Miss Jane Pittman is the protagonist of the novel. She is a spirited woman whose defiant attitude and resilience help her persist throughout her more than one hundred years of life. Jane's mother died as a result of a beating when Jane was very young, leaving Jane to managing. During slavery, she is brave and obstinate. She calls herself "Miss Jane Brown" despite the beating that this act inspires. Once she is free, Jane's obstinacy presses her to try and reach Ohio. She is foolish too and refuses to listen to friendly people who try to help her along the way. It is not until she is completely exhausted, does she finally agree to stay at Mr. Bone's plantation.
Jane works at Mr. Bone's plantation just as she worked in the fields as a child and as she will work in the Samson plantation fields when she is about fifty. She is a physically strong woman who works her whole life and maintains a lively and happy spirit despite hardship. Notwithstanding the pains that she suffers from seeing loved ones die, Jane's life proceeds in relative poverty. For a woman born in slavery, she may feel grateful for what she has, but Jane consistently lives in small cabins with no furniture, open fire pits, and occasionally even dirt floors. Not until the very end of her life does she even have running water to drink. Despite the relative difficulty of such a life, she never complains about her lack of material possessions.
As Jane ages, she becomes a mother figure to the entire community. Jane's first son was Ned, whom Jane fostered in the days after slavery. After Ned's death and Jane's placement on the Samson plantation, she plays an important role to many of the youths. Even the white heir to the plantation, Tee Bob Samson, looks up to her affectionately. Jane has never been able to physically have children of her own because she is sterile. Her lack of biological children makes it more possible for her to have many adoptive children. By the very end of the novel, Jimmy Aaron, the One, specifically comes to see Jane in order see if Jane will partake in his protest. Jimmy knows that Jane is a community leader because everyone respects her. Jimmy's confidence in Jane becomes fully proven when she actually marches the crowd towards Bayonne after Jimmy's death.
Still while Jane may be a community leader, she is not austere and very serious. She has Jimmy read cartoons to her from the newspaper. She grows addicted to listening to baseball games on her radio, a fact that is protested by other elders at the church. She also argues with the elders at the church, much in the way that she once argued with the other slaves when she was a child on the plantation. Jane remains her spunk even though she is over a hundred years old. Her attitude have allowed her to succeed during all her life.
Joe Pittman is an honorable, brave, and kindly man. Joe Pittman has a vision of his life and he acts upon. He is skilled in the way of breaking horses, so he rises up and finds a new job. Colonel Dye attempts to trap Joe by saying that Joe owes him one hundred and fifty dollars. While many men would give up when faced with such a sum, Joe matter-of-factly goes out and borrows the money from his new boss. When the Colonel requests added interest, Joe manages to gather that too, by selling almost everything he owns. The Colonel wants to trick Joe into staying, but Joe bravely steps past the Colonel's tricks. Joe's act is brave because the Colonel could easily request that Joe be killed for beaten for the impertinence of wanting to leave at all, or for the impertinence of finding the money to pay back the debt. Joe insistent behavior shows him to be a strong man. Joe is a black man who longs to be appreciated for his abilities, not his race. In a culture that requires servile black manhood, Joe finds a job, breaking horses, with which he can demonstrate his masculinity. Joe is so good at his job, in fact, that he becomes the Chief Breaker at the ranch. All men, white and black, respect Joe in spite of the color of his skin. Unfortunately, while Joe does manage to show his manhood, his manly desire for control gets the better of him. Although he has aged, he insists on taking on the tremendous black stallion. The black stallion kills him, but truly it is Joe's yearning to constantly control that leads to his downfall. Joe's desire is a very human one Gaines suggests, which the Creole hoodoo lady calls "Man's Way".
Tee Bob Samson is one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel. Even though he is a white man of privilege, being the heir to the Samson plantation, Tee Bob's awakening to the reality of their racist system leads him to kill himself. Even as a children, Tee Bob appeared to be a sensitive child. He followed Jane around in the field checking to see if she was okay. It was upon his request that the Samsons transferred her to the Big House. As a boy, Tee Bob could not understand why his brother, Timmy, was sent away. Tee Bob's ability to relate to and love his brother as children allowed him to develop a genuine relationship outside of race. Tee Bob was supposed to understand as he grew up the basic racist regulations of his society, but his adoration of Mary Agnes demonstrates that he never did. Tee Bob kills himself because he feels that he cannot fit into a society where race defines him and everyone in it regardless of the true content of their hearts.
Although Tee Bob is sympathetic, he still is a member of the white ruling class. His behavior in the novel and even the way that he courts Mary Agnes shows his knowledge of his superiority. As they walk, for example, he rides on a horse—a move that indicates his higher social position. In the moments before his death, though, Tee Bob suddenly sees the way that the history of his family and the South forces him to be something, even if he does not want to be it. Given the history of relationships between black women and white men, there is no way that Tee Bob can simply love Mary Agnes as person truly loves another. The burden of race and its history always will come between them. Tee Bob's final appreciation of this truth is what finally causes his death.