in July he preached to his congregation from this text, John 8:36. "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed." Some of the slaves went home and told their master that Rev. Milner said they were going to be free. The white people who owned these slaves, on the following Monday morning had a gallows built, where the present depot now stands. They placed the hangman's noose around Rev. Milner's neck to hang him but before they tied the knot he preached so strong that many people wept. The mayor of Cassville, Georgia ordered the crew to cut him down and let him go and preach the word of God. After the Emancipation Proclamation, sometime during the year of 1868, the first church assembled in an old house where the present Educational/Fellowship Building now stands.
"Desiring a better place of worship, in the year of 1875, they built a two-story plank structure. The fellowship sponsored the first school for Negro children in this building with Rev. S. S. Broadnax as the first teacher."
In the 1880 census, Toni Morrison's great-grandparents John "Dock" Wofford and Vashti Barnwell Wofford lived just a few residences away from the white James C. "Chuck" Wofford family, probably on Douglas Street. By this time, Dock and Vashti had three children: John, Annie, and Lilly. An interesting note is that by this time, Dock told the census taker that he could both read and write, while Vashti was able to read but not write.
There is no existing 1890 census, so the next record of this family is in 1900, by which time the first three children had left home. In 1900 Cartersville, we find John Wofford, born June 1849, who could read and write; Fashti (Vashti), born Nov 1851, who could not read or write. They had four new children (Hubbard, James, Irene, and Julius). The census states that Vashti had given birth to 7 children, of whom six were now living. This would mean that of the three older children, two were living and one had died. The couple also had three grandchildren living with them, with surnames Johnson and Findley, children of each of two older daughters, Annie and Lilly.
Toni Morrison's grandfather John, the oldest son of Dock and Vashti, had married Carrie Morgan in 1895 according to Bartow County marriage records, so he and Carrie had their own household in the 1900 census. John (born December 1872) and Carrie Wofford (born March 1871), married 12 years according to the census (which conflicts with the date on the marriage license), had two children at this time: Howard (age 11) and Harry (age 6). All were listed as black (not mulatto). John, a laborer at a brickyard, could read and write while Carrie could not.
Carrie Morgan was the daughter of Prince and Mary Morgan, who appear in the 1880 census in Bartow County, Georgia, with seven children, including Carrie, who was age 9. All members of the family are listed as mulatto. Her father was born circa 1834 in Alabama and her mother circa 1838 in South Carolina (as were her parents), both likely into slavery. Prince's father was born in Alabama but his mother was born in Virginia. The census indicates that Prince Morgan is able to read and write, while his wife Mary can write but not read. The older three children were born in Alabama, indicating that the family had only recently moved to Georgia since the mid-1870s. A marriage record is registered in Calhoun County, Alabama, on Jan. 6, 1866 between Prince Albert Morgan (colored) and Mollie Brownlee (colored), which might well be this couple since Mollie was a common nickname for Mary. The 1866 "Colored" Census for Calhoun County lists a Prince Morgan as aged 20-30 with a wife the same age and a young female child. Prince Morgan appears on many Bartow County tax lists in the 1880s.
In the 1910 census, John Wofford's family was now living at 421 Gilmer Street in Cartersville and had added two sons Henry (age 3) and George (Toni Morrison's father), age 2. Howard is no longer with them, while Harry is listed as age 12. Also living in the household is Carrie's brother Bud Morgan, age 20. In terms of race and color perceptions, in this census, John is listed as black, while all others are listed as mulatto. All were born in Georgia except Carrie, who said she was born in Alabama. John worked as a drayman with his own dray, Carrie was a laundress and Harry and Bud were laborers at the guano factory. All adults could read and write except for Carrie.
In 1910, John D. (Dock) and Vashti Wofford were living a few blocks away at 302 Railroad Street in Cartersville. Vashti, age 53, said she had given birth to 7 children, with 5 still living. Dock was working as a drayman, owning his own dray. He is listed as black and she as mulatto, as are the children. Daughter Irene, aged 20, was working as a Cook for a private family, and son Julius, 15, was a dray driver. They were also still raising four grandchildren, ages 2 through 17. All members of the household above age 11 could read, and all but Vashti could write.
Dock apparently passed away during the 1910s, because by the 1920 census Vashti Wofford was living on Kanodle St. in Cartersville (in the Summer Hill District) with daughter Irene Riley's family. Vashti was now working as a janitor at the Cartersville Railroad Depot, while Irene was a laundress and son Hurbert (aka Hubbard) was a drayman like his father. Irene's three children were in the household as well as Vashti, her son Hurbert (age 37), her grandson Walker Daniel (age 20), and a young boarder. Everyone is listed as being able to read and write except the baby.
The 1920 census found John and Carrie Wofford still at 421 Gilmer Street in Cartersville. John Wofford worked as a drayman for the batting industry. Living with them were sons Henry, 12, and George, 10, all listed as black in this census. All could read and write except Carrie.
By 1930, George had moved to Lorain County, Ohio, where in Elyria he married Ella Ramah Willis on May 18, 1929. On their marriage license, he is listed as a laborer and she as a hairdresser. She was also age 22, born in Greenville, Alabama, and divorced from a Mr. Young when she married George Wofford. Her parents were John Willis and Ardelia McTyeire. The couple cannot be located in the 1930 census in any state, although they may have lived for a short time in Pennsylvania since their oldest daughter Lois, born that year, was reported in the next census to have been born in that state.
By the 1940 census, George and Ella Wofford were settled in Lorain, Ohio (where they would spend the remainder of their lives together until George's death in 1975). George was a laborer in a steel mill. They had three children: Lois, age 10, born in Pennsylvania; Chloe (later to become Toni Morrison), age 9, born Ohio; and George, age 4. In the changing politics of racial designations, all were listed as "Neg" for Negro. Their daughter Chloe Ardelia Wofford had been born on February 18, 1931. The family was renting a house at 1236 Broadway in Lorain and the census indicates they had lived in the same place five years earlier, in 1935.
Toni Morrison's Family Tree Chart.
from Geni.com, Research by Pamela Wilson
1910 census, Bartow County, Georgia, with listing for John Wofford famil, including wife Carrie and sons Harry, Henry, and George. George was Toni Morrison's father.
The George and Ella Wofford family in the 1940 census for Lorain County, Ohio, with children Lois, Chloe (who would later become Toni Morrison), and George, Jr.
Toni Morrison Bench