Dorothy Ngongang grew up as a sharecropper, picking cotton in South Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s. Her family of 12 lived in a two-bedroom hut where they slept on flour sacks stuffed with grass. Each child owned one pair of clothes at a time.
“We had a typical-looking sharecropping hut with brown wood and broken windows,” said Ngongang, who is now 72 and lives in Charlotte. “You had to make sure you had cats to be sure you kept the snakes down.”
Across the street stood a large white house with a wraparound porch that Ngongang and her siblings, then known as the Giles family, often admired as they worked in the fields.
“It was a mansion to us,” Ngongang said of the house. “We thought it was beautiful.”
The Gileses, who are African American, would peer over at the house from their modest home in Jonesville, a town with an area of one square mile in Union County, S.C.
The house didn’t belong to the landowners the Giles family worked for. A well-off white family, the Wheelers, lived in the home and their daughters were playmates of the Giles kids. They’d all play out in the fields together, or sometimes under the porch. The home the Wheelers lived in not only represented the financial stability the Gileses longed for, it was a bright spot in an otherwise arduous existence.
“They were kind even then when there were white people who were not kind,” said Ngongang, who recalled long summer days playing with the Wheeler daughters. “There were some cruel things, but they were never that type of family. They treated us as next-door neighbors and friends.”
Back then, Ngongang didn’t dream her siblings and their children would pull themselves out of poverty. She could not know they would fan out across the country to earn professional degrees, or that her own daughter would become a medical doctor. She never imagined as a child that she and her siblings would one day pool their money and own that big white house that was across the street but seemed a world apart.
“The pain of living the way we lived”
Sharecropping is an arrangement in which property owners allow tenants to farm a piece of land in exchange for a share of the crop. In many cases, as with the Giles family, the tenants worked extraordinarily hard for very little, and if the crops failed in a particular year they got even less. Sharecropping was widespread in the South during Reconstruction, after the Civil War. It was a way landowners could still command labor, often by African Americans, to keep their farms profitable. It had faded in most places by the 1940s.
But not everywhere.
When the 10 Giles kids were young, they picked an enormous amount of cotton — the equivalent of about 20,000 pounds of cotton a year. For that, the family earned a total of about $100 to $300 annually plus minimal food, they said. They ate what Ngongang called a “slave diet” — molasses or gravy, fatback and a type of corn bread. Butter and milk were considered delicacies.
When Ngongang was a girl, she loved attending school, but was frustrated that she and her siblings had to miss months at a time because her father, an incessant worker, required them to hoe, chop or pick cotton.
“We did all of the work, and the landowner kept the books and settled up with us using his math,” Ngongang said. “We were just human capital.”
When they were able to go to school, the Giles children walked three miles to a segregated, two-room schoolhouse while nearby white children took buses to and from school. Some white children would throw sand out of the bus at the Giles children to humiliate them. But having a strong mother kept them focused on what was important.
Her father, a sharecropper since he was five years old, was illiterate. So was her mother. But her mother was determined none of her children would be.
“Our mother was an encourager, she encouraged us to learn or ‘get something in our heads that no one could take from us,’” Ngongang said.
It worked. The children, eight girls and two boys, studied extra hard to keep up with what was taught when they missed school.
“I felt I wasn’t going to be there picking cotton my whole life,” Ngongang said. “I thought, ‘No, I can’t do this. Not with the pain of living the way we lived.’”
Leaving the fields behind
After high school, Ngongang dedicated herself to earning her degrees and pulling herself out of poverty.
She graduated second in her class at Sims High School in 1965, and then attended a satellite campus of the University of South Carolina. She lived at home, and a professor helped her get a scholarship for the tuition. She then transferred to what was then called Mars Hill College, a university near Asheville, N.C. She worked in the cafeteria to pay for books and also earned money picking peaches, cleaning houses and babysitting in the summers. She was one of the first black students on campus, and she was forced to sleep in the infirmary at first because the school refused to match her with a white roommate.
In the cafeteria, she ate her meals alone for months, until slowly the white students would start to sit near her.
She was as smart as she was dedicated, and ended up earning the highest marks at the college. She graduated from Mars Hill in 1969 with a Bachelor of Science in biology.
“I didn’t realize how isolated we were until I moved away,” she said.
She then went on to get her master’s degree in teaching from Indiana University in 1972. After, she settled in North Carolina and got a job at a high school in Charlotte teaching biology, environmental science and anatomy. She also taught Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate biology, and retired in 2010 after a teaching career than spanned more than three decades.
Her brothers and sisters were successful, as well. Of the ten children, seven graduated from college and three also got master’s degrees. Three were successful in manufacturing.
Ngongang met a man from Cameroon and they married in 1980, and later had two children. They divorced after 13 years of marriage, but remained friends. He passed away in 2007.
The white house is for sale
In 2015, Ngongang, who was staying busy with family and tutoring children, got a curious call. It was from her old playmate Peggy Wheeler McKinney, who grew up in the white house with the wraparound porch. She said the house was for sale, and wondered if Ngongang wanted to buy it.
“I was redoing it and I ran into all kinds of financial and physical problems, and I knew I wasn’t able to redo it,” said McKinney, 65, who has memories of playing with the Giles children. “I called them and asked them if they’d be interested in buying it. To me, it was like keeping it in the family.”
Wheeler’s sister, Joan Wheeler Little, said the Wheeler and Giles kids “have always had a good bond. Anytime you needed anything you could ask them.”
The house had been vacant for 10 years and it needed a lot of work. But if Ngongang and her family wanted it, McKinney said she’d sell it to them for a decent price.
It hadn’t occurred to Ngongang before, but all of a sudden it made perfect sense. Several of her siblings and their children were still in the area, and it would be nice to have a home base when they visit South Carolina. It could be a place where they could gather for Christmas.
And her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were all buried nearby.
Not lost on her was how remarkable it was that they could actually do it. Looking back on where she’d come from, it was an achievement she’d never even dare to dream of when she was a child.
“I never visualized owning that house,” Ngongang said. “Nobody in the family, they never visualized sitting on the porch and rocking.”
Ngongang called her sister and brother who she thought might be interested. They were. They bought the house in April 2015 for $45,000 and started fixing it up. They had to essentially gut the house and remake the interior.
They had fixed it up enough to host a gathering several weeks ago, on Christmas, with 30 members of the family, many of whom looked in wonder at what they did to the place. It still needs work, including some fixes on the roof, but it’s close to being where they want it.
“They restored it and made it look like it used to, they’ve done a wonderful job on it,” said Wheeler Little, whose great uncle built the house. “I would have rather seen them have it than anybody.”
Ngongang’s son, Decker Ngongang, 36, said he has watched the home take shape and is in awe of the project his mother and aunts and uncles have undertaken.
“They are on the land where they used to pick cotton,” said Decker Ngongang. “I recognize the significance of that, they recognize the significance of that.”
Ngongang said she realizes it might seem strange that she and her family would want to return to the place where they suffered so much.
“Do we have bad memories? Of course we have bad memories,” she said. “You can’t get a rose without thorns.”
But her voice broke with emotion as she talked about her brother’s joy at returning to the property where the family so carefully and diligently tended to the fields. She said buying the house has been “therapeutic” for the whole family.
“My brother looked across the fields and said, ‘I have to contain myself, I have to smile to keep from crying,’” she said.