Letter From Monticello

By Lise Funderburg

Savoy magazine
February 2001

As I drive East along Georgia’s Route16, heading toward my father’s hometown of Monticello, kudzu druids loom at the highway’s edge. My rental car windshield frames tin roofs, baled hay and unpaved red clay roads. At the Piggly Wiggly in Jackson, I bear left, cross the railroad tracks and start looking for the Ocmulgee River, my next landmark. An Atlanta radio station plays a slow piano concerto. Its melancholy fills the car and mixes with the air-conditioning, a breathy, languorous soundtrack.

I have been coming to Monticello since childhood, but never for long or on my own. Usually I travel under my father’s wing, flanked by my two sisters and carried along by the reputation of my grandfather, a country doctor who also became a farmer (perhaps, my father speculates, because so many patients paid with livestock). And even though my father and his four siblings were raised in Monticello, and my grandfather (who passed in 1987) is still considered one of the town’s upstanding citizens, I feel like a stranger here.

On this maiden solo visit, I have to lean in to understand the editor of the town newspaper, ask my uncle to repeat himself, and count on context and body language with my father’s friend Bubba. They all lean in toward me, too, my angled Northern speech a series of jerks and abrupt turns. Beyond what they say, though, I often wonder what they mean. A person’s race, for example, never actually has to be mentioned to be understood. Is it a tonal shift I can’t pick up? The consequence of a shared geography and history, common to Southern towns with populations numbering fewer than 3,000? Say a family name (the white Bentons, Kellys, Jordans; the black Tinsleys, Johnsons, Funderburgs) and it bespeaks generations of widely known relationships and economies, kindnesses and cruelties, nearness and distance all coinciding with an ease that I–from a big Northern city, from a Civil Rights Movement childhood, and with a full set of white relatives (starting with my mother)–can’t easily translate. In Monticello, the Ku Klux Klan is not some abstract threat. It is an uncle here, a cousin there. As a child, I loved secret languages: But where is the decoder ring now?

I also don’t fully understand–but have come in search of–what pulls so deeply in my father, what prompted him to buy this farm after he retired in 1985, to spend autumns on it and to sneak in weekends whenever he can although, like me, he lives in Philadelphia. Fifty years after moving away from his hometown, he can’t spend enough time here. I’m not absolutely certain, but my theory is that although he is one of those men who retired with a vengeance after long years of relentless toil, working the land is the only job he’s ever truly desired–and possibly still does.
My father, George Funderburg, spent most of his life as a working man. At 10, he packed peaches. Now those orchards are gone, replaced with pine forests, cattle pastures, and, increasingly, defunct farms broken down into five-acre tracts for new homes (which, in just the last five years, have exceeded all the new housing construction of the last four decades). My father’s parents sent him to Atlanta at 15 for a better education than he could get at the colored school–so second-rate that even its walls were castoffs, built from the detritus of the demolished white high school. During his subsequent and brief tenure as a Morehouse College student (“I was asked to leave,” he’ll say now, “on invitation of the dean”), he waited tables in a Chinese restaurant and worked a dry cleaning concession. He went on to mop floors at his uncle’s cafe in Alabama and had a short-lived career as a poultryman during World War II. (“It was a failure,” he remembers. “I knew how to feed and water chickens, but not how to make them grow. Also,” he says, with gasping laughter rising up that eventually will render him breathless and speechless, “people started stealing them.”) Over the next few years, he waited tables on cruise ships sailing between Detroit and Cleveland; sold cookbooks and storm windows door-to-door; shortened his Korean War duty by spending nine months on the front lines; harvested tobacco in Connecticut; and finally settled into a prosperous career in real estate, building a company now run by his stepson. He speaks of these jobs with no ardor or nostalgia, just the matter-of-fact reporting of a past that is gladly gone.

Not so with farming. My father, now 74, who’s never had a hobby that I know of, can study the county agent’s pamphlets endlessly. He built a cattle chute based on one such publication, and its efficiency in holding cows for worming or tagging has prompted visits from the curious and admiring. His childhood friend, Alfred Johnson, remembers my father calling when he bought the farm. “Bubba,” my father said, using Alfred’s nickname. “Bubba,” he said, “I bought a pig in a sack.” (I have to ask Bubba what that means when he comes to visit me. “It’s when you don’t know what you’ve just bought,” he explains.)

“Your daddy loves dirt,” says Larry Lynch, one of the local people my father has befriended since his return to Monticello. Lynch, who’s white, is a lawyer, but his heart, too, is in the family farm that he and his brother share and that he claims he’ll work the rest of his life to support. “Your dad loves farming so much, it’s pitiful,” Lynch says, with the empathy of a fellow addict.
Seven miles after the Ocmulgee, I turn onto Fellowship Road, which borders my father’s farm. The cattle gate is closed, as it should be, and cows loll about the northern pasture. The cows belong to the twins, Albert and Elbert Howard, with whom my dad has struck a deal, bartering farm upkeep for a portion of their rent. Scuppernongs and muscadines are lush and thick with grapes, defying the summer’s drought. Starting tonight, Troy Johnson, Alfred’s younger brother, will preside over three days of pick-your-own, a strategy for putting to use fruit that would otherwise rot on the vine. Maybe Troy will earn enough to cover his time, but expectations, as with every venture here, are humble. After all, my father doesn’t farm for profit. The goal, and this is fairly tenuous, is to lose as little money as possible.

My father has wanted to be a farmer since he was a boy, and this 126-acre tract of pastures, forest, and pecan grove is part homecoming, part folly and part social justice laboratory. When he hires people to work on the farm, every transaction is calculated for its impact on both individual and community. The wage he pays for cleaning his fence line of trash is intentionally higher than bag-packers earn at the new vast supermarket just around the bend. When Dad decided to build a house, he also decided that any party he ever held in it would be integrated, something that still causes a stir. I don’t want to shake hands with the known racists; my father invites them to his home. He donated land he inherited in town for the establishment of a city park but made sure the project’s backers would be white and black (even though the site is in a still-all-black section of town–a section some white supporters have never driven through).

My father’s breaking ground, but it’s ground his father worked before him. Frederick Douglas Funderburg came to Monticello in 1922, straight out of Meharry, to take over the practice of the aging colored physician, Dr. Turner. It was meant to be short-term; instead, Grandaddy spent his career here, ministering to black folk throughout the county and his neighbors up on Colored Folks’ Hill. He also helped other blacks register to vote, collected funds to build the county’s first integrated hospital–its first hospital of any sort–and treated white patients during the 1938 flu epidemic, integrating his practice from that point on. When my grandfather took over the Masons’ building for an office, he circumvented Jim Crow by furnishing his office waiting room with identical sets of furniture on each side, down to the flowers in the vases. Wherever the first patient chose to sit each morning determined the pattern for that day. Not every problem allowed for such a passive solution. My grandmother was forbidden to shop in town, lest she be insulted, forcing Grandaddy–a loyal and proud man–to retaliate or to pack up and leave.
The more time my father spends in Monticello, the more his language changes (or finds its way home?). Consequently, my sister Margaret and I have been perfecting our “Honeybaby” imitation. It must be delivered with a Southern accent, no trace of our father’s 52 years in Philadelphia. The tone is patient but edged with a slight exasperation that comes out in a harumph. We’ve isolated two interactions that prompt its use. The first is asking farming questions that are to him too obvious to imagine. Will a cow come if called by name? “Honeybaby, maybe if it’s the only cow in the field.” The second prompt is suggesting some project around the farm that would demand his manual labor. “Honeybaby, I’m too old to work that hard.”

Indeed, my father farms primarily by phone. His hands are big but soft, not like Bubba’s. Bubba, now 79, stayed in Monticello and married his high school sweetheart, a beautiful and sharp-minded woman named Bertha Kate. For the first few years of the farm, before Bubba’s health declined some, he was the overseer–something that, in their day, black men never were and something Dad had painted on the sign at the farm’s entrance. Alfred Johnson, Overseer. Dad would call Bubba from Philadelphia with some idea–building a pond or baling hay–and ask Bubba to implement it, setting up a bank account so he could be the one to write checks when the work was done. “We had a good time,” Bubba says to me now from across the farmhouse’s kitchen table. “A good time.” I understand what he’s saying. I understand, and it fills and it breaks my heart.