Washing Our Hands in the Clouds: Joe Williams, His Forebears, and Black Farms in South Carolina

Washing Our Hands in the Clouds: Joe Williams, His Forebears, and Black Farms in South Carolina

Washing Our Hands in the Clouds: Joe Williams, His Forebears, and Black Farms in South Carolina

Washing Our Hands in the Clouds: Joe Williams, His Forebears, and Black Farms in South Carolina


In Washing Our Hands in the Clouds, Bo Petersen masterfully crafts a reflection on the Civil War, emancipation, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement in the personal story of how it affected one man's life in a specific South Carolina locale. Petersen's accomplishment is that, in studying the Pee Dee region of Dillon and Marion Counties, he illuminates those issues throughout the Deep South. Through conversations with Joe Williams, his family, and acquaintances, white and black, Petersen merges the Williams family history back to Joe's great-great-grandfather, Scipio Williams, with the lives and fortunes of four generations of South Carolinians--black and white. Scipio, the family progenitor, was a man free in spirit and action before the Civil War destroyed chattel slavery. Scipio was a free black farmer who worked land that he owned in the Pee Dee before and after the war and during the worst days of Jim Crow white supremacy.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.


I’m not big on the word “serendipity.” It’s a little too happy-go-lucky a notion of chance, which is spontaneous, sure, but seems to come directed to you as much as out of nowhere. I like Albert Einstein’s saying, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

I didn’t know Randy Moody, but I met Joe Williams because Randy Moody thought he knew me. It happens in the business. I work for the newspaper he reads. He liked my writing and thought he recognized my name as a fellow church member. Well, I wasn’t, but in the course of the conversation talk turned to Joe, the kid who had come to live on Randy’s family farm. Joe’s story riveted me: raised in a tenant shack, taken in as a young teen by a white family in the racial turmoil of the ’60s, goes on to farm some of the biggest acreage a man could farm singlehandedly, while holding down a full-time job. I didn’t know yet about Scipio Williams and Joe’s singular heritage.

A few months later I sat in a bookstore coffee shop with Randy, Joe, and Jimmy Moody, the farmer who took Joe on as a worker, then as a brother, and now as a lifelong friend.

A few things struck me right away about Joe. He was quiet at first, letting Randy do a lot of the talking, but quick to jump in to correct something if Randy hadn’t quite gotten it straight. Joe has a mind for numbers, recollecting years and sometimes specific dates uncannily, considering these were things that happened almost a half-century before. His memory is vivid, something that shows particularly when he talks about machines. He doesn’t just remember a car or a tractor from forty-some years ago; he sees in his mind its color and interior and details about its engine.

When I got to talking with him, something else struck. He and I are about the same age, born within days of each other a year apart. So, despite the different circumstance of our upbringings, we share what the brains like to call a world view. We came along through the same times, with vantage points that . . .

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