In 1982, The Color Purple, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, uncompromisingly educated the world about the good, bad, and ugly of African American life in the rural south. Three years later, in 1985, the film was released.
For 80s era fanatics like me, 1985 proved to be a damn good year. Movies such as Back to the Future, The Goonies, Rambo: First Blood, Part II, and Rocky IV were also introduced to movie goers across the world.
Growing up in a family existing on one of the lower rungs of the social economic ladder, we did not own a VCR. Luckily, my Aunt Birdie had a dedicated television room in the basement of her home, which was how I saw The Color Purple on VHS. I was seven years old at the time, and I had never seen a motion picture with an all-black cast.
The beginning of the movie reminded me of playing in the yard with my cousins when we visited each other. We would run around care free, except for being summoned into the house with the “old folk” (who are no older than I am now). Religion, alcoholism, southern talk, discrimination, infidelity, and resilient women were all familiar themes in my life and in the movie. This movie quickly became my all-time favorite because I could so easily relate.
As I moved into adulthood, I wondered if The Color Purple home still stood–if the fields were still full of purple flowers, if the church was still standing, and if the juke joint was holding steady. Southern style antebellum homes were built (most with slave labor) to outlast the harshest weather conditions over long periods of time.
Let’s fast forward to 2016. I befriend Steve Bailey, a passionate history preservationist who works at the Anson County Historical Society in Wadesboro, North Carolina. While researching my own family, I realized some of my ancestors were enslaved in the same county where The Color Purple was filmed. I had no idea, as I drove to visit Steve, I would have one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
After completing my research, I asked for a tour of the County. Steve, of course, agreed. The courthouse, used for a scene in the movie, is less than a mile from the historical society. I took a few photos with family who traveled with me in front of the courthouse, and then we ventured into the more rural areas of Anson County.
Along the way, Steve identified certain areas used for the movie. Although these sites were exciting, I thought, “This is all nice, but I want to see the house.” Steve did not disappoint.
Approximately 10 miles later, we arrived at a two-lane road, mixed with gravel. A sign proclaiming “The Color Purple Farm” appeared on a gate leading up to a residence. The sign next to it read, “Private Residence. Do Not Enter.”
Steve, the “unofficial” Mayor of Anson County, was greeted by people waving and screaming his name as we traveled to the different locations. Sitting in the car at the bottom of the driveway, Steve tried to figure out ways to leverage this popularity and gain permission to enter. After driving this far, I thought anything was worth a shot, especially since the gate was open.
I parked the car in front of the house, and Steve got out and knocked on the door of the residence. A man stepped outside with a big smile, which put me at ease. His name was Mr. Ronnie Oaks, and he and his wife own the residence. During their conversation, I heard him say, “I know who you are.” Steve waved his hand towards the car, signaling it was okay for us to be on the property.
I stepped out of the car, and a feeling of nostalgia swept over me. As I glanced down the driveway, I went back in time. The movie, replaying in my head, went to the scene when Ms. Celie left “Mista” for good.
Mr. Oaks, a wealth of knowledge on the property’s history, shared that the original owner was an affluent man named James Bennett. Bennett was killed on the plantation by a Yankee soldier, Mr. Oaks explained, and pointed to an area in the distance where he said Bennett is buried. He told us it is possible former slaves are buried in the area as well. If memory serves me, I believe Mr. Oaks said the originally property covered more than 800 acres.
I snooped around the outside of the house, reciting quotes from the movie and immersing myself in the experience. I saw the tree where Celie and Nettie carved their names. The remnants of church and juke joint, unfortunately demolished due to decay, now serve as home for snakes.
As I walked around the fields, I marveled at how the eclectic mind of Steven Spielberg worked. He and his team successfully recreated an early twentieth century community in the backyard of this home. The purple flowers, so important to Spielberg’s vision, were shipped in because they were not native to this part of the country.
We spent over an hour on the property and enjoyed every minute.
While walking back to the front of the home to chat with Mr. Oaks, I looked back one last time to take it all in. I was reminded, again, why I love this movie. The Color Purple depicts rural southern life, a life with which I am so familiar. It shares the story of trials, triumphs, and tribulations familiar to many of us, and it made Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Danny Glover household names. The nostalgia I experienced that day, on many levels, felt soooo good!