In the mid-1800s, Samuel Winstead owned nearly 70 slaves, putting them to work on the rolling farmland of his plantation, just a few miles south of downtown Franklin. After his death, the former slaves became the unlikely owners of the property, thanks in part to provisions in their late owner’s will. Winstead’s aggrieved family claimed that the land belonged to them, but the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in favor of the former slaves.
Freddie Haddox, a divinity student at Vanderbilt University, is a direct descendent of the enslaved men and women who once tilled Winstead’s land. For the last 50 years, his stepfather has farmed the property. He had a dairy herd, beef cows and also grew tobacco. Now with his stepfather ailing, Haddox and his family sit on 190 acres of prime, raw property, where developers would love to build another exclusive Williamson County subdivision, the kind with iron gates, a plush golf course, backyard decks and two-car garages. But Haddox and his family don’t plan to sell. After all, this farmland with cattle, goats and wild turkeys strutting along a meandering creek has a value beyond money.
“This land is sacred, and a great price was paid for it with their blood,” Haddox says of his ancestors. “I don’t want to give it to people who have no love for the land and love only money.”
In the fall of 2001, while a first-year divinity student at Vanderbilt, Haddox enthusiastically regaled his fellow classmates during breakfast with a seemingly farfetched plan he had for his land. With just a handful of seeds and only a portion of the land that he maintains, they could easily grow fruits and vegetables, he said, using mainly organic methods. Then, they could take their harvest and offer it to the poor. A one-time medical student at Michigan State University who had to drop out to care for his ailing son, Haddox has long believed that “good food is good medicine.”
While Haddox, 55, was making his pitch, classmate William Connelly, a graduate of Montgomery Bell Academy, was hoping to eat alone with his bagel and coffee. Just a few months into the school year, Connelly, 24, spent his time going to class, studying, writing and not much else. He hadn’t really taken what he learned in class and applied it. And he struggled with that.
After he finished his coffee and bagel, Connelly approached Haddox about the idea. It was probably idle conversation at first, but what Haddox had to say stuck in Connelly’s mind for months. A student of liberation theology, which basically holds that God has a preference for the oppressed, Connelly did some research and began to realize that this was exactly the kind of social justice project that he’d studied in the classroom. Putting his academic skills to good use, Connelly read about organic farming, studied census reports and talked to hunger relief groups. And he became convinced that, unlike many things that graduate students talk about over coffee, this was not something that merely sounded goodit could actually work.
Today, Connelly is just months away from moving to Haddox’s property and working as a farm hand. From April to October, he’ll be living there, pitching a tent at night, trying to sustain himself on a couple of thousand dollars a year. It’s an odd career choice for the son of an accountant from Green Hills, but then again Connelly always knew he didn’t want a conventional suburban life.
“I guess I don’t have the same values my father has,” Connelly says. “I’ve seen people with jobs they don’t like, and I don’t want that.”
The “Just Crumbs Hunger Relief Initiative” will be born on about 3 acres of the Franklin property, using mainly organic methods. As the project continues, they hope to expand their crops, with the dream of one day growing enough food to feed people far beyond Tennessee. Without using pesticides or herbicides, they plan to plant tomatoes, peppers, peas and soybeans, and possibly carrots, potatoes and a whole lot more. Then they’ll sell what they grow at prices far below market value to poor people in the area. Haddox, Connelly and a host of volunteers will hawk their produce at church parking lots and other public spaces, where they will arrange to have free cholesterol screenings and nutritionists available to anyone who needs it.
“We just think it’s a basic right to have nutritional food,” Connelly says. About his own awareness of this issue, he adds, “Growing up in Green Hills, hunger issues are just not on the forefront. You don’t think what it’s like to be hungry and how it affects your everyday functioning.”
After writing letters to various foundations, Connelly has raised a paltry $2,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. He hopes to raise $10,000 by April so he can fence the 3-acre parcel, buy farm equipment and give himself a modest stipend. He’s now taking a composting class and finishing his master’s in theological studies. Meanwhile, his father, who wasn’t exactly thrilled initially with his son’s first career move, has come around, providing pro bono accounting help to the fledgling nonprofit. It’s been a learning experience for everyone.
“It’s going to be difficult,” says Emily Nourse, Connelly’s girlfriend and fellow divinity student, who will be providing public relations help for the venture. “We’ve heard from farmers how difficult farming is. We’re sure there will be some failures, but we’re hoping for the best.”
After graduating from Montgomery Bell Academy, Connelly attended the University of Rochester, where, as an act of youthful insurrection against his fundamentalist upbringing, he studied all different kinds of religions. Rather than being encouraged to become a sandal-wearing coffee house poet, that course of study instead coaxed a zeal for social activism. Connelly became especially interested in the action-oriented works of Gustavo Gutierrez, the so-called father of liberation theology. He also learned a great deal from a radical Catholic priest, who wasn’t above bribing public officials if that meant helping out some poor guy.
“For the first time, theology became practical to me,” he says. “This was something that could be applied to the real world. It was tied to action.”
Like his classmate, Haddox is no mere academic. After nearly two decades in the Navy, where he worked as a health care specialist, he now hopes to receive his master’s degree in divinity from Vanderbilt. Then he plans to work as a counselor for cancer patients and their families. His wife is a schoolteacher.
After years of studying religion, both formally and informally, Haddox became almost obsessed with the notion that land was more than a commodity. It is, or can be, a public trust. That’s why, despite receiving more than one offer a week to part with this hot piece of real estate, Haddox won’t even consider it. “The Indians were willing to give up their life for the land because they understood that it was alive,” Haddox says. “You can’t own the land. You can only be a steward of it.”
Naturally, Haddox is thrilled that he found a farmhand in Connelly. The two make an unlikely pairHaddox, a middle-aged black man, and Connelly, a privileged young product of a patrician education. But the two work well together, both focused on the same strong, simple vision that, starting from this 3-acre plot, they will one day reap much more than they have sowed.
“I can’t do this all by myself,” Haddox says. “I need somebody younger to help me. Will and I share this hope that we can feed one person, then one day make a big dent in the hunger problem. Hopefully, in the long run, we can make a global difference.”
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