Bridging the urban-rural divide posed another set of challenges. Nydia and I are city people. Very few of the people we interviewed ever read The New York Times. My being from Atlanta helped, but still we had to spend time getting to know our subjects and letting them get to know us before edging into difficult conversations and pulling out the camera.
Writing the article brought its own issues. I had discussions with editors who worried about telling a story about slavery and racism centered on a white woman. Others suggested a deeper dive into the topic of reparations. In the end, though, just telling Ms. Marshall’s story simply and from a deep well of detailed reporting seemed the most honest way to present what was happening in Dirt Town Valley.
The article resonated. Readers who were in similar situations reached out to Ms. Marshall when the piece was published online. There were people whose families had been involved in the Tulsa race massacre, or who, like Ms. Marshall, had inherited some family land that had once been worked by people their families had enslaved.
But it also had some negative consequences. The day the article landed in print, a rumor started going around that she was giving away her land to Black people.When a man whose family has ties to the Ku Klux Klan warned Ms. Marshall that some people don’t like seeing Black and white people together, she took the threat seriously.
Sheriff’s deputies promised to do extra patrols to make sure Ms. Marshall and the two Black families in the story — the Mosleys and the Kirbys — were safe.
That night, the Mosleys came by to pray with her. They were old family friends who had guided her ever since she was a girl. Then she went across the road to visit the Kirbys, a Black couple who once worked for her grandfather and now, in their 70s, were coming to rely on Ms. Marshall the way one might a daughter-in-law. They made her a plate of greens cooked in fatback and boiled yams.
“I think I have experienced the worst and best of my community today,” she said.