The Afterlives of the “Free State of Jones”

July 21, 2016   •   By Susan Gillman

“[THE HILL FARMERS of Lebanon] hate slavery and slaveowners almost as much as they hate Yankees […] Most of them were against slavery […] but virtually all of them hated Negroes […] They knew that they were white slaves to a system they didn’t understand, so they hated the Negro.” — James Street, Tap Roots (1942)

“We can’t boast of our ancestors because, when we get started talking about our families, out jumps the ghost of a pirate or a cousin of color.” — Tap Roots (1942)


Free State of Jones takes its name from a dissident Mississippi county during the Civil War. The film’s central figure, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), was the leader of the renegade county, a small farmer who owned no slaves, had two families — one with a white wife, the other with his grandfather’s former slave — and worked his land with his own white and black offspring. His racial views as well as his Civil War record and political activities under Reconstruction are all unclear, hard to establish with any certainty because most of his biography comes to us through his white son’s sometimes unreliable 1935 account. This much is known definitively: In fall 1863, in Jones County, Mississippi, Confederate deserters led by Knight organized an anti-Confederate guerrilla band that eventually dominated the county. In July 1864, the Natchez Courier reported that Jones County had seceded from the Confederacy. After the war, Knight worked with the state Republican Party supporting the Freedmen’s Bureau, and a small mixed-race community of so-called “white Negroes” or “Knight Negroes” was ultimately established in Soso, southeastern Mississippi.

The film, which takes on this obscure history of political and sexual interracial alliance, has been lauded for its historical accuracy and the rigor of director Gary Ross’s research. Ross treats his charged subject matter with a respect bordering on reverence for historical responsibility. The film uses extensive explanatory intertitles to identify the date and place of scene locations, starting with the standard, “Based on actual events in Jones County, Mississippi — 1862 to 1876.” Plus, Ross provides an elaborate website, a “Companion Reader,” documenting the film’s major scenes with footnotes that link to all the sources that he used in the screenplay.

Written by Ross, the website announces its aim up front — “Some things need to be invented in a movie, but most things in Jones were not. I think it’s only right that you be able to tell which was which” — and it proceeds earnestly to explain the logic of the film’s adaptation process: “to footnote, substantiate, and justify” both the “literal incidents and the fictionalized,” always adhering to “real facts about the era,” “faithful to the larger history of the period […] scrupulously faithful to what happened in the period.” Finally, a total of nine “Historical Consultants” are listed in the film credits, including Eric Foner, the major historian of Reconstruction after W. E. B. Du Bois (whose 1935 Black Reconstruction is one of the film’s sources) and Martha Hodes, a feminist scholar of interracial sexual relations in the US South, as well as Texas State University professor emerita Victoria Bynum and Harvard scholar John Stauffer, two historians known for their academic squabble over Newt Knight (Was he a religiously inspired antislavery warrior à la John Brown, or a thoroughgoing hill country small farmer who rejected slavery as economic stupidity?). It is unusual for a feature film to go to such lengths to document itself, in order not only to head off accusations of excessive Hollywood fictionalizing but also, ultimately, to authorize film as history.

It is surprising, then, to see what all those reverent, earnest footnotes omit: other, earlier artistic and scholarly treatments of the same historical event and of the figure at its center. Most notably absent are James Street’s best-selling 1942 novel Tap Roots and the 1948 film of the same name (directed by George Marshall, starring Susan Hayward, Van Heflin, and Boris Karloff). Now largely forgotten, Street was a Baptist preacher, entertainer, and the author of a series of historical novels published in the 1940s and centered on the Dabney family (loosely based on the Knights) of Lebanon, Mississippi, set between 1794 and 1896. Street’s Lebanon, his own Yoknapatawpha, is based on Laurel, Mississippi, where he grew up, the center of which became known as the Free State of Jones. The film of Street’s Tap Roots was panned by the critics, who compared it unfavorably to his novel. The New York Times review of the film from August 26, 1948, was particularly critical of its sensational depiction of “doomed” historical material:

Checking the accuracy of historical detail in Tap Roots, the romanticized Civil War drama […] presented yesterday at Loew’s Criterion, would serve no special purpose. All that matters is that in this mass of Technicolor film Van Heflin makes violent love to Susan Hayward (and vice versa) and men die gaudily and resentfully for a cause doomed from the start. […] Moreover, we gather from persons familiar with the James Street novel which inspired the film that the author originally spun a lively tale about dynamic, individualistic personalities. […] It might be remarked in passing that the picture also dies a slow, lingering death.


Little of this history makes it into the current conversation. The credits for Free State of Jones don’t even include the standard one-line acknowledgment of Street’s novel. The 2016 film is based on Ross’s research rather than Street’s novel, and, in a twist on the usual book-to-movie formula, historian John Stauffer’s 2009 book was inspired by the screenplay. The film tells the story of Newt Knight and his renegade “Company” by periodically fast-forwarding from the Civil War-Reconstruction period to “85 years later,” when Knight's progeny was the defendant in a 1948 miscegenation trial and — perhaps more importantly, though it remains undepicted in the film — when there was a serious resurgence of interest in Knight’s life (by way of James Street) and a broader historical reassessment of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction in popular and academic media.

Street was one of a larger, generally better known group of writers working on revisionist histories of Reconstruction, long viewed as a failed experiment in extending political and civil rights to the ex-slaves. This was not the usual, US-centric history of civil rights — the legal struggle over race relations at home — but something different, hemispheric, comparative, and translingual. Hallmark texts from this revisionist period include Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America (1935), C. L. R. James’s Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936). But two relative unknowns also merit mention: Street, with his five historical novels set in Mississippi, and W. Adolphe Roberts, a Jamaican nationalist living in New York City who authored his own historical series set in 1840s, ’60s, and ’80s New Orleans. Both Street and Roberts ended their epics in Cuba. Roberts’s The Single Star: A Novel of Cuba in the ’90s (1949) centers on the role of expatriate Jamaican-American planters in the Spanish-American War and features an epigraph from José Martí, the Cuban patriot-poet martyred in the conflict, while Street’s Mingo Dabney (1950) has his American hero crossing paths with Martí himself in 1895.

The singular focus on historical accuracy that characterizes Ross’s website — what happened then (to the 1860s actors) and now (by way of the 2010s historians) — fails to fill out what happened in between: the longer history of adaptations, both popular and academic, literary and filmic, of the Jones State, slavery and the Civil War. It is as though there is nothing between the film and the original event that it represents, this despite the film’s intercutting with the 1940s, the very period when so many other works of literature and film were inspired by the history of the US South.


To get a sense of the charged context in which the transnational histories of 1930s and ’40s were launched, we need look no further than the famous penultimate chapter of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, “Back Toward Slavery”:

The unending tragedy of Reconstruction is the utter inability of the American mind to grasp its […] national and worldwide implications […] We are still too blind and infatuated to conceive of the emancipation of the laboring class in half the nation as a revolution comparable to the upheavals in France in the past, and in Russia, Spain, India and China today.

Three years later, James began his Black Jacobins by relating the state of his English suburb of Brighton during the Spanish Civil War to the revolutionary history of Haiti in the late 1790s–early 1800s. He superimposed both histories onto the then-coming decolonization of Africa, Cuba, and finally the West Indies. Du Bois and James took different transnational routes to what they signaled as alternative histories of “black” Reconstruction and the “black” Jacobins. In doing so, they established the dominant feature of the 1930s–’40s historical reassessment of slavery as transnational, anticolonial, and historicist.

While Du Bois and James are well-known, celebrated activist-artists, the work of both Roberts and Street deserves a modest revival. They were a rarity — cosmopolitan locals and writers of historical fiction with a hemispheric sweep in the radical tradition of Du Bois and James. In contrast to the small world of Margaret Mitchell’s Tara and Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, inflated to epic proportions on the big screen, they told a history of slavery and emancipation in the United States that reached back before the nation’s founding and extended beyond its eventual continental borders to the Caribbean.

Street’s series starts with Oh, Promised Land (1940), set in Georgia and Mississippi from 1795 until some years after the Louisiana Purchase. His novel dramatizes the conflict over land, goods, and slaves among the indigenous Creeks, the English, French, and “American” colonials. Meanwhile, Roberts tells the sweeping story of a Creole family fleeing the Haitian revolution, like so many of the Caribbean master class, going from Saint-Domingue to Cuba and the United States. Roberts’s novels follow the triumphs and tragedies (mostly the latter) across three generations of Creole protagonists embroiled in nationalist schemes with transnational, multilingual, and cross-racial underpinnings.

Both under-sung writers documented the politics of race and language intertwined, drawing attention to the multiple languages other than English that were spoken in the Americas through the mid-20th century. Place and proper names provided especially potent evidence for their translingual, transnational histories. Roberts riffed on streets in New Orleans, successively named in French and English; Street credited the patriarch of his series, Sam Dabney, father of Hoab, the Knight-like hero of Tap Roots, with insisting on a Choctaw name for Mississippi: “Most folks have forgotten that […] the real name is Misha Sipokni and it means ‘This land is so old that its age is beyond reckoning.’”

The Dabney family politics span the many contradictions and ideological divides of being Southerners against slavery. Sam is not a slave owner, but he made his money by trading slaves as he did other goods, a reminder of what historians today call the intercolonial slave trade. He’s against slavery because “it’s stupid economically.” Meanwhile, Hoab, modeled on Newt Knight, is a “martyr,” who would walk in “the Roman arena [and] run into the maws of the cannon for his convictions, right or wrong.” But both father and son despise John Brown (“a fool” whose “Yankee bullet will mold the south into a clan — slavers, abolitionists, rich and poor”) and work to protect the adopted Cajun daughter Kyd from knowledge of her “Moorish” blood, fearing that the one-drop will taint her reputation, as it constantly threatens to do with them. The politics of race and miscegenation in this 1940s literature of the Global South are as nuanced and transnational in scope as the 2016 film might have been.


As a group of unlikely bedfellows, these earlier writers (of them, only Du Bois is included in the film’s sources) actively participated in, and were shaped by, a history of pre- and postwar struggles over racial equality, national self-determination, and anti-colonialism. Their work, including that of Faulkner, rejects Margaret Mitchell’s hermetically sealed South in favor of an extended Gulf-Caribbean. These earlier oceanic accounts provide models for adapting intensely local histories through a transnational historical consciousness. In them, the South emerges as a node in overlapping systems of circulating people and goods — one stretching up the Mississippi River, another reaching across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and Africa, a third spreading across the Gulf of Mexico to Havana, Port-au-Prince, and Panama.

By neglecting these histories and historical literary adaptations, Ross’s film asserts historical accuracy where the story is by no means clear. Applied uncritically and as a singular metric, historical fidelity can be a straitjacket constricting rather than liberating the past, flattening it with reverence and awe. Or, as Du Bois put it: “Our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and […] [s]lavery appears to have been thrust upon unwilling helpless America.” Moreover, the film’s scope reinforces the intranational, liberal account of the Civil War and Reconstruction, which these earlier writers suggested underwrote colonialism at home and abroad.

In search of historical accuracy, Ross’s explanatory text becomes intrusive — increasingly so in the final hour of the film, which is set during Reconstruction. Assuming that few viewers know much about this period in US history, the film provides information via didactic intertitles. “June 1865. The war over, freedmen cultivate their own plots of land for the first time.” Then, “3 months later […] 40 acres and a mule,” then “they took it back.” The 14th Amendment is read aloud by Moses, Newt’s fictional black buddy and lieutenant, who is eventually lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, becoming another of the film’s many male bodies hanging in trees, this time with pants around the ankles, suggesting the castration and mutilation that were a routine part of the Klan’s regime of racial terror. (Du Bois describes seeing the knuckles of one victim in an Atlanta store window as the moment when he came up against the limits of historical accuracy: “one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved.”)

In short, the film means well, but it is always on the verge of being overwhelmed by its own didactic impulse, its obsessive fidelity to historical detail. The black-and-white stills that visually mark the end of the Civil War, for example, seem to echo and talk back to the famous “Historical Facsimiles” that punctuate D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation. But there’s no way to be sure, since the film’s “Companion Reader” doesn’t comment on these predecessors — unlike, say, Ridley Scott’s companion books to Gladiator (2000) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005), both of which list earlier filmic adaptations as well as original sources.

Filling out the adaptation history allows us not only to trace when the Free State of Jones — and the slavery-emancipation complex it locates — reemerges in popular and academic culture, but also to speculate on the changing socio-historical conditions that make it visible. This is a different kind of speculation from Ross’s take-away on Newt Knight: “We are left to speculate, but to do so responsibly,” he says on the website. Instead, this speculative dimension, attuned to but not limited by the standards of historical accuracy, would explore not only the event itself but also the representations, historical and literary, of the event over time. Du Bois is known for including in his annotated bibliography for Black Reconstruction a variety of sources, not only works of historians but also memoirs, travel writing, and even fiction, notably novels by the Reconstruction judge Albion Tourgée. And while Du Bois divides his bibliography into categories based on racial ideology (“Standard — Anti-Negro,” “Fair to Indifferent on the Negro”), he does not distinguish among the validity of sources by genre, interweaving novels and reminiscences with works of history.

Episodes such as the Free State of Jones or Reconstruction itself, what historian Eric Foner (one of the film’s nine consultants) calls “America’s unfinished revolution,” are by their very untimeliness — their state as uncompleted projects — especially ripe for historical adaptation. Each of the afterlives keeps alive the original event in new form, shaped by the imperatives of the present. In examining the history of adaptations, we not only recover lost perspectives but also, perhaps, find a past pointing to a future that’s different from what we thought we knew.

Unlike Free State of Jones, which views the histories of the intercolonial slave trade, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the lens of one end point — the struggle for civil rights in the United States — Street, Roberts, Du Bois, and James looked through a comparative prism, placing what are often seen as regional or national histories in their transnational contexts. They used the “splendid failures” (Du Bois’s term for Reconstruction, which one could just as easily apply to the Free State of Jones) of the past to imagine, predict, and enact new futures. Both the Free State and Reconstruction exist in a constellation of “unfinished revolutions” that reappear at critical historical conjunctures, serving as harbingers of social change we may be ready to take on once again.


Susan Gillman teaches at UC Santa Cruz and is working on a book on the strange career of the term “American Mediterranean.”