The history of the Datcher’s Harpersville farm dates back to before the end of slavery. It tells the story of family and Black ownership throughout American history. The trees on the farm have been around for three centuries. A small, white farmhouse serves as the Datcher family farm museum; the walls are replete with images of family photos paying homage to the Datcher legacy, AL.com reports.
The farm was sold to Albert Baker after the Civil War by Dr. W.R. Singleton. Baker is the great-grandfather to 70-year-old Albert “Pete” Datcher. Datcher says he can remember being a child in the late 1950s and seeing two elderly white women show up at the door, looking for the descendants of Albert Baker, wanting to know if they had the land sold to them by W.R. Singleton. When they found out they did, the women began screaming.
“Back then, that ain’t a good thing,” Datcher explained. It turns out; the women just wanted to fulfill their grandfather’s wishes.
“Our grandfather made us promise him, on multiple times on his deathbed, that we’d come back here and see if Albert Baker’s children had kept the land and we’ve done that, we’ve completed our mission for our granddaddy,” Datcher said the women told the family.
Pete Datcher runs the 400-acre farm now, guiding reporters around the area and pointing out at least 80 to 100 years old trees. Near the white house is also a well built sometime in the 1880s; Datcher’s grandfather laid the bricks inside while his father erected the brick wall that surrounds it. In 1992 the well ran out of water when a company used explosives to make a place to dump its waste. That’s also around when Datcher decided to stop farming, calling it “the most painful decision [he ever] had to make.”
Years ago, the land held washhouses, smokehouses, chicken houses, and barns, as well as a syrup meal. It was also where locals came to hunt rabbits, Datcher’s father being one of the only Black men in the area who owned enough land that Blacks could use for hunting.
“In father’s time, we grew damn near everything. Daddy was the first Black man to own a combine and a cotton picker in the county,” he explained.
The family traces their name back to Maryland. His mother, Ruth B. Garrett Datcher, emphasizes the importance of preserving the family history and sharing it with those who visit the property and with groups in libraries.
“A lot of us don’t know our ancestors who came out of slavery. We don’t know where they came from, where they went after slavery, what they did or what they accomplished…She realized Black history is not known; she knew this inside of herself. She made sure I knew things that a lot of kids didn’t get to know. Because of that, I’m doing what I do now,” said Datcher.
Much of his family’s history was passed down orally at first, in the family home where his mother gathered everyone for large meals.
“Just about everybody’s eaten a meal at this house. From the 1930s, I’d say 300 to 400 different people have eaten here. Field hands have eaten here, cotton hands – the old ones – people chopping cotton, part of the benefit was you got to eat dinner here. She fixed meals for 10 to 20 people here a day,” said Datcher.
The family also allowed people to work the Datcher farm in exchange for food, cigarettes, kerosene, flour, whisky, and moonshine. His mother would fix food for the church, sponsor the local baseball games, and sell food at a local dance hall. In the 1940s, the dance hall became a church. The piano that played there now rests on the Datcher’s porch, where it has been for the last 40 years.
Datcher’s father kept meticulous records, even listing the names of people who attended the dance hall and the sale of alcohol on the property.
“Daddy, he kept records of people in the dance hall; they made a bill. But he camouflaged the bill by just writing corn…which meant corn whisky. He kept records detailed down to the penny. And I’m looking at this record and couldn’t figure out, were they picking corn or chopping corn? Why is it somebody get 10 cent or 25 cent or 50 cent or a dollar and then he marked them out,” said Datcher.
His answer came from a local who had picked cotton for his father as a child. He told him that his Dad was known as Red, and he paid more than white farmers, which is how he ended up working for him. He also was known as ’50 cent Red’ during the 30s and 40s because of the price of his whisky.
In February 2020, Datcher was visiting the Shelby County Museum when he stumbled across wills from before slavery ended. One of the wills belonged to John Singleton, who owned the parents and siblings of Albert Baker, born around 1820-25.
“Their names were in the will. I almost went to crying because I had hit the motherload,” explained Datcher.
He then learned more about W.R. Singleton, his great-grandfather, Albert Baker, and others in his family, including his great-grandmother Lucy who worked as a midwife from 1890 until about 1915. Lucy passed the trade down to Datcher’s grandmother, Rachel, who was born in 1870. She attended Talladega College and taught school at Baker’s Grove; an all-Black church turned school for children. Rachel would then pass the midwife trade down to Datcher’s aunt Ada.
He learned more and more about his family, piecing everything together, from the stories about Rachel and Ada taking care of Albert as he grew older. While bathing him once, they saw scars on his back, Lucy telling them they came from him being whipped due to sneaking off the plantation to see Lucy when the two were enslaved living on different plantations. The couple couldn’t marry until after slavery, and Census records show they had children a year after slavery.
Datcher also studied the Alabama Slave Codes, laws that governed that type of inhumane treatment. He shares his story about his family in hopes that others will do more to learn their history, to learn Black history.
“Find out the truth about real slavery. In school, we weren’t taught Black history nowhere near we needed to be. In the South, a lot of our parents didn’t tell us because you couldn’t show equality, even into the 60s. People knew the deal,” said Datcher.
Still, he is grateful for his upbringing and grateful to have a family dedicated to their legacy and history.
“I was blessed being raised here. I didn’t experience as much racism as some of my friends,” he said.