It is Saturday, still early, still cool, and there is the expectation of a morning in the yard.
We were gifted with an unexpectedly temperate spring— several months that seemed to be a reward for a year of isolation. But our isolation has ended and now we venture into restaurants, dinner parties and art exhibits.
Many are making plans to travel; determined to make up for last year. A year, by any measure, that was lost.
Last Thursday, Susan and I went to an opening that featured the life of Rufus Daniel Mitchell — an African-American farmer who lived in Sheldon. Photographs, taken by his daughter Bernice Tate in 1976, were displayed at The Technical College of the Lowcountry.
Along with the photographs there was a large metal mailbox, rubber boots, rusted ax heads and a representational smattering of the tools that Mitchell used every day of his life.
In 1976 I had arrived in Beaufort and, by then, was working at Penn Center. My work was focused on people like Rufus Mitchell who were still on the land, still trying to make the land produce enough tomatoes (collards, squash or sweet potatoes) to pay taxes, the “light bill” and put food on the table every night.
Penn’s programs included a land retention program — Black Land Services — a demonstration farm and a history of providing practical advice to those who had not migrated north.
But by 1976 the economics of agriculture favored places like Arkansas, Nebraska and, of course, California. It was shifting away from the individual farmer, to the corporate farmer who could put millions of dollars, and thousands of acres, into corn, soybeans and durable, baseball-firm avocados.
There is, these days, a tendency to feel sorry for people like Rufus Mitchell who were overtaken by events that they could not control — waves they could not ride. But I can empathize with Rufus Mitchell and his determination to stay with farming — doing what he did best.
When I began to practice law, the most advanced piece of equipment in my office was a Selectric typewriter. The Selectric was followed (in importance) with a book called “South Carolina Civil Procedure, Annotated.” Civil Procedure was followed (in importance) with 350 books — called Southeastern Reports—that recorded all of the appellate case decisions in this part of the country.
If a lawyer had these three things, he could type-up his Complaint on the Selectric citing the relevant rules and the recent case law. Then hand carry the blue-backed pleadings over to Legare Rodgers (Clerk of Court) at the Courthouse on Bay Street.
The big expense in those days was one’s library — Southeastern Reports. But one could buy a used library from a retired lawyer; or spend the weekend in the USC Law Library in Columbia.
Even as I settled into this simple, uncomplicated life, things like copiers, fax machines, continuing education and computers were making their appearance and making it hard to sustain reasonable fees for services rendered.
At the same time there was the aggregation of talent — often the best and brightest law school graduates — into large, multi-state law firms. These firms have specialists in research, brief writing and evidence preparation. Such firms always send several lawyers into court, always assisted by paralegals, usually fortified by a biometric engineer, orthopedic surgeon or future income expert flown-in from Philadelphia or Dallas.
These firms have the money to hire experts and, if necessary, to file lengthy appeals. These mega-firms rely on fees from corporations and utilities because those folks are the only clients able to pay the ever-expanding tab.
The ever-expanding cost of legal services have taken the ordinary, salaried person out of contention if he or she has a complaint against Verizon, Dominion or Amazon. The only time they have actual access to legal services is when they are badly injured — in a car wreck — and the possibility of huge damages make a contingency fee possible. Otherwise they are cut out of access to legal services.
And so the one-man law firm is not unlike the one-man farm. Both are hopelessly mismatched; both are disappearing; both will only be remembered in John Grisham’s romanticized fiction.
And as he watched his world change, perhaps Rufus Mitchell decided that his children would be part of that change. But he would stay in Sheldon. Perhaps he loved the land, and what he could do with the land, too much to let the farm go fallow.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.