For Generations, Their Family Worked The Land Of This Farmhouse. Now They Own It.

"It's a sign of progress but also a challenge to make sure we don't go backwards."

It was a joyous family reunion for Decker Ngongang and the Giles family.

For generations, his family had worked the land of a South Carolina farmhouse as sharecroppers, where they were paid to pick cotton but had to live in a hut nearby. About five years ago, though, the cousins, aunts, and uncles got some good news.

The son of the people who owned the farmhouse had informed the Giles family the place was going to be for sale, so the family found a way to put their money together and buy it directly from the family without going through a real estate group. The seller said she remembered how the family loved the house and thought they'd take care of it, as well as the years where the two families played together, creating a bond and trust between them during the sale. In December, the family had their first reunion in the newly bought house, and the joy and pride was overwhelming. When Ngongang shared the story on Twitter, it quickly went viral, and was shared and liked more than 50,000 times.

The Giles family poses for a picture with all of them at their new home. 
The Giles family poses for a picture with all of them at their new home.  Photo Credit: Decker Ngongang

Ngongang lives in Seattle with his wife and 1-year-old working as a consultant for nonprofits doing social impact work. He said the experience of going to the house felt like a way to come back and connect with the family he lives so far away from. His mother was one of 10, so he has nine aunts and uncles and quite a few cousins, which created some slow Wi-Fi, loud fun, and lots of great stories.

"For the cousins, we've heard these stories since we've been alive about how hard it was picking cotton," Ngongang told A Plus on the phone. "My grandmother and great-grandmother grew up picking cotton, and access to educational opportunities didn't exist. For us, we saw what our aunts and uncles were able to transcend — many of them didn't even go to school, they were working to provide ways for us live our dreams."

Ngongang said that he's heard his family talk about finding a way to buy the house for a long time, so it was a special experience witnessing that become reality. The goal of the house is to have a place where the family can come reunite and spend time together, and his aunts, uncles, and mom were already talking about being able to use the home as a place to retire.

A view from the driveway of the farmhouse. 
A view from the driveway of the farmhouse.  Decker Ngongang

Ngongang also saw the moment as a reminder of how things have changed in America, and what the effect of positive domestic policies for families across America can be. It's important to remember that his ancestors were not living in ideal conditions, despite getting minimum pay. His mom described the sharecropping as "chattel slavery" and said the family was just "human capital." Her parents were illiterate and the house owner ran all the books, so they were told what groceries they could buy, what they would be paid, which hut they had to live in, and what equipment they used. They'd rarely eat meat and if they were lucky enough to raise a hog or cow, it often wouldn't survive the winter.

And they went from that to owning the actual property.

"If anything, it's a testament to some of the civil rights policies," Ngongang said. "I see it as this is why integration matters, this is why access to education matters. It's a sign of progress but also a challenge to make sure we don't go backwards."

He stressed that his mom and aunt were able to "make it out" of the lives previous generations lived because of domestic policies that were there, because of resources that were there. The biggest issues in Ngongang's mind were continuing to de-segregate schools and focusing on public education and how to improve it. 

"If not for Brown vs. Board or my mom and my aunt, I would have a different life," Ngongang said. "We wouldn't have the opportunites that we have. When I was there I just thought about how the ways that they made it out were through some of that progress, and I just hope that it's a call to continue that work on what it means to be an America rather than narrow it."

Cover image: Decker Ngongang


Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.