In the 1850s the land was part of the plantation of Wallace Chaires. Chaires would hold an annual cross-country run for his slaves each autumn. The winner received a hog and was excused from the cotton harvest. Understandably, the tradition did not survive the Unpleasantness of 1861-1865.
A good story has to have some roots in the truth, so that's where I sowed my story. There was never (so far as I know) a Wallace Chaires, but the Chaires family had been active in the area. The village of Chaires is just a few miles east of the J. R. Alford Greenway, and a plantation house belonging to the Chaires family had stood on the Greenway itself before being burned to the ground during the Chaires Massacre of 1838, an action in the Seminole Wars. The Chaires family had been planters and slave owners. I'd never heard of southern planters racing their slaves, but the English gentry used to stage races between their footmen, so it seemed plausible.
I didn't realize just how plausible till I was browsing Clifton Paisley's The Red Hills of Florida, 1528-1865 and read about Douglas Parish. Paisley reported that Parish had been a Jefferson County slave that had been entered in races against other slaves by his master, James Parish. Paisley's source had been a 1936 interview of Douglas Parish collected in the Federal Writers' Project Slave Narratives. Here are some excerpts from that interview:
Douglas Parish was born in Monticello, Florida, May 7, 1850, to Charles and Fannie Parish, slaves of Jim Parish...
As a small boy Douglas used to spend his time shooting marbles, playing ball, racing and wrestling with the other boys. The marbles were made from lumps of clay hardened in the fireplace. He was a very good runner, and as it was a custom in those days for one plantation owner to match his runner against that of his neighbor, he was a favorite with Parish because he seldom failed to win the race. Parish trained his runners by having them race to the boundary of his plantation and back again. He would reward the winner with a jack-knife or a bag of marbles.
Just to be first was an honor in itself, for the fastest runner represented his master in the Fourth of July races when runners from all over the country competed for top honors, and the winner earned a bag of silver for his master. If Parish didn't win the prize, he was hard to get along with for several days, but gradually he would accept his defeat with resolution. Prizes in less important races ranged from a pair of fighting cocks to a slave, depending upon the seriousness of the betting.
So Douglas Parish was a runner, right?
But the story didn't hold up so well when I started looking for more information about Parish. I succeeded in turning up several census records for a Douglas Parish that was born in the 1860s, but none for a Douglas Parish born in 1850. If the census records were correct, Parish was indeed born into slavery, but was still a very young boy when Emancipation came. Unless James Parish and the other plantation owners were holding toddler races, Douglas Parish's athletic career had not been as a slave.
Before or after the Civil War, there may very well have been races. Douglas Parish may have run in them. The training may have been as described. How far was it to the edge of James Parish's plantation, anyway? What was Douglas Parish's mile time?
I have enough difficulty finding names and times for past winners of the Monticello Melon Run; answering these questions from the more distant past may be impossible. If nothing else, it seems that athletics has deep roots in this area.
- Federal Writers' Project interview with Douglas Parish at Project Gutenberg
- 1879: "Pedestrianism in Old Tallahassee"
- 1902: "Tallahassee's turn-of-the-century track team"
- 1912: "South Georgia's Edwardian Era Marathon"