Leadership Tools from the Peanut Field: A Southern Woman’s History, Legacy and Lessons


The leaders: My late mother and granmother

My hometown of Waverly Virginia sits adjacent to an area known as the “Peanut Capital of the World.”  Many businesses and jobs were based on the growth as well as the extraction of this crop in the 1940’s through1960’s, especially the few jobs available for poor black folks.  My late grandmother, mother and uncles were a part of this enterprise, chopping in the peanut fields during the summer.  Though I missed out on that character building and labor intensive experience, they’ve shared enough stories about the hot sun, low pay and long days to give me a feel for that erstwhile endeavor.  All day long they slowly chopped and tended, hoes or other tools saddled on their backs. With straw hats pulled down tight for shade, and water jars close by to quench the steady thirst, they met the physical and physiological challenges of working the land.

            The deed owner of these peanut fields assigned each chopper a section of rows as part of their daily workload, of which none were exactly alike. Some rows were longer than others. Other crops were tougher to uproot. My mother told me they often looked up and saw what lay ahead and thought, “you sure got a long and tough row to hoe.”  Tiring and overwhelming feelings engulfed them at that point. Uncertainty of the future and resignation to this temporary lot rested in their minds. The magnitude and demands could be easily discouraging.
            In spite of the nature of their work, my grandmother, mother and uncles toiled on faithfully.  Because employment options were limited, they “had to do what they had to do.” Bills had to be paid and food bought, so life’s chores must be done.  They often worked side by side and shouted words of encouragement grounded in our Southern dialect to each other.  “Keep chopping’ chile.”  “Things gon’ get better.”  “Ain’t nothing wrong with hard work.” “There’s a bright side somewhere.” And through all of this, they additionally found ways to humor each other by teasing each other’s chopping techniques while “staying their course”. Ownership of themselves focused their steps and stoops. They weren’t legal deed owners at the time, but they worked the land to meet family responsibilities; and this effort got their best.
            Pearl Parker, my maternal grandmother, as a more experienced chopper often gave her children tips on what to do to conquer those difficult rows. She knew the strategy was in how you worked the tools. “If you dig your hoe in this way, or angle it slightly, this tough crop can be uprooted.” Attitude and pacing were important to my grandmother too. “Take a look at the row as you approach it and lay out your plan. “Don’t let this stuff be the boss of you.” “Use some of those tools in your pocket to loosen up the soil a bit.” Years of working and living had provided her with some common sense proven ways to cope and yielded words of advice in rough times.  In spite of a seemingly powerless situation, she took ownership. My grandmother was a role model, a leader.
Dealing with the overwhelming nature of life and its enterprises then or today along with its demands requires good leadership. The right tools and skills are essential, to lead yourself and others. Encouragement and validation can come from unlikely places while keeping us chopping away at our own challenges.  Good role models are needed and when you don’t have one, you cut a mold based on what life’s lessons have taught you. Each situation or row of our journey in this land is different and calls for a combination of abilities, resources and strategies. Also we must not be afraid to give voice to ourselves, confidently articulate our merits, and to share our stories of success.
            The landowner of the peanut fields probably never told my grandmother she’d done a good job. He probably wasn’t aware of how she led and motivated her children. But she knew her best was being done for her family and children, so she kept chopping anyway. And so do I.

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About Deborah L. Parker

Deborah L. Parker is a sought after speaker on issues of leadership, personal development, career management, communications and diversity through her company The DPJ Training Group. She has also written on these topics for business publications in the Metropolitan DC and Phoenix AZ communities. Deborah is the author of 5 non-fiction books on life choices, workplace problem-solving, leadership and career management to include a well-received motivational memoir, Navigating Life’s Roadways: Stories of Insight from My Odyssey and Inspiration for Your Journey, which chronicles her setbacks and successes around work, family, culture and relationship issues. She holds a B.A. in Sociology from The College of William and Mary and M.A. in Human Resource Development from George Mason University. Deborah gleans learnings from her varied careers as an Army officer as well as in corporate operations and human resources positions with ExxonMobil and Booz Allen Hamilton to cement her presentations. She is a member of the Loudoun County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Chamber of Commerce and Metro DC Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development.

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