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One family moves on from its sharecropping past in Arkansas

In the second installment of "Flying Coach," special correspondent John Larson's series on people he encounters while traveling to report on other stories, we meet Donna Hahn, whose family worked as sharecroppers in Arkansas until the Ku Klux Klan drove them away.

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  • JOHN LARSON:

    We begin on the road, on a rural highway, with the story of a journey.

    And before it’s over, I hope you see why we traveled hundreds of miles across Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, to tell you about a woman who sat next to me on an airplane.

    When you’ve flown more than 2 million miles in coach, you sometimes get a chance to sit in first class.

    You wait for your name to work its way up a list, and when it happens — it feels like you won the lottery.

    So, I was feeling good when I boarded American Airlines Flight 1015 Dallas to San Diego. I was in seat 5B. Next to me in 5A was Donna Hahn.

    She wore expensive jewelry, a woman of privilege, I thought. But as we flew across Texas, I learned I couldn’t have been more wrong.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    My grandparents lived in a little home that had a tin roof on it. They were sharecropping.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Donna’s family, her parents and grandparents were like other poor sharecroppers from Arkansas, picking cotton on other people’s lands.

    They were the kind of poor that can take generations to overcome.

    So, when she invited me to her family’s reunion, I accepted.

    I bet you didn’t think I’d show up here, did you?

  • DONNA HAHN:

    Well, I just think you’re a brave soul.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    The reunion was like others I’ve been to.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    This is brother and sister right here.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    At least until Donna and her sister —

  • DONNA HAHN:

    There she is.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    — begun to sing.

    (SINGING)

  • JOHN LARSON:

    It turns out that their parents were run off their cotton field.

    (SINGING)

  • DONNA HAHN:

    There were just some unrest in that area, civil unrest.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Unrest. To learn more, we joined Donna and her sister Bonnie on a trip back to Arkansas.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    Wow, look how big that church is.

  • BONNIE COBB:

    Mercy sake.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    When you come back someplace as an adult, the perspective is so different.

    (SINGING)

  • JOHN LARSON:

    They hadn’t been back since they were little girls and the family had no addresses.

    They knew only that their parents had shared crop with a black family and the two families had been friends, working and living side by side in two small houses outside the little town of Dumas, Arkansas, which is where we found two abandoned houses at the edge of a cotton field.

    So, could this be it?

  • DONNA HAHN:

    Could be. I mean, I don’t know if this is the exact cotton field, or the place where my parents lived.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    What they did know was what happened one night in 1957.

  • BONNIE COBB:

    We had all gone to bed, and all of a sudden, it was just so much noise and everything else outside.

    It must have been maybe 15 men and they were on horses and they had white sheets on them and they were riding around and around our house, and they were carrying lighted torches.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    The Ku Klux Klan was still a powerful local force here in the ‘50s. But would it have threatened a white family for being too close to a black family?

  • ESSIE DALE:

    I had crosses burning my yard.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    We asked the mayor of the next town over and she said, absolutely.

    Does that story surprise you?

  • ESSIE DALE:

    Not at all.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Not at all.

  • ESSIE DALE:

    No, it doesn’t.

  • BONNIE COBB:

    It probably only lasted about 10 minutes at the most.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    But it was enough.

  • BONNIE COBB:

    And then they just rode off.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Donna’s family packed the next morning, and left their home in the cotton field.

    They moved to Louisiana, where their lives, believe it or not, got even harder.

    (SINGING)

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Donna’s father was working in this gas station in the small town of Monroe, Louisiana, when a car crushed him against the back wall.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    Because he jumped up, it caught him right at his legs and just crushed him from the legs down.

    (SINGING)

  • JOHN LARSON:

    In Arkansas, we came across this abandoned church. Back in its day, it was what whites called a “colored church.”

    Donna’s father had once preached in such a church back in his sharecropping days, but then he backslid. He lost his faith.

    But now that he was paralyzed, he began preaching in small churches and tent-show revivals across the South. Which meant Donna was constantly moving.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    All the way from Nebraska, all the way down to the tip of Texas and Louisiana and Arkansas. I sang from the time I was five years old until I left in high school.

    (SINGING)

  • DONNA HAHN:

    I would have to literally climb up on a chair so people could see me over the pulpit and sing.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Donna got married in high school, raised two daughters, but she was increasingly suffering from a genetic bone condition.

    Her knees would dislocate. Her bones would break, requiring surgery after surgery.

  • REVEREND RON LILES:

    He will take you on a trip that you cannot imagine.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Donna’s pastor would visit after each procedure.

    How many times do you think you’ve needed to go to the hospital?

  • REVEREND RON LILES:

    In excess over the years of – 30 times.

    (SINGING)

  • JOHN LARSON:

    And it was while she was recuperating from another surgery that her husband told her their 26-year marriage was over.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    I remember thinking to myself, I had been totally rejected. And I remember thinking, I am really alone.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    As we flew our last leg into San Diego, Donna told me despite her lifetime of upheavals, faith had kept her going.

    (SINGING)

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Donna went to college and graduate school. The reason she was in first class?

    She’s now an international consultant. And you’ll never guess what her specialty is.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    A discipline called “change management.”

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Change management.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    Change management.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    So your – essentially your field of expertise is change?

  • DONNA HAHN:

    Absolutely.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Change. That thing that happens to all of us, Donna says, when we’re not looking.

    (SINGING)

  • JOHN LARSON:

    Donna did eventually find the land her grandparents had sharecropped. Their house had been torn down, their garden was gone.

  • UNIDENTIFIED MALE:

    This would have been exactly where the house was sitting.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    Wow.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    But the son of the farmer who owned the land remembered her family well.

  • UNIDENTIFIED MALE:

    They were poor. There’s no doubt about it. I mean, they were about as poor as it gets.

    They didn’t have money. But – you know – what we don’t have in money, we make up for in other ways.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    My grandparents, my dad, my cousins, my uncles – all walked on this land.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    So in the end, we wound up back where her family’s story began. Back before the Klan, the revivals, and the broken bones.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    And you come from such humble beginnings, it makes you really grateful for what you have.

    Hats off to you, Grandma and Grandpa. I appreciate you.

  • JOHN LARSON:

    On our way back to the airport, I felt I was seeing things through Donna’s eyes.

    I saw changes all around us, and how hard and beautiful the whole thing is. That’s another thing about flying coach. Sometimes it’s more than just my seat that gets an upgrade.

    That’ll teach you to talk to someone on an airplane.

  • DONNA HAHN:

    I’m telling you –

    (LAUGHTER)

  • DONNA HAHN:

    Trying to mind your own business, you end up in a cotton field in Arkansas.

    (LAUGHTER)

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