Following my reading of Susan Neiman’s, Learning From the Germans, in which she examines America’s and Germany’s differing responses to the appalling racial violence in their histories I took up two American authors, both white, who have taken up the challenge of opening up hidden, dissembled and lied about white history in the South. Timothy Tyson, author of Blood Done Signed My Name, (2004) was born in Oxford, North Carolina, where his story begins. Connor Towne O’Neill, author of Down Along With That Devil’s Bones, (2021) is a transplant from Pennsylvania, enrolled in the writing program of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. Neither book is a grand academic history of eras, regions and historical personalities. They find their strength in the small-scale localism of events, and the self-discovery each speaks candidly about. As Neiman shows, Truth and Reconciliation comes not by fiat and threat but through many small, local efforts. Tyson and O’Neil have each turned a spade in this effort.
Tyson uses his own family to look at events in NE North Carolina where he grew up, beginning one day when he was ten. In the week between the shootings of students at Kent State (May 4, 1970 ) and Jackson State (May 16), a twenty-three year old Black man, Henry Marrow, was beaten and shot in the face because he “said something” to a white store clerk, the daughter-in-law of the shooter. Tyson’s friend, Gerald Teel, came running over with the excited report that ” “Daddy and Roger and ’em shot ’em a nigger.” Shielded by his parents Tyson did not know until years later that the night of the murder, two to three hundred young African Americans surged through the streets of Oxford, North Carolina, breaking into white-owned stores, looting, pelting passing cars with stones and bottles. Tyson’s twenty year quest to de-code that phrase led him to a professorship in history, and this book, together with several others disinterring the covert history of the South
O’Neil, on a reporting assignment in 2015 to the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, came across a small group preparing for the arrival of a new statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest to replace an earlier one that had been stolen. The conversation O’Neil had, and leaflets handed to him led to a determined pursuit to understand who Nathan Bedford Forrest had been, and how he had become “the spiritual comforter of the South.” Statues and memorials to him are all over the South. Determined community efforts to get them taken down, and to keep them up, is a major through-line of the book. Though both writers draw moral and political lessons from their stories, O’Neill is the polemical, more of an essayist on values, the past, and our, white, current responsibility.
Tyson grew up in still segregated Oxford, 1970, where
“The power of white skin in the South of my childhood was both stark and subtle. White supremacy permeated daily life so deeply that most people could no more ponder it than a fish might discuss the wetness of water.”
The white kids sat on the ground floor of the movie theater, the Blacks in the balcony. Separate water fountains were the rule. The public pool was sold by the town to an individual who converted it to a club – no Negroes allowed. Basketball hoops were taken down at a local playground because the boys were playing “salt and pepper” mixed games. The whole U.S. was in a Civil Rights and anti-war uproar, and the local schools were finally going to desegregate at the start of school.
Starting with the murder, Tyson interweaves warm stories of his mother and father, and their own family trees, with the events in town, the opinions of others, his later interviews of participants and his own self-discovery, along with thoughts on the continuing American racial divide. Even in his love for his family, he is able to see the self-congratulatory paternalism of his grandparents in the work and help they provided local Negroes. In a section about the gratitude expressed by a Black worker for Tyson’s grandfather’s help, he finishes with
“I have never doubted the sincerity of Joe Dunlap’s gratitude to my grandfather, and I am proud of [my mother’s family] and of course I love them. But the hierarchy of white supremacy, at its heart, was as rotten as that pile of old shoes, and the generations that follow will be many years cleaning it up.
His father, a Methodist minister, spent decades trying to bring a forward-looking Christianity to the roiling racial attitudes of his white parishioners. In a lovely story he invites a well-known Negro minister to give the Sunday sermon, with unforeseen (to him) battles with his Board and equally unforeseen resolution — bringing rock-ribbed segregationists to tears.
Nor, does he let himself off the hook. As he says at one point:
“I don’t know when or how I first became infected with white supremacy. But when I was no more than six years old, I discovered within myself both that monstrous lie and the moral cowardice necessary to its preservation.”
Following an amusing story about his father’s awkward attempt to explain the birds and the bees to his twelve year-old self, he takes on the miscegenation fears of white Southerners. They are not only Freudian-sexual fears but are also rooted in early Colonial legislation that reversed age-old English common law, in order to benefit slave-owning property owners. In England the status of a child followed the father, thus the desirability of landing a well-to-do husband. The early colonists in the South, as slave owning began to take hold, decreed that the status of a child was to follow the mother; children fathered by white men on black slaves were, as were their mothers, Black, and slaves. They were their father’s property, to be disposed of as the owner wished.
Should a child be fathered by a slave on a white woman — and as Ida B. Wells famously wrote, this did happen– the calculation was thrown into turmoil. According to their own laws and customs the child of a white mother should have her status, white and free, but clearly, having children of the same brown hue be indistinguishably slave and free would create impossible mental, enforcement and legal thickets.
Tyson’s recollection of his youthful sight of white-robed Klansman on the porch of the store the night of Marrow’s murder leads him to a quick history of the Klan – then in its third revival since end of the Civil War — and some of the atrocities it carried out following Brown vs Board of Education in 1957. With a light touch he skillfully uses throughout the book he adds to the ugly, a humorous account of the mortification visited on a Klan rally by a much larger counter-rally of Lumbee Indians.
O’Neill, necessarily, is more of an historian, his main character and events being in the Civil War, linking them to the events of his own reporting. Though not as immersed in Southern culture as much as Tyson, he nevertheless gives a good sense of the feelings and actions of those involved in local efforts to remember the past in all its parts versus those who like it as it has been for one hundred and fifty years, burnished and glorious. The reader who has not been aware of Nathan Bedford Forrest will know quite a bit at the end of the book: why he is reviled as a slave trader, an enthusiast of convict leasing, after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and first Grand Wizard of the new Ku Klux Klan, while not a few see him as a glorious warrior, and a straight talking man who is quoted as saying
“War means fighting and fighting means killing,” and, as he reportedly once asked, “If we ain’t fighting to keep slavery, then what the hell are we fighting for?”
(This is the same Forrest for whom the lovable Forrest Gump was named. If you don’t believe me, return to the movie.)
He takes us to meet the first Black mayor of Selma, the Reverend James Perkins, who weeks after his election had to deal with the forces wanting Forrest’s statue put up, and those who opposed it. He takes us to a years long campaign to rename Forrest Hall at Middle Tennessee State University, and the young people who taught themselves to organize, including Bree Newsome who set off the current statue-removal movement by climbing the flagpole and taking down the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina Statehouse.
And, as Tyson does, O’Neill is led to look at himself, and his family roots, as well.
“Sure, my parents worked hard. And yes, they are upstanding, empathic people committed to social justice who raised their four sons to be the same. That doesn’t mean our lives aren’t shaped and mangled by our race—a fact we have the luxury of seeing or not seeing.”
An important portion of the book is devoted to demystifying the place of statuary and other memorials in society. As one of his interviewees says,
(Monuments are” “built for the purposes of communicating who mattered in Southern society and who mattered within American society.”
They are a mystery because we who do not know the names or visages can see them as mere nostalgic decoration while for those of and in the culture, the same objects are emblems of daddy’s stories, grandpa’s sword, childhood books of fearless countrymen and perfidious invaders. They publicly affirm a community of like-minds and identify, through any negative response, the enemy.
The symbols do not exist only in bronze and stone, as we have seen recently in arguments over renaming sports teams and mountain tops. A Forrest look-alike was for years the school mascot at Middle Tennessee State University, riding on a horse and waving a saber, the epitome of masculine bravado, “a manly man, fearless and true.”
Down Along With That Devil’s Bones, is O’Neill’s first book, and one to be proud of. Not only does he assemble a cast of characters and uncover little known but significant history, he makes clear why the sometimes-seeming Quixotic efforts to rename, re-evaluate, and restore, matter, not only to those participating but to the wider American public as well.
Both books are remarkable, for their excavations of small plots of the past, though sharing much with the larger landscape, as well as for their own inward looking and stock-taking — adding to the growing visibility of those who want, finally, to find a way into a more communal and shared future with all of those we find ourselves among.
Timothy Tyson is senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and adjunct professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina. His other books are:
- Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy (1998)
- Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (1999).
- Blood Done Sign My Name (2004),
- The Blood Of Emmett Till (2017)