The Kingdom of the Happy Land
A storyteller recreates local history
Ronnie Pepper grew up in Hendersonville, in a neighborhood where migrant workers sometimes lived. His grandparents rented a small house there, without running water. There were two bedrooms. One of the rooms had two beds. In one, Ronnie slept with his mother, brother, and sister. In the other, his aunt slept with her three boys. His grandparents had the other bedroom and his uncles slept on the pull-out sofa. “We had a lively house!” he recalls.
They practically lived outside, he says—working in the garden with his grandmother, romping on juice-can stilts, playing basketball with a homemade hoop. He would also go on visits with his mother. “My mama used to love to visit some of the elderly. She’d be helping them and I would be listening to the stories that they told… I loved to listen.”
Over the years, Ronnie became a storyteller. “It’s just a love that I have,” he says. It was a valuable skill in his 25 years as a Head Start teacher—and as a father and grandfather. Today, Ronnie, who is 62, works as a librarian in the Hendersonville Public Library. He’s an Army veteran who serves on multiple community boards. And he tells stories at churches, schools, and events.
“Being African-American, growing up in slavery, you know, you wasn’t supposed to write,” he says. “So there was not a lot of the written history. What was told was just passed on. A lot of it was just lost, and I don’t know if we can ever regain it back again.”
Ronnie tells stories from Africa, stories of local history, and stories of his own family. Like how his uncles used to catch frogs to dissect them because they wanted to be doctors. “Course it wasn’t good for the frogs,” he says. “But it just showed that people have visions, wanting to be better and wanting to have dreams.”
He grew up hearing stories about the Kingdom of the Happy Land—a community of freed slaves that settled near Tuxedo on the North Carolina-South Carolina border just after the Civil War. Knowing now that he grew up among descendants of those freedmen, Ronnie is dismayed to think of the stories he didn’t pay attention to, the questions he didn’t ask. Still, using oral traditions, written sources, historical context, and imagination, he has a story to tell about the Kingdom. It goes like this:
It was right after the Civil War and Robert Montgomery, somewhere down in Mississippi or the southern states—the story was that his father was white, so with that he had a little bit more privilege, he was exposed to different things growing up. And he had a vision once the war was over that he wanted a place to go back to, like in Africa.
Back then you had people, the old ones, who had come from Africa so the memories were more intact. And when they talked about it people could maybe understand what it was. And they longed for it. They missed it. So, he wanted to recreate what was told to him about the motherland.
Listen: You can hear the full version of Ronnie’s story in this recording.
So after the war, I guess he’s just like anybody else, you decide ‘Hey, I want to do this.’ You talk about it enough and you envision it enough. And he didn’t have anything to lose, because if you think about what we know about slavery, all people did, they worked. They always had someone telling them what to do, when to do it. But, then, we look at the skills those individuals had, because they did all the work.
He started out like that, he didn’t have anything. Slavery was ended. People couldn’t afford to pay them because they were just as destitute as they were. Property was burned, the land was just ravaged. So, they just started to migrate.
‘Where you going?’
‘I don’t know, but there’s got to be something better than this.’
I’m pretty sure that there was a lot of anger against the slaves, so they had to gather up in numbers so that they could feel safe. And they traveled, ooh, from Mississippi. We don’t know the route, we don’t know how many started.
As they moved, think about it. They just had what they had on their backs and what little food that they could scavenge. So they moved, you know, probably talking, telling stories, some of them remembering Africa and remembering what it was like and remembering how there was a king and there was a queen and how individuals worked together and they grew crops.
And so they moved on. And there wasn’t a whole lot to live off of, because a war had been happening. There was probably marauders still running around and hurting people and deserters from the army making a life for themselves, things being burned.
As they started getting closer to South Carolina, I think there started to be some individuals who remembered coming to the mountains with plantation owners who had summer homes. And they would say, ‘Man, I remember a place.’ So they became part of that vision. And that motivated them to move closer and closer. They say by the time they got to the border of North and South Carolina it was probably between 150 and 200.
They came across a plantation that was owned by a Colonel Davis and Serepta, his wife. She owned a large plantation and her husband had been killed in the war and she only had her son. And, after emancipation, people said, ‘Hey we have to move, I want to go someplace else.’ What is freedom like? Don’t know. But they done leave.
So, they had the houses but they maybe rundown. So they approached her and said, look, you know, we’ll trade off. Give us a place to stay and maybe some food and we’ll build it back up. And she probably agreed to it. And they stayed and they started working. Probably about August is when they got there.
By spring, they started flourishing again. They started making money. They would bring all the money back and they would bring it to Robert because he was the king. And he didn’t have a wife so his brother’s wife was Louella Montgomery and so they were king and queen.
And people just worked together. At that time, there was a well traveled road and they would take in travelers and they cooked for them. They sold crops and they made things like liniment and they sold that. They prospered there for a good time.
But just like today, things changed. You had the railroad come in. As people get older, the young ones have a different vision. People started to change. The country started to change. Technology started to change. And people were needed elsewhere. So the vision changed.
An African-American Perspective
Some facts about the Kingdom have been documented, but point of view is important, Ronnie says. Records show that in 1882, the freedmen bought 180 acres of the Davis plantation, with Robert and Louella Montgomery’s name on the deed. And they show that, in 1889, back taxes forced the sale of the land. It’s documented that the last resident of the Kingdom lived there until 1918.
“But think about it,” Ronnie says. “You got a group of people that were free, but yet they weren’t educated as far as what the law was, paying taxes… Think about that, if they had to go pay the taxes and someone says, ‘Wait a minute. You can come in the courthouse? You own land? Hm-mm.’ How hard it would be to get good answers if somebody didn’t want you there.”
In 1957, Sadie Smathers Patton published a 16-page account of the Kingdom of the Happy Land: “It’s in the library,” Ronnie says. “But it’s told from a white standpoint. And the story needs to be told from an African-American perspective. A lot of the stories that we hear they’re often told from a different perspective and there’s a lot that’s missed. And there’s room for that balance, you know, both sides.”
He says people ask, “‘How in the world could you walk away from that?’ They didn’t know! … So, there’s a lot that goes on. But, that’s just why we need to keep it alive and keep talking about it and remembering it.”
Rose Jenkins is the communications director for Conserving Carolina and writes the Stories of the Land series which is published in the Hendersonville Times-News.