Syl Johnson – It’s Because They Were Black: 100 Years of Fraud and Forgery
Paperback: 82 pages
Blues and R&B Soulster Syl Johnson is riding a wave of crowning achievement in this, his 83rd lap around the sun. On December 7, 2019, his book, It’s Because They Were Black: 100 Years of Fraud and Forgery, was published under the Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Agency imprint.
The book smacks of the very essence of the social system of where Blues music comes from originally. Johnson has woven a true story from the oral history of his own family that indicts individuals in the public and government sector who stole land from African-American landowners, a practice that occurred not only in Mississippi but throughout the south.
Syl Johnson’s great-grandfather, Wallace, was about 14 years old when the Emancipation Proclamation went forth in 1863. The master of the plantation gave each newly freed slave $10 and told them they were free to leave.
But freedom was a hard thing to perceive for the slaves and after leaving the plantation for the town of Holly Springs, Mississippi, soon returned to the plantation complaining that they didn’t know where to go or what to do with the $10.
The plantation owner offered them lodging in the former slave quarters and work, picking the same cotton they had picked as slaves, in a 50/50 split with the owner. They agreed and vowed to work hard.
Wallace worked hard, married and raised a family. By the time his four sons were grown, the land had changed hands and the new landowner John Hudson, instructed his son, Len Hudson to sell some of the land to the Johnson boys, one of whom, Owen, was Syl Johnson’s grandfather. The brothers bought the land in 1916 and paid it off in full by 1921.
Len Hudson had a bride that was thirty years younger than him. Apparently his wife, Annie Hudson coveted the land that the Johnson boys had built beautiful homes on. They were successful farmers and musicians and many folks envied their success.
In an interesting exchange with Owen Johnson before he died, Len Hudson, probably aware of his wife’s stealthy plan, tried to buy back the land from the Johnson brothers. Of course, the brothers wanted to keep it.
“Owen, sell me that land back. I’ll pay you double for it.”
“Why would you pay double for it, Mr. Len?”
“I don’t think you’ll be able to keep it after my time, Owen.”
“I’ll keep it, Mr. Len.”
Sure enough, after Len Hudson died in 1922, Annie Hudson fabricated a charge that there were four outstanding notes against the property that went back to when the land was originally purchased. She claimed that the brothers came in and made four notes, right around $2000 per year on the original purchase price. But the brothers didn’t owe any money from 1916. They paid it off in 1921. Len Hudson, who knew the truth, was dead. And a dead man can’t talk.
And so, through a series of illegal dalliances between Annie Hudson, the Marshall County Recorder of Deeds, the banks and the courts in the state of Mississippi, the Johnson Brothers had to pay rent on their own land. In 1932 they were run off the land with only the clothes on their backs, their hard-earned homestead stolen from them by an infamous flower of the south.
Syl Johnson also reveals in the book that Annie Hudson was rumored to have been passing for white all along. And when she retreated to Chicago with her daughters after the passing of her husband in 1922, she stayed at the Sutherland Hotel at 47th & Drexel, also rumored to have been owned by Al Capone.
Syl Johnson has stepped out of his musician persona to craft a true story of the Jim Crow south that illustrates poignantly, the social mores from which the Blues sprang. Fittingly, last week, it was announced that Syl Johnson will be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame’s class of 2020 along with Bettye Lavette, Billy Branch, George “Harmonica” Smith, Victoria Spivey, Eddie Boyd, and others. Look for an interview with Syl Johnson in an upcoming issue of Blues Blast Magazine.