Boss Ben (Fiction Excerpt)

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday August 30, 2013 - 08:22:00 AM

Oakland author J. Douglas Allen-Taylor’s new novel, “Sugaree Rising,” was inspired by a long-forgotten incident in American history: resistance to the forced uprooting and relocation of close to 1,000 families—most of them African-American—to make way for the building of the Pinopolis Dam in rural South Carolina in the midst of the 1930’s Great Depression. A portion is excerpted below.

Allen-Taylor worked for many years as a reporter and political columnist with the Berkeley Daily Planet. Sugaree Rising is his first novel. Sugaree Rising is published by Freedom Publishers of San Francisco, and is available in both paperback and eBook online and at Bay Area bookstores. For more information: www.sugareerising.com.


They called him Boss Ben and nothing else, and it fit him like the belt stretched tight around his big belly. He dressed in white shirts and a tie and pressed slacks and tool-stitch-pattern black boots, with a wide planter’s hat sitting flat on his broad head. He took off his hat often to wipe his thinning hair with his handkerchief or the perspiration off his forehead. But it was not a worrying kind of sweat, because he displayed little worry about anything. He smiled Cheshire-cat-style at everyone and everything, the smile of a man who was good at his job and lived secure in the knowledge. Neither the office clothes nor the planter’s hat fooled anyone. One look at his hands told the real story. Boss Ben hadn’t come up in no office. He had blacksmith’s hands, big, meaty hands, with the fingers so thick that they crowded each other out for space when he gripped something, the palms and fingertips horn-yellow with callouses, and he had forearms as big and knotted as bull’s thighs that stretched the fabric of his shirtsleeves. He walked on massive legs with a rolling swagger that displayed a confidence that in whatever manner he approached the ground, it would always prepare itself to hold him. It was clear from the testimony of Boss Ben’s body that he had started life out as a working boy, either in mill or factory or field, most likely all three. And from his demeanor and ways—the easy bluster in his walk and the note of barked command in his voice that underscored its deep and lazy drawl—it was also clear that Boss Ben had bulled his way up from carrying loads to driving other men to do so. Thus, the name Boss. 

He was as unlike the lanky, intellectual Sparman as could be imagined. 

He did not live in Cashville, as the Sparman had, but drove the fifteen miles every day down from St. Paul at high speeds, passing slower cars whenever he could, blowing them down with his horn when he could not, waving at people with the bottle of Coca-Cola he usually clutched in his hand. He drove a tan and white touring car, the latest Ford model, which he took care to have wiped and shined every morning by the colored boy at the Lee & Longstreet in St. Paul where he took his rooms. On the job in the countryside around Cashville, he never went door to door, seeing that as a waste of time and talent. He attended organized meetings at churches and halls and other gathering spots, and there he made his pitches, enticements and threats. He had the barrelly voice of a camp meeting preacher and the salesmanship of a potion peddler and under his direction, families slowly began to stay after the meetings and cautiously, one by one, sign up for the move, convinced that SPAR meant business if it had hired a man like Boss Ben. 

He never crossed the river to Adams Neck, not for any reason. When asked by people in the Basinbottom why they should sign up for the move when the Neckerniggers were not, Boss Ben would tell his colored audience, “They got one foot in the bog over there, and sinking. You ain’t going to let them hoodoos drag you down with them, are you?” And to the white folks he would say, “I seen a lot of things in my travels, but I never seen a Carolina white man let a nigger take the lead of him. But maybe y’all different down here to Cantrell, and can’t do nothing until the niggers do it first.” 

Not content with mere persuasion, Boss Ben had new signs printed up. 

This is to announce that court proceedings may be initiated at the discretion of the Sugaree Power and Recreation Authority, the State of South Carolina, and/or the Federal Government of the United States of America against any landholder within the below census tracts of Central and Southern Cantrell County, South Carolina, who have not made preparations to surrender their dwellings and/or real property and vacate said premises by August 31, nineteen hundred and thirty-six. 

He paid a crew of boys to nail the new signs up all across the Basinbottom, sometimes side-by-side with the already-yellowing ones that had been posted by his predecessor, sometimes laid out on top of them. Crowds gathered around the signs, interpreters were called in to read and explain the legalese, and there were long and heated discussions by Basinbottom residents over what must be done. One sign went up on the pole at the cable-barge crossing on the county side. It disappeared from the pole within hours, and was rapidly passed around Yelesaw Neck, so that three days had not passed before everyone interested had seen or touched it. 

At first, the new SPAR signs caused a stir on Yelesaw Neck. But when Boss Ben showed no interest in coming over the river, and nothing seemed especially imminent in the threats lined out on the signs, concerns about the coming water and the new whiteman from Columbia began to wane again, and their attention turned to other things. There was much to do that summer. The year ripened fat and oily like a sweet pecan, rolling over bright emerald green to sand-dust brown, stretching itself out and cracking open sweet in the sun. The rice-shoots drove up like growing grass, and they worked by torchlight many nights to keep up with them. Rain came and went at just the right time. Crocus-sacks and baskets of fruit and garden crops hung heavy in their hands, and the cane grew so high even the tallest among them could not touch its leafy tops. Potatoes were big as stepping rocks in a pond, the melons and cabbage the size of small boulders, the carrots and sugarpeas and tomatoes the sweetest anyone could remember, okra the most tender, corn ears so weighted to the ground that the bending stalks called out to people passing by to please ma’am, please sir, hurry and pick them things off, it was too much a strain to try to hold them up. The fall harvest was fat and yellow-deep, the wagon-axles crying and groaning and hardly able to hold their loads coming out of the fields. It was a fall of many healthy babies born, and few accidents or illness, and fewer elders passing. It was the best growing time in a generation or more, and with the days rolling on so well, who among them could imagine leaving the land of their fathers and mothers?