The Life of a Summerton Sharecropper

by | March 2, 2018 9:12 pm

Last Updated: March 2, 2018 at 4:20 pm

Jim McKnight, a Matoaca resident of six years who came to the area from South Carolina, began a quest years ago to map out his family tree. One of the biggest branches on that tree was his grandfather, Willie Holliday Sr., who died in 2004 at the age of 112, making him one of the oldest men in the country at the time. McKnight decided that the story of his grandfather warranted a book.

With the help of a genealogist, McKnight eventually completed the story, titled “My Story of a Sharecropper’s Life”.

“You can’t find another story like this,” said McKnight. “I was amazed to find out the things he did.”

Holliday was born in 1893 in Summerton, South Carolina. His parents were both slaves who had been freed when the Confederacy was defeated. Like many African Americans who had just been freed, Holliday’s family were sharecroppers, in a system where farmers would grow crops on a landowner’s property in exchange for a portion of the harvest.

Holliday, who resided in Summerton for most of his life, was a lifelong sharecropper, where he would grow crops on a landowner’s property in exchange for a portion of the harvest. Though this was a common occupation for many African Americans in the years after slavery, Holliday kept at it for many years after it was common.

“He showed how sharecropping was a form of entrepreneurship,” said McKnight.

Holliday also raised many children and grandchildren while sharecropping.

“He raised me until I was 16,” said McKnight. “He managed to raise 10 children and outlive everyone.”

The book details Holliday’s life using stories from many of his relatives, in addition to help from old records and friends.

The genealogist who helped McKnight was Sahara Bowser, who in addition to being a genealogist, is a retired historian. Bowser was contacted by McKnight, and was intrigued by the story of Willie Holliday.

“I thought it was an interesting topic and that’s why I took it on,” she said.

Using various databases like and old census records, Bowser helped piece together McKnight’s family tree going back to 1810. The process can be tricky especially for families whose descendants were slaves.

“For my own immediate family, I couldn’t go back that far because slaves aren’t listed by name until the 1870 census,” said Bowser. “All you had was that someone owned slaves: it only said 30 males, or 50 females.”

McKnight was in part driven to tell his family history because, as Bowser said, it can be very difficult for descendants of slaves to find out their family history.

“If you do a survey on black families who have a family tree, you wouldn’t find many,” he said. “I wrote the book to put together his family history, so that the youth have something for the rest of their lives.

The book is available on Amazon. McKnight noted that he was surprised by the amount of interest in his grandfather’s story.

“Once I wrote it, I realized how big the story was, and people are really responding to it,” he said.

John Adam may be reached at or 804-722-5172.

comments » 7

  1. Comment by Pastor Myra Pearson

    March 4, 2018 at 10:14

    Congrats on your book.

  2. Comment by Moye Graham

    March 6, 2018 at 07:58

    I can’t wait to read it. I know it will be interesting.

  3. Comment by Mattie M. Lawson

    March 6, 2018 at 10:26

    I am looking forward to reading your book.

  4. Comment by Greg Pearson

    March 6, 2018 at 12:04

    UNCLE Willie Holliday is my grandfather’s brother on my mother side Shirlean-Holliday Pearson

  5. Comment by Mosetta Witherspoon

    March 6, 2018 at 15:31

    I was so happy too read this information about uncle Willie Holiday, who was my mother’s father brother. Elli Holiday was the father of my mother who was Shirley Holiday-Gibson.

  6. Comment by Sheri Holliday

    March 7, 2018 at 06:02

    This is my family- I would love a copy of this book. My father The late James Ilex Holliday was related to him too.

  7. Comment by Dorothy Guest

    March 10, 2018 at 20:41

    James: Are you related to Charlotte McKnight? Who would be a Doughty by birth. And would you know Ruby Guest Salley?

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