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Black South Carolina Family Goes From Cotton Sharecroppers to Farm-Owners

Black Sharecroppers

The Giles/Ngongang family pose in front of the restored Wheeler Home. (Photo by Decker Ngongang)

After years of arduous sharecropping and earning next to nothing for their work, a South Carolina woman said her family was finally able to pool their money together to purchase the farmhouse they’d always dreamed of.

Dorothy Ngongang, 72, said she and her nine siblings grew up as sharecroppers, picking cotton for a white family in the small town of Jonesville during the 1950’s and 1960s. Her family of 12 stayed in a two-room shack where they slept on grass-stuffed slacks and her siblings were allowed just one pair of clothes at a time, according to The Washington Post.

As the family toiled away in the fields, Ngongang said she, her brothers and sisters would often admire the large farmhouse across the road, one replete with bright white paint and a grand wraparound porch. The land and home did not belong to the family Ngongang had worked for, but to their well-off white neighbors, the Wheelers.

“It was a mansion to us,” Ngongang, who now lives in Charlotte, said of that house. “We thought it was beautiful.”

She said the Wheelers daughters were playmates of theirs, detailing how they would spend hours frolicking in the fields or sometimes playing under the porch.

“They were kind even then when there were white people who were not kind,” Ngongang told The Washington Post, recalling the long summer days playing with the Wheeler girls. “There were some cruel things, but they were never that type of family … They treated us as next-door neighbors and as friends.”

Over the years, Ngongang and her family managed to work their way out of poverty, with many of them going on to earn professional, collegiate degrees. Ngongang herself earned a Bachelors of Science in Biology from Mars Hill College in 1969 and later graduated with a master’s in teaching from Indiana University in 1972. Her daughter is also a medical doctor.

“I felt I wasn’t going to be there picking cotton my whole life,” the former teacher said of her humble beginnings where her family survived on what she called a slave diet and she and her siblings were forced to miss school for months at a time to work the fields. ” … I thought, ‘No, I can’t do this — not with the pain of living the way we lived.'”

In 2015, Ngongang, who was keeping busy with family and teaching, said she received an unexpected phone call. It was her childhood playmate Peggy Wheeler McKinney who grew up in the house with the wraparound porch. She had called her friend to tell her the family was selling the farmhouse but offered to sell it to Ngongang first, if interested.

“…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,” McKinney, 65, told the newspaper. “I called them and asked them if they’d be interested in buying it. To me, it was like keeping it in the family.”

Ngongang petitioned her brother and sister who she thought might be interested and the three decided to purchase the property for $45,000 in April 2015. The home was a fixer-upper and had to be gutted to restore its interior.

The house was fixed up enough for the family to have a Christmas gathering last month, with 30 members of Ngongang’s family stopping by to see the refurbished home. For her, things had finally come full circle for her family.

“I never visualized owning that house,” she said. “Nobody in the family — they never visualized sitting on the porch and rocking.”

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